San Francisco Muni faces 'fiscal cliff'

San Francisco's Muni is among the Bay Area's transit agencies facing unprecedented financial challenges.

Every weekday San Francisco's Muni system picks up more than 375,000 riders. San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Executive Director Jeffrey Tumlin says while that sounds like a lot, it's simply not enough.

He says Muni is facing unprecedented financial challenges following the pandemic. Ridership is still less than two-thirds of what it was pre-pandemic, leaving the agency critically short on cash. 

That gap had been covered by the federal government, but that money is expected to run out in the next two years, leaving the agency $214 million in the hole by 2026. 

"All of us transit agencies that serve downtown San Francisco are facing what we call a fiscal cliff, and it's because our revenue goes like this, and then collapses rather suddenly when the last of our federal relief funding runs out," said Tumlin.

Muni is facing the proverbial chicken and egg question. The current funding shortage means Muni is still not operating its full service, and cannot invest in critical system upgrades, but it needs to operate at full service and invest in new technology to draw passengers.

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Tumlin says an example of the outdated technology the agency relies on is the train control system for Market Street Rail Service. 

The operating system to run the trains is still loaded off of five one-fourth floppy disks; 1990s technology. He says it's just a matter of time until that outdated system leads to a Southwest Airlines-style meltdown

"One of the things that keeps me up at night is the increasing likelihood of complete technical failure if we don't invest and upgrade our core systems," said Tumlin.

Tumlin says the agency needs to work on new funding models. 

"So, in the long run, we're going to need to find a new revenue model, so we can make the whole system, work," said Tumlin. "In the meantime, we have limited options."

Meanwhile, passengers say they rely on the service. 

"I would say it's really important for so many people that can't afford Uber or Lyft or own a car," said Jason Cruz. "Especially older folk. I think it's really important to the city."

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"It's definitely important to me to get around the city," said Raquella Reyes. "I'm born and raised third-generation San Franciscan. It's been important to me as it's been to my parents and before them."

Riders say they support reasonable steps to make sure the agency is funded properly and is able to modernize. 

"Oh my God yes," said Reyes. "I would like to see them get modernized I'd like to see them improve."

The agency is still looking for ways to cover the projected shortfall, including asking the state for more money, and is considering everything from extending parking meter hours to going to the voters with a ballot measure to save Muni or even floating a regional transit funding measure.