While San Francisco continues to gradually reopen from the year-long COVID-19 pandemic, its transit agency faces a long road to recovery.
By January 2022, only 85 percent of pre-pandemic Muni service hours are expected to be restored, up from the roughly 70 percent currently provided.
Julie Kirschbaum, transit director for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, broke the news to the Board of Directors on Tuesday, laying out the restoration plan for the coming year.
“We won’t be able to do everything, but we will be able to do important things and keep up as The City recovers,” Kirschbaum said of the plan to slowly phase in additional Muni routes or increase frequencies.
SFMTA will receive enough federal money to close the deficit for fiscal year 2021, 2022 and possibly 2023, but leadership is wary of trying to restore all Muni service in the short term without a guaranteed source of income once stimulus dollars are drained.
The result would be unreliable, infrequent service, the suspension of Muni routes once again down the line or some combination thereof.
“We could easily do what we’ve done in the past and over commit to you all and put up a number that is easy to digest politically, but it would come with cutting corners,” Kirschbaum told the board in response to their concerns about the projections. “We think that this is a very rare opportunity to not cut corners and to build a foundation.”
SFMTA faces numerous challenges in sustainably restoring pre-pandemic levels of service: declining revenues and a reliance on one-time funds from federal stimulus packages to survive; uncertainty around the return of downtown office commuters and tourism; a growing number of backlogged state-of-good repair projects required to ensure Muni runs reliably; and a ballooning structural deficit that existed before the pandemic but has been exacerbated by severe loss in riders and their ticket fare.
Chief among those challenges, though, is the more than 800 job vacancies, inclusive of operators, supervisors and leadership roles, most of which must be filled for the agency to run at full strength.
And while the rate of operator attrition — mostly people leaving their jobs for retirement or new opportunities — has plummeted during the pandemic, Kirschbaum attributed that to the fact that the pandemic has caused employees to stick around longer. She expects those numbers to be shored up once things stabilize, which could mean there are even more positions to fill.
While the high vacancy rate has been identified as the single biggest hindrance for recovery, SFMTA can’t simply bring droves of people on board in a few weeks time.
It takes months to identify potential civil service candidates, conduct interviews and train them to operate or oversee trains, buses and the related infrastructure.
That’s why, for example, the L-Taraval, M-Ocean View and K-Ingleside Muni Metro trains are “unlikely” to restart before early 2022, according to Kirschbaum, who said the agency simply doesn’t have enough rail operators and will need to move operators internally or hire and train new workers.
SFMTA also needs about two months to enact any schedule changes because of union sign-up timing.
“This is what allowed us to survive COVID-19, but it’s also going to complicate our recovery,” Kirschbaum said of the hiring freeze that was enacted to cut costs during the pandemic.
SFMTA cut service dramatically to less than 40 percent of pre-pandemic levels in March 2020 in response to the shelter-in-place orders. Since then, the agency has been gradually reinvesting back into the system, bringing back routes incrementally.
Up next will be the return of the N-Judah train from Ocean Beach to Caltrain, as well as the opening of the full subway route for the T-Third line from Embarcadero to West Portal.
Additionally, the F-Market & Wharves historic streetcar line from Castro to Fisherman’s Wharf will return seven days per week for eight hours daily, at least until construction on Better Market Street starts later this year, and the hilltop service gap between Forest Park and Glen Park will be filled by some partial combination of the 36-Teresita and 52-Excelsior routes.
Come the fall, when officials hope COVID-19 distancing guidelines will have been relaxed, SFMTA will focus on filling existing gaps in transit service and provide greater connectivity between parts of The City such as the North-South corridor between the Richmond and the Sunset not currently served by Muni.
The agency will also try to beef up routes that service San Francisco United School District sites, though staff said it’s still unclear which lines will experience an uptick in demand and when.
Kirschbaum said roughly 95 percent of residential land area in San Francisco is currently within a quarter-mile of a transit stop. SFMTA hopes to bring that number up to 98 percent.
Part of that picture includes the return of the Powell-Hyde cable car, which SFMTA expects to take about six months to prepare for a restoration timed to the start of the holiday season.
Board members asked to see an update on plans for transit’s return every four to six weeks, and they emphasized the need to make sure the rollout of additional service convinces people that Muni will be a reliable, high quality transportation option as The City recovers.
“It’s why we think it’s so important to not grow faster than we can do at a good job,” Kirschbaum concurred. “Somebody is going to be making a decision about whether or not they ride forever based on those first few experiences.”
Meanwhile, advocates such as the San Francisco Transit Riders are calling for SFMTA to push forward toward full service as aggressively as possible.
“If Muni is not ready to serve people with easy-to-use and efficient service, if the buses aren’t there to meet the demands as schools reopen and business returns, it will hold San Francisco’s recovery back,” spokesperson Cat Carter said. “More people will be stranded, or will have to resort to private cars.”