March 5th, 2013
San Francisco fancies itself a transit-first city. We encourage people to give up their cars. We reduce parking. We make it more challenging to get around the city in private automobiles. We encourage people to use alternate modes of transportation, especially Muni.
Unfortunately, the city hasn't been as enthusiastic about following through on fully funding a public transit system that meets the needs of those whom we ask to rely less on cars.
We need to stop using transit funding for non-transit uses and instead figure out how to adequately fund Muni's operations.
Insufficient funding affects Muni's reliability, with significant adverse effects on San Franciscans' daily travel routines. Signals and switches fail all too often. Muni has more than $400 million in deferred maintenance on its fleet, as any Muni rider knows from all-too-frequent vehicle breakdowns and subway meltdowns.
Muni usually has just enough light rail vehicles to meet basic system demands, meaning that if even one car breaks down, there usually isn't a replacement available. Muni is behind on critical mid-life rehabilitation of older vehicles. For $5 million, we could fully rehabilitate 14 light-rail vehicles.
For years, we have short-changed Muni funding. In 2005, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association calculated that Muni had a $100 million structural annual operating deficit. That was eight years ago. What have we done since? Not enough.
In fact, rather than closing that deficit, we've used Muni operating funds to support other non-transit policy goals, such as affordable housing, public school student transportation, traffic enforcement by the police and nonprofit real estate development.
These non-transit policy priorities are quite important, and each deserves strong support. For example, if we don't invest significantly in affordable housing, our city will continue to price out working-class and low-income people.
However, should scarce transit funds be spent on these non-transit needs? Funding other policy goals by using transit funding is the easy way out - far easier than finding the money to support these non-transit priorities.
The resulting deterioration of our transit system actually undermines those non-transit policy goals. Unreliable transit impacts low-income and working-class people the most, because they are the most reliant on public transit. It undermines traffic safety by pushing more people into their cars. And it makes it harder for kids to get to school on time and for people to get to nonprofit social services.
Mayor Ed Lee is convening a transit funding task force, and I look forward to participating in that process. We now have the authority to place a local vehicle license fee on the ballot. Voters will want an assurance that if they pass that fee, the money will be used for transit needs and not other purposes.
Improving Muni's reliability isn't just about increased funding beyond its $650 million operating budget. Muni must continue to make internal reforms, such as reducing operating costs, reforming work rules and improving technology.
Muni also must move forward aggressively with implementation of the Transit Effectiveness Project, which will increase Muni's average speed and make the system function more efficiently.
Yet, as important as these internal reforms are - and we all get frustrated with Muni's slow pace of change - let's not fool ourselves into thinking that internal reform alone will fix Muni's problems. It won't.
Even with significant internal reform, Muni still will need additional, stable operating funding. Reducing the use of Muni funds for non-transit needs is the first step.
HOW S.F. SPENDS ITS TRANSIT FUNDS
On student transportation - Due to budget shortfalls, the school district is phasing out its yellow bus program. The city responded, over the objections of four supervisors, by providing free Muni passes for low-income youth. -- Cost to Muni: several million dollars per year.
On nonprofit real estate development - Nonprofit development, including large institutions like hospitals and universities, pay all development impact fees except transit impact development fees. The Board of Supervisors, on a 9-2 vote, maintained this blanket exemption. -- Cost to Muni if the exemption holds: $120 million over 20 years, or $6 million a year.
On affordable housing and transit impact fees - In portions of San Francisco, when developers pay development impact fees, affordable housing impact fees rise and transit and other impact fees are reduced to balance that increase. In the recently proposed Western SOMA Plan, transit fees went down as developments got larger. This provision was removed after a contentious fight. -- Cost to Muni: Significant, depending on level of development.
On police traffic enforcement - -- Cost to Muni: $12 million a year.
Scott Wiener is a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, representing District Eight.
Links: SF Gate Editorial