Transit advocates and planners at the SFMTA are facing a grim reality that no one could have seen coming — that a pandemic would shift the public's mindset about public transportation and potentially lead to the kinds of defunding of transit that occurred in the automobile golden era of the 1950s.
At a meeting of the SFMTA board this week, agency director Jeffrey Tumlin laid out this reality in terms of the budget for the next two years, and he says that without new funding sources from the city, many bus lines may just disappear.
"The cuts we're making are terribly painful," Tumlin said during Tuesday's meeting, adding that the agency is planning for a $200 million loss in the latest budget.
That will translate into 40 of San Francisco's 68 bus lines being cut, possibly permanently, after being put on hiatus at the beginning of the shelter-in-place orders. And at the very least, those 40 bus lines will probably remain suspended for the next two years.
Tumlin likened what the SFMTA will be doing over the next two years as it begins to restore service to "living on our credit cards," and he added that "We fall off a financial cliff in 2022."
Fare revenue continues to be down 90 percent on Muni, and under the current plan, Muni Metro service is set to resume on a revised map and schedule in August, as schools are expected to reopen. When that happens, buses that currently are serving as shuttles to replace those light-rail lines will be available to go back into service on some bus lines.
But as the Chronicle reports, the broader reality that transit agencies are facing worldwide is that some commuters who relied on public transit prior to the pandemic are likely to decide not to rely on it anymore even after the threat of infection wanes. Studies from around the globe put ridership after restoration of services at around 80 percent of previous levels in best-case scenarios — and the SFMTA's senior manager of budget, financial planning and analysis, Jonathan Rewers, said during Tuesday's meeting that a worst-case scenario puts ridership at around 20 percent in the coming years.
Cultural attitudes about being masked and sharing enclosed spaces will take time to change in U.S. cities, and it's likely that only low-income riders who have no other options for getting to and from work will become the core ridership on subways and buses for the foreseeable future. In New York City, weekday ridership on the city's massive subway network has been down to around one seventh of what it normally would be.
A representative for the local transit workers union, Roger Marenco, tells ABC 7 that he's pushing for city leaders to take a pay cut in order to cover the budget shortfalls at Muni.
"That's my challenge to them, take a 10 percent pay cut over the next 12 months," Marenco says.
But are layoffs in store for Muni operators instead? That seems to be an open question right now as SFMTA directors discuss making these broad, longterm service cuts.
SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato tells the Chronicle that a few bus lines will be restored next month, adding to the 23 that are currently operational, but planners are still figuring out which lines those will be.
And we can, allegedly, still expect the Central Subway to open late next year. Maybe.
Image courtesy of Muni