Rewarding Failure

What's really wrong with Muni? For starters, one third of its employees don't show up to work, causing systemwide delays and costing the agency more that $20 million a year in overtime. First in a two-part special report

In mass transit, beauty is being on-time, and being on-time is beauty. And that is all you need to know to understand why San Franciscans hate the Municipal Railway. Hating Muni has become a chronic condition in San Francisco because Muni is chronically late.

Every few years, something really bad happens, Muni-wise, and the chronic Muni disease becomes a full-blown Muni crisis. This summer it was the Muni Metro meltdown, when subway service under Market Street went to gridlock, and riders forced rail car doors open in midtunnel to flee. And when the riders start rebelling in such dramatic fashion, public officials start concocting fantastic reasons for Muni's ineptitude. Often, these explanations -- right now, they center on old streetcars and new computer software -- contain some truth, but they usually dance around the transit agency's core problems. The solutions that are offered by Muni and its supporters always come down to two: more money and more drivers.

Yet, there is a relatively simple reason why Muni doesn't operate according to its published schedules, and it has relatively little to do with funding: The trains and buses do not run on time in San Francisco because failure to perform is designed into the Muni system.

On a day-to-day basis, Muni's inability to deliver on-time service is largely the result of the great political power wielded by San Francisco's union-dominated transit work force. Because of their effectiveness and ubiquity on the local political front, Muni's unions have been able to negotiate agreements for drivers, mechanics, and other workers that are out-and-out blueprints for bad service.

For example, the union agreement with the Muni drivers union, Transport Workers Union Local 250A, guarantees that Muni will employ the second-highest-paid drivers in the country -- even though the drivers have, according to federal authorities, one of the country's lowest worker productivity ratings. And the Local 250A agreement allows drivers to refuse to drive routes not normally assigned to them -- no matter how necessary management feels a change might be to service.

But the agreement's provisions on attendance are the disease-ridden heart of Muni's systemic failure. Because of those provisions, roughly one-third of Muni's drivers, mechanics, and other workers don't show up on any given weekday. This astonishing number of no-shows causes chaos, late buses and streetcars, and, paradoxically, huge amounts of overtime pay for union workers.

The awful truth, according to a long stream of authoritative government audits, is that Muni drivers and mechanics not only deliver bad service; they profit from it.

The recurring horror of Muni is not the result of a grand conspiracy. It has been caused by decades of politics as usual that have produced completely politicized management that is all but indistinguishable in attitude from the work force it supposedly manages. The incremental nature of the Muni disaster is illustrated by the agency's internal belief system. According to the general Muni wisdom, the agency's problems are the natural order of the universe, immune to anything but glacial change.

Some of Muni's problems are indeed structural, and could well require years to address.

In alignment with its four modes of public transit -- diesel bus, electric trolley bus, light rail streetcar, and cable car -- Muni has divided itself into four separate fiefdoms. Muni administrators do not create regular reports on operations, and Muni has no internal method of assessing the overall performance of its system -- or placing blame when timetables are not met.

Also, during the recession of the early 1990s, Muni chose to economize by laying off middle managers, instead of line workers. The first to go were a few score of transit inspectors. These were the folks who randomly visited bus stops, schedule in hand, clocking the drivers. Without the inspectors, Muni has not been able even to pretend to keep accurate records on, or to hold drivers responsible for, individual performance.

And clearly, by any measure, Muni management has done a terrible job of purchasing and installing long-term capital improvements, most notably those meant to improve the agency's abysmal streetcar service. (Muni's long-term management problems will be addressed in the second segment of this series.)

As he heads into serious re-election campaigning, Mayor Willie Brown is addressing his Muni problem by focusing on its long-term dimensions -- and striking injured poses. While claiming he is being unfairly blamed for intractable, decades-long difficulties, the mayor also loudly complains that San Francisco news organizations are not giving him credit for the improvements he and his Muni general manager, Emilio Cruz, have wrought at the troubled agency.

Brown is correct when he says that Muni has been badly run for many years, and justified in saying some improvements -- such as a dramatic reduction in the backlog of Muni accident complaints awaiting adjudication -- have been made.

But the most important of the mayor's recent statements about Muni appear to be simply incorrect. In a recently televised interview, Brown was asked whether voters would see an improvement in Muni service between now and the November 1999 mayoral election.

"I think," said Brown, "that people are going to have to accept that service has improved, and they ought to acknowledge it and admit it."

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