Michael James prefers to do his grocery shopping at the Trader Joe’s in Stonestown Galleria. From his house in the Sunset, he must walk over a half mile to catch the bus. His doctor and bank are located in the same shopping center, so while he tries to make the trek sparingly, it’s unavoidable.
This is life without the bus for the retired 77-year-old who lives in San Francisco on a fixed income.
“This is not how I expected life would be in retirement,” Michael James, who asked that his last name not be published, said.
Michael James’ predicament tells a larger story of uncertainty surrounding San Francisco’s transit system. Even with a $1 billion infusion of COVID relief funds, The City’s buses and trains are operating beneath full capacity, and it’s unclear when and if the system will return to pre-pandemic levels.
So, where is all the money? And what’s it being spent on, if not restoring service in its entirety?
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s short answer: it’s being spread out slowly to maintain much of, but not all, of Muni service until the SFMTA can ask voters to pass a ballot measure in 2022 that would give it more stable funding. It says doing so will help the agency avoid otherwise severe financial and workforce cuts in the future.
Critics counter that this approach could only exacerbate Muni’s decline and threatens to undermine The City’s public transportation system for the long haul.
“If we want to build fair cities, we need to run effective, equitable transit service,” said Ben Fried, spokesperson for national advocacy group TransitCenter. “For many people, their ability to access jobs, education and the basics of city life depends on their ability to get around. I think that has to be an urgent priority in all of our cities.”
Michael James’ 18-46th Street Muni route was suspended last March. It will return on Aug. 7 as part of the SFTMA’s next phase of route restoration which will bring service levels to 85 percent of pre-pandemic hours.
That’s all SFMTA has committed to through January 2022, despite being awarded over $1 billion in federal relief intended to keep public transportation afloat in the immediate wake of the pandemic.
There’s no doubt the pandemic threw the already tenuous existence of public transportation agencies into even more peril. Shelter-in-place orders gutted ridership and farebox revenues almost overnight, and systems in cities nationwide cut routes, closed stations and reduced hours.
SFMTA shuttered its entire subway network and cut all but 17 of its Muni bus routes. Nine months later, with the pandemic still raging, the agency announced potential layoffs of up to 1,226 full-time employees just to balance the budget.
But three historic and unprecedented federal stimulus packages allocated billions to fund public transportation across the country. The money gave these agencies breathing room and, theoretically, the financial freedom to gamble on ways to incentivize the return of riders to the system.
Some Bay Area transit agencies have embraced the opportunity to take these risks.
BART will return to near pre-pandemic service including late night trains on Aug. 2, more than one month before it had originally planned as a result of fruitful labor negotiations. It’s also foregoing a planned inflation-based fare increase and offering 50 percent discounts for all Clipper card holders for one month during the fall.
This month, the San Francisco Bay Ferry launched a new schedule that includes more midday and weekend trips than it did before the pandemic. It’s also offering fares discounts between 17 and 35 percent for one year, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Meanwhile, SFMTA has taken a more conservative tack, reticent to experiment with some policy choices called for by advocates such as Free Muni or parking price increases to bring people back to the system.
Director Jeffrey Tumlin said in a KPFA radio interview on July 8 that the goal is to find the “in-between path where we restore service to stay just ahead of the recovery” but don’t bring things back so quickly that the agency runs out of money before the economy fully recovers.
Part of that delicate balancing act is determining when downtown office workers will return. Droves of commuters once shuttled on Muni between their offices and homes. It’s unclear when, if ever, they will return in the same numbers.
“One indicator that should alarm transit officials is that car trips do seem to be coming back faster than transit trips,” said Fried. “A strong argument for accelerating the restoration of service is to have good transit in place when people are ready to make trips again because, if not, that could lead to permanent behavior change.”
That story is true in San Francisco. Both fare and parking revenues hit their pandemic peak in April 2021, according to SFMTA data. Transit earnings were still down nearly 90 percent from the same period in 2019, whereas parking revenues were comparable to pre-pandemic times.
Additionally, years of hiring and retention issues coupled with a pandemic freeze on all but mission critical jobs have created a stubborn shortage in all types of agency roles, according to SFMTA officials. They have repeatedly said they’re accelerating their recruitment and training efforts, but until they have positions filled, they cannot return to full service levels.
“We’re not buying that,” says Roger Marenco, who leads Local Transport Workers Union 250A, the union that represents many Muni operators. “Our operators are ready, willing and able to go back to work at pre-pandemic service levels and to re-establish Muni for what it once was — a good public transportation service for the city and county of San Francisco.”
He wants the agency to test full service for 90 days to see if the public responds with increased ridership.
SFMTA leadership also says it wants to mete out its federal aid slowly until it can rectify the ballooning structural deficit that’s long plagued the agency, which some estimates suggest could reach $36 billion across the capital and operating budgets by 2050.
Officials say bringing back service too quickly would lead to inevitable layoffs and service cuts down the road when those levels were no longer sustainable. That’s why SFMTA says it will aggressively pursue a ballot measure in 2022 to give the agency a sustainable, predictable source of revenue.
In the interim, SFMTA has tried to provide mobility alternatives for some of the most vulnerable.
Created at the start of the pandemic, the Essential Trip Card allows individuals with disabilities, or people that are 65 and older, to pay $12 for $60 worth of taxi fares when traveling to essential destinations. The agency estimates that should account for roughly two to three round-trips monthly. It also offers a separate allotment for COVID-19 vaccine appointments.
That price tag is still more than the cost would be for a low-income rider on Muni, someone like Michael James who lives paycheck-to-paycheck and barely has enough money for basic necessities.
He says he pays $1,676 per month in rent, and that he receives $1,879 each month from Social Security.
“In fact, when I run low on funds, I sell one of my inherited antiques — so my ‘savings account’ is on the walls or lurking behind me in the apartment,” he said.
Though life for Michael James will likely improve next month when SFMTA brings back his Muni route, other residents will not be so lucky. The 21-Hayes and 31-Balboa bus lines, for example, have no timeline for their return, leaving people who live in the Fillmore, Western Addition and the Tenderloin without a transit line.
Many San Franciscans are simply asking for clarity on what the future holds for SFMTA and a plan for how the $1 billion influx into its coffers will be used to help riders.
According to Fried, hearing from San Francisco’s top brass that public transportation is a priority is an important step to assuring the public that Muni will continue to serve them. He’d also like to see a commitment to a full service return.