Michael James prefers to shop at Trader Joe’s in Stonestown Galleria. From his house in the Sunset, he has to walk more than a kilometer to take the bus. His doctor and bank are located in the same mall, so even if he tries to make the trip sparingly, it’s inevitable.
It’s life without a bus for the 77-year-old retiree who lives in San Francisco on a fixed income.
âThis is not how I expected life to be retired,â said Michael James, who asked that his last name not be released.
Michael James’ Plight tells a larger story of uncertainty surrounding San Francisco’s transit system. Even with a $ 1 billion injection of COVID relief funds, the city’s buses and trains are operating at 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 is it for, if not to restore the service in its entirety?
The short answer from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency: It is slowly spreading to maintain much, but not all, of the Muni service until the SFMTA can ask voters to pass a measure of vote in 2022 which would give it more stable funding. He says this will help the agency avoid serious financial and labor 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 in the long run.
“If we are to build just cities, we must have efficient and equitable public transport service,” said Ben Fried, spokesperson for the national advocacy group TransitCenter. âPeople’s ability to access jobs, education and the basics of city life depends on their ability to move. For many people, if we are to build just cities, we need to provide efficient and equitable transit service. I think this must be an urgent priority in all of our cities. “
Michael James’ 18-46th Street Muni route was suspended last March. It will return on August 7 as part of the next phase of SFTMA’s route restoration, which will bring service levels to 85% of pre-pandemic hours.
This is all the SFMTA has committed to until January 2022, despite providing more than $ 1 billion in federal aid to keep public transportation afloat in the immediate wake of the pandemic. .
There is no doubt that the pandemic has further endangered the already tenuous existence of public transport agencies. Shelter-in-place orders reduced rider revenue and fares almost overnight, and systems in cities nationwide have cut routes, closed stations and reduced hours.
The SFMTA shut down its entire metro network and cut all of its Muni bus lines except 17. 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 have allocated billions to fund public transport across the country. The money gave these agencies leeway and, theoretically, the financial freedom to bet on ways to get passengers back into the system.
Some Bay Area transit agencies have taken the opportunity to take these risks.
BART will return to near-pre-pandemic service, including overnight trains on August 2, more than a month ahead of what it originally planned following successful labor negotiations. It also forgoes a planned rate increase based on inflation and offers 50% discounts to all Clipper cardholders for a month during the fall.
This month, the San Francisco Bay Ferry launched a new schedule that includes more noon and weekend trips than before the pandemic. It also offers price discounts of between 17% and 35% for one year, according to the San Francisco Chronicle..
Meanwhile, the SFMTA has taken a more conservative approach, reluctant to experiment with certain policy choices demanded by advocates such as Free Muni or parking price increases to bring people back into the system.
Director Jeffrey Tumlin said in a July 8 KPFA radio interview that the goal is to find the “middle path where we restore service to stay just ahead of the recovery”, but don’t bring it back so quickly that the agency runs out. money before the economy fully recovered.
Part of that delicate balance is figuring out when the downtown office workers will return. Crowds of commuters once shuttled Muni between their offices and their homes. It is not known when, if any, they will come back in the same numbers.
âOne indicator that should alarm public transportation officials is that car trips seem to be coming back faster than transit trips,â Fried said. âA strong argument for speeding up the restoration of service is to put in place good public transport when people are ready to re-commute, because otherwise it could lead to a permanent change in behavior. “
This story is true in San Francisco. Fare and parking revenues reached their pandemic peak in April 2021, according to SFMTA data. Public transit revenues were still down nearly 90% from the same period in 2019, while parking revenues were comparable to pre-pandemic.
Additionally, years of hiring and retention issues coupled with a pandemic freeze on all but critical jobs have created a persistent shortage in all types of agency roles, according to SFMTA officials. They have said time and again that they are stepping up their recruiting and training efforts, but until they fill the positions they cannot return to full service levels.
“We don’t buy that,” says Roger Marenco, who heads the Local Union of Transport Workers 250A, the union that represents many operators in Muni. âOur operators are ready, willing and able to return to work at pre-pandemic service levels and restore Muni to what it once was – 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 reacts with increased ridership.
SFMTA management has also said it wants to slowly disburse its federal aid until it can correct the growing structural deficit that has long plagued the agency, which some estimates could reach as high as $ 36 billion. in capital and operating budgets by 2050.
Officials say restoring service too quickly would lead to inevitable layoffs and service cuts eventually when those levels are no longer sustainable. This is why the SFMTA says it will aggressively pursue a voting measure in 2022 to give the agency a sustainable and predictable source of revenue.
In the meantime, 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 people with disabilities or those 65 and over to pay $ 12 for every $ 60 in taxi fare when traveling to essential destinations. The agency estimates that this should represent about two to three round trips per month. It also offers a separate allowance for appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine.
That price is even higher than the cost would be for a low income runner on Muni, someone like Michael James who lives on paycheck and barely has enough money for basic necessities.
He says he pays $ 1,676 per month in rent and receives $ 1,879 each month from Social Security.
âIn fact, when I run out of funds, I sell one of my inherited antiques – so my ‘savings account’ is on the walls or hiding behind me in the apartment,â he said.
While Michael James’ life will likely improve next month when SFMTA brings back its Muni route, other residents won’t be so lucky. Bus lines 21-Hayes and 31-Balboa, for example, have no timetable for their return, leaving residents of Fillmore, Western Addition and Tenderloin without a transit line.
Many San Franciscans are simply asking for clarification of what the future holds for SFMTA and a plan for how the influx of $ 1 billion into its coffers will be used to help runners.
Hearing top San Francisco officials say that public transportation is a priority is an important step in assuring the public that Muni will continue to serve them, Fried said. He would also like to see a commitment to full return of service.
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