The SFMTA is on course to lose more than a half-billion dollars in revenue over the next four years, and director Jeffrey Tumlin warns we’re seeing a “transit death spiral.”
All of the SF Muni light rail trains have been out of service for nearly four months, with just threadbare bus service for the N-Judah, L-Taraval, and T-Third lines, and many transit stations like the Castro Street station are shuttered entirely. The cable cars are in mothballs and will not return until 2021 at the very earliest. Muni ridership has been decimated by somewhere between 70 and 90 percent, and our anecdotal observations indicate that, well, a bunch of those riders just aren’t paying fares anyway.
One would hope and figure that once the majorly curtailed service is restored, Muni would simply pop back to normal as if COVID-19 had never happened. But that hope gets doused in ice-cold water by a New York Times report this weekend that US public transit agencies are veering into a “death spiral,” with the SFMTA projecting to lose $568 million in revenue over the next four years, or about $142 million per year. The Times reiterates what we already heard from Tumlin, that of the dozens of Muni lines suspended or shortened, the SFMTA is “unsure if they will ever come back.”
“Unless the economy comes ripping right back, and there’s a vaccine, and social distancing is eliminated, we fall off the financial cliff in 2023,” SFMTA director of transportation Jeffrey Tumlin told the Times. “That would result in such severe service cuts that it puts us on what is called the transit death spiral.”
Of course, Tumlin’s previous "We fall off a financial cliff" statement was "We fall off a financial cliff in 2022,” uttered barely over two weeks ago at an SFMTA board meeting, so it is unclear if and how we have recently bought another year of not falling off a financial cliff. That was shortly after fare increases were taken off the table, and the roughly 40 Muni lines that are currently suspended may indeed never return.
The Times article is not just another NYT San Francisco hit piece, but instead a detailed national analysis of coronavirus’ corrosion of several major cities’ public transit systems. The horror stories are even worse in other cities, like New Orleans, where nearly 15 percent of transit workers have tested positive for COVID-19.
The SFMTA did get a $373 million lifeline in March through the CARES Act, part of a larger $25 billion in transit relief that the SFMTA estimates probably saved around 1,400 Bay Area jobs. Nancy Pelosi’s newer and more dashingly named HEROES Act proposal contains a more modest $15 billion in federal public transit aid, and Democrats in the Senate are proposing $32 billion for public transportation. But those may be pipe dreams, as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has other priorities for what makes the Senate bill, like payroll tax cuts, and funding incentives for schools that go along with Trump’s dangerous reopening schemes.
Local reporting shows that the so-called “transit death spiral” is already happening. An Examiner report over the weekend explored how the stripped-down Muni service is becoming increasingly impossible for seniors and disabled riders to use.
The rethinking of the light rail system scheduled to go into effect in August truncates several lines, but does not eliminate any of the letter-named trains. Still, whatever version of Muni emerges for the COVID-19 mess will probably make the early 2020 meltdowns seem like the good old days.
Image: Joe Kukura, SFist