Thursday, May 28, 2009

Playing the Numbers Game

The amended San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency budget, adopted by the Board of Supervisors on May 27, 2009, impacts transit users more negatively than car drivers. The 38 Geary pulls up to a stop at 20th Avenue and Geary in the Richmond District.

On Wednesday, May 27 at a special meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to consider the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency budget, Board President David Chiu and MTA Executive Director Nat Ford threw numbers around like pinballs in a pinball machine, and at the end of the day, Chiu voted against his own measure to reject the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency budget. Again.

“I do not plan to vote to reject the budget,” Chiu said in chambers.

“I take this decision incredibly seriously. I’m the only one on the Board who does not have a car. I take Muni every day. … But we’ve come $30 million from where we were,” he said of the MTA budget that has variously been reported at $766 million, $776 million, $787.9 million – or any figure you care to toss out, as the last time anything was put out on the SFMTA press page was April 17 even though that was back in the Stone Ages of the budget discussions.

“We’ve come $30 million from where we were,” he said.

We did? Can I see that in writing?

Ford also made a surprise announcement at the meeting – a service enhancement memo worth $8.7 million in which the MTA agreed to put more service back into the system on the majority of bus routes that serve the largest number of people – the 9 San Bruno, the 14 Mission, the 47 Van Ness, the 38 Geary, the 44 O’Shaughnessy and others and to add 150 additional service hours (per week?).

“We clearly recognize that we’re a transit-first city,” said Ford.

We do?

To my knowledge, no one has seen that memo – and without that memo, his words and the words of the six supervisors who voted not to reject the budget are merely rhetoric.

There’s Nothing Here … Nothing at all

Despite the fact that no documents seemed available for the public – or members of the Board of Supervisors – to view, six out of five members on the board voted against Chiu’s motion to reject the budget, a motion that he himself had introduced at a San Francisco Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee meeting on May 6.

As a result, starting on July 1, eight bus lines will be eliminated, route segments will be eliminated for another 14 lines, and bus frequency will be reduced on other lines. Fares will go up at the same time that service is being cut: adult fares will go from their current $1.50 to $2.00 per ride; monthly adult bus passes will go from their current $45 to $60 by January 1, 2010 – and pass users will have to fork out another $10 per month in order to use the passes on BART, the regional subway system; and passes for seniors, youth, and disabled riders will go up to $20 by January 1, 2010. Taxi service fees – such as the amount that drivers pay for their applications and the amount customers pay for rides – will also go up, as will parking fees in some city-owned garages and parking at metered curbside parking places.

It is the reduction in transit service at the same time that fares are increasing – especially when the fee increases for car drivers are four times less burdensome than those for transit uses, according to staff at the MTA – that triggered opposition from five members of the Board of Supervisors.

“I acknowledge the fine attempts by my colleagues here at the board, but a stronger message needs to be sent out about climate change,” said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi when announcing that he would vote for the motion to reject. “It’s also counterintuitive to allow an MTA budget that does more to inhibit ridership with fare increases and reduced service.”

“We gave the MTA a week to get some changes in the budget,” said Supervisor John Avalos, the chair of the Budget and Finance Committee. “But this budget disproportionately affects riders over drivers. … There’s nothing here. Nothing at all.”

And that $30 million?

When questioned about the $30 million in the corridor of City Hall, Supervisor Chiu’s legislative aide David Noyola, and MTA media spokesman Judson True, broke down the $30 million this way:

 $15 million in renegotiated work orders with other departments such as the San Francisco Police Department;
 $10.3 million in the givebacks negotiated on May 12; and,
 $5 million in projected future revenues from parking fees

But where’s the document -- signed and sealed -- that will guarantee this $30 million giveback?

The Process

The supervisors were continuing a budget process that started earlier in the spring when the MTA announced a budget deficit of $128.9 million. At that point, the seven-member MTA Board of Directors, and staff of the transportation agency – which manages both mass transit, taxis, and parking – began work to amend the two-year budget that had been adopted the previous year.

Transportation agency staffers had presented a budget to the directors – all mayoral appointees – on April 30 that included many of the items that members of the Board of Supervisors voted for on May 27 – with one addition: a proposal to start charging for parking at metered curbside parking spots on Sundays and on weekdays from 6 to 10 pm.

But under pressure from Supervisors Carmen Chu and Bevan Dufty and Mayor/Candidate for California Governor Gavin Newsom – the Chair of the MTA Board Tom Nolan introduced an amendment to excise the new parking policy proposal. The amended budget passed six to one.
That was a loss of $9 million that could have been used to restore service, a member of the public pointed out.

To make up for the loss of revenue from parking meters, Ford and his staff said they would work to renegotiate the work orders that the MTA has with other departments such as the San Francisco Police Department. In the case of the SFPD, every time an on-duty police officer boards a bus or drives by a Muni yard to check for intruders, the MTA is billed. It is also billed for 311 service calls that are related to Muni.

The budget made several stops between April 30 and May 27. On May 6 it went to the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee where Chiu introduced his original motion to reject the budget. It passed out of committee on a vote of four to one. On May 12, it went the full 11-member Board of Supervisors, and during that meeting Supervisor Carmen Chu helped negotiate a $10.3 million giveback that included only a promise to study expanding parking enforcement, a slight reduction in the work orders, and a memorandum of understanding between the SFPD and the MTA over work orders to be signed within the next 24 hours.

Not good enough: five supervisors voted to reject the budget – two short of the required seven. Still, three of the five who voted to reject the budget were on the Budget and Finance Committee where the item was still agendized for a meeting the following day. And there, those three supervisors – John Avalos, David Campos, and Ross Mirkarimi – revived the matter and sent it on back to the full board for another round. On May 19, the board voted seven to four to continue the item until a special meeting scheduled for May 27.

And on May 27 this is how they voted:

District One, Eric Mar – Aye
District Two, Michela Alioto-Pier – No
District Three, David Chiu – No
District Four, Carmen Chu – No
District Five, Ross Mirkarimi – Aye
District Six, Chris Daly – Aye
District Seven, Sean Elsbernd – No
District Eight, Bevan Dufty – No
District Nine, David Campos – Aye
District Ten, Sophie Maxwell – No
District Eleven, John Avalos – Aye

That MOU to be signed within 24 hours after the May 12 meeting? Nowhere to be seen according to one of the five supervisors who voted to reject the budget.

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