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News + PoliticsTransportationNo, Muni isn't broke: New report challenges mayor's austerity planning

No, Muni isn’t broke: New report challenges mayor’s austerity planning

Controller's Office says the system faces no serious deficits, contradicting what Breed and Muni leaders have said when they opposed restoring service or cutting fares.

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For most of the past year, as Muni advocates and Sups. Dean Preston and Connie Chan have called for restoration of COVID-suspended lines and fare relief, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency has insisted that it can’t do much of anything to improve service.

Restoring lines or reducing fares would create a “fiscal cliff,” SFMTA director Jeffrey Tumlin said repeatedly. He cited figures showing that Muni would run a massive deficit in just a year or two, and that the result would be huge layoffs and service cuts.

Mayor London Breed vetoed a fully-funded Free Muni pilot project for the same reason.

Turns out that was completely wrong.

A new report released today by the City Controller’s Office shows that Muni can restore lines and will face zero deficit until 2025, and possibly not until 2027—far enough out that any projections are close to guesswork.

Muni is not heading toward a ‘fiscal cliff.’

The new projections may even be pessimistic: “This assumes no additional federal money and no new revenue from future ballot measures,” Preston told me.

He said that the news is “really a game-changer” because “projected deficits should not be driving policy. There are no financial barriers to restoring service.”

The biggest problem Muni faces is a lack of staff:

The improved base forecast indicates that the primary constraint to transit service restoration over the coming two years will likely be availability of staff as opposed to shorter-term financial constraints. The MTA reports 10 percent or higher vacancy rate in transit positions (including operators, planners, and maintenance staff) compared to 2019 pre-pandemic, a rate which has exceeded 20 percent in recent months. Currently, the agency would face a staffing shortage of approximately 300 operators if overall service hours were to be restored to 2019 levels.

But Preston said the city can make that a priority. “If we had high vacancy rates that threatened to close firehouses, we would fix that,” he told me.

Nobody knows what the future direction of Muni service is going to be; lines that primarily served commuters going to downtown might have to be shifted as jobs shift away from the Financial District (if that in fact happens).

But the report is clear: Fears of a “fiscal cliff” are mistaken, and so is the austerity that Muni management has been pushing.

Even in pessimistic and unlikely scenarios, the system is hardly in financial crisis.

It’s now clear as day: SFMTA faces no fiscal cliff,” said Preston.  “We’ve stood with riders, workers, and transit advocates demanding full service restoration, fare relief, and an end to austerity transit planning. This report further supports our demands. It’s time to stop talking about tradeoffs and start delivering on a bold vision for public transit.”

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Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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