Election '07: Props A & H offer conflicting transit fixes
November 2, 2007 1:01 PM
Public transportation, a hot-button issue for many San Francisco residents and organizations, is taking center stage in a debate to be decided with Tuesday’s election, as an ambitious reform proposal for city transit rides the ballot.
Proposition A, introduced in July by Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, aims to improve the Municipal Transit Agency by pumping an additional $26 million to the system and expanding the decision-making authority of the MTA, rather than the Board of Supervisors. It will also preserve the city’s current parking space limitations in some new development projects.
“Proposition A brings Muni up to the 21st century,” said District 7 Supervisor Sean Elsbernd. “I don’t think any rider today is happy with the state of Muni.”
Prop. A, the first Muni reform measure in eight years, is seen by many as a sweeping transformation of the system and is countered by Proposition H, which seeks to build more parking spaces in the city.
Prop. A is endorsed by Mayor Gavin Newsom, transit-advocacy groups like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, environmental groups and several labor unions. If adopted, it would be added to the City Charter.
Elsbernd said only about 70 percent of buses arrive within four minutes of schedule, less than the target 85percent mandated by voters in the 1999 reform measure.
The ordinance would allocate approximately $26 million from the city’s General Fund to MTA, according to a statement by City Controller Edward Harrington. Under Prop. A, Muni would receive additional funding from the city’s parking fees and fines and from parking lot taxes.
Along with extra funding, the system’s managers would have more power over budgeting, hiring and firing mid-level managers and traffic control fixtures.
“Muni would have much more control in the day-to-day decision making,” said SF State professor Jason Henderson, who teaches Urban Transportation.
“It’s not a silver bullet to fixing Muni, but it’s a definite improvement, said Elsbernd. “It infuses Muni with much needed money.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Proposition H, which would drastically increase the number of parking spaces allowed to be built with some types of new development by changing the city’s Planning Code. The measure has received stiff criticism because of it contradicts the city’s transit-first policy.
Elsbernd said even if both measures are passed, Prop. A will trump most of Prop. H because of the way they are written.
Prop. H was funded by Don Fisher, the founder of Gap, Inc., who has opposed Prop. A, along with the San Francisco Republican Party, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods and three city supervisors.
In a published argument against Prop. A, Supervisor Jake McGoldrick expressed concern over the expanded authority MTA would have over the “second largest department budget in the city.” He stated that Muni’s accountability to the public will diminish severely by shifting the control from the city to the Board of Transportation.
“The overriding concern is the displacement of the oversight ability of an elected governing board to an appointed board,” McGoldrick wrote.
Other opponents were concerned with a provision in Prop. A that would lift the current salary cap for Muni drivers. According to the text of the measure, drivers earn about $26 an hour and a city law mandates that they be the second-best paid transit operators in the nation. Critics say the management’s ability to raise wages could put the agency into debt.
The funding—obtained from the city’s parking fees and fines and from parking lot taxes—would provide Muni with about $26 million by next year, according to Harrington.
“Prop. A is not a panacea, but it does bring us in the right direction of bringing environment and labor together,” said Henderson. “We don’t have time to sit around and wait for the perfect solution, and this is a good start.”
Henderson said the challenge of reforming Muni is making the measure attractive enough to voters to show that it is actually a “viable solution to getting out of their cars.”
Muni reform is also difficult because of labor costs, said Henderson. “It’s unfortunate that labor cost is often pitted against Muni, but it is hard to work around. Prop. A brings together the environmental and labor aspects, which is tricky.”
According to the legal text of Prop. A, MTA would also be required to develop a Climate Action Plan every two years that would seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from San Francisco’s transportation sources to 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2012.
Although the proposition would not require the MTA to adhere to Kyoto Protocol regulations, it would require the agency to conduct an audit to “see where they stand” in terms of pollution.
“Prop. A would force the city to talk about what it is doing about global warming,” said Henderson.
Prop. H has been not been popular with city officials, who fear the measure will encourage more people to drive to San Francisco, undermining the city’s efforts like Prop. A to reduce pollution and improve public transportation.
“I always have a strong opposition to amend the city Planning Code,” said Elsbernd.
Harrington stated the MTA is likely to experience higher costs under the ordinance due to increases in congestion, traffic management needs and construction expenses.
Proponents maintain that the increasing number of cars coming to the city every year necessitate more parking spots. According to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for the Bay Area, 1.8 cars per household is the projected number of cars in the city by the year 2010, up from 1.75 in 2000.
“This measure helps San Francisco respond to the reality that more cars are coming to the city everyday,” the SF Council of District Merchants Associations wrote in a statement.
Several sustainable transportation advocates, including the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and City CarShare, oppose Prop. H, stating that the initiative would lead to more traffic congestion and unsafe roads for cyclists and pedestrians.
“For one things, it undermines local control,” said Henderson. “Another, if you add more parking structures, you allow more cars to come to the city, but you don’t add more lanes on the streets or on the bridges, you congest traffic further.”
Opponents also wrote that the measure is “out of touch” and would reduce up to 10,000 on-street neighborhood parking spaces and eliminate up to 1,500 future neighborhood retail stores. Many say the city should deter, not invite, more cars.
Elsbernd said that the text of Prop. H contains “loopholes you could drive a Hummer through,” citing the allowance of unlimited parking for “low emission vehicles.” Elsbernd pointed that any car manufactured the year 2008 and later is now automatically labeled as low emission per federal regulations, including SUVs such as Hummers, Ford Expeditions and Cadillac Escalades.
Henderson also said the ability for property owners to install garages under Prop. H without the need for city approval could change the face of San Francisco’s storefronts and walkways.
“I think anyone who votes in favor of this just doesn’t understand it,” said Henderson. “Tourists don’t come to San Francisco to see Daly City.”
According to the MTA Web site, Muni is the Bay Area’s largest transit system and provides nearly 700,000 trips a day. It needs an additional $100 million to $150 million a year to make significant improvements. Its annual operating budget is around $670 million.
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