Muni fixes will be painful, but they are necessary 

At the end of March, Muni’s on-time performance was dismally low. From October to December, Muni vehicles arrived at stops on time just 71.7 percent of the time. And according to a recent article in the Bay Citizen, Muni is actually slower than it was when it began to operate 100 years ago. The F-Stockton car took passengers from the Financial District to the Marina in just 17 minutes. Today, a similar trip takes at least half an hour.

This could be an occasion to complain about how much the system has degraded since its inception. But that would be unfair. Back at the system’s birth, there were far fewer motorcars on the street, leaving streetcars free to zip along at a faster pace.

Nonetheless, Muni’s managers made a promise in 1999 when voters agreed to expand the agency. As part of the expansion, Muni would set a goal of having buses, trains and cable cars arrive on time 85 percent of the time. Clearly, the system is still far short of its goal.

Fortunately, agency leaders are finally working on the problem. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is seeking to speed up cars on eight of its most heavily used lines, including the N-Judah, 14-Mission, 30-Stockton, and 5-Fulton lines. These plans include consolidating some stops, restricting parking, and upgrading traffic signals. They hope to reduce travel time by as much as 28 percent.

We’re pleased that Muni managers are trying to fix what has been a very broken system. For too long, Muni’s vehicles have been slow, late and inconsistent. Any effort to transform Muni into a workable system is welcome, and long overdue.

But the system still faces more than its share of structural problems. For one thing, it’s broke — and fares just don’t pay enough to finance it. The SFMTA faces a $53 million deficit over the next two years. And a proposal to allow some or all minors to ride for free is expected to add as much as $8.7 million to the agency’s deficit.

The agency’s proposal to close that budget gap by hiking parking tickets and towing penalties has already begun to encounter serious (and not-so-serious) opposition from critics who cling to antediluvian suburban ideals for this most-urban of cities. But how can Muni function properly if it lacks sufficient revenue?  

If implemented wisely, charging for parking on Sunday is a smart idea. Yes, paying for parking discourages some people from going out and patronizing local businesses. But it also encourages vehicle turnover in commercial districts, increasing the number of people who are able to shop, dine and browse. Local merchants should applaud this decision, not denounce it.

Similarly, the agency’s proposal to increase parking citation fines by $5 is an appropriate, if unfortunate, response to the state of California’s decision earlier this year to steal an additional $5 of every local parking fine. If you don’t like this development, take it up with your elected representatives in Sacramento.

A grab for revenue by the SFMTA without similar attention to cost control and efficiency would indeed be a reason to criticize the agency. But given that the SFMTA just saved $2 million a year by trimming mid-level managers from its payroll, and given that the agency also is seeking to reign in its generous employee benefits in its upcoming union negotiations, San Franciscans who have long pined for a more functional Muni would be wise to support the agency’s current path forward. Let’s hope this train arrives on time.

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