In 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 email@example.com. Meeting information is also given in the “Upcoming” section of the sidebar (near the top of the page).