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Supervisors, advocates make ‘demands’ of transit officials in heated debate over Muni service future

San Francisco Muni passengers and city supervisors voiced concerns Friday that transit officials have yet to provide a date when service will be fully restored, leaving some to speculate that many routes could be on the chopping block.

Officials with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency have said they plan to work over the next six months on a proposal to restore Muni service hours to an estimated 85 percent by early next year. They cite estimated funding and staffing level issues as reason for not planning full restoration. A timeline on the agency’s website shows that outreach begins this month with community organizations — a citywide engagement process is scheduled to follow from August through September.

Supervisors Dean Preston and Connie Chan grilled transit officials for hours at the board’s Government Audit and Oversight Committee meeting, pressing the agency to explain why all routes and pre-pandemic service levels can’t be restored despite receiving federal funding. They further questioned how much influence transportation consultant Jarrett Walker will have on the agency’s planning process.

Both supervisors, in a non-binding resolution, urged transit officials to commit to restoring all Muni routes and full service by the end of the year, and asked that they present a written plan to do so by the end of August. The resolution passed at the committee with Supervisor Rafael Mandelman in dissent.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman speaks at a rally asking for walking safety during seventh annual Walk to Work Day at City Hall in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (Ching Wong/SFBay) Ching Wong/SFBay

The SFMTA received a one-time infusion of more than $700 million in federal funding and expects to ultimately receive more than $1 billion in total. Jeffrey Tumlin, the agency’s director of transportation, said the SFMTA has already spent half of the funding to maintain current service and prevent layoffs, adding:

“We’ll spend another $300 million this year, in order to sustain our modest recovery and the remainder, unfortunately, has to be spread out until 2025 in order to avoid us falling off a fiscal cliff.”

Supervisors expressed concern about the hiring of the transportation consultant and the role Walker will play in helping the agency craft a restoration plan. Preston pointed to past posts on Walker’s website that were focused on service eliminations, as well as a recent guest blog (“What’s the Best Way to Restore Muni Service?”) published on the SFMTA website.

In the guest post, Walker explains that the SFMTA will present the public with three proposals describing what service could look like in the winter. One proposal includes restoring service to pre-pandemic levels, another suggests building a “high-access” network where some routes could be eliminated and resources redirected elsewhere in the transit system. A third proposal would be hybrid of the first two.

Using the 2-Clement as one example, which runs parallel to more frequent routes like the 1-California and 38-Geary, Walker said:

“Such close spacing of parallel routes is not something the SFMTA provides in most parts of the city, so does it make sense to dedicate Muni’s scarce resources to provide it here? Should those resources go where they can measurably expand access to opportunity, such as by moving toward five-minute frequency on many lines?”

Preston said he worries that prolonged suspension of Muni lines will eventually lead to elimination. He said:

“I think if we’re all being really honest, I think we know, right? It has been 16 months for some of these lines. Now we hear that many won’t come back potentially for another 18 months.”

Supervisors were also worried about “draft” documents and excel spreadsheets obtained by transit advocates and sent to the supervisors and posted on social media. The documents were obtained through public records requests.

A 38R – Geary Rapid bus travels on Geary Street, one of The City’s most-traveled corridors, in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, March 6, 2019. (Ching Wong/SFBay) Ching Wong/SFBay

One excel spreadsheet did show the 2-Clement would be “gone” under the “frequent alternative.”

Tumlin reiterated that no decisions have been made to eliminate any Muni routes and added that proposed changes are not a “permanent vision for Muni,” but will be leaned on for up to three years as the agency recovers from the pandemic.

Muni passengers displeased with how transit officials responded to some of the supervisors’ questions.

Jaime Violera, a resident and organizer in the Tenderloin who advocated for return of the 31-Balboa (due to be restored in August), said the community has little trust and confidence in the agency. Violera demanded the agency restore all service to pre-pandemic levels or provide a timeline on when they will achieve that goal. If the agency does plan to eliminate any routes, the advocate wants to see a “robust” community engagement plan.

Violera said:

“If SFMTA wants to build back our trust, they need to meet those demands.”

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