Garcia: Supervisors throw Muni under the bus 

You would think that with San Francisco’s Municipal Railway running at a deepening deficit, the Board of Supervisors wouldn’t consider adding to the transit agency’s woes by pushing a plan that could conceivably cost it another $6 million.

You’d be wrong.

Next week, the board appears to be headed on a collision course with fiscal reality — hardly the first time politics has trumped public policy. But the latest entanglement has been fraught with some intrigue and should shed some light on the board’s slippery inner workings.

As pointed out on this paper’s pages, a plan to provide a 30 percent discount to "youth’’ Fast Pass holders was on the board’s agenda this week, a proposal that got delayed following some curious exchanges between the resolution’s author, Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, and his colleague Ed Jew. Jew wanted to send the item back to the committee from whence it came, since he had numerous questions still pending there before McGoldrick conveniently used an obscure rule to send it to the full board without further discussion or public input.

Jew believed he did so because it probably wouldn’t have gotten out of the committee, but with transparency being an opaque term at City Hall these days, his motion got steamrolled by board members who apparently want to send a message to the transportation agency about who calls the shots on The City’s budget.

And there are few messages that could be more off track. Muni has a projected budget deficit of $11 million and wants The City to raise fees for parking garages and car towing to help offset it. For the board to send along a resolution asking the agency to add another $6 million to its budget woes makes about as much sense as letting thousands of riders continue to travel for free.

Jew wanted to know how Muni would find the money to pay for the Fast Pass discounts for the 18- to 24-year-old riders who had been singled out by "youth advocacy’’ groups citing their special needs. The supervisor also wanted to know if it would mean cutting bus and streetcar runs and how it would help them cut fraud at the agency. But those questions won’t likely be answered because Jew’s colleagues don’t want them asked.

Proponents of the discount pass contend that it will increase ridership on Muni, though there is no evidence to support that claim. As it is, with a daily ridership of 700,000, Muni is the busiest transit agency in the Bay Area and it still regularly runs in the red.

It pays to remember that several of the board members supporting the discount plan cried about the social injustice when Muni last raised the fares 25 cents to pump up its revenues. So how much sense does it make to increase the agency’s deficit when one of the only logical ways to reduce it is to raise the fares again?

I don’t see how backers of the discount plan came up with a needy demographic of 18 to 24. Is there evidence to suggest that 25-year-olds are markedly better off? Why not offer a sweet deal for single moms and dads? As Jew points out, why should The City base a special subsidy on age?

Somehow, I don’t think it’s to reduce the amount of fare cheaters riding our rails. In a recent study, Muni found that up to 73 percent of its riders at three Metro subway stations didn’t pay a fare or show a pass. Why would anyone bother to pay for a discounted pass when taking a free pass is so much cheaper?

There are a lot of questions to answer, and they might have been, if the proposal had gone through the proper vetting process. But when McGoldrick leapfrogged his own committee, we lost our best chance to get the magic $6 million response.

"What happened here does everyone a disservice,’’ Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier told me. "It has subverted the whole committee process. If the issue is so noble, then why not talk about it? If it’s such an important idea, then it should be able to withstand scrutiny. But now it’s been taken away from the public and that’s something that should never happen.’’

Of course, fiscal restraint has never been a hallmark of the Board of Supervisors, which until the Care Not Cash plan got passed by voters, ran a general assistance giveaway program that brought people in from hundreds of miles to get their twice-monthly checks.

It was a great ride for a lot of people while it lasted. And at the rate we’re going, it may not be too long before Muni patrons are saying the same thing.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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