Illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen.
In early 2011, Dorian Maxwell decided he'd rather not set foot on a Muni bus. That's a decision thousands of fellow San Franciscans make every day — but in Maxwell's case, it loomed larger. He was a bus driver. And he couldn't help but observe that atop Coach No. 5427, the electric bus he was assigned, a 600-volt conducting wire was wrapped tightly with a jury-rigged application of what appeared to be black plastic garbage bags.
The Glad Bag bus did not go unnoticed by other drivers. "Plastic bags on the wires?" says one veteran operator with a laugh. "Oh, I've seen that one." Added another, "They were just the kind of bags you'd get at Safeway." Maxwell claims he refused to operate Coach 5427 several times, cementing a reputation as a "troublemaker." He has since been fired as a Muni driver, but the plastic atop the bus has outlasted him. "Those bags have been on that bus for about a year and a half," he says. "They are still on there now. I guarantee you that."
On June 11, Coach 5427 cruised through the heart of the city. An 8-foot section of its rooftop high-voltage wire was swathed in crumbling black plastic bags held in place with zipties, and the loose bits noisily flapped in the wind like kite tails. It was a scene one would expect in a locale where transit passengers cling to the vehicle's colorfully painted exterior or tote livestock on board. But no goats or outdoor riders were on the 6-Parnassus that day. The bus was stocked with the typical 9 a.m. weekday crowd, putting its faith in a transit agency with an annual budget exceeding $800 million, and a bus in which 600 volts coursed through a wire wrapped in fraying household plastic just a few feet overhead.
If ever an example were required of the wisdom of keeping humans and high voltage apart on Muni, consider the June 4 Market Street accident, in which a bus dislodged several power lines, hospitalized three people, and tied up downtown traffic for hours. Household plastic, meanwhile, is hardly the ideal material to wrap a wire through which enough electricity is flowing to power a 41,000-pound bus.
That drivers and passengers could be subjected to such a situation, for well over a year, is a stark indicator of a transit system that has long made ends meet — and boosted its performance measures — by neglecting maintenance.
Muni's proposed operating budget for fiscal years 2013 and '14 is subtitled "An Investment in Maintenance." Yet John Haley, the agency's director of transit, earnestly admits this is necessary because of a longstanding "underinvestment in maintenance." Haley candidly notes that Muni out-and-out skipped the midlife overhauls for its bus fleet in order to save money in the short term. Those overhauls "should have occurred five or six years ago," admits Haley, who has worked for Muni since 2010. "It would have made a huge difference." Some of Muni's buses, he says, have grown so old and decrepit, it's hardly worth maintaining them at all. "It's good money after bad. There's nothing more to invest in them." If Muni doesn't junk these vehicles, "the only aftermarket I can think of," Haley says, "is Russia."
Peel back the trash bags and you'll discover a number of unsettling facts about the state of Muni's vehicle and infrastructure maintenance:
• When money grows scarce toward the end of the fiscal year, Muni routinely clamps down on ordering replacement parts;
• Vehicles placed "on hold" with problems of varying degrees have been "cannibalized" by Muni mechanics to the point that they are totally junked;
• In the past, problematic Muni vehicles were routinely pulled out of service by the agency's quality assurance (QA) inspectors. That department's supervisor, however, confirms QA ceased inspecting electric buses in early 2011 and rail vehicles in 2010;
• Muni has had such difficulty obtaining parts for its older vehicles, it actually resorted to purchasing them on eBay.
Six years ago, an outside consultant informed Muni its maintenance staffing was "inadequate." The tally of maintenance employees has since plummeted. A hiring freeze meant to reap short-term cost-savings spurred the vacancy rate among maintenance personnel to leap from 5.6 percent at the onset of the Great Recession to 23.5 percent in the agency's most recent quality review. This led to a predictable explosion in overtime costs in the maintenance department. A recent Muni memorandum reveals that an effort to cut down on that overtime (yet another short-term cost-saving move) has led to increased vehicle breakdowns — leaving riders to curse their fates, or perhaps abandon the system.
Vehicles were already breaking down plenty. According to Muni's own statistics, light-rail vehicles (LRVs) failed every 4,669 miles in fiscal year 2008. In fiscal 2011, they broke down every 2,258 miles. It's no mystery why so many diesel buses are spotted driving rail routes. Historic trolleys are breaking down twice as often as they did several years ago. Cable cars are conking out nearly four times as much.
Muni, in fact, employs proportionately fewer mechanics than many other large transit agencies. It does so even though it operates the oldest fleet in America, and runs its packed vehicles through a hilly obstacle course laden with far more stops than any other locale. In attempting to meet riders' heavy demands in our "transit-first city," Muni higher-ups place the same emphasis on "making pullout" — getting all available vehicles into service — that Vince Lombardi did on winning. Sometimes, however, it seems Muni is more concerned with satisfying its internal metrics than its customers: Vehicles are counted as having made pullout even if they die around the corner from the garage. Preventive maintenance has given way to fixing vehicles post-failure — and, statistically, Muni buses and trains fail significantly more than those at other agencies.
Vehicles are rolling through the city with wires wrapped in plastic, bumpers secured with duct tape, and components held in place with rubber bands. These are the "fixes" Muni feels little compunction about putting in places the public can see. Glancing at photos of jury-rigged repairs, longtime Muni mechanic Michael Cheney laughs. "If you went to a restaurant and the windows were dirty, and the tables were dirty, and the utensils were dirty," he asks, "what do you think the kitchen looks like?"