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SFMTA warns of ‘death spiral’ as supervisors push for full service restoration

An ongoing tug-of-war over transit service in San Francisco hit a focal point on Tuesday with competing arguments between transit officials and members of the Board of Supervisors over how much service should be restored, and how soon. 

At a meeting of the Transit Authority Board, SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin cautioned that the agency, which oversees Muni, parking and other transit infrastructure in San Francisco, is on the brink of a “death spiral” that can only be avoided through careful management of one-time federal funding. 

“It is illegal for us to borrow money for operations; if we run out of money we must make drastic cuts to our service and workforce,” said Tumlin. “Our challenge is to create a stable financial base and deliver the best service we can afford.” 

Kate Gale waits for the bus in Outer Mission, San Francisco on May 4, 2021. | Photo by Camille Cohen for Here/Say

Tumlin cited Proposition E, a 1999 ballot measure that established SFMTA and, among other things, required that the agency be financially self-sustaining. Pre-COVID, the agency earned most of its revenue from fares and parking fees, with the rest coming from operating grants and money from the city’s general fund. 

Fare and parking collections were already dropping before the pandemic: Between 2013 and 2019, those funds declined from 60% to 51% of the agency’s overall revenue. SFMTA leadership attributes that drop largely to Uber and Lyft, which ate into Muni’s ridership and reduced reliance on personal vehicles. 

“We’re now increasingly dependent on Muni’s fixed allocation of general fund money,” added Tumlin, saying that SFMTA had already cut back on maintenance and other functions, like human resources, at “the peak of the boom economy.” 

SFMTA’s “structural deficit”—meaning expenditures are growing faster than revenue over time—means that the agency must use COVID relief funds to cover losses over the next few years, according to Tumlin.

“We expect to receive…up to $1.1 billion in federal aid,” said Tumlin. “We’ve already spent half of that money just to avoid catastrophic layoffs. We will spend another $300 million this year just to sustain the limited amount of service we are providing. The remainder, about $200 million, we need to spread over the next three to four years to cover sustained losses.” 

The agency plans to restore 85% of its pre-pandemic service by this coming winter, and says it will circulate options to the public that would restore all pre-pandemic routes, some pre-pandemic routes or a hybrid of the two. SFMTA is working with a consultant, Jarrett Walker, to evaluate how transit needs have changed during COVID. 

That plan isn’t good enough, according to a majority of the Board of Supervisors. 

At a board meeting on Tuesday, Supervisors voted 9-2 in favor of a resolution urging SFMTA to restore all Muni lines by the end of this year, and to submit a written plan for doing so in the coming months. 

“I am troubled that out of 25 of the largest transit agencies in the county…we rank 24 out of 25 in terms of service restoration and recovery,” said Supervisor Dean Preston, who authored the resolution. “Sixteen months into the pandemic, why is there no plan to restore all the lines to pre-pandemic service?”

Several Supervisors cited constituent concerns about disappearing lines, which may unfairly burden seniors or those who can’t easily travel up hills or more than a few blocks to a bus stop. Routes that are currently suspended or curtailed include the 2 Clement, the 21 Hayes, the 36 Teresita and several others. 

Transit officials pointed to a sea change in San Francisco’s downtown economy as a justification for rethinking service. San Francisco’s downtown has been slower to recover than in other cities due to a high proportion of remote-friendly jobs: In July, office visits were only at 20% of total capacity, according to card-swipe data from Kastle Systems. That could change transit patterns in the city for a long time, according to SFMTA officials.

“All of the data says we should not expect to get to a full recovery until 2025,” said Tumlin. 

Mayor London Breed signaled her support for SFMTA’s approach to restoration at a recent appearance before the board, saying that “the Muni map may look different as we reopen” and that the agency is prioritizing access for underserved riders. Breed previously vetoed a proposal by the Supervisors to make Muni free for a three-month period over the summer. 

SFMTA plans to present options on service restoration to the public over the next five months before making a final decision on what San Francisco’s transit map will look like in 2022. 

“Everyone is in agreement that we should restore 100% of Muni service as soon as possible,” said SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato. “We’re dedicated to restoring service more quickly if other revenue can be identified to reduce bankruptcy and layoff risks. In the meantime, we’ll deliver the best we can without risking the service or our workforce.”