Bill Lieberman, new planning director for the Municipal Transportation Agency, wades into the swamp of San Francisco transit politics

On a drizzly Thursday afternoon in April a pair of construction workers in orange Mitchell Engineering vests mucked around with shovels on the east shore of Mission Creek, an industrial slough cut into the century-old bay fill that undergirds San Francisco's postindustrial south side. Another worker guided a framework of steel and composite beams onto pontoons on the creek's surface. Yet another barked into a walkie-talkie. A fifth hosed off some concrete forms. In all, about a dozen workers putzed about on and near the ancient Fourth Street drawbridge, which, once retrofitted, will carry light-rail cars along a $1.4 billion route connecting the outlying Hunters Point neighborhood with, eventually, Chinatown. Busy though they appeared, the workers' main task that day was to bide time while attorneys for their employer and the city-of-San Francisco lawyers argued over cost overruns resulting from a new discovery: Retaining walls under and beside the bridge were in far worse condition than anyone had anticipated. Any settlement to the problem was sure to add significant expense to the project. Without a settlement, projectwide delays could cost more money yet.

As dollars were being sucked by the million into the retrofitted rail bridge, money for transit was being slashed elsewhere.

The previous afternoon Michael Burns, chief of the city's Municipal Transportation Agency, discussed a new round of cuts to train and bus service citywide, due in part to a year spent relying on overtime pay to keep a full staff. "Overtime hurt us for the rest of the fiscal year. And we're hoping to fix that with service cuts," Burns said at a presentation last week. "They're not deep cuts. But any cuts beyond this, and we're really going to hurt service."

How could our transit system spend a billion and a half dollars -- and perhaps much more on possible cost overruns such as are shaping up at Mission Creek -- to extend itself to a commuter's version of nowhere, while failing to pay for maintaining basic service everywhere?

The answer is as simple it is confounding. San Francisco's transit system is an expensive and inefficient lattice of boondoggles, sinecures, political deals, and delays because, for the most part, the area's residents, politicos, and power brokers prefer it that way. Though it's a nightmare for most commuters, our transport system works quite well for those in a position to gain from paying close attention to it.

There exists a minuscule glimmer of hope that things might change for the better. Last month San Francisco hired a new, idealistic yet hard-nosed czar of transit planning who could theoretically help transform the system to everybody'sbenefit. I propose we give him an extended honeymoon of political support as he takes on the forces that currently make riding Muni a chump's errand.

Bill Lieberman, the newly recruited director of planning for San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency, has a gilded résumé and broad new authority over employees who manage and maintain streets, traffic, parking, buses, and trains. If a talk he gave last week before a group of urban policy wonks is any indication, he has exactly the sort of expertise, ideas, and enthusiasm necessary for such a task. But unless he's blessed by a miracle -- such as support from the hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans who have a hard time getting around the city, yet so far have paid little attention to why this is so -- he'll fail.

Without such miraculous intervention, the system of inertia that keeps transit so sluggish in San Francisco -- the union officials, Democratic Party hacks, neighborhood activists, bureaucrats, developers, and elected officials who benefit from our system remaining expensive and slow -- will eat Lieberman alive.

I can vouch for Muni's dysfunction. Last month I fell ill and used Muni, rather than my bicycle, to travel to work and other appointments. Thanks to long waits and slow travel once the bus came, the switch to Muni meant adding an extra 40 minutes each way to work, an hour each way to an appointment in Noe Valley. At this rate, I calculated, riding Muni would rob me of two full days per month, or in the course of a normal life span, five entire years, from my time on Earth. There are convicted kidnappers and rapists who've suffered less severe punishment.

Why are San Franciscans so condemned, and why are commuters about to be sentenced to even more hard time in the coming round of Muni cuts? Because a relatively small group of people benefits greatly from the system that produces slow Muni service, and those people agitate mightily to keep it that way.

Excessive overtime payments -- to be covered by riders who wait longer for the pauperized bus system during the rest of this year -- are typically triggered by union contracts that make it easy for Muni employees to miss work unpunished and hard for Muni management to put a full staff in the field without paying overtime. The union that negotiates those worker-friendly agreements provides electioneering troops during races for public office. Few bus riders who are late for work because their bus didn't and didn't and didn't come connect their plight to officeholders who are backed by the bus workers' union. So there's little incentive for those officeholders to change the politically beneficial dysfunction at Muni.

The 38 Geary -- our main bus route transporting people from the Richmond District suburbs to downtown -- spends much of its time lurching from stop to stop on every block through the Tenderloin District. The ride is so slow and uncomfortable that many people drive instead, clogging the streets and making the buses slower still.

Not long ago, Muni planners tried to quicken this trip by removing a few stops, so buses would stop every other block, instead of once or twice a block. Riders with bus stops in front of their apartment buildings launched a protest movement, and the Board of Supervisors voted to disallow the removal of stops, thus burnishing the supes' profile as champions of social justice. There was no harm done, politically speaking, and the 38 Geary remains an underused extended sentence in transit jail.

One reason it costs so much to move people swiftly in San Francisco is the expensive spread of transit resources to serve sparsely populated areas in the city's western and southern fringes. Last year, city planners put forth a proposal -- dubbed "the housing element" of the city's General Plan -- that would have allowed property owners to build more and higher apartment buildings along major bus and trolley routes. This plan was intended, in part, to allow Muni to move more people, more swiftly, for far less money than is now possible, by putting more people where transit lines already exist. But to gain the political support of suburban homeowner groups, which feared new apartment buildings would make it harder to find parking spaces, mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom promised in 1999 to kill the plan. Once elected, he did. And there was no harm done, politically speaking, and public transit will continue to be inefficient and expensive far into the future.

If Congress continues to appropriate money for its construction, the Third Street Light Rail, the $1.4 billion trolley that will someday cross the Fourth Street bridge, will continue into its second phase, a so-called Central Subway connecting the bridge to Chinatown. This platinum extension is seen by people who pay attention to transit in the Bay Area as a colossal waste of money. Chinatown is not a particularly popular commuter destination. The route is already served by extensive bus service. The subway would require boring deep underground at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Hunters Point, meanwhile, could have been served just as efficiently, at far less cost, by a system called bus rapid transit, in which buses ride in exclusive lanes cordoned off from other traffic and riders use raised and gated platforms, à la the city's light-rail stops. Bus rapid transit would provide more speed and greater capacity than light rail -- at a fraction of rail's cost.

Had the Third Street-Central Subway lines not been pursued and the money for them been spent elsewhere, the time San Franciscans suffer in Muni incarceration could have been cut by eons. The same funds dedicated to rapid bus lines along the Geary, Van Ness, and Mission corridors would move vastly more people per dollar spent. Trips that now take 45 minutes might take half as long, perhaps even approaching bicycle speed.

But a Chinatown subway line was offered as part of a decade-old political deal involving Willie Brown and neighborhood leaders whose backing was critical to the mayor's electoral success. Brown enjoyed substantial pull with federal officials in a position to fund such a project. So politically speaking, the Central Subway's a winner, too, and efficient, cost-effective bus service won't be funded, so a subway boondoggle can.

Well-planned transit -- which includes measures that emphasize pedestrian, bicycle, and bus (rather than automobile) access -- generally pencils out as more cost effective than the dramatic, politics-driven engineering projects that Bay Area mass transportation is known for. The cost gulf widens further once shovels start piercing the earth. Invasive projects such as subways and rail lines turn up unexpected challenges and expenses, especially in a fragile old city like ours. Take the example of the Fourth Street bridge, a seemingly simple feat in which an old drawbridge would be strengthened so it could accommodate a new commuter rail line.

Once into the project, however, workers discovered that the rotting concrete of the Mission Creek retaining walls near the bridge lacked the strength to build a satisfactory rail platform. Returning to the drawing board will entail significant additional cost, Michael Burns said last week. Thankfully, the city has just recruited a transit planning czar who seems committed to reasserting an emphasis on simple, relatively inexpensive planning as the best way to make our trains and buses run on time.

If the smallish audience at the offices of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, an urban-affairs lobbying group, were kids in black T-shirts and new MTA planning director Bill Lieberman were a rock singer, the crowd would have been swaying with burning cigarette lighters aloft.

For nearly two decades Lieberman served as San Diego's transit planning director, and before that he helped launch Portland's acclaimed light-rail system. Last week, he talked about his post-college days working in Amsterdam.

"I saw what bicycles can accomplish in terms of moving people in an urban area, and what it requires to facilitate them," he said, as smiles, approving murmurs, and nods of agreement spread through the audience.

He acknowledged what a mess our system now is.

"In San Francisco it takes a long time to get around by transit. It's just plain slow. It takes forever to get anywhere," he said to more nods.

He uttered the urban planner's koan regarding walking.

"If you design around pedestrians, everything else kind of takes care of itself," he said.

And he hinted at ambitious plans for bus rapid transit.

"With bus rapid transit, we have to make it a spectacular thing. It shouldn't be just a better thing. It should be such a fantastic thing that it should attract people who don't use transit now," he said. "Frankly, I wouldn't mind charging more for it. We tend to look at one-size-fits-all. But I think we need to start looking at premium fares for premium service."

Lieberman said his job wouldn't be easy.

"I think my biggest challenge is with dealing with elevated expectations, with people saying, 'We have a new transportation planning czar who's going to fix everything,'" he said.

Actually, Lieberman's challenge is exactly the opposite. This is a city where certain elements of the political culture pillory those who would try to make the city work more efficiently.

For the rest of us, he may be the best hope we'll have at a get-out-of-jail card, and we should root for him accordingly.

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