The Muni Death Spiral

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

Take the Culture Bus, a gaudily decorated yellow embarrassment that rolled about town in 2008 and '09. The buses, which purported to ferry tourists among the city's cultural institutions for a hefty $7 fare (later $10), were the brainchild of Newsom. They were clean. They were fast. They were virtually empty.

Without even consulting the MTA board, Muni CEO Nat Ford catered to Newsom's whims by yanking six buses out of regular service, to be piloted by Muni's best drivers, selected for their skill and courtesy. The bus line was awarded a $1.6 million budget — which was also yanked out of Muni's regular funds, at the expense of core transit service. In the first five months of its existence, the Culture Bus cost Muni 10 times as much as the fare revenues it brought in; along with the line's jarringly low ridership, this did not escape notice. Muni claims the Culture Bus was a victim of the down economy. Perhaps — but what it really demonstrated is that Muni itself is a victim of political vanity projects no transit agency should be encumbered with.

Perhaps the most striking example of Muni being leaned on to make an indefensible transit decision — other than the politically charged boondoggle-to-be that is the Central Subway project — comes via San Francisco's most heartfelt symbols. To borrow Tony Bennett's line, it's those little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars. Unfortunately, the cost of running them climbs even further — and Muni is stuck paying the toll.

Everyone loves cable cars. But only Muni pays for them.
Eartha L. Goodwin
Everyone loves cable cars. But only Muni pays for them.
National Transit Database - Federal Transit Administration ( All figures are for 2008

Even with their exorbitant, $5 one-way fares, cable cars are a financial runaway train. According to the 2008 statistics Muni reported to the National Transit Database, cable cars brought in $24.2 million in fares — but required $51.3 million in operating expenses. The century-old cars and cables break down frequently. And when they are running, on a mile-per-mile basis, they have long accounted for more accidents and injuries than any other form of mass transit in the nation.

San Franciscans will not tolerate any talk about dismantling the cable cars. Yet making Muni — and only Muni — foot the bill for a rolling city monument makes about as much sense as asking Paris' mass-transit agency to start subsidizing the upkeep of the Eiffel Tower. San Francisco's cable cars may well be a financial benefit to various city players, but the one agency they certainly aren't benefiting is the one stuck paying for them. From a transit perspective, it's bizarre for Muni to bleed core funds to underwrite what is essentially a pleasure trip for tourists.

Simply put, this is not sound policy. Twice in the last decade, San Francisco voters have approved measures purporting to take the politics out of Muni and let transit professionals make transit decisions: Proposition E passed in 1999, and Proposition A was successful three years ago. Yet things may now be worse than ever.

Take Prop. A: Voters approved redirecting $27 million in parking meter revenue from other city departments to establish "dedicated funding" for a more independent Muni. But that's not what happened. Rather than abide by the will of the voters and take their lumps, city departments — police, ambulance drivers, and others — began jacking up the rates they charged Muni for services via "work orders" that quickly ate up that $27 million and then some. This was no coincidence. With the consent of Newsom and the MTA board, work orders have skyrocketed from $36 million in 2006 to $64 million today. Even if Elsbernd's charter amendment saves Muni millions, there's no guarantee the money won't be gobbled up by other departments.

In addition to work orders, Muni is now required to earmark $5 million for San Francisco General Hospital in its claims budget for Muni-related accidents (by this logic, Muni could just as easily charge other city departments for the services it's funded to provide anyway). Additionally, General Hospital has presented Muni with a bill for $1.8 million for a single 2007 accident on Geary Boulevard. The agency is mulling whether to pay.

On paper at least, the mayorally appointed MTA board runs the agency, with Ford reporting to the board. But then, Muni timetables are printed on paper, too. That the board would acquiesce to being pillaged by other city departments points to the inescapable flaw in attempts to render the system "independent." Muni has been largely freed from the oversight of transit matters by the Board of Supervisors — and that's a good thing. But it is, more than ever, run to service the caprices of Newsom. "The mayor completely controls Muni," said Dave Snyder, a transit expert attempting to kickstart a Muni riders' union. "The whole goal of Prop. A, to get politics out of decisions so transit professionals could make them efficiently — it hasn't worked."

The mayor appoints all seven board members — and contrarian voices such as Leah Shahum, Peter Mezey, and Mike Kasolas found themselves to be ex-members. "The mayor is very schizophrenic about the way he claims that he has nothing to do with how Muni runs," said former Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin, the driving force behind Prop. A. "He generally says he has nothing to do with Muni, except when it's abundantly clear he's micromanaging the living daylights out of it."

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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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