muni_generic.jpgAfter years of criticism for implementing service cuts and scaling back on maintenance, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is looking to recast its image in a positive light through an “ambitious” budget and new approaches to providing service and maintaining the system.

Facing $19.6 million and $33.6 million operating budget deficits for fiscal years 2013 and 2014, respectively, agency staff has proposed budgets that SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin said today are more responsible than simply putting the burden of balancing budgets on the backs of transit riders.

“Before asking anybody for any money, I wanted to make sure that I had taken the steps that I thought I could responsibly take to reduce our costs internally.”

The budget proposals outline investing in routine maintenance, reducing overtime, and focusing on the agency’s Transit Effectiveness Project, among other initiatives, with the lion’s share of funding — $447 million–devoted to developing the Central Subway.

The plan also calls for a pilot program offering free transit passes for low-income youth, which is expected to cost the agency about $4 million in lost revenues, and for the implementation of all-door boarding beginning July 1, which has a $1 million price tag.

Reigning in overtime expenditures has troubled the agency for years. Although the proposed budget calls for spending $10 million more on overtime than the previous budget, if the agency can stick to its projects, it will actually spend less on overtime than it does now.

To offset these anticipated expenses, the agency is banking on labor concessions in negotiating contracts under consideration and plans to boost revenues by passing state citation fees onto drivers and experimenting with meter hours on Sundays and in the evenings.

The SFMTA has also cut managerial positions in recent months, and the proposed budgets reflect the ongoing $2.5 million in annual savings from those reductions.

Reiskin, addressing reporters this afternoon at SFMTA headquarters, stressed that fixing the budget was also about fixing the system.

Maintenance and other critical support services that keep the system running have, in recent years, been decimated by the budget belt-tightening.

To begin regaining the confidence of riders, which will aid in the city’s transit first policy, the system needs to be more reliable, Reiskin said. That can be achieved by making a “significant” investment in maintenance with the goal of high system reliability versus basic system safety.

To reverse the trend of deferred maintenance, the agency plans to invest more than $46 million in the two-year period in maintenance and other high priority areas, with a $38 million investment in Muni Metro track and signal infrastructure to improve service reliability.

That investment in infrastructure–including not only buses and trains but also track and overhead lines–requires frugality in other areas.

The goal of what Reiskin called an “honest and responsible budget” was to avoid fare increases and service cuts. But that does not mean that transit riders will not see prices rise. Riders should expect to see indexed increases matching inflation rates.

After conferring with a panel to identify how potential changes would be received, the agency found there was “little appetite for a fare increase,” Reiskin said. Such an increase would also go against the city’s transit first policy.

While fares will be largely left alone, the SFMTA does plan to tinker with parking meter enforcement hours, charging for meters on Sundays in what the agency called “modernizing antiquated parking policies.”

The proposal calls for enforcing meters on Sundays between noon and 6 p.m., with the hope of creating parking turnover in commercial corridors.

“When the meters were put in back in the 50s, Sundays were a very different day and there was very little commerce on Sundays. Today they’re not much different than a Saturday,” Reiskin said.

To address concerns from the Interfaith Council that Sunday parking meter enforcement would add stress to worshipers who would potentially have to feed the meter during services, the SFMTA is considering extended meter hours in areas where this would create a conflict.

Drivers receiving parking citations can also expect to pay more. The agency has been paying the majority of the fees the state tacks on per citation, but the SFMTA will begin passing these costs onto drivers.

One population the SFMTA aims to directly assist is low-income youth, because “we don’t want transportation to be a barrier for kids getting to school,” Reiskin said.

For everyone else, to speed up Muni, which runs at a sluggish 8 mph average speed, the agency is implementing all-door boarding to help people board buses faster.

With more people using Clipper cards and buses already equipped with fare readers on back doors, the transition should be relatively painless. The rub is in enforcement.

“We want to make sure that we don’t inadvertently send a signal that Muni is now free,” Reiskin said.

To counter that mindset, more fare enforcement agents will be brought on staff. Although fare enforcement will be more common, Reiskin said 100 percent enforcement is unrealistic. The goal “is to have everyone to have that expectation they’ll be asked for proof that they’ve paid their fare.”

Although the proposed budget does not close the gap over the two years under consideration, it begins to realize that goal, Reiskin said.

“My aim is to not just close the gap but to go beyond closing the gap and find ways to invest in maintaining these assets (supportive services) that our (core) services rely upon,” he said.

The SFMTA will present these proposals to the agency’s board of directors at its April 3 meeting. Although the board has the option to vote on Tuesday, it can also vote to postpone the item to its April 17 meeting.

The budget must be approved by May 1.

Reiskin said he expects the board to vote Tuesday on the free Muni for low-income students proposal, which is a separate item on the agenda.

Patricia Decker, Bay City News

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