It's been a hell of a year to be Jeffrey Tumlin, the newly installed director of the SFMTA who only took the job three months before a pandemic upended public transportation systems nationwide. The agency's budget is likely to be in the red for a long while unless the Biden administration decides to throw more money toward public transit, and in a newly released annual report, the SFMTA discusses ridership numbers and other metrics, as they stand.
Very few people are riding Muni buses, the underground remains mostly offline (though it will slowly come back to life in the new year), and the city's historic streetcars and cable cars are all collecting dust until the pandemic subsides.
"Responding to the COVID-19 public health crisis has radically changed the SFMTA," Tumlin writes in an opening later of the agency's annual report. "[It has] resulted in deep and painful cuts to Muni service. Today, the crisis has forced us to make the hard choices. Absent new funding, we will fall off a financial cliff, when the city needs us most to support economic recovery."
Tumlin warns that service cuts are inevitable and layoffs are likely, but he says, "Our approach is simple: be strategic; try new things without fear; listen carefully to feedback; quickly adjust if it is not working; and build on the successful experiments."
Given the hobbled condition in which Muni has been operating over the last nine months, it's no wonder that things like on-time performance have been less than stellar. The City Charter demands that Muni aim for 85% on-time performance for buses and trains — meaning less than four minutes late or one minute early — and the agency has rarely met that threshold in recent years as SFist has reported previously. In 2020, with widespread service cuts and a fair number of employee absences, things were worse in terms of reliability: Muni reported 45% on-time performance in November, up from a dismal 31% in April. Even in February, though, before the pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt, Muni was only hitting 58% on-time arrivals, so it's all relative.
Unscheduled employee absences, which hit almost 30% in April as fears of the coronavirus were widespread, came down to 13.7% in October, nearing pre-pandemic levels.
And while the report does not getting to budget specifics, we do know a bit more now about how ridership has recovered since the spring. The SFMTA says that ridership crawled back up to 418,700 average weekday boardings as of November, up from 410,500 in October, and 383,000 in September. The lowest ridership levels of the year were seen in April, when there were just 226,000 average weekday boardings. As seen in the chart below, the year's target number was 765,000 per day, which may have been optimistic given that it is half what the average was in most of the previous three years. (And that target may have assumed that light-rail service returned as planned in August, which it did not.)
As Tumlin explained earlier, the SFMTA is facing a $68 million budget deficit for this fiscal year, and a $168 million deficit for next fiscal year, which begins in July. The new stimulus package includes a $14 billion lifeline for public transit agencies, and it's not yet clear how much of that will trickle down to Muni — BART will get some too. That will certainly help slow the bleeding, but layoffs still may occur in the new year as the agency figures out what Muni lines may have be cut and how else it may be able to balance its budget for next year.
In its presentation of the annual report, the SFMTA only said, "Revenue losses now make it impossible to not assume service reduction and layoffs."
Photo via SFMTA