The Muni Death Spiral

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

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.

Is there a way to fix these problems? Possibly — but it won't be easy, and you'll have to withstand a lot of entrenched, well-funded antagonism. That's because Muni operators — unlike every other union in the city — have unaccountably had their pay rates locked into the City Charter, San Francisco's constitution. They're guaranteed the second-highest wages among comparable transit agencies in the nation, with a current base pay of just over $29 an hour. It also means drivers don't participate in collective bargaining — again, unlike every other union in the city.

Transit-only lanes, which could greatly speed up Muni vehicles, are either nonexistent or unenforced.
Eartha L. Goodwin
Transit-only lanes, which could greatly speed up Muni vehicles, are either nonexistent or unenforced.
Sit tight. Or hope you brought 
a magazine.
Eartha L. Goodwin
Sit tight. Or hope you brought a magazine.

If enshrining just one union's pay rate in the local constitution ever made sense, it sure doesn't now. The Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) was forced to make harsh cutbacks last year, including laying off unionized parking control officers, vehicle washers, and mechanics. Slashing maintenance costs, while politically expedient, has dire consequences. Overhead wire failures, breakdowns in the Metro tunnels, the growing number of vehicles unable to "make pullout" in the morning — these are not unrelated. Meanwhile, all operators took home a $3,000 bonus. This year, drivers will also receive an automatic pay raise costing $8 million, regardless of the agency's finances. That's essentially nonnegotiable — unless voters are willing to amend the City Charter. There's no other way to change this.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd has been pushing just such a charter amendment for the November ballot, which would do away with Muni operators' mandated pay rates and have them negotiate like every other union. Would this result in lower pay for drivers? Perhaps. But that's not really what Elsbernd is after. He wants leverage to get rid of the worst work rules.

With drivers deprived of their charter-determined pay rates, "If we go to collective bargaining, like we do with every other municipal union, we have a level playing field from which to negotiate fairly," Elsbernd says. Should his amendment be voted into law, its most powerful provision is tucked away on page 10: If the city and the Muni drivers go into binding arbitration, the union would have to justify why its existing work rules "outweigh the public's interest in effective, efficient, and reliable transit service and [are] consistent with best practices." With the aforementioned rules, that'd be a stretch, to put it mildly. Charter provisions precluding city employees from striking, meanwhile, remain in effect.

Elsbernd's amendment isn't the draconian, antiunion measure opponents wish to portray it as. It basically aims to alter the charter so drivers have to negotiate, instead of relying on a formula that nonsensically gives them an exalted position and mandates raises regardless of Muni's fiscal reality. For Elsbernd's measure to make the ballot, let alone pass, it requires the support of Muni rider-owners fed up with delays, service cuts, and spiraling costs — and unaffected by a potential flood of mailers and union-beholden politicians tying themselves in knots to explain why we should stick with our untenable status quo.

What suits transit agencies in the long term and politicians in the short term are rarely the same things. As you'd expect, the latter often win out — and not just here. "The goal of more autonomy [for a transit agency] is a noble one," says Martin Wachs, the former head of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley, who is now a transportation expert at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank. "But it's virtually impossible to separate transit politics from the rest of politics." As a result, politicians susceptible to influential or vocal groups' wheedling — or who consider picking what suit to wear at a ceremonial groundbreaking to be a "transit decision" — are often the ones calling the shots.

That goes doubly here in San Francisco — and not just because politics runs in the water like fluoride. Unlike any other major system, Muni is not a stand-alone transit authority like Boston's MBTA or the New York MTA, but a glorified city department. And while San Francisco politicians' heavy-handed interference to advance their pet projects or pander to their constituents is standard operating procedure with city departments, it's a hell of a way to run a railroad.

There's an upside to being a political football. Muni is the beneficiary of some $300 million in annual general fund dollars and parking revenue, subsidizing a system that recoups only a quarter of its costs via fares. Over the past three years, the state has reneged on providing $179 million to Muni; even the $36 million so-called "windfall" it recently gave the agency was only a fraction of the transit funding originally approved by voters, after the state government filched the rest. That means the agency's city funds are more vital than ever. But the city's largesse comes with strings attached. A proposal that would get a transit planner laughed out of the room suddenly becomes brilliant when it comes from a city politician.

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olpe1919 1 Like

Why complain about yet another California waste of money?

All SF will do is raid the federal taxpayers from other states to fund their waste and corruption, like they use federal dollars to support free housing, food, medical care, etc. for the millions of illegal immigrants they support.  

Corruption is so massive it makes Greece look like an economic paradise.

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