The historic funding crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, on top of an ongoing structural deficit, means a tough route ahead

Planning for the Unplannable

How do we plan for the unplannable future of public transit? We don’t know what COVID recovery will look like, if and when people will go back to downtown jobs, how quickly we might achieve some sort of herd immunity, what havoc mutations might wreak. All of these unknowns directly impact the question of when and how many people will start riding (and paying for) Muni again, all while SFMTA has lost $912M in revenues so far. These losses are layered on top of SFMTA’s structural budget gap we were working to close last year, layered on top of decades of underinvestment in maintenance and upgrades.

Remember when the operator shortage was the headline of the day? SFMTA was hoping to resolve that, in good economic times, by fall of 2021. Remember the overhead line that came down in the subway, the switch failures, and the train control computer crashes? These problems were largely the result of lack of funding needed to properly hire, train, and retain staff, and to properly maintain and upgrade infrastructure.

Riders lined up for surface service when the subway was incapacitated by a downed line, April 2019.

The Board of Directors (or MTA Board, MTAB) of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA) just had its annual workshop. Rather than run a standard reviews of programs and budgets, Director of Transportation Jeff Tumlin and his staff crafted a discussion lasting almost 10 hours over two days to lay out what’s happened in the past year, how hard the pandemic has hit the SFMTA, and the historically dire financial state of the agency. Director Tumlin then led the board in a values-based exploration of the difficult decisions we all face, and the possible options for a way forward.

SFMTA’s financial uncertainties are now in the hundreds of millions of dollars, impacting SFMTA’s ability to keep the workforce working, to stay on top of maintenance, to continue needed improvements to our streets, and to deliver the service we all want and we need. On top of all this, there’s no way to flip a switch and bring back operators and service. It takes months of planning ahead and ramping up, when San Francisco’s needs could change relatively quickly.

We have some reason to be optimistic that federal funds could blunt the worst of it. But federal aid to date only forestalls layoffs for another 6 months. By fiscal year 2022, SFMTA faces a $134M shortfall even after cutting costs by $174M — by our math, that means SFMTA needs $308M just to get back to the pre-COVID structural deficit. And those cuts in costs show up as cuts to service, as overworked SFMTA staff, and as deferred maintenance as the staff prioritizes the COVID response.

Director Tumlin introduced the workshop by laying out that San Francisco is in a “classic transit death spiral.” The dreaded death spiral happens when service can’t keep up with demand, so people can’t count on transit, so they abandon transit for other ways of getting around. Since public transit is so dependent on fares to function, the loss of riders means loss of revenue, so service falls further behind, and we’re in a negative feedback loop that can only be stopped by a serious, strategic intervention (read: money) to rebuild transit.

Director Tumlin used this workshop as a way to talk about the difficult choices the SFMTA Board needs to make about how we move forward — difficult choices we, as riders, as advocates, also face and need to speak up about. Tumlin also explicitly connected the need for transparency — around what we’re facing, what SFMTA is doing, and how decisions are being made — to building trust with the public, so that the public will be willing to tax itself to pay for the service we need.

Wins: Transit Priority Lanes

The COVID emergency has forced the city to do things differently. As SFTR has campaigned since early in the pandemic, public transit is essential — it delivers essential workers to their jobs, and provides access to goods and services for those without other travel options. Because transit was deemed essential, making sure it could still operate (and optimizing its limited resources) was part of the emergency response.

That emergency response includes SFMTA’s Temporary Emergency Transit Lanes (TETL) program. Traffic congestion on the streets directly causes crowding on transit, which of course we need to avoid for public health safety. Traffic congestion on the streets also costs Muni millions of dollars to provide extra service to make up for transit delays. And importantly, if we really value our essential workers and want to provide equitable transit to our neediest neighbors, we need to get them where they need to go without unnecessary delay. Keeping Muni moving efficiently means less time on board, which also reduces the chances of COVID transmission.

For all these excellent emergency reasons, TETLs were designed to be super-quick-build projects to protect Muni from traffic congestion, to keep it and its riders moving. Seventy miles of potential TETLs were identified. A process was set up for MTAB to approve a package of lanes, with final approval going through the city engineer. This framework meant an incredibly streamlined process, saving a huge amount of staff time and resources.

Approved and proposed Temporary Emergency Transit Lanes

One thing we learned from TETL is that to move so fast, projects are necessarily lightweight. They avoid politically thornier issues like parking removal for real transit priority. As we look to make these projects permanent, we will need to advocate for better transit-first design.

TETL implementation has already slowed down due to the limitations of SFMTA’s street shops, combined with the decision that some TETLs still needed to go to MTAB instead of being handled by the engineer. But even with these bottlenecks, SFMTA has rolled out an impressive 20 miles of TETLs in record time.

Now that we see what can be done, what can we preserve of these new processes after the emergency? Saving money and getting efficient transit service both seem like essential goals for transit recovery, and for San Francisco’s recovery. The trade-off with faster projects is less time spent on outreach. SFMTA staff assert they’ve gotten more creative with outreach and have reached more people about TETLs who wouldn’t normally be engaged with traditional in-person meetings. But we still hear grumbles that this is all going too fast and SFMTA needs to do more community outreach — which would slow everything down and cost more, not just in staff time but in service delays.

The point of outreach shouldn’t just be to check a box on your California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements. Outreach should aim to make sure projects serve the most people the best, getting input and perspectives planners might miss; that people understand why their particular concern was heard but can’t or won’t be fixed; and that people understand and more than less support the project. We think more effective outreach happens when street changes are made in real-time, so that people can see and feel the impacts.

Longer Term Challenges & Goals

Another big challenge SFMTA faces is the subway. Needed upgrades and maintenance could cost as much as $1B as a comprehensive project over the next 10 years (think of it as the subway equivalent of a comprehensive Muni Forward program). Staff got board support at the workshop to prioritize getting as much done during the current closure as possible, to make sure the subway re-opens smoothly. Once the subway opens in a few months, Transit Director Julie Kirschbaum recommends closing it early at 8:00pm for the next year to do needed repairs they’ve queued up.

Other big-ticket longer term priorities including upgrading aging, crumbling bus yards and facilities that make it harder to maintain and repair the vehicles (which contributes to service problems). Some bus yards are over 100 years old, don’t fit current vehicles and tools, and fail at decent ergonomics for maintenance and repair crews.

Staff also laid out a vision for the next phase of Muni Forward. They’re looking at a network of routes that can support 5-minute headways, to connect with other cross-town and hill-top routes, but likely at the expense of some parallel routes (think 21 and 31). The idea is that the loss of routes might mean more trips require a transfer, but with fast and frequent service the pain of transferring will be greatly reduced.

While we’re partial to a fast network (see, we don’t want it to be at the expense of the accessibility that pre-COVID parallel routes offered. These discussions will no doubt continue, and we’ll have to make tough choices about what routes return when and how, especially until we figure out a way to fully fund the Muni service we need.

Funding the Future of Muni

SFMTA is trying to map a path out of crisis mode. They’re facing a new backlog of deferred maintenance because of the need to do COVID response work. Staff is shrinking due to attrition, and service is reduced to match those staffing levels. The staff is overworked and burned out, in addition to working under the stresses of COVID. Despite very low at-work transmission rates, a few hundred SFMTA staff have contracted COVID-19, and many have lost family members to the disease. Our hearts go out to them all. We need to find real ways to support them and build a better, more sustainable, more resilient future.

The road to sustainability and resiliency for Muni depends on funding. Fares, parking fees, and the 1/2 cent sales tax is not going to be enough. We will likely need to find some combination of funding sources, as the current budget gap can be summarized in this slide from the workshop showing an annual deficit of $670M to recover and achieve stated goals.

Source: SFMTA Board of Directors Workshop, Day 2

For perspective, congestion pricing might bring in about $60M/year. Increased parking fees and taxes could bring in $75M/year or more. The recently-passed TNC tax was projected to bring in about $15M to Muni annually, but pre-COVID numbers weren’t looking that optimistic. We are going to have to look at a lot of different sources to get the funding Muni needs.

In the meantime, there are difficult choices to make: Does SFMTA spend down all its reserves to be ready for close-to-full ridership by next fall? If overall recovery stalls and/or we don’t pass enough funding measures in 2022, this plan runs the risk of bankrupting SFMTA. Does SFMTA restore all suspended Muni routes, or do they focus on frequency on key busy corridors, and closing some equity gaps?

Director Tumlin led the board through a values-based decision-making matrix as a way to gain some insight on the board’s priorities and how these difficult choices might be made. While some on the board didn’t enjoy the exercise, others appreciated it. We got a sense of support for rolling out as many TETLs as possible (while making sure to support local businesses on transit corridors). We heard the board support getting the subway fixes right. We heard interest in looking at networks rather than piecemeal projects — networks of transit lanes, of bike lanes, of slow streets.

What’s Next

San Francisco Transit Riders’ advocacy has never been more important. While we face this difficult and uncertain time, we need to make sure transit and riders are prioritized — for access, for equity, for mobility, for opportunity, for resilience, and for recovery.

We continue to deepen our community organizing work to make sure riders’ voices are heard as these tough choices are made. We are active at the national level as well as the local level, with our eye on the main goal of funding public transit. We are planning a year of advocacy around service priorities like how to bring back routes and how to get transit priority done right. In parallel, we are planning a year of advocacy around bigger, bolder, more sustainable sources of funding for Muni.

Join us for the discussion — learn more about the issues in workshops and panels you won’t get anywhere else. Join us to learn how to be an effective advocate. Join us to simply add your voice, to make sure we’re here speaking up for you, and to help us build the future of public transit in San Francisco and beyond.

*** New and existing members join us this Wednesday to meet like-minded folks and learn more about our work at our New Member Happy Hour. Save the date for an in-depth discussion of Muni funding the evening of February 24 and sign up to stay informed. ***

A rider-based organization working for excellent, affordable, and growing transit in San Francisco. Join us!

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