Passengers board a Muni M-Ocean View bus outside West Portal Station in May. <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)</ins>

Passengers board a Muni M-Ocean View bus outside West Portal Station in May. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Muni to add 31-Balboa and M-Ocean View to list of restored lines

Residents of the Tenderloin have been demanding the return of the 31-Balboa for over a year.

They’re finally getting their bus back. Or, at least part of it.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency announced on Thursday it will add two more Muni routes to the list of lines scheduled to come back on Aug. 14, the date of its next service restoration.

Riders can take a temporary, modified version of the 31-Balboa from Ocean Beach to the intersection of Cyril Magnin and Market streets, providing a direct connection to the Powell Street Station and other Muni routes along the corridor.

It will run every 20 minutes between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. SFMTA said it might increase that frequency to every 15 minutes in the coming months.

Jaime Viloria, a community organizer with the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation, said residents were grateful for the news and acknowledged that restoring this part of the route would likely help the greatest number of people in need of improved transit access.

However, he was clear that they still want the 31-Balboa to be brought back in its entirety, or at least a timeline for when residents can count on its return.

“That was a lot of work. To me, there’s a problem that we had to go through that, to do it that way, just to be heard,” Viloria said. “I know there are other neighborhoods going through the same thing.”

SFMTA will also restore train service to the M-Ocean View. Light rail vehicles will run from the Embarcadero to Geneva and San Jose avenues, using the downtown tunnel and serving all the stations from the Embarcadero to West Portal.

It will run every 10 minutes on weekdays and every 12 minutes on weekends.

This change will come just in time for San Francisco State University’s return to a hybrid in-person learning model.

Supervisor Myrna Melgar, who represents that district, said the campus depends on the train for commuting faculty, staff and students. She also mentioned that many working-class neighborhoods rely on the M-Ocean View for access to jobs Downtown.

“We have been pushing the SFMTA to make that a priority, and I’m excited that they did,” she said.

Prior to this announcement, SFMTA’s party line had been that it lacked adequate staffing to bring back more lines than already planned. And even if it did use the total $1.1 billion federal pandemic relief funds to restore full service immediately, it still has to grapple with a ballooning structural deficit that makes sustaining those Muni levels challenging in the long term.

The transit agency’s financial situation remains unchanged. But its staffing concerns are slightly mitigated.

SFMTA feared a surge in retirements on July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, after a lull during the pandemic where fewer people left than normal. However, the anticipated spike in employee departures never happened, so SFMTA says it’s now able to deploy operators to additional lines.

After the August 14 increase, Muni will be running at about 85 percent of pre-pandemic service hours, which includes expanded late night hours on 16 routes that the SFMTA says support economic activity.

But many say that continuing to operate below pre-pandemic capacity simply doesn’t cut it.

Key conversations around the future of San Francisco city streets can’t happen in good faith without a sense of how full Muni service will impact mobility patterns. Discussions around whether the Great Highway and John F. Kennedy Drive should remain car-free, for example, are only speculative without a sense of how a robust transit system might affect how regularly people rely on their cars.

“We can have all those conversations once we actually bring back and restore our Muni services back to 100 percent,” said Supervisor Connie Chan. “Then, let’s have a conversation about, moving forward, what are the changes.”

Supervisors Dean Preston and Chan introduced a resolution on Tuesday calling for the return of all suspended lines and full restoration of Muni service to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year.

By August 31, though, the supervisors want to see a written plan for how the transit agency will meet this deadline and a detailed explanation for how federal funds will be spent.

Though the resolution itself does not have any authority over the SFMTA, it points to a growing tension between SFMTA officials and some members of the Board of Supervisors.

“It should be adaptive. It should be fluid in a way that meets the demands of our city, and right now we are just not seeing it” Chan said of the way the SFMTA is being managed.

The Board’s Government Audit and Oversight Committee will hold a hearing on July 23 on the “de facto route abandonment and service restoration for Muni buses, trains and cable cars.”

SFMTA leadership will report at that hearing, and the presentation is likely to include findings from Jarrett Walker, a public transit consultant the agency hired to help guide its pandemic recovery.

Walker has worked on projects in cities across the world, including Chicago, Miami, Auckland and Dublin.

He’s helped the agency come up with three alternatives for how service might be restored: a near replica of pre-pandemic service; a network that prioritizes giving as many options as possible partly through parallel routes; and a hybrid.

SFMTA says it will roadshow these options through the rest of the year, asking for public feedback, as well as conduct extensive analysis on the impacts it would have on various communities.

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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