Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Minding Mass Transit Across the Nation

June 29, 2010: A student of art at the California College of Art riding the 27 Bryant from the Flower Mart, loaded down with flowers that she will arrange at the restaurant where she works. You do not need a car ...

Perhaps 100 people rallied in support of mass transit agencies all over the country -- and, in particular, two bills now in Congress to support mass transit -- the Public Transportation Preservation Act of 2010 (S. 3412 and H.R. 5418) and H.R. 2746/S. 3189 -- on Tuesday, June 29, 2010 in San Francisco. This rally continued a number of rallies in support of public transportation that started in Atlanta and that will end in Miami. At the end of the rallies organizers say they will put up a Jumbotron in front of the Capital Building in Washington, DC, that flashes a constant message: Save Our Ride. The point? To stop the degradation of the nation's transit systems as a result of the economic downturn ...

The Public Transportation Preservation Act proposes to allocate $2 billion in emergency aid to the nation's 7,700 public transportation systems. It's sponsor is Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd. The other measure, H.R. 2746/S. 3189, seeks to amend current law to permit federal money to be used to support transit agency operations and not just capital projects.

How meaningful would $2 billion distributed among the 7,700 agencies throughout the United States be? By itself, not very. But in combination with the other bill, it could be significant.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which manages car traffic, bus and light rail transportation, taxis, bicycles, and pedestrian safety, has in the last three years suffered budget shortfalls totaling over $200 million. On May 8, in response to the most recent shortfall, the agency cut service by 10 percent. In particular, the agency reduced late night bus service and stopped running service on community bus lines -- many of which serve hard-to-reach neighborhoods at the top of San Francisco's steep hills -- at 9:30 pm instead of 11:30 pm or later.

The largest piece of the SFMTA budget pie goes to employee wages and benefits (if you don't count the $1.2 billion Central Subway project, which is in line to get over $900 million in federal funds if the SFMTA can prove that this massive capital project will not have a negative impact on the day-to-day operations of the agency's buses and light rail).

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, his ally on the Board of Supervisors Sean Elsbernd, and a number of others have been making the bus and light rail operators out to be the bogeymen in this amputation of service. Supervisor Sean Elsbernd is now collecting signatures for a ballot measure that will eliminate the current driver wage floor and replace it with collective bargaining in the hopes that passage of the measure will compel the drivers to agree to money-saving work rule changes. Among the work rule changes that many people talk about are adding part-time drivers to work the morning and evening rush hours, replacing the full-time drivers who have less work during the middle of the day.

Irwin Lum, president of the Transport Workers United-Local 250.

But a recently released Budget Analyst's audit of the agency found that a move to hire part-time drivers (all drivers now are full-time) would save only about $3 million annually -- compared to the $100 million in additional deficits that the agency is now facing.

Two times in recent months, the 2,200 or so drivers have been asked to vote up or down on work rules changes related to part-time drivers and other matters that would supposedly save the agency money. Both times, the drivers have voted against the changes.


I can't get my head around this -- and I suspect most other members of the public can't either.

"Part-time is not reasonable," Lum told me after the rally. When the agency had part-time drivers a few years ago, "People worked a couple hours in the morning and a couple hours in the afternoon and evening. They had other jobs during the day. This is a health and safety issue."

He added that in 2005, when the agency last had part-time drivers, in response to another agency budget crisis, "We offered early retirement and offered the part-time employees full-time employment [in order to save money]."

He said something about furlough days as well -- as if there has been some negotiations going about these. But he did not elaborate on the details of the controversy.

A revote "is not going to happen as long as we have a gun to our heads with [Elsbernd's] charter amendment," he added. "We're trying to educate voters that Sean's thing is not really reform."

(And as to Public Defender Jeff Adachi's pension reform measure for which he is collecting signatures, "There's no room for him to run from the left for mayor, so he's trying to run to the right of Sean Elsbernd.")

Note: on June 29 the SF Gate announced that Newsom and SFMTA Executive Director Nat Ford had agreed to restore half of the service that had been cut on September 4. The SF Appeal announced the specifics of the restoration of service on June 30. I guess Newsom and Ford are saying that they will agree to restore half of the service on September 4 if the San Francisco County Transportation Authority commissioners (the 11 members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors with their other hats on) agrees to allocate $7 million from the sales tax dedicated to the SFCTA. But, hey, that's what the Board of Supes was saying all along: you agree to restore the service, and we'll allocate the money.


The Rhetoric ...

Tim Paulson, head of the San Francisco Labor Council, MCs a pro-mass transit rally in front of San Francisco's old federal building on June 29, 2010.

From Paulson:

"The Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union of America are in the house ..."

From Lum, again:

"We've had service cuts, fare increases, and constant scapegoating of the drivers. We need a mass movement for the reallocation of federal dollars to operations across the country."


"It's important that we further increase public transportation, not cut it ... Students, poor people, working people are the ones most hurt when transit is cut ... We need a green economy ... How can we get people out of their cars and onto mass transit? It needs to be affordable and dependable."

ATU Local 192 President Claudia Hudson, the only woman on the line up of speakers
From Hudson:

"We are in crisis today. I have a connection to the people that we carry. The people who utilize our service don't realize it's going to be gone until it is gone. Losing service is going to dampen the lives of seniors. Children are not going to be able to get to school. This is a major crisis. We need funding now."

Among others who spoke were TWU International Executive Vice President Harry Lombardo, ATU International President Ron Heintzman, ATU International Secretary-Treasurer Oscar Owens, and California Federation of Labor Executive Secretary Treasurer Art Pulaski.

From Lombardo:

"The fight for quality public transit isn't just about transit workers. It's about all of us. Public transportation connects us. It makes it possible for working people to get to work and for businesses to stay in business. ... [Public transportation jobs] are indeed green jobs. Public transportation has been a green job forever. Because of public transportation there is less traffic, less pollution, better air quality, and fewer kids sick with asthma. That's the road we want to be on. That's the road that paves the way to a green economy. But that's not the road we are on. Why? Because of outdated national mass transportation policies. It's time to wake up Congress. We're headed in the wrong direction. We know what to do. When drivers are headed in the wrong direction, we turn it around and head it in the right direction."

Lombardo then directed attendees to get out their cell phones and send a text message to this number: 69866. And in the message field he told everyone to type in "Our ride" and then hit send.

From Heintzman:

"We need to tell members of Congress to get off their asses and pass this bill. It allows them to spend the money to keep transit running ... The money has already been appropriated. ... I've been told here in SF the mayor clearly has his head up his ass. Stop trying to balance the budget on backs of riders. Stop using the economy to get concessions. We need to tell him loud and clear: we ain't giving up shit."

From Owens:

"From the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, our voices must be heard. From the prairies of Kansas, our voices must be heard. From Lookout Mountain in Tennessee ... from Iron Mountain in Alabama ... From Stone Mountain in Georgia ... "

From Pulaski:

"Public transportation keeps our economy moving. One hundred and twenty-five years ago today the Chicago streetcar workers decided to strike for seven days. They fought hard and won. They led the way towards improvements in mass transit. Thank them."

Pulaski led the crowd in chants:

"Fix our transit, and fix it now" and "Fund our transit, and fund it now."

The Reverend Norman Fong (apparently a replacement for the Reverend Jesse Jackson who was a no-show), executive director of the Chinatown Community Development Center

From Fong:

"This is a faith-based and community issue. For all of you environmentalists out there, the greenest community [in the nation] is Chinatown. Ninety percent of our community can't afford cars, and there's no parking anyway."

District 9 Supervisor David Campos

From Campos:

"Public transportation is a social justice issue. Right now there is a climate in [San Francisco] City Hall that is pointing the finger and blaming the drivers. We have to say no. The future of the riders and drivers is linked. There is going to be a ballot measure in November that is going to try to divide. We can't ignore the problem that we have a system that is getting money that is not being used well. Blaming labor is not the answer. Labor is part of the solution."

Note to readers: Campos himself is a one of four sponsors of a measure to reform the SFMTA that is headed for the November ballot. It, too, includes language that will reform the way driver salaries are arrived at, eliminating the current formula in which the driver wage floor is the average of the drivers of the two highest paid systems in the nation and replacing it with collective bargaining. However, this measure is much more comprehensive and is not set in stone -- it has about a two-week window for changes. I was a part of some meetings in City Hall to craft a Muni reform ballot measure, but was not able to make the last set of meetings -- the measure as it now stands is not much like anything that we talked about in the meetings that I participated in. On the whole, I like it quite a bit.

San Francisco Transit Riders Union Project Director Dave Snyder

From Snyder:

"San Franciscans have a love affair with Muni. Five out six take transit at least once a week. The threats to drivers should be seen in the bigger context of teachers without enough supplies and home healthcare workers being squeezed. Wall Street and global capitalism are putting the squeeze on America. The question is: how do we respond as a people? Like Tea Party people who say no to everything or by organizing and working together? SF TRU wants to be a voice so that more people take transit. It takes money. The controller's audit showed $3 million in savings if some drivers go to part-time. But SFMTA Executive Director Nat Ford has said recently that Muni needs $100 million. Why are we attacking the drivers when you're looking at $3 million versus $100 million? ...

"Everybody take public transit and thank your drivers."

Snyder himself reportedly took either BART or the 14 Mission from his home in the Mission District to the rally.

I'm sorry to say I did not catch the names and titles of all the speakers as I was taking notes.

Bob Planthold of Senior Action Network, speaking on behalf of disabled riders and their families.

From Planthold:

"We need to make sure the state never again raids transit money."

He was referring to Governor Schwarzenegger's reallocation of State Transit Assistance gas tax money to the general fund over the past few years.

Another person whose name I did not catch.

Forrest Schmidt, of International Answer, at the vanguard of this revolution (and every other one).

From Schmidt:

"Corporate America makes a profit from mass transit. For working class people, it's a necessity."

Monday, March 29, 2010

Minding Muni, Part III

Passengers wait to board the 38 Limited bus on Geary at Divisadero. On February 26, 2010, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors voted 4 to 3 to cut service by 10 percent in order to close a budget gap.

This is a the third in a series about the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's financial woes. The first two are posted on Fog City Journal, which has been hacked. We'll get all parts of the series together when FCJ is back up and running, but for the time being, I will be posting Muni updates here.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) – the agency that manages San Francisco’s parking, traffic, and public transportation – has a problem. Simply put, it doesn’t have enough money. In order to balance its budget, it is cutting service, raising fees, fines, and fares, and begging …

The SFMTA – an agency that required $800 million plus annually up until last year – has been suffering budget deficits on and off since 2005. Last year’s deficit reached an initial $128.9 million in February and March. The amount grew by an additional $45 million last fall, but the agency has been able to whittle that second deficit down to $12.1 million, in part because the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) denied the Oakland Airport Connector project $70 million. Seventeen million of federal money that had been allocated to the construction of a connection between BART and the Oakland Airport is now dedicated to non-operational projects at the SFMTA.

The agency also got some good news on late Monday, March 22. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, having recently lost a case in which he was sued for raiding the State Transit Assistance (STA) funds three years in a row, signed the gas tax swap. This deal eliminates the gasoline tax – which had been the source of the STA – but raises the excise tax on diesel. His signature on the two measures creating the swap – ABX8 6 and ABX8 9 – will bring in some $400 million to cash-strapped state coffers and some $36 million to the SFMTA on June 22.

However, deficits still loom. As of a few weeks ago, the FY 2011 deficit had been pegged at $56.4 million and the FY 2012 deficit at $45.3 million. Additional sources of money depend on the political willingness of city leaders to put revenue-raising measures on the ballot and on the voters to vote for them. Stemming the bleeding may also involve a reexamination of existing SFMTA capital projects.

But will the money saved from the OAC and the money gained from the gas tax swap stave off 10 percent service cuts that the seven-member Board of Directors voted to adopt on February 26? Unsure – the 10 percent service cuts are to go into effect on May 1 – before the agency gets the money from the gas tax swap – and the savings from those service cuts are to carry over into the next year for an annual total of $28.5 million. Preventing the service cuts will require political will, voter willingness, and some daring …

Upcoming meetings and hearings

The general public should have the following dates on their agendas. I’m putting them in chronological order, but some of the meetings may have more import than others:

Tuesday, March 30, SFMTA Board of Directors Meeting in Room 400 of City Hall, 9 a.m.

This meeting will be in part a public hearing in which staff will propose possible “increases to various fares, fees, fines, rates and charges, transit service modifications and expenditure reductions” (Item 11 on the agenda) in order to close the FY 2011-2012 budget gap.

The Board of Directors – all appointed by the mayor – will also vote on whether or not to declare a fiscal emergency for FY 2011, as they did in April 2009 for FY 2010. If they vote to declare a fiscal emergency (last year’s vote was 4 to 3 in favor) – and Bill Wycko at the San Francisco Planning Department issues a “Certificate of Determination” that exempts the agency from a conducting California Environmental Quality Act environmental impact report on proposed fee, fine, and fare increases, and service cuts and changes – the agency may be able to implement even more service cuts in the upcoming year. This is Item 12 on their agenda.

Here, Director James McCray, Chair Tom Nolan, and Directors Shirley Breyer-Black and Bruce Oka, consider presentations and testimony on the FY 2010 budget during a mid-February meeting.

Item 14 relates to the creation of a Taxi Advisory Council. For a long time, various political leaders have been trying to turn medallions – which are issued virtually free of charge to cab drivers who put their names on waiting lists and then wait for years – into cash cows. A pilot program with a small number of medallions is under way. To oversee the industry the SFMTA is considering the creation of a Taxi Advisory Council (the Taxicab Commission was abolished by the passage of Proposition A in 2007.)

Tuesday, March 30, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority meeting in Rm 250 of City Hall, 11 a.m.

This group of 11 people is the supervisors with different hats on. As Transportation Authority commissioners, they oversee the SFCTA and the 2003 Proposition K half-cent sales tax revenue. According to the legal text of Proposition K, the revenue it generates is supposed to go to maintenance of local streets, transportation for the elderly and disabled, construction of the Central Subway, capital upgrades to the bus system, the Caltrain extension to the new Transbay Terminal, projects to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety, support for regional transportation systems, and the replacement of Doyle Drive.

On Tuesday, the commissioners will consider allocating $100,000 of Proposition K funds to conduct a management performance audit of Muni to be conducted by the Budget Analyst’s Office.

“There hasn’t been a management audit for 14 years,” notes District 9 Supervisor David Campos. “According to board policy, it’s supposed to be done every eight years.” Campos chairs the Plans and Programs Committee of the Transportation Authority.

The commissioners will also be considering the adoption a baseline budget of about $9 million, a schedule, and a funding plan for the Central Subway Project. This project, the $1.6 billion Phase II of the $2.2 billion project that includes the T-Third Street Light Rail, is hugely controversial. Over $942 million of the funds to build the Central Subway will come from the federal government. The rest will come from state and local sources – but at least $164.1 million of the funds necessary to build the project have not been identified.

Federal Transit Administration Region IX Director Leslie Rodgers wrote a letter to SFMTA Executive Director Nat Ford on January 7 giving the agency the go-ahead to enter the final design stage of the project. But Rodgers made it clear that the SFMTA does not have a green light to break ground on a tunnel for the subway. His letter ends:

In summary, SFMTA must take steps to demonstrate adequate financial capacity to construct the project as well as maintain current system operations; a state of good repair of existing vehicles and infrastructure; and the project management ability and technical capacity to successfully design and construct the Central Subway project before FTA will consider the project for [a Full Funding Grant Agreement].

The reaction?

“Local officials are gambling with taxpayer dollars to finance the Central Subway construction project while Muni teeters on a multiyear death spiral of budget deficits,” wrote Howard Wong of SaveMuni.com in a March 22 letter to members of the Municipal Transportation Agency Citizens Advisory Council.

“I … think that the [FTA] letter raises a lot of red flags,” said Campos, sitting as a commissioner, at a March 23 meeting of the Plans and Programs Committee. “Can the SFCTA demonstrate the Central Subway will not deplete [SFMTA funds]?”

But: “There’s no reason to believe that the MTA won’t be able to meet the challenges [set forth in the Rodgers’ letter],” responded TA Executive Director Jose Luis Moscovich.

There isn’t?

Tuesday, March 30, the SF Board of Supervisors meeting in Rm 250 of City Hall, 2 p.m.

Item 39 is a motion, sponsored by Supervisors David Chiu, David Campos, Bevan Dufty, and Ross Mirkarimi to reject the SFTMA’s creation of $70 premium express and cable car passes, passes that were to go into effect on May 1 and bring in an additional $900,000 over the course of three months.

“Tiers are likely to cause confusion with riders,” said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi when he introduced the motion at the regularly scheduled Board of Supervisors meeting on March 23. “With Governor Schwarzenegger signing [ABX8 6 and ABX8 9] Muni is likely to receive additional funding. It’s time to consider whether the fares are just and proportionate.”

“A number of us had been thinking about introducing a reject motion … on raising fares on Muni riders that we need to keep as part of our system,” added Board of Supervisors President David Chiu. (At the March 23 Board of Supervisors meeting, Chiu also introduced a motion for the SFMTA to come before the Board of Supervisors and explain how it plans to use the $36 million in funds from the state.)

Tuesday, April 6, the Transportation Authority Plans and Programs Committee, Rm 250 of City Hall, 9 a.m.

At this meeting, the supervisors – acting in their capacity as commissioners of the TA – will consider the SFMTA’s request for $7 million from Proposition K funds to help bale out the agency.

But is that legal?

Former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin calls the SFMTA Board of Directors request for $7 million from the TA “a tactical move on the part of the mayor that breaks faith with the voters. [It’s] a tactical move to make the Board of Supervisors own the disaster that is Muni.”

Campos, in his capacity as commissioner, has requested a legal opinion from TA Executive Director Moscovich on the question of legality – can the commissioners allocate $7 million in funds from the sales tax to the SFMTA?

If it turns out that the agency can shift money to the SFMTA, activists are encouraging the commissioners to make demands on how that money is spent. Executive Director of Livable City Tom Radulovich (and a BART Board Director) has suggested – if indeed it is found that the TA can allocate $7 million to the SFMTA – that the TA offer that money in the form of matching funds: the TA agrees to allocate the money to the SFMTA if it can come up with a matching amount through savings or, for example, through the expansion of the hours of parking meter operation.

Tuesday, April 6, the SFMTA Board of Directors, Rm 400 of City Hall, tentatively planned to start at 2 p.m.

The agenda has not yet been set for this meeting, but we know that the Board of Directors will again be considering the FY 2011-2012 budget.

Tuesday, April 13, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Room 250 of City Hall, 2 p.m.

A local resident and frequent Muni rider has filed an appeal of the 10 percent service cuts based on the fact that they were not under consideration in April 2009 when the Board of Directors voted to declare a fiscal emergency and seek a waiver of CEQA. The Board of Supervisors will consider that appeal on April 13 at its regularly scheduled board meeting. Members of the public can get a copy of the appeal at the office of the clerk of the Board of Supervisors.

Tuesday, April 20, the SFMTA Board of Directors, Rm 400 of City Hall, 2 p.m.

This is a regularly scheduled meeting of the SFMTA Board of Directors. The board is required to adopt a budget by May 1 and then send that budget onto the Board of Supervisors. The Board of Supervisors can reject the budget by a vote of seven out of 11. The Board of Directors may or may not adopt a budget on April 20 – if it doesn’t, it will have to schedule another meeting prior to May 1 in order to pass a budget.