Fixing Muni is going about as smoothly as boarding a crowded bus with a bundle of groceries
Peggy da Silva is an avid cyclist, public transit advocate, and member of the San Francisco Transit Riders Union — a new organization made up of several hundred San Franciscans who want to see improvements to Muni.
Yet even she admits that when it comes to getting to work, it takes just 15 minutes by car or an hour if she opts to go by bus. "I am committed to transit and cycling" for environmental reasons, she said, but "it gets really frustrating" to wait for the bus or light rail cars to arrive.
Da Silva could be considered lucky in that she can opt to drive if she feels it's necessary, while many lower-income San Franciscans cannot afford a car and have no choice but to rely on Muni to get to work, buy groceries, or make doctor appointments. It's even worse late at night when the buses run less frequently and the streets are dark and empty.
Speaking at a June 29 transit rally, the Rev. Norman Fong of the Chinatown Community Development Center joked that Chinatown is one of the city's greenest neighborhoods — but "not by choice." Most Chinatown residents just can't afford to own a car, underscoring the point that Muni service cuts affect lower-income communities more significantly than those with more transportation options.
The perception that Muni is broken isn't unique to transit advocates. Around City Hall, a number of proposals have been put forth to fix the ailing system, which has been mired in delays and overcrowding as fares have gone up and service was slashed. But determining what the root problems are, how they should be addressed, and what the best path forward may be has proved arduous.
Rather than a simple calculation or a study in efficiency, the debate surrounding Muni is spinning into an emotionally charged affair. For those aiming to protect low-income riders from service cuts or fare increases, it's a discussion about social justice, calling into question why the city is asking more of bus riders than motorists in a city with a "transit-first" mandate in its charter.
The strong opposition to the cuts by supervisors and the public has led to a rollback. On June 30, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) announced that on Sept. 4, it would be able to restore half of the 10 percent systemwide service reduction that went into effect in May.
"Due to stronger than expected revenue streams, operational efficiencies, and new grant opportunities, staff is recommending the restoration of service on some routes and lines this fall," according to an SFMTA press release. Buses that run all night would come more often, and the partial service restoration would help ease over-crowding.
While this was welcome news for anyone who takes transit, the expected improvement still leaves untouched many key issues plaguing the city's public transit system. Two separate initiatives most likely destined for the November ballot seek to deal with systemic problems — but both have met with resistance.
On July 1, Sup. Sean Elsbernd announced that he had submitted some 75,000 signatures for a proposed charter amendment for the November ballot to change the way transit operator salaries are determined. Since they only needed 46,000 signatures, "presumably, we'll qualify," Elsbernd told us.
"It presses the reset button on all the [memorandums of understanding] and then puts the riders at the table," he explained. "It also eliminates the side letters that allow the six leaders of the union to get full-time salaries and benefits without needing to drive."
Elsbernd's proposal would require operator wages and benefits to be set through collective bargaining, instead of the current guarantee that their wages be at least as high as the average wage rate for transit operators in the two highest paying comparable transit systems.
Yet his proposal is opposed by the city's transit operators union, TWU Local 250-A, whose members feel they've been unfairly blamed for the MTA's fiscal problems. Speaking at the June 29 rally, Ron Heintzman, the new international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, summed up the attitude of drivers who feel they are being asked to give up hard-fought gains in the face of an economic downturn.
"I've been told that here in San Francisco, the mayor for some reason clearly has his head up his ass," Heintzman said. "It's time to tell him to stop trying to balance the damn budget on the backs of the workers."
Speakers at the rally voiced support for federal legislation that would bolster municipal transit budgets nationwide with a $2 billion emergency infusion. A second federal bill would allow local governments greater flexibility with federal transit funding that currently can only be spent on capital projects, not day-to-day operations.
"We're asking them not to make us buy a bus when we can't hire a bus operator to drive it," explained Harry Lombardo, international president of the Transit Workers Union. "There's no point in spending hundreds of thousands on a bus and letting it sit in mothballs. And believe me, it's happening all over the country."
Sup. David Campos, a cosponsor of a competing ballot measure that aims for more comprehensive Muni reform, joined the rally and criticized the notion that drivers should be blamed a dysfunctional, underfunded transit system.
"Those of you who live in San Francisco know that right now there is a climate at City Hall that is pointing the finger at drivers, blaming drivers and blaming the workers for the problems that this system has," Campos said at the rally. "Muni is broken. But Muni is not broken because of labor. And we have to say no to that push to somehow create a division between riders and drivers.... We can't ignore the fact that we have a system that is getting money that is not being used well."
Campos has joined with Sups. Ross Mirkarimi, Eric Mar, and Board President David Chiu to propose a reform package that would remove the pay guarantee for Muni driver, but also create split appointments to the MTA Board of Directors, allocate a share of property tax revenue to the city's Transportation Fund, and establish an Office of the MTA Inspector General to help reduce waste and ramp up efficiency. The proposal would be subject to voter approval in November.
The proposal to give the supervisors some appointments to an MTA board that is now solely accountable to the Mayor's Office became an issue at the eleventh hour of budget negotiations between the supervisors and Newsom on June 30. The mayor strongly opposed that and two similar charter amendments that would establish split appointments for the Recreation and Park Commission and the San Francisco Rent Board, as well as a ballot measure that would require the police department to engage in foot beat patrols.
Many saw his stance as a quid pro quo that inappropriately tied mayoral support for the budget — which included funding restorations to community programs that progressive board members wanted to preserve — to these unrelated ballot proposals.
Dave Snyder, who directs the SF Transit Riders Union, viewed the move as an affront on Muni riders. "This particular mayor has managed to screw up Muni service through his complete control over the agency," Snyder said. "And whatever it takes, Muni riders want to see that fixed."
While he said he thought a split appointment for the MTA Board was important, "the most important thing is more money. That's the key issue," he added, noting the reform package would create more funding for Muni.
Members of the Budget and Finance Committee resisted the mayor's demand and forwarded a budget to the full board that included their high-priority restorations. The proposed ballot measures will be considered by the board this month.
"If you ask me, I would say we should have commission reform across the board," Mirkarimi told the Guardian. "The idea of having [equally balanced appointments] is a smart way for us to share the responsibility and the consequences."
MTA's fiscal problems aren't unique to San Francisco. On July 1, Caltrain announced a menu of undesirable options to deal with big financial troubles facing the commuter railroad. Elimination of weekend service and certain weekday train stops, or a 25-cent increase to base fares or zone fares, will be the subject of public hearings this summer.
Noting that all the different sources that fund Caltrain have been slashed, spokesperson Christine Dunn told us, "It's frustrating to not be able to provide the service you want to provide."