The Muni Death Spiral

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

Multiple sources within Muni independently confirmed to SF Weekly that the mayor's office dictates the transit agency's budget down to the smallest detail. More disturbingly, Muni insiders intimately involved in the budgeting process claimed the agency's deficits were deemed by the mayor's office to be "too high" for public consumption, and that Muni is cajoled into presenting "smaller numbers" that are "politically palatable."

Calls to Newsom's chief of staff, Steve Kawa, were returned by mayoral spokesman Tony Winnicker, who said Newsom's involvement is a good thing. The mayor has "a great degree of day-to-day interaction" in crafting Muni's budget, he said: "That's appropriate and what the people should want." But Winnicker denied the mayor's office orders Muni to spin its numbers. "In terms of their deficit this year and next year, it's pretty transparent."

But is it? A Muni manager flatly told SF Weekly that the mayor's office "makes the deficit numbers smaller." Another key figure involved in budgeting said, when it comes to presenting deficits, "We're told, 'This is the number we want. Make it happen.' 'Make it happen' is the mayor's favorite phrase."

At an average speed of 8.1 mph, 
Muni is the slowest major urban 
transit agency in North America.
Steven Rhodes
At an average speed of 8.1 mph, Muni is the slowest major urban transit agency in North America.
Supervisor Sean Elsbernd’s 
legislation would remove Muni drivers’ pay rates from the City Charter.
Eartha L. Goodwin
Supervisor Sean Elsbernd’s legislation would remove Muni drivers’ pay rates from the City Charter.

Budget numbers published by Muni last November state the service was running a deficit of $19.5 million, but this relied upon factoring in $25.5 million in budget "solutions" (some, but not all, came to pass). Yet the unpalatable but honest tabulation of a $45 million deficit was nowhere to be found in Muni's report (though it was buried in an April document). Similarly, in Muni's February assessment, the service pegs itself as running a $12.1 million deficit in fiscal 2010. This, however, assumes a number of monetary trick shots, including a dubious $5 million reduction in overtime and a supremely optimistic $11.2 million bonanza from selling taxi medallions. Muni's April 6 assessment similarly relies upon highly uncertain taxi money and overtime reductions. It also leans on $20 million in hypothetical labor concessions in fiscal years 2011 and 2012 and savings of $58 million via service cuts that Newsom already put out a press release congratulating the MTA board for nixing.

Solving Muni's governance problems will take more than a charter amendment. The last two amendments hoping to depoliticize Muni led to the current impasse: The agency is still politicized, but with less accountability to you, the rider-owner.

San Francisco has amply demonstrated that a 100 percent mayorally appointed MTA board is a resounding failure. The board "is not independent at all. ... It hides accountability rather than creates accountability," says transit advocate Tom Radulovich, himself an elected member of the BART board. "The MTA board looks like it's running the agency, but it's not. The person making the decisions, the person who should be responsible for the failure of MTA to meet any of its charter-mandated goals, is not held accountable." Take a guess who he's talking about.

Problematically, other methods of assembling a transit board stink, too. Both BART and AC Transit's boards are publicly elected — and no sober person could describe the work of those bodies as something to aspire to. A geographically based board, such as Los Angeles', leads to "a lot of horse-trading," according to Wachs. While Supervisor David Campos and others have pushed for a "split board" with appointments made by the supes as well as by the mayor, voters squashed just such a motion in 2005. The city's split boards have a checkered record; no reformer could seriously say, "I want the MTA board to more closely resemble the Police Commission."

Yet we are almost forced to desire any flawed system but the current one. Perhaps the most intriguing suggestion comes from Peskin: Three appointments to the MTA board from the mayor, three from the supervisors — and the mayor and board president agree on one last appointment. "How's that for fair's fair?" he says.It's hard to see how that'd be worse than what we have now.

In the world of transit, time really is money. And Muni, drowning in red ink, is the slowest major transit service in North America. Worse yet, it's getting slower — over the past two and a half decades, vehicles' average speed has dropped 12 percent. This does more than drive riders mad — it drains their finances. The slower Muni gets, the more it costs you.

Why is this? The answer is something you'd find on page one of Transit for Dummies, and was reiterated to SF Weekly by transit expert after transit expert. It's even found within Muni's in-house research.

Imagine a bus takes 60 minutes to make a round trip, and buses run on the line every 10 minutes. That means you need to run six buses to provide adequate service. But if the buses slow down to the point where a round trip takes 70 minutes, suddenly you need to add another bus to provide the same level of service. Now you're stuck paying a driver's salary as well as fuel, maintenance costs, and more, just to do what you were doing before.

Of course, this equation works both ways. If you slightly speed up your vehicles — from Muni's 8 mph to, say, 10 mph — then you suddenly have the ability to carry far more people and generate far more money. And you're doing it for the same operational costs, or even less. But that's not the direction Muni is going.

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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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