Let’s get loud about the future of Muni

We must demand transparency and a return to full service

By Chris Arvin

More than a year after shelter-in-place began, San Franciscans are getting a better picture of the hows and whens of The City’s reopening. But transit riders who depend on Muni still face a fog of uncertainty created by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency leadership. As some wonder if riders will come back to transit, many ask: How will transit come back for riders?

Currently, Muni is operating 70% of the transit service it operated before the pandemic. This is less than Muni has ever operated since consolidating with privately-run transit in the 1940s. After 10 p.m., our transit network whittles down to just nine bus routes within The City, at 30-minute intervals each. Buses still replace trains on the L and M tracks. Lines like the 31 Balboa, which once served thousands daily, are indefinitely suspended while others operate shortened service.

The result: late-night service workers have few commute options. Seniors and people with disabilities must travel further to get to transit. Students are unsure how they will get to school in the fall. Essential workers are passed up by crowded buses.

The SFMTA has not communicated a timeline to riders of when this will change, or when—if ever—we will have 100% of the service we once had. Meanwhile, traffic and congestion are rapidly returning to the Bay Area. Drivers don’t have to wonder if freeways and roads will be there tomorrow. Why should transit riders have to wonder what kind of service they will receive?

Across the nation, similar agencies like those in Portland, Chicago and Seattle have already restored service to at least 90% of pre-pandemic levels. In California, LA Metro intends to fully restore service by September. Closer-by, BART announced that full service will return in August, even adding new weekend trips and temporarily discounting fares. The SFMTA has only committed to reaching 85% of service by 2022.

The SFMTA has certainly faced challenges over the past year, and leaders deserve commendation. They helped keep Muni running safely, contributed to The City’s relatively low COVID rates, and avoided layoffs of workers who persevered at their incredibly tough jobs to keep The City moving. The agency’s challenges, though, aren’t a substitute for accountability.

One reason cited for the lag in service restoration is budget. Though the agency lost $500 million in revenue during the pandemic, it received over $700 million in federal stimulus and expects $400 million more. While future ongoing funding is needed, we should expect the agency to use stimulus money on recovery, not addressing pre-pandemic budget shortfalls.

Because the SFMTA saved money during the pandemic by not backfilling jobs as employees quit or retired, it must scale up its workforce in order to restore service. While this is a real hurdle, the president of our local Transit Worker’s Union, Roger Marenco, gave me his succinct thoughts on the service restoration plan: “It’s too slow.” Some 150 operators are still reassigned to temporary work for The City or agency. “Let’s put our transit operators back into their vehicles so that they can provide the service that S.F. riders are demanding,” Marenco said.

One reason for uncertainty could be a desire to use the pandemic as an opportunity to redesign the transit network. Last April, SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin said in an interview: “We’re never going to bring it back the way it was before…we have to take advantage of this.” He also tweeted hypotheticals like shifting bus lines “toward higher frequency on fewer routes” and improving the rail system by keeping it “closed longer than strictly necessary,” concluding by quoting Winston Churchill: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Re-imagining the network isn’t a bad idea. Transportation patterns will undoubtedly be different after the pandemic, and much of the network is similar to what it was 100 years ago. However, after over a year of reduced service, the SFMTA must accomplish this in a way that provides transparency and trust, not by withholding service. Strong consideration should be given to how peoples’ lives, and businesses, developed around the routes we once had. And after decades of underinvestment in transit, riders shouldn’t have to accept indefinite service cuts, especially those initially called temporary.

Though the agency has repeated that it will not expand past 85% of pre-pandemic service, it recently stopped presenting that measurement at all. Instead, they show how many residents will live near Muni; a metric that doesn’t reflect service hours, frequency or destinations. At a recent meeting of the SFMTA’s Board of Directors, Manny Yekutiel, an SFMTA board member and owner of event space Manny’s told the agency, “I want to give you the freedom…to not be tied to a certain percentage of service restoration…I don’t really care about the number.” He added, “If that means there’s fewer hours, that’s fine with me.” This flippancy is unacceptable.

Those who apply pressure, though, may get service back sooner. Earlier this year, no timeline was offered on when rail service would resume on the K line. After small businesses, riders and Supervisor Myrna Melgar put pressure on the SFMTA, Mayor London Breed announced that K line service would return in weeks. On the other side of The City, a grassroots effort protesting reduced service in the Tenderloin successfully convinced the agency to restart the 27 line. Being loud works.

So let’s get loud. Muni is our transit system. In 1912, San Francisco became the first U.S. city with publicly-run transit because riders and workers demanded better. While we acknowledge challenges the SFMTA faces, we must also demand transparency and a return to full service. We need true accountability, both from the SFMTA and from our elected officials. The City’s reopening, the climate, and riders all depend on expanding public transit, not holding it back.

Chris Arvin represents District 5 on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Citizens Advisory Council, and is the artist behind Transit Supply, a collection of S.F.transit-themed merchandise.

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