Karl Aguilar has helped run Papenhausen Hardware in West Portal for more than 20 years. He says he hasn’t seen as much business over the last year as fewer familiar faces stepped off the train and into his store.
While Aguilar can’t be certain, he blamed some of the decline in sales on the closure of the Muni Metro subway. The shuttle buses that replaced the light rail vehicles must navigate around subway tunnels rather than going through them, leading to delays and cumbersome connections.
Other employees at the hardware store who used to take the train to work have even started driving.
“It makes us take a hard look at the viability of being a brick-and-mortar retail store on a commercial corridor located near a transit hub,” Aguilar said. “It is hard to run retail in San Francisco. How long can you do that before you decide it doesn’t make sense?”
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency hasn’t run Muni Metro train service since March 2020, save for a botched attempt at reopening the downtown tunnel in August.
Though the agency plans to run the N-Judah and T-Third lines underground beginning in May, the return of additional rail service isn’t expected until at least early next year as the agency faces budget restraints and crushing vacancies.
That means outer neighborhoods that once relied on the L-Taraval, M-Ocean View and K-Ingleside train routes will continue to be without easy access to the underground for months to come, leaving many merchants worried for the future of their businesses, workforce and commercial corridors.
Currently, SFMTA runs about 70 percent of its pre-pandemic Muni service hours. It plans to restore 85 percent by January, but more underground rail service is unlikely to be included.
Julie Kirschbaum, SFMTA transit director, has said the agency currently has over 800 vacancies. Many of those positions, including those for train operators and supervisors, cannot be filled quickly due to budget limitations and training times.
“We’re going to really struggle to rebuild because the hiring process is very complex and we’re digging out of a very big hole,” Kirschbaum told the SFMTA board on March 16.
Train operators are hired from the ranks of bus drivers. They must be trained and then replaced on their bus routes to ensure service isn’t compromised in other parts of The City.
SFMTA also doesn’t have the funds to rapidly hire employees and fill the vacancies, nor can it vacate buses from essential routes. Many already pass up transit-dependent riders at stops due to social distancing requirements.
“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.
District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar has taken issue with the agency giving priority to areas proximate to downtown as opposed to more residential neighborhoods like those she represents.
“It has an economic impact on my district, and it’s frustrating to me that we’re not taken more seriously,” Melgar said. “A bus is just not the same.”
On average, a light rail vehicle can carry twice the number of people as a 60-foot bus, and that jumps to four times as many passengers if the route is serviced by a two-car train.
With social distancing guidelines, one traincar carries about 30 percent more than a bus, SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said.
Merchants say unreliable bus service can keep customers from traveling to a storefront beyond walking distance.
Though SFMTA put shuttle buses on rail routes and switched to a headway system — whereby drivers keep a certain distance between themselves and vehicles in front of them as opposed to a timed schedule— buses are subject to congestion, crowding and delays.
“We need reliable transit services for businesses to be able to thrive,” said Neil Ballard from the Ingleside Merchants Association.
Another frustration for businesses is the sense they’re kept in the dark.
While Kato said SFMTA meets regularly with stakeholders, some merchants say they must proactively comb through board meeting agendas or pester relationships they have inside the agency for timely updates.
“By the time they tell us what’s going on, things have been in motion for a long time, and it’s really hard to make intelligent decisions professionally and personally,” Aguilar said. “There are going to be issues, we understand that, but if we could have communication in a clear, transparent way, then we can figure out what we’re going to do.”
Melgar vowed to “keep pushing” for a transit plan that matches Muni service with the reopening of businesses and institutions.
“Full reopening is supporting our businesses and institutions, and that’s what we have to do,” Melgar said.