Free Sunday meters challenge rejected, SFMTA board's independence questioned

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San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors Chairman Tom Nolan, pictured here, is under question of being unduly influenced by the mayor.
Image courtesy of the SFMTA

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to reject an environmental appeal of the decision to repeal paying for parking meters on Sundays, which was voted on by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in April as part of the agency's annual budget approval.

It was a hotly contested decision, as competing interest groups fought for their slice of Muni's funding. SFMTA Chairman Tom Nolan told us at the time, "As long as I’ve been on the SFMTA board I’ve never felt more pressure."

This week's appeal to the Board of Supervisors focused on one aspect of the overall SFMTA budget: the repeal of paid Sunday meters. 

"I appreciate there is frustration," SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin said to the board. That was an understatement.

The Sunday meters benefit many, the appeal's filers contended: Less cars circled around looking for parking (because more drivers could actually find spots) meant reduced congestion and safer streets for bicyclists and pedestrians. It's a sign of the strength of the argument that the appeal was filed by transit advocacy group Livable City (whose executive director is BART board member Tom Radulovich) and Mario Tanev, a very bright policy wonk over at the San Francisco Transit Riders Union. 

"The SFMTA's own data proves the Sunday meters were good for the city," Cynthia Crews of the League of Pissed Off Voters said to the board. "We need to stop playing chicken with public safety."

But despite the environmental benefits of paid meters, the appeal was rejected. The reasons are buried in political gobbledygook, but untangling the complex story reveals the mayor's power, and his missteps. 

Firstly, the environmental appeal wasn't exactly aimed at the meters themselves, but at the SFMTA budget as a whole. That's because the SFMTA board didn't vote to repeal Sunday meters directly, but stuffed it into their approved budget, which is exempt from California Environmental Quality Act review. It was like serving up a distasteful Sunday meter fruitcake with the Muni budget holiday meal: You'd better eat the whole dinner, or else you're not eating at all. 

Budgets are statutorily exempt from environmental review (otherwise there'd be an EIR with every major financial decision). So the Sunday meters were approved through a politically tactical move, shielded by the environmental exemption cloak of the budget.

This meant the environmental appeal yesterday targeted not just the meters, but it could effectively challenge the entire SFMTA's right to environmental review exception for its budgets, supervisors said. They also warned such a challenge may set a precedent for other budgets from other agencies to not be exempt from environmental review, an onerous burden. That was too big of a pill for the board to swallow, which is likely why only two supervisors voted against granting the SFMTA the CEQA exemption: John Avalos and Eric Mar. 

Yet most of the political maneuvering wasn't from the board, but from Mayor Ed Lee, a problem Supervisor David Campos used this review hearing to highlight. "Even if you do or don't want to see Sunday meter parking, irrespective of the issue," Campos said, "I think the way this matter was handled by the SFMTA, respectfully, is not something anyone should be happy with."

He continued: "Let’s be clear: The reason why the SFMTA budget included an item that did not provide for funding from Sunday meters is because the mayor wanted it that way. We have a budget system that is essentially run by decisions made in the Mayor’s Office."

We posed this idea in our story "Politics over Policy" [4/22], contending that because the SFMTA is appointed by the mayor (meaning, he picks and chooses who is on the board), the board members are therefore politically beholden to the mayor. 

Campos drove this point home at the meeting: "I think there’s something to be said when the appointment of one official (on the SFMTA board) is entirely dependent on [the mayor], who can disagree or agree with the decisions you made."

The night before our last story went to print, SFMTA Board Chariman Tom Nolan told us that was in fact exactly what happened on the Sunday meter issue. The SFMTA board, whose directors vote on resolutions every week, received a phone call from the mayor asking for a specific vote. And he got it.

"Ed Resikin, myself, and a few others in a conference call [with the Mayor's Office]," Nolan said. He told us the central message of the call was this: The mayor wanted to put a vehicle license fee increase on the city's November ballot. In order to do that, the mayor contended, car drivers needed to feel like they weren't being nickled and dimed. Paid Sunday meters had to go. 

"That was where they advanced the idea that the mayor wanted to do that," Nolan told us. "That call was right before the mayor’s State of the City message."

Nolan is an affable, straightforward person. The budget the SFMTA passed came on the heels of a fiery meeting, filled to the gills with activists from the senior and persons with disabilties communities. They asked for free Muni for those same groups, which would cost less money than the Sunday meters would bring in -- many at the meeting said the meters could pay for the free Muni service. The need is dire, as some seniors said they regularly made the choice between groceries and a Muni pass.

Nolan sounded deeply effected by their stories.

"Muni is for everybody, especially those who need it most," he said. "The testimony was very heartbreaking. It's expensive to live in this city." 

But in the end, he told us, the mayor felt it was best to kibosh the Sunday meters, which deprived the SFMTA of funding to make Muni free for qualified seniors. We asked Nolan if the mayor had outsized influence on the SFMTA board.

"I think people are aware that we are quasi-independent," he said. "We are clearly part of the city family. I can assure you that this happens very seldom that we get this pressure from the Mayor’s Office. He’s a very open-minded guy, really, and he has a high tolerance for ambiguity, which I like."

"But," you don't turn him down, he said, because, "he’s the mayor."

SFMTA Board Director Cheryl Brinkman supported paid Sunday meters. But when justifying her vote to repeal them, she told the packed board meeting the "best political minds" in the Mayor's Office said it was the right thing to do in order to pass the VLF increase ballot measure.

But in a move that outraged Sup. Scott Wiener and many others, just this month Lee dropped the VLF ballot measure altogether for this year, eventually agreeing to support its placement on the November 2016 ballot.

So to pave the way for success at the ballot box the board rejected free Muni for seniors and lost over $10 million in Muni funding. And in the end, the mayor threw all the justification for his compromises out the window.

Best political minds, indeed. 

Comments

disrupt even minor changes is not in anyone's interests. As Wiener said, if losing revenues is a justification for a CEQA review then why didn't it happen with the free Muni for kids idea?

This ruling isn't about free Sunday parking at all. It is about putting limits to the hijacking of CEQA for political purposes.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 10:23 am

rides to any other group of people. And remember that many seniors and boomers are affluent and can afford the discounted rates that seniors already enjoy.

The VLF measure would have lost in November anyway so that wasn't a big loss. Trying it in 2016 with broader support might give it a better chance.

What we really need is to get the farebox recovery rate up through lowering costs and, ideally, raising fares to a more realistic level.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 10:28 am

With a lousy 20% affordable and infrastructure recovery rate, we can't go giving free rides to luxury condo developers. This game is fun!

Posted by marcos on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 10:40 am

sell it for $2. They invest their own money and increase the tax base. I'm talking about those who need to have 80% of their costs subsidized by the taxpayer.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 10:46 am

Off-topic from the developer one: The city's streets are paid for through the General Obligations fund (and occasionally various bonds). These are costs subsidized by taxpayers, including those who do not drive. With around 30% of trips being in cars in San Francisco, that's quite a few subsidies to cars as well. I'm not against increasing farebox ratio, but it's not a reason to avoid evaluating options.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 3:18 pm

gives free transport for kids and seniors.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 3:31 pm

This talk about farebox recovery is a sideshow. Nobody but you really cares about it. I, for one, would like to see a zero farebox recovery rate: i.e., free.

As for developers... developers do not fund infrastructure. They use it. Taxpayers fund infrastructure. And developers make money off of it. Thus we're all paying for the developers' profits.

And MUNI is part of that infrastructure which taxpayers should be funding. I have no problem investing in MUNI because MUNI is part of what makes this city liveable. Million dollar condos do not.

That said, I disagree with the SFBG's stand on Sunday meters. I'm perfectly happy paying taxes for MUNI. But parking tickets in this town are out of control. I'm all for anything that gives folks a little relief from tickets.

Posted by Greg on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 8:42 pm

And London's transit system isn't that expensive and is much much better, as well as self-funding.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 5:06 am

Muni is a public utility not a business, just like the PUC is a public utility not a business.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 6:59 am

It provides a service and charges for it.

Many parts of our transportation system is run as a private business e.g. the airlines

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 8:27 am

Airports are subsidized.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:31 am

Many transportation systems are private and profitable

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:35 am

Increase parking rates 5x, reduce the number of overall spots, establish congestion pricing, and any number of other issues that motorists in London have to deal with, making MUNI the obvious choice and increasing ridership. QED

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:30 am

too congested and overloaded much of the time.

In fact, higher fares would reduce the strain on Muni, improving its reliability as well as covering more of its costs.

The other biggie, of course, is to stop over-paying the Muni operators.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:37 am

Demand management as a strategy to improve transit?

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:59 am

Which can indirectly improve transit.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:18 am

Transit demand management means mode shift to cars and more private autos slowing down transit even further. The MTA is actively hallucinating a TDM strategy under the impression that it will result in a shift from transit to bicycles and walking, not autos.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:36 am
Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:53 am

So transit demand management does not speed up transit because it shifts people to single occupancy autos, thanks.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 11:19 am

Had it ever occured to you that the folks in cars might be more economically important than those on buses?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 11:59 am

Worse transit means more cars on the road which means that your economically important masters of the universe will meet the great equalizer of gridlock.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 20, 2014 @ 5:21 am

More laws to coerce better behavior it seems.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:48 am

Liberty? Freedom? Choice? Who cares about that?

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:56 am

QED FTW.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:58 am
Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:18 am

Fix yer bot. Why would I refute someone I'm agreeing with?

"Increase parking rates 5x, reduce the number of overall spots, establish congestion pricing, and any number of other issues that motorists in London have to deal with, making MUNI the obvious choice and increasing ridership. QED"

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:37 am
Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:54 am

Voters reject throwing more money at corruption.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 11:19 am

If you have real evidence of corruption, take it to the DA.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 12:00 pm

The evidence is that voters want good transit but do not trust this mayor and MTA with the money required to build that.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

I have seen evidence that the voters think Muni workers are hugely overpaid. We saw that recently with the sickout where people were disgusted at their free pensions.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 12:22 pm

Most folks I speak with have had enough with an MTA that is picking fights left and right with enough constituencies so as to undercut whatever support for investing in transit might have had to below the line.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 12:36 pm

Because you speak to people like yourself

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 12:46 pm

Yes, like my car driving neighbors who are outraged at the MTA's North Mission parking experiment and SF Park!

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 1:10 pm
Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 1:18 pm
Posted by lillipublicans on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 12:33 pm

The rest is crap, and costs of $10 a trip is outrageous

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 12:47 pm

Rail has the highest cost per passenger mile of all of Muni's modes except for Cable Car.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 1:11 pm
Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

No, really, the MTA Board might not be independent?

I am feeling faint, get my smelling salts.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 10:34 am

election with a landslide. I see no advantage of having them be appointed by politicians who have no city-wide mandate. While direct elections to the board would simply politicize them.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 10:47 am

Because the mayor is not political....

Posted by marcos on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 1:42 pm

election and so has a popular mandate to use his judgment.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 3:14 pm

Ed Lee did not get a majority of the first ballot votes. Hardly a landslide.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:32 am

majority in the first round.

But Lee always was 50% ahead of his nearest rival and win the "runoff" 60-40.

Landslide.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 9:44 am

That was a statement about the poor posture of the progressives five years into the great co-optation than about Lee's appeal.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:00 am

And he was shown to be woefully inadequate.

Progressives always lose the mayor's race because progressivism is a minority viewpoint.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:20 am

Avalos' poor performance was a symptom of a greater structural weakness that was the product of a 5 year project of co-optation.

Posted by marcos on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:35 am

progressive candidates who have failed at that level because, in the end, most SF voters are moderates.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 19, 2014 @ 10:52 am

lead. The mayor is the CEO of the city and everyone else works for him.

I don't see an issue here and am comfortable with the mayor setting policy. That is what we elect him to do.

Posted by Guest on Jun. 18, 2014 @ 11:09 am

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