Budget, Muni / SFMTA, San Francisco

Killing Muni Softly: End of FY10 Budget Scramble

Muni bus on Market StreetIn December 2009, the San Francisco MTA implemented sweeping changes to Muni service that affected more than half of the routes in the system.  The changes redrew routes, renumbered routes, eliminated a few routes, eliminated some route segments, and even added some service.  While those changes have not been completely successful in all aspects, we can point to at least some instances of positive change.  The Valencia Street portion of the 26 did unnecessarily duplicate the workhorse Mission corridor, which was typically the better choice to minimize wait times.  Despite the elimination of the 53 Southern Heights, one can make a good case that the current orientation of Potrero Hill routes provides more logical service.  What’s more, eliminated routes and route segments were balanced with additions, as with the 5 Fulton (the evening Market Street segment and increased peak service) and the new 9L San Bruno limited service.

The State of California’s continued theft of transit funding has kept the MTA perpetually occupied with budget discussion — lately, with a $16.9 million gap through the end of this fiscal year.  But the service changes that are now under consideration, while no less sweeping in the number of routes they touch, are of a quite different nature from the variety that were enacted in December 2009.  That is, the goal of the latest proposed changes is not to make the system more efficient, but rather, smaller.  Lines would retain their same routes, but service would run less frequently and end a little earlier.  Some monthly pass holders would have to pay more, as well, adversely affecting a cross-section of transit-dependent San Franciscans.  The total effect will, unfortunately, be to degrade the experience of riding transit in San Francisco, which will also likely chase away some choice riders.  Less frequent service will not only exacerbate vehicle overcrowding and increase pass-ups, but will also diminish what, to my mind, is the primary convenience of urban transit: the luxury of service that is meant to be used spontaneously, without dependence on a timetable.

The MTA Board has been picking apart the details of the proposal (PDF) to balance the FY10 budget, and the Board’s input has resulted in one notable change: nixing the previously suggested $5 fare for the F-Market & Wharves historic streetcar service.  Despite this change, the core of the budget proposal remains intact and, at this point, most of it looks likely to be approved.  But the proposal suffers from an all-too-familiar deficiency, in that it places a disproportionately high share of the burden on Muni riders, while largely shielding drivers from significantly increased fees.

MTA has several revenue-based and other proposed measures on the table (associated revenues in FY10 are indicated below):

  • Continuing the tactic of “premium” fast pass packages.  As of January 2010, BART use within San Francisco was spun off onto its own premium $70 pass.  MTA is proposing to charge the same $70 premium for use of fast passes on cable cars and peak hour express bus routes.  The Board has, however, indicated some concern with the logistical details of the express bus premium pass.  For example: would riders that only ride the local section of an express line nonetheless be forced to pay the higher fare? ($0.9 million revenue in 3 months, with $0.5 million from express buses and $0.4 million from cable cars.)
  • Doubling the price of the discount senior, youth, and disabled fast pass from $15 to $30 by April 1. ($1 million of revenue in 3 months.)
  • Increase parking citation fines by $2. ($0.9 million of revenue in 4 months.)
  • Increase annual fee for residential parking permits from $76 to $96. ($0.8 million of revenue in 4 months.)
  • Labor concessions and elimination of free parking. ($1 million, with $0.7 million in labor concessions over 2 months and $0.3 million from SFTMA employee and garage parking over 4 months.)
  • Charges and transaction fees. ($0.5 million in 2 months.)
  • A crucial Prop K allocation from the SFCTA. ($7 million.)

Meanwhile, service cuts would be expected to save the remaining $4.8 million within two months, or about $28.5 million (313,000 service hours) on an annual basis.  Although the newest proposals do not add or eliminate route segments as the 2009 changes did, as remarked above, these proposals instead reduce service frequency on almost every route in the system.  For full details on how each individual line is proposed to be changed, please refer to this table (PDF).  Below is a summary of some highlights:

  • Most major lines (J, K, L, M, N, T, 1, 5, 6, 8X/AX/BX, 9/9L, 14/14L/14X, 16X, 22, 28, 30 long, 38, 45, 47, 49, 71L, and 88) would see decreases in peak and/or midday frequencies of 1-3 minutes.  Most major routes would also see a 2-10 minute frequency reduction in evening and night service.
  • Local lines could see as much as a 1-5 minute frequency reduction at peak, 1-10 minute reduction midday, and 5-10 minute reduction in the evening and night hours.
  • Some community lines could see a 5-10 minute frequency reduction at peak or midday.
  • Peak-hour short runs implemented on the M-Oceanview, which would slightly increase service to S.F. State while decreasing service to Balboa Park.
  • Some lines will start later in the day, and many will end earlier at night than currently scheduled.
  • Reduce owl service frequency from 2 buses/hour to 1 bus/hour.

The Board has expressed concern, in particular, with the reduction in owl service to 60-minute headways, so there still may be some further tweaks to the proposed cuts.  Nat Ford also correctly indicated that in light of the deepest reductions that are planned, the reliability of service — which has never been Muni’s strong suit — will be particularly important.  The MTA is thus even contemplating publishing timetables that would allow riders to plan their schedule if, for instance, they are traveling on a route operating on 30 or 60 minute headways.

These service reductions really do affect almost the entire Muni system.  Given the size of the budget deficit, the effect on service might have been even worse, since these cuts account for less than 30% of the total deficit.  But it’s also the case that riders are being made to absorb a significant burden relative to motorists.  Including the premium fast passes, the doubled discount pass price, and the expenditure saved from the service cuts, transit riders would fill $6.7 million of this budget gap in the last few months of the fiscal year.  By contrast, motorists, who are primarily affected by the increased citation fines and increased annual parking permit fee, would fill merely $1.7 million of the total.

At the Board’s January 29, 2010 special meeting, several directors expressed a desire to investigate parking meters as a source of more revenue, and even Mayor Newsom, a regular opponent of extending parking meter enforcement, claims to have had a change of heart on Sunday meters.  Increased parking meter revenue would, of course, be useful to close the budget gap and ease the burden placed on Muni riders; but this turnaround, to the extent it actually materializes, may be too lackadaisical to affect the current budget discussion.  Nor is it completely guaranteed yet that the proposed suite of measures will do the job.  As Sonali Bose put it, the $16.9 million deficit is based on “aggressive revenue assumptions.”  And of course, we still have the FY11 and FY12 budgets to look forward to — but more on that later.

MTA is looking for your input on the FY10 budget and will be offering two town halls on February 6 and 9, with expected Board action in mid-February.  You are encouraged to offer your comments and participate in the town halls.  Town Hall meetings take place on Saturday, Feb. 6, 10:00 am – 12 noon; and Tuesday, Feb. 9, 6:00-8:00 pm. Both meetings will be held at 1 South Van Ness Avenue, 2nd Floor Atrium, San Francisco.  Alternatively, you can email comments to sfmtabudget@sfmta.com.  Meeting information is also given in the “Upcoming” section of the sidebar (near the top of the page).

will adversely affect a cross-section of transit-dependent San Franciscans.


18 thoughts on “Killing Muni Softly: End of FY10 Budget Scramble

  1. “By contrast, motorists, who are primarily affected by the increased citation fines and increased annual parking permit fee, would fill merely $1.7 million of the total.”

    Drivers who can avoid violating the law and thus incurring tickets and who have garages and no need of residential parking permits will pay exactly NOTHING.

    Posted by Fran Taylor | 1 February 2010, 2:10 pm
  2. Hi, Fran: I was looking at categories of people in the aggregate because it’s one of way of clarifying what overall priorities are. But that’s not to say all drivers are contributing equally, and indeed, many won’t feel the changes. In contrast, most Muni riders will feel at least a little change from the service cuts — some more than a little.

    Posted by Eric | 1 February 2010, 2:20 pm
  3. I don’t understand the whole “pay extra money to ride an express bus, even with a fast pass” thing. It’s the same here in San Jose and it doesn’t make sense. So the bus will get you somewhere, but if you want to get somewhere quickly, you’ll have to pay extra? Why is going somewhere a little bit faster suddenly such a luxury?

    Posted by Gregorio | 1 February 2010, 9:02 pm
  4. Actually, one of the least offensive options available to Muni under these circumstances is to charge an enhanced fare for enhanced service. Particularly one with limited equity implications. Not that any of this is what you’d call good.

    Posted by Steve | 1 February 2010, 10:21 pm
  5. And I’ll go one step further on that: raise the cash fare (again) but leave the discount fares alone. This is assuming, of course, that you can’t make up the difference with longer meter hours. But if your choice is between dinging occasional riders and raising the cap on transit dependents, I don’t understand why you’d choose the latter. Other than optics, that is.

    Posted by Steve | 1 February 2010, 10:36 pm
  6. @Steve, or maybe raise the fare for non-Translink occasional riders. This adds the justification that collecting cash fares costs the agency considerably more than collecting Translink fares. This could even be coupled with a decrease in Translink fares or in the fast pass, depending on the fare revenue from each source.

    Posted by Pedestrianist | 2 February 2010, 1:08 pm
  7. Steve, I think you’re exactly right re: the lesser of the evils in this case. Though I might note that, taken to its full conclusion, we would wind up with higher fares for light rail than buses.

    I do think the Board (Dir. Beach, if I recall?) raised a valid logistical point that it didn’t seem staff had thought through, which is: what fare do you charge for people riding local sections of express service, and what is the procedure even for handling that difference?

    In most cases you might not have to worry, since there’s a suitable local route that riders could shift to if they don’t want to pay the premium — though those local routes would already be somewhat more crowded anyway with these cuts.

    But the 8X would be the best example of a route that carries its weight as a useful local service on either end. On the south end, the routing isn’t exactly redundant to other local service, and on the north end, it adds indispensable capacity through Chinatown. Then again, the purpose and ridership of the 8X is so different from, say, the Richmond expresses, there are good reasons to carve out an exception for it on the premium pass — perhaps limiting the premium pass to just peak hour express routes.

    Posted by Eric | 2 February 2010, 1:20 pm
  8. The 8X is such an odd duck. All the other express routes only run local on the “collector” end … I can’t imagine many people are hopping an X to go two stops in the Avenues.

    @Pedestrianist Good point. Not only could you further incent Fast Pass use, but TransLink use.

    Posted by Steve | 2 February 2010, 1:44 pm
  9. And maybe it would also incent keeping more of the TransLink readers on and/or in working order. But yeah, that’s the direction MTA really should be going anyway, and this is just the sort of thing that could be raised at this Saturday’s town hall — hint, hint :)

    I can’t imagine many people are hopping an X to go two stops in the Avenues.

    Only a handful, as it turns out.

    Posted by Eric | 2 February 2010, 1:56 pm
  10. actually, surcharging express riders is dumb. They are CHEAPER to transport because the bus moves faster. The greater # of riders we can get onto expresses the lower the hourly cost of moving them labor (including benefits) is the majority of the cost of service.

    Posted by david vartanoff | 4 February 2010, 6:40 pm
  11. I agree with David. Riders should be encouraged to take the express buses where available. If nothing else, it’s a good way of implementing stop reduction.

    Ideally I’d like to see the cash fare for non-express service raised. The big potential problem I see is that this penalizes people who don’t live along express routes (e.x. those near the rail routes and 19th Ave). I suspect one of the big reasons that the MTA is moving towards drastic cuts as opposed to restructuring things is to avoid meddling from the BoS… which of course means that the types of changes they’re likely to propose are going to be pretty limited.

    I’d like to see more express buses (are there routes that could be converted into express routes?), and perhaps some stop skipping (or elimination) along the rail lines. Stopping at every third block in the avenues would speed things up tremendously (were it not for the geriatric contingent that howls wildly against this every time it’s proposed).

    Posted by Alex | 5 February 2010, 12:48 pm
  12. About Limiteds and Expresses, Rescue Muni (when we had a fit of clearly unjustified optimism) put out a document recommending a number of express routes. As to the stop elimination mantra, IF the mix were mostly Ltds (Geary for example) both the long and short distance riders would be better served without making life difficult for non-jocks. As to fares,ANY complex structure is just dumb. The smartest thing is to encourage more Passes because they are the most efficient–not only do riders get on faster, but Muni can put the money in money market funds at the beginning of the month. The only losers are the “late night transfer crooks”. And no change to be sorted at the end of the day.

    Posted by david vartanoff | 6 February 2010, 5:53 pm
  13. I do not agree that people taking express buses should pay extra. Nor do I think we should be looking for nickels and dimes in the pockets of Muni riders in any way tp help the mayor and the Board of Directors solve this budget crisis. I think we should be uniting in a call to the mayor and the Board of Directors (which is unelected, by the way) to go out on a political limb, rally the financial district for a transit assessment tax ballot measure and expand the hours of parking meter enforcement.

    I’m also hearing some people say that there is wiggle room in the state law that regulates residential parking permits and that we might be able to charge more for RPP (like so much that the annual cost of monthly Muni passes could be included in the charge — though that is obviously an amount that we would have to get to incrementally).

    And where has the mayor been on Muni? Why isn’t he out front with other mayors lobbying loudly for more state and federal money for urban transit systems>

    Posted by Sue | 9 February 2010, 9:18 am
  14. Charging higher rates for express buses makes little sense to me. It adds complexity and will confuse riders. I like the idea of raising cash rates, but keeping discounted rates, like fastrack on the bay bridge.

    Posted by lyqwyd | 17 February 2010, 6:01 pm
  15. I don’t think anyone genuinely likes these measures. Weighing lessers of evils doesn’t shouldn’t be equated with affirmative adoration.

    Other than the above-noted exception, confusion is a negligible factor on the express buses. Many express bus riders are daily downtown commuters who would become accustomed to the change quickly. Moreover, express riders constitute a tiny percentage of daily Muni ridership. As I indicated, though, if this measure is pursued, it makes most sense for the peak hour lines.

    Posted by Eric | 17 February 2010, 6:13 pm
  16. I think that we’re mixing up to concept of express buses with the optimal spacing of stops to run an efficient service. Stop spacing is a balance, just like price and demand, however express buses are by nature an additional service hence the premium price. Usually, in transit oriented urban areas the “express services” are the longer distance routes and the premium price is garnered by the fares structure that charges more for longer trips. In the case of genuine premium services, there are usually additional costs associated with them; more expensive vehicles, poor utilization or additional drivers. There are also less obvious costs such as vehicle storage, extraction from regular services and additional infrastructure capacity. The latter is easily seen with rail services, but buses too have their impacts on infrastructure (road wear, elimination of parking spaces) and here in Oakland AC Transit has successfully objected to bike-lanes and road diets on streets they use. Then, of course, there are the sprawl inducing effects of providing express services. Live in the Oakland Hills, and AC Transit’s Transbay wifi coach service is there for you!

    Posted by Mike Jones | 20 February 2010, 10:03 am


  1. Pingback: SFMTA Weighs Proposals To Close FY11-12 Budget Gap « Transbay Blog - 3 March 2010

  2. Pingback: Killing Muni Softly: Foreseeable Emergency « Transbay Blog - 3 March 2010

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