Slow ride time trips up T-Third rail line 

Muni’s long-anticipated Third Street light-rail line — currently running only on the weekends in preparation for its full-service debut in April — is slow on speed and light on riders, according to agency officials.

Dubbed the T-Third by Muni, the 5.1-mile route connects some of San Francisco’s most impoverished neighborhoods, including Bayview-Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley, with the downtown area. The new $648 million line runs from Fourth and King streets, near the Giants’ ballpark, to Bayshore Boulevard and Sunnydale Avenue. It was expected to provide a faster ride through The City’s southeast sector and boost ridership for Muni, which struggles with annual budget deficits and sagging ridership.

Current trip times, however, are slower than expected, according to Ken McDonald, Muni’s chief operations officer. Instead of a 43-minute trip from the line’s official start at the existing Castro station to the new Sunnydale station, the one-way ride runs about 54 minutes, McDonald said Tuesday at a meeting of the Municipal Transportation Agency board.

In addition, weekend ridership has been lower than expected, McDonald said. Although approximately 6,700 passengers rode the T-Third during its inaugural weekend in January, weekend ridership is now between 1,000 and 1,500, he said.

"We thought we’d try to move people or try to encourage them to go on the LRV [light rail vehicle], but they’re still utilizing the buses," McDonald said. Muni’s 15-Third bus line is still in operation but service will be reduced once the T-Third gets up and running.

He added that one of the reasons the trains are moving too slowly is drivers were initially told to be careful while getting used to the route.

Another reason, according to Bond Yee, executive director of the Department of Parking and Traffic, is new technology utilized by the light rail called priority signaling — which changes traffic lights as the train approaches — to speed up the time it will take to get from one end of the line to the other.

Drivers are being so careful not to clash with the oncoming train that they’re driving slowly, Yee told the MTA board. What they’re doing, ironically, is slowing down the signal system — and the train.

"There’s a certain time they trip the switch in advance. Then, they can get to the next signal and the signal will be held green for them. But they’re going so slow the signals are timing out by the time they get there," Yee said.

Muni budget balanced, but officials say that will not last

Although Muni has submitted a balanced budget for the coming fiscal year, the transit agency is expected to face a deficit of $50 million to $70 million by 2008-09, its top officials told the Municipal Transportation Agency board Tuesday.

Sonali Bose, the agency’s financial officer, told the board — which unanimously approved the $680 million budget — that Muni has a "structural deficit" that will come back to haunt the agency each year.

After the meeting, Muni Executive Director Nathaniel Ford said he is working to make the agency more efficient, as well as identify new sources of revenue, but that Muni faces increased costs for labor, fuel and operations each year.

In order to balance this year’s budget, the MTA board approved an increase in garage-related rates, which is expected to generate an additional $3 million.

In addition, an increase in auto tow fees, along with an increase in daily storage rates for towed vehicles, will bring an additional $1.5 million to the agency. A new $25 collection fee for citation scofflaws is expected to raise an additional $2 million.

With 50 new parking control officers slated to be hired within the next year, the agency is also counting on an assumed $2.7 million increase in parking fines from the improved enforcement.

New MTA board member Leah Shahum said that although she was pleased the budget was balanced, she felt the budget merely maintained the "status quo" of service.

"I don’t feel like we’ve moved significantly closer to more transit, more services, more reliability, safer services, better maintenance," she said.

Shahum and other board members also questioned why Muni was still budgeting for the salary of former Deputy Executive Director Stuart Sunshine, who moved to Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office with the title of deputy chief of staff in charge of transit issues. Sun-

shine’s MTA salary is budgeted at $250,000, and 40 percent ofthat will still be paid for by the public transportation agency, confirmed Ford, who added that part of Sunshine’s job includes advocating for Muni while working for Newsom.

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