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Jeffrey Tumlin

Bay Area Transportation Working Group ...

A Letter to SFMTA’s Jeffrey Tumlin

Changing financial challenges require new approaches


• • • • • • • • • • October 4, 2023 • • • • • • • • • •

As you know, the financial fortunes of San Francisco, and therefore also of the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency (MTA), have changed. From recent MTA reports it is clear that your organization has been struggling to find ways of coping with the new conditions under which you will be required to operate. However, it is unlikely that the financial crisis you face today will be resolved in the manner that fiscal difficulties have been resolved in the past. In the presentation to the 2023 MTA Board Workshop, it is shown that 65% of the MTA’s 2023 revenue is expected to come from the CCSF General Fund, and State and federal subventions. This is not reassuring. Given that the huge drops in downtown property values will soon result in corresponding drops in CCSF property and sales tax revenues, it is unlikely that the past level of General Fund subsidy to the MTA will continue. Moreover, given conditions in Sacramento and Washington DC, the hoped-for State and federal subventions are by no means assured.”

quote marks

On the capital side, things are even worse ... the MTA’s capital deficit is projected to grow at an average rate of $1.1 billion a year to create a total gap of $20 billion by FY2040.”

Five year forecast

On the capital side, things are even worse. As shown in the MTA chart below, the MTA’s capital deficit is projected to grow at an average rate of $1.1 billion a year to create a total gap of $20 billion by FY2040.

Capital Gap Graph

This forecast shows MTA’s annual operating deficit as increasing to $130 million by FY25, further increasing to an average deficit of $250 million a year during the following three years.

Getting ahead of these problems represents a challenge. One of the reasons that Senator Wiener’s proposed $1.50 bridge toll increase was dropped was because a number of Bay Area legislators felt the large Bay Area transit agencies weren’t doing enough to streamline and otherwise clean up their own respective operations.

Here are some cost-cutting opportunities that could help reduce the looming funding gaps:

•    An agency-wide effort should be made to find new ways of cutting costs. There should be no hesitancy to reduce service commensurate with the reduced ridership. Unneeded buses and Light Rail Vehicles should be placed in separate storage areas and no longer be kept ready for daily service. Unneeded or cost-ineffective capital projects should be shut down. There should be a new emphasis on ensuring that every MTC activity is proceeding efficiently and in accordance with the overall objectives of the organization.


It appears that at least some of the ongoing projects are proceeding more or less on auto-pilot, regardless of changed circumstances. When finances get tight, capital improvement work is often deferred. Only high-value projects of proven cost-effectiveness should proceed.”

•   The MTA gives every appearance of being overly complex, such as in how Muni’s vehicles are maintained and overstaffed, and such as in planning and administration. This issue needs to be addressed. A concerted action should be made to minimize overtime and to identify and remove functions that are superfluous or duplicative. It is again recommended that to help determine problem areas and underscore the need for certain changes a financial/management auditing team comprised of independent and highly qualified outside experts be brought in to assist in the effort.

•    It is recommended that, except for continuing to create bus-only lanes when possible, the expensive sidewalk and street work be halted. It appears that at least some of the ongoing projects are proceeding more or less on auto-pilot, regardless of changed circumstances. When finances get tight, capital improvement work is often deferred. Only high-value projects of proven cost-effectiveness should proceed.

•    The continued creation of bicycle lanes should be looked at with a jaundiced eye. Despite all the expensive changes being implemented in the name of improving safety, the traffic deaths in San Francisco in 2022 were 26% higher than they were in 2014 at the start of the Vision Zero program. It is time to take a closer look at what works and what doesn’t. It could even be that the quickest and surest way of making it safer for pedestrians, bicyclists, scooter riders, motorcyclists and auto users alike would be to call the scofflaws, be they drivers, riders or pedestrians, strictly to account.   

•    As shown in the MTA graph below the trend of the farebox revenue collected per ride is down. Part of this results from fare evasion. Fare evasion and bad behavior on transit vehicles both deny Muni needed funding and drive paying customers away.  Getting rampant fare evasion under control will require both monitored cameras and a healthy police presence.

Per ride revenue graph

•   A large percentage of the previously expected Central Subway riders apparently prefer to stick with their 30 and 45 trolley bus lines, which in part accounts for the Central Subway’s minimal ridership. For this reason, and to save costs, the Central Subway should be shut down, at least until the operating costs of the rest of the Muni system are covered and assured. In 2012 the MTA estimated that putting the Central Subway into operation would add at least $15.1 million a year to the Muni budget by 2035. Today it is estimated that shutting down the subway would save between $17 million and $25 million a year.

•    Muni’s comprehensiveness has great value and should not be compromised. However, service should, in our view, be reduced commensurate with reduced rider demand. To compensate, a redoubled effort should be made to improve schedule adherence. If riders can count on their buses and trains to arrive on time, the reduced service becomes less of a problem.

•    There are way too many automobiles clogging the streets of San Francisco. As a result, Muni buses continue to be slowed down and thrown off schedule by traffic congestion. This both reduces the appeal of bus riding and increases Muni operating costs. The MTA should engage intensively with CTA, DPW, SF Police Department, SamTrans, Caltrain, Caltrans, The Bay Council and other stakeholders in a concerted effort to move Muni buses along the streets of San Francisco more reliably and expeditiously. Except for the occasional red lane, it does not appear that much effort is being made to ease the congestion that is interfering with Muni operations.

Gerald Cauthen
Gerald Cauthen

The “Bay Area Transportation Working Group” is an all-volunteer organization comprised mostly of transportation professionals. The group is dedicated to improving the non-automotive travel modes in the Greater Bay Area in order to better serve the needs of Bay Area travelers and ease regional traffic congestion.

Gerald Cauthen PE, Former Manager of the Muni Transit Improvement Program (also Co-Founder and President of the Bay Area Transportation Working Group) 
Bay Area Transportation Working Group (BATWG)

October 2023

Have Your Say

Gerald Cauthen
Gerald Cauthen

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