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Transit director: ‘Unknown’ if Trump threat to federal funding will hurt Muni, SF streets

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Director of Transportation Edward D. Reiskin listens to a speaker during the annual retreat of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The recent win of President-elect Donald Trump has sent sanctuary cities into a scramble, with San Francisco agencies asking: Will Trump cut major funds for San Francisco?

The question gained real gravity after Trump pledged to cut funding from sanctuary cities across the U.S., who aim to shield undocumented immigrants from federal agents. Mayor Ed Lee declared last week that San Francisco would remain a sanctuary city.

San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin told his employees in a mass email Wednesday that threats to Muni’s funding are “unknown.”

In the email, which Reiskin sent Wednesday morning as a post-election message to his staff, he outlined potential peril. “We do receive a considerable amount of federal funds as part of our capital budget,” he wrote.

That funding comes in the form of grants disbursed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, in part, and is the basis for most all of the SFMTA’s capital projects, such as the Central Subway in Chinatown or the proposed Bus Rapid Transit routes on Geneva, Geary and Van Ness avenues.

Despite the threat from Trump around sanctuary cities, however, Reiskin wrote there may be wiggle room for Muni.

Reiskin pointed out that “both candidates,” including the “president-elect,” agreed on a need to invest in infrastructure.

Indeed, in his victory speech, Trump said, “We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”

And the SFMTA may further be protected, Reiskin noted, because Congress passed its five-year federal transportation bill just last year.

“That longer-term framework provides some stability to our funding, though all funding is subject to annual appropriations from Congress,” Reiskin wrote.

But, he cautioned, “How the president-elect’s proposed policy to withhold federal funds to sanctuary cities (of which San Francisco is one) would interact with the federal transportation bill is unknown.”

Speaking to the San Francisco Examiner on Tuesday, Reiskin said it was too early to tell what would happen in regard to SFMTA’s considerable federal funding.

“It’s much too early to try and speculate,” he said.

Read the full email below:

Colleagues:

Following last week’s election, I wanted to reach out and share some thoughts.

First, I want to acknowledge that the election was surprising to a lot of people, and left some feeling angry, fearful, happy, confused, hopeful, disoriented, and many other emotions. Many of these emotions reflect some of what we saw and felt during the campaign season, much of which was unfortunately quite negative. One thing important to note at the outset is to recognize the diversity of this organization and the city we serve includes political diversity. We are and we serve people of many political beliefs and persuasions. So as well all process the outcome and meaning of what voters did last Tuesday, it’s important to remember that we all will have different opinions about it, and we should all endeavor to respect each other’s perspectives. We are nevertheless part of a municipal government that serves a city that has some very strongly held values. We should all be assured that, notwithstanding the results of the election, San Francisco will continue to honor and remain true to those values, as the Mayor has made explicitly clear (such as in his open letter to the people of San Francisco).

There is much more unknown than known at this point with regard to what the election will mean for us practically, both on a personal and professional level. Here’s what I know at the moment as it relates to our agency:

Federal
The President-Elect has spoken strongly in support of investment in cities and investment in infrastructure. What that looks like, how and where it will happen, are not clear, but it was good to hear an acknowledgement of the need for infrastructure investment from both presidential candidates during the campaign – one of the few things they agreed on! The people leading the transition efforts appear to have strong privatization, public-private partnership, and user-fee bents – how that will shape the USDOT and/or spending priorities is unknown. With regard to funding, we do receive a considerable amount of federal funds as part of our capital budget. Much of the funding comes via a framework, including funding formulas, set in the federal transportation bill, which is currently a five-year bill approved by Congress a year ago. That longer-term framework provides some stability to our funding, though all funding is subject to annual appropriations from Congress. How the President-Elect’s proposed policy to withhold federal funds to sanctuary cities (of which San Francisco is one) would interact with the federal transportation bill is unknown.

State
No significant changes at the state level, though one or both houses of the legislature will have a two-thirds Democratic majority, two-thirds being the majority needed to approve certain legislation that relates to spending. One item of note that was on the ballot, the state proposition that would have required a vote of the people in order for the state to issue revenue bonds in the amount of $2 million or greater failed. That proposition was seen by some as a means of killing/slowing the California High Speed Rail project; thus its failure appears to represent support for continued progress on High Speed Rail, which will ultimately serve San Francisco and will be an important part of our transportation system. With regard to state funding, the chairs of the Senate and Assembly Transportation Committees are expected to bring forth next month a significant transportation funding proposal to the legislature for consideration. We are watching that closely and are of course supportive (despite some shortcomings), but are not hearing a lot of optimism that the measures will be able to secure the needed two-thirds support.

Regional
At the regional level, the big news is that the BART $3.5 billion general obligation bond was strongly supported by the voters, including by more than 80% of San Francisco voters, which is great! As a critically important aspect of San Francisco’s and the region’s transportation network, investment in BART is absolutely essential. Santa Clara county voters approved a half-cent sales tax for the Valley Transportation Authority there – good news for our South Bay neighbors, and Oakland voters strongly supported an infrastructure bond, which will give a boost to its newly created Department of Transportation. Contra Costa county voters did not approve their half-cent sales tax, and at the city level, a mix of measures success and failure. Nationwide, transportation measures did fairly well, including passage of LA’s $120 billion (!) and Seattle’s $54 billion measures.

Local
Here in the city, a mixed bag. The good news is that voters overwhelmingly (nearly two-to-one) approved Prop J, which was to dedicate funds to transportation ($100M/year) and homeless services ($50M/year). Unfortunately, the revenue source to provide the funds (though not stated in the voter information guide nor the ballot), Prop K, did not pass. With Prop K’s failure, the Mayor was forced to exercise the clause in Prop J that effectively rescinds it, given that there are not funds to support it.

Of the $100M for transportation, about a third was to support the Public Works paving program. The City will likely consider revisions to the general fund capital budget to at least partially address that shortfall. Another third was directed to the TA to provide more funds for transit enhancement (e.g., Muni Forward projects), funds to support regional projects (e.g., BART expansion cars, Caltrain electrification), and more funds in support of Vision Zero. The balance would have come to the SFMTA to provide (1) operating budget funding to ensure continuance of free and reduced fare programs, implementation of the Muni Service Equity Strategy recommendations, and protection against service reductions as a result of economic downturn, and (2) capital budget funding for more state-of-good-repair work on infrastructure, facilities, and vehicles. The operating items the funding was meant to support are already funded in the current two-year budget, so no immediate impact there (though of course we could have put those funds to good use). The capital items for us/TA that related to transit enhancement, Vision Zero, and state-of-good-repair would have been augmentations to our capital budget, so not having those funds means we won’t be able to do more in those three categories than we would have been otherwise. With regard to the regional pot, we will have to work collectively to figure out how we (the city) can support BART and Caltrain. There’s already talk of a potential 2018 local measure, as well as a regional one, so that’s potential opportunity to make a better case to the voters so we can advance more of the good work we’re doing to improve transportation in the city.

In other local news from the election, a number of measures (real estate transfer tax increase, soda tax, Dignity Fund) that were approved by the voters will have an impact on the amount of funds the SFMTA budget receives via formula – we don’t know yet what that impact will be, but I believe it may be a net positive impact. The other news is that Prop L (in part of repeat of the failed 2005 Prop D), which would have changed how the SFMTA Board is appointed and reduced the number of votes required for the Board of Supervisors to reject the SFMTA budget, failed. The facts that Prop L made it to the ballot and that Prop K failed are worthy of our consideration, but I take it as a vote of confidence in the agency that Prop J passed so significantly and that Prop L failed.

Additionally, at the local level, we will have a new Board of Supervisors (and TA Commission) come January, as three members will be termed out, and a fourth will be heading to the state Senate.

Back to the bigger picture: Elections evoke strong emotions and across political proclivities and most agree that the American election of 2016 has been of historical import. Throughout the Bay Area, the election results brought deep disappointment to some. It has caused others to question the state of our nation and the future of our democratic institutions. Still others are pleased with the outcome. During this time of uncertainty and divisiveness, it is important for our collective response to reflect shared values, freedom, inclusion, diversity, and the ideals of democracy. A healthy, healing disposition moving forward is one that maintains a deep respect for our common humanity and remains vigilant for trespasses on the dignity of the most vulnerable among us. This pathway forward and progress in realizing the American dream for all will be contingent upon our willingness to get or stay engaged with our neighbors who walk in the world in a manner different from our own.

For us at the SFMTA, remember that public transportation has always played an integral role in binding together the common thread in the fabric of American life. In quiet ways each and every day, the trains, trolleys and buses move us… and they move us too. Consider the multitude of chats about current events, the weather, local sports successes/failings, and political intrigue that occur at bus-stops and between riders each day. Friendships form, mutual understanding is enhanced. Public Transportation is the epitome of inclusivity, and by design MUNI has been a leader in this regard. From free MUNI for youth, seniors, and people with disabilities to the 100 percent of riders we serve, we lead by honoring our role in connecting San Franciscans; on a literal and figurative level. The work we do to make our streets and sidewalks – the essential elements of our public realm – safer and more inviting, add to the role we play in facilitating engagement among the wonderfully diverse population we serve. Appreciate the bus operator who knows her “regulars” and develops a close, mutually nurturing relationships with those from completely different backgrounds; an elder or family from another country. Or the young couple who meet in the big city subway and start a family. From the darkness that brought Rosa Parks on board, to the light which will connect Chinatown to the City, public transportation moves us, together.

In our jobs and in our lives, we should recognize the division that exists in our society and work to bridge it. In the agency, we should strive to develop new partnerships, deepen relationships with stakeholders, and understand the concerns of the people we serve. Personally, we each should consider engaging with someone/people who think(s) differently than we do. Just like inside the agency, in life, a diversity of perspective will ultimately yield a better result.

Civilization depends on an openheartedness to keep dialogue between neighbors open, SFMTA is committed to making connections: daily, safely, and together, we are the City’s transportation. We can thus be part of a uniting force for our city, and a beacon of hope for others. Now more than ever we need to unite within the agency and across the city to stand for what’s important, just, and right.

Thanks as always for the great work you do every day. I look forward to continuing our work together.

Ed

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