On the surface, the release this week of the Municipal Transportation Agency’s proposed budget for next fiscal year seems to offer good news.
There are no divisive and unpopular fare increases included in the proposal. Twenty-seven new inspectors and 13 new station agents have been hired to crack down on fare evasion, which could result in close to $15 million in new revenue. The proposal includes $20 million for preventive maintenance and $10 million to create a "rainy day" reserve.
But the seeming reprieve in the ongoing budget woes for The City’s transit agency, which oversees both the Municipal Railway and the Department of Parking and Traffic, masks a looming fiscal catastrophe. With a more than $40 million deficit projected for 2009 by the MTA — and up to $929 million needed by 2015 to improve the system, according to public policy group SPUR — now is no time for officials to think they have Muni’s fiscal woes licked.
As SPUR pointed out in a recent report, Muni has a major structural deficit, which is the product of stagnant revenues and rising costs associated with employee retirement and health benefits, workers’ compensation, materials and fuel.
It presents a problem with no easy solution. Cutting service hours, as Muni did last year, is counterproductive in the long term, as a less reliable system will simply make fewer San Franciscans use the system, resulting in a downward spiral of falling revenues, followed by more service cuts and fare increases, resulting in an ever-dwindling ridership and a vicious economic circle.
What’s needed instead is a creative and coherent policy of increased efficiency and revenue. On the efficiency side, SPUR urges a major rethinking of Muni’s routes through The City to increase productivity, or how many riders the system can reliably and rapidly transport. On the revenue side, it urges improved parking enforcement, an overhaul of outdated beats assigned to parking control officers, an increase in rates and hours for on-street parking, and an end to taxpayer subsidies of parking for city employees and workers at city-funded institutions.
Those are all good steps. Another one that should be implemented immediately is multi-year budget planning — three- or five-year budgets, instead of the single-year budgets that are used now, so that city officials can have a broader, more realistic picture instead of a myopic one that results in short-term solutions that have long-term negative impacts.
New MTA chief Nathaniel Ford comes here with an impressive background, and we are confident he can identify the major problems facing the system. To fix those problems, city officials have to take Muni’s structural deficit seriously, and finally give San Francisco the world-class transit system it deserves.