Muni might seek money through San Francisco voters

S.F. Examiner File PhotoMuni is looking to speed up its transit services

Muni’s transformative transit initiative achieved an important planning milestone this week, but the ambitious project still faces major funding barriers and officials are considering asking voters for money.

Crafted in 2008, the Transit Effectiveness Project was the first review of Muni’s operations in a generation, and the recommendations from the plan included more bus rapid transit networks, an increase in transit-only lanes and other initiatives aimed at speeding up The City’s public transit system.

On Wednesday, the Planning Department issued its initial study of the project, clearing the way for the vital environmental reviews that must be completed before recommendations of the plan are implemented. The final environmental review is expected to be finished in 2014.

While the measure moves forward through the bureaucratic approval process, it faces much more daunting challenges, namely how it will be funded. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, estimates that the startup costs will total $175 million, which the agency currently does not have.

One way to pay for the projects is through a general obligation bond, which would need approval by San Francisco voters. Ed Reiskin, director of transportation at the agency, said he would recommend a $150 million to $250 million bond at next month’s Capital Planning Committee, a coalition of city agencies that prioritizes San Francisco’s long-term projects.

With Muni still performing woefully below expectations, Reiskin conceded that the agency has a long way to go to persuade taxpayers to support a bond measure.

“We don’t have the confidence of the public today that we can spend and execute this money in an efficient manner,” Reiskin said.

Reiskin said the agency is working dutifully on hiring new transit operators and replacing its aging buses. It’s also attempting to reduce its hefty overtime costs, but those efforts have not yielded tangible results.

Depending on how the Capital Planning Committee reacts to Reiskin’s proposal for a general obligation bond, the measure could go before voters in 2014. The chances of its passage could depend on developments in Sacramento.

A constitutional amendment has been introduced by state legislators that would lower the approval threshold for transportation funding measures. Currently, those measures require a two-thirds majority, but if the amendment is approved that level would drop to 55 percent.

Any measure that could help the chances of the Transit Effectiveness Project would be much appreciated, Reiskin said.

“We know that this project will have clear, identifiable benefits to transit passengers,” Reiskin said. “We just have to convince the public of that.”

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