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Muni Citizens’ Advisory Council: Budget, Clipper and Transit Equity Examined

Photograph by Will Carruthers for the Ingleside-Excelsior Light

At its February meeting, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Citizens’ Advisory Council heard presentations about the agency’s budget, the future of the Clipper card system and an update on the new equity program.

Sonali Bose, MTA director of finance and information technology, presented the agency’s budget proposal for fiscal years 2017 and 2018.

MTA’s expenses are outpacing increases in revenue. Unexpected increases in pension costs, a greater rate of hiring train operators and scheduled wage increases accounted for the agency’s increased costs, according to Bose.

“Historically our revenues have not gone up at the same rate as population,” Bose said, commenting on the agency’s stagnant income as the city’s population increases.

There’s a 14 percent smaller projection for the 2017-2021 Capital Improvement Program budget than the 2015-2019 budget. The decrease is accounted for by many large projects, such as the Central Subway, being completed during the projected period as well as the expiration of some state funds, according to Bose, and there is also no assumption of funding from a new general obligation bond measure.

Bose was unphased by a question about what the Super Bowl would cost the agency.

“It’s hard to tell [whether the MTA’s share of the city’s tax revenue]. We have hundreds of special events,” Bose said. “The MTA’s position is if there is a special event that the city endorses, we find out how to make it work.”

The budget process will stretch into the summer. Next, the budget will be presented to the MTA Board of Directors on Feb. 16 and March 1 before coming back to the CAC on March 3.

Clipper

A new fare card system is being developed for when the city’s contract with Clipper ends in 2019.

Diana Hammons, revenue manager at MTA, updates the CAC once a year on what will be a very complicated transition for a system that has 1.7 million active users across 20 transit systems in nine counties.

Hammons’ presentation and the discussion afterward ranged from weaknesses in the current system and what to expect from the technology in the new system. Some features of the current system, installed in the 1990s, such as the 3-5 day waiting period after loading cash onto the card online, were referenced as signs of the current system’s age.

“I’d like to remind you what the cellphones looked like in the 1990s and think about what it would look like if we were still using those,” Hammons said. “That’s kind of what we have on our buses right now.”

One theme of the discussion was that the current system can be inflexible when it comes to managing different fare categories.

“Clipper has a lot of system limitations,” Hammons said. “For me, one of the biggest ones shortcomings is that there is no low income fare category.”

In response to considerations like these from all of the transit systems, the Municipal Transportation Commission, which manages the Clipper system, is drafting a Concept of Operations, or what Hammons called a “dream system list.”

Other items on the list included demand based pricing, real time fares—every bus is connected and sends transaction information immediately—and more flexibility with fares. However, Hammons cautioned, incorporating too many features might bog down the system by making it too complicated.

“Given where technology has gone, there’s tradeoffs for everything,” Hammons said. “That’s where the conversation will lead to, the complications that might happen if we expand to too many types systems.”

Muni Equity Strategy

Julie Kirschbaum, MTA operations, planning and scheduling manager, prepped the council on Muni Equity Strategy, a policy that was adopted by the MTA board in May 2015.

The policy is focused on “documenting the current transit condition in low income neighborhoods, monitoring improvements year over year and identifying projects, some service and some capital, that can move us in the right direction,” Kirschbaum said.

The campaign goes beyond Federal requirements for analysing the equity of a transit system.

Preparation included talking to neighborhood groups in seven neighborhoods and focus groups with transit operators to come up with ways to optimize the system.

“Not every solution is adding more service, sometimes it’s managing a line differently,” Kirschbaum said.

The findings so far were positive, according to Kirschbaum. On-time performance is up seven percent this year.

Other Business

At the end of the meeting CAC Chair Dan Weaver announced that council member Katie Haverkamp would be leaving the CAC because she was moving out of the city.

“I thought you contributed a lot when you were on the CAC,” Weaver said. “I particularly remember that you were the first to bring us the Super Bowl, so you broke the news here.”

Haverkamp is moving to Cleveland, Ohio, and plans to open up a bakery and go back to school.

“It’s been a really great five and a half years,” Haverkamp said. “I was appointed to the board less than a year after I moved out here because I went down to City Hall and complained about the L.”

Meeting Recap

  • The council heard the first of several presentations about the department’s proposed budget.
  • A yearly update on the state of the Clipper update in 2019.
  • The CAC received its first briefing on the Muni Equity program since the system initiated in May 2015.
  • Katie Haverkamp is leaving the CAC.

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