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The Muni Death Spiral 

Your transit system is terribly inefficient, extremely slow, and wildly expensive. Here’s how you can fix it.

Wednesday, Apr 14 2010

In 1912, San Francisco founded its municipal railway as the realization of a radical notion: In an era of private for-profit rail lines, the residents of this city were given a publicly funded transit service formed specifically to serve them. Ever since, Muni has been dubbed, unironically, "The People's Railway." Muni exists for you. It was created and continues to run for your benefit and to make your life easier. So, congratulations are in order: You don't just ride Muni. You own it. No, really.

And how does that make you feel? Odds are, not so great.

A poll released last month by David Binder Research revealed that 57 percent of riders believed the transit agency was rolling down the wrong track; only 13 percent felt it was improving.

For San Franciscans, complaining about what Herb Caen used to call "the Muniserable bus" stands somewhere between a pastime and a religion. And Caen didn't have to deal with viral online videos of passengers beating each other, or battalions of tweets tagged "#munifail." But today's gripes emanate from more than just the perception that things have grown worse — they have. In the course of a generation, Muni's service, reliability, and speed have all waned. Not surprisingly, so has ridership.

Riders' joy in excoriating Muni often reveals entitled San Franciscans' lofty expectations of the transit agency, which provides more service than all but a handful of its big-city counterparts. But the city's much-ballyhooed "transit-first" aspirations — and the Municipal Transportation Agency's $761 million budget — demand more than the fallback excuse that we should be grateful for whatever the workhorse agency provides, simply because public transit is generally abysmal elsewhere. Any honest accounting of Muni reveals a number of severe problems crippling its ability to adapt to and overcome daily challenges.

As the owner of a municipal transit agency, you ought to know:

• Your labor force and its union have jealously fought to preserve a number of rules regarding drivers' work conditions that actually reward nonproductivity — and drive Muni's overtime costs into the stratosphere. According to the city controller, over the last six months of 2009, 45 cents of every overtime dollar the city spent went to a Muni worker.

• Recent efforts to insulate Muni from political pressure and ensure transit decisions are made by transit professionals have been abject failures. Now more than ever, the agency is an extension of the mayor's office, which stands by as other city departments siphon millions of dollars from Muni's budget — compounding huge cuts in state funds. Multiple sources confirmed to SF Weekly that not only does Mayor Gavin Newsom's office dictate the agency's budget down to the line item, it also demands Muni fudge its fiscal shortfalls into "politically palatable" deficits.

• Your Muni is slow. With an average vehicle speed of 8.1 mph, it is far and away the slowest major urban transit system in the nation. While some of this can be blamed on San Francisco's congestion and density, there are myriad methods of speeding up service other agencies have adopted that Muni hasn't. This isn't just an inconvenience for Muni's declining ridership; it's a major financial drain on a beleaguered system. Slow vehicle speeds force Muni to spend more money to provide less service. Muni's lethargy is literally costing it millions.

• For these and other reasons, Muni spends more to operate its vehicles than virtually any comparable transit agency. For every mile Muni runs a bus in this city, it spends $19.21; comparable agencies nationwide pay between $10 and $13. For every mile Muni runs a light-rail vehicle, it throws down $24.37; comparable rail services spend between $12 and $22.

Service, performance, and ridership are declining — costs are not. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Most riders' interactions with Muni employees begin and end with the drivers. Many critiques of what's wrong with the agency do the same. That's unfortunate; Muni's fiscal and managerial woes shouldn't be blamed solely on operators, who have some of the toughest jobs in the agency, and deserve fair compensation.

And yet drivers' self-serving contracts and extreme work rules limiting what they can be asked to do create a situation that ensures spiraling labor costs and service gaps management can't control. The result is that you, as a rider-owner, pay with your money — and time.

Attempts to overhaul the byzantine pay structures and labor stipulations have been greeted with charges of union-busting in a labor-friendly town like San Francisco. But even a cursory examination reveals drivers' financial well-being is putting the viability of Muni's service in jeopardy.

Need more part-time drivers to beef up rush-hour service? Can't do it. Work rules place strict limits on the number of part-time drivers — which means more full-time operators end up working overtime. That'd be at a cost of roughly $45 an hour.

Need to hire more Muni Metro train operators? Can't do it. You have to promote current bus drivers and train them; you can't hire experienced operators away from another agency.

Perhaps the most inexcusable work rule — and the one that taxes Muni riders the most — allows multiple "unplanned leaves" for drivers. With no warning, operators can simply not show up for their shifts. And, yes, they still get paid.

Paying someone to not work is bad enough. But that's just the start of it. A bus or train run has to be canceled, because no one can fill it, or an operator has to be pulled in — on overtime, naturally — to keep the system rolling. According to a recent in-house report, operators' rate of "unexplained absenteeism" has reached an all-time high of 15 percent. These de facto service cuts cost Muni millions.

And finally: Good luck firing all but the most spectacularly incompetent employees. In fact, good luck firing all but the most brazenly unfit supervisors, too. Astoundingly, supervisors and drivers are in the same union — a bizarre situation that provides ineffective managers with the same ironclad job protection as bus and train drivers.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" is a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly, which he has written for since 2007. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers... more

About The Author

Greg Dewar


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