Muni: Our Transit Agency Has Neglected Maintenance for Years

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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."

The plastic has been atop Coach No. 5427 since early 2011; below, a properly maintained bus.
Joe Eskenazi (top), Christopher MacKechnie / publictransport.about.com (bottom).
The plastic has been atop Coach No. 5427 since early 2011; below, a properly maintained bus.
Internal Muni documents reveal that when drivers complain about bumpy rides from lumpy or bald tires like this, the tires are placed on the rear axles, where drivers cannot feel them.
Courtesy of Dorian Maxwell
Internal Muni documents reveal that when drivers complain about bumpy rides from lumpy or bald tires like this, the tires are placed on the rear axles, where drivers cannot feel them.

He's right.

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.

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18 comments
jjlasne
jjlasne

If less money was wasted on excessive labor costs (remember that MUNI raises are inscribed in the city charter) and more on rolling stock and maintenance, MUNI would be a world-class transit operation. But it ain' t. It is a shame.

Notta
Notta

It's all a question of honor & integrity, from the top to the bottom. The integrity of the government, federal, state, local, & the vast majority of their departments & agencies, is seriously deficient, graft, bribery & corruption are everywhere. There is no real pride in a job well done, only in how big a pile of cash one manages to accumulate, in what ever way they can. It's pretty sickening that despite the efforts of many honest & honorable folks, the bad apples spoil things for everyone!

jerdking12346
jerdking12346

when you add in that muni moves 700,000 passengers a day ,  thats one huge job they accomplish everyday.

angrytaxguy
angrytaxguy

For John Haley, the #2 puppet aka (Director of transit -since Debra Johnson left for L.A.) to actually admit that the M.T.A. / (CITY) has underfunded transit is admission of guilt(impunity) - service ineffeciencies, dangerous equipment "allowed" to operate in service, violations of title 13, impossible on-time service, endangerment of the riding public & certainly the safety of the operator !!!!  Before anyone can blame the mechanics or the driver focus on those who are responsible for fully funding

transit which undermines....

Nick Aster
Nick Aster

Is it ironic if I actually applaud the creativity it takes to rig a bus to run with garbage bags? Frankly I think it's great as long as no one was ever in danger. The lesson here is - how efficiently is Muni using it's huge budget? I don't think "more money" is necessarily the answer...

A Reader
A Reader

This is no longer a transportation issue. This is a city governance issue. Where have the last few mayors been on this? Who in government is demanding performance from MUNI? We should shut the whole agency down, fire everyone, and hire Google's shuttle service team to just start again from scratch.

Sebraleaves
Sebraleaves

One of the best opening intros for a non-fiction story. A great piece of investigative journalism. Thanks for digging it up. Now the Muni is open game for media bashing. I have a question for the Mayor. Which is more important, a safe Muni today, or an expanded Muni tomorrow? And who should make that decision? The Muni riders or the city officials?

Edrobbedmuni
Edrobbedmuni

Spit and bailing wire and bubble gum use to run muni, Tom Nolan the chairman of the MTA who's Newsom appointee need to resign. Its time to clean house at the MTA. The riding public needs to address Mayor Ed Lee and demand answers. Repeal Prop E, Recall Ed Lee and Repeal Prop G.They didn't fix Muni. Death to the Central Subway. Collect the Transit Impact Delevlopment Fee from the Mission Bay Business. The Public's life is in danger while riding Muni. Boycott Muni on July 16,2012. Fire all the Managment staff. Free Muni for all!! if i riding a death trap why should i pay for my own murder.

Newsomfuckedmuni
Newsomfuckedmuni

Remember Prop E? It was supposed to fix Muni. Has it? All we have to show for it is less service, higher fares, and an MTA staffed by political appointees that we can't vote for or against. REPEAL PROP E NOW!!!

Tomlucas277
Tomlucas277

Willie Brown's Puppet now Lt. Gov. Newsom robbed Muni Now he's Fukin California. Jail Ed Lee and the Willie Brown's political machine NOW!!! Jail Nate Ford for committing a sexual act against the Muni riders. He Fucked them royally exiting muni with a 380,000 blow job. HELL TO THE THIEF. Service cuts and fare increases and now the MTA is Robbing the preachers collection plate.With parking meters in front of churches. Whats next this Money taking aminal is going to charge you for every breath you take. Repeal PROP E NOW!!!!

Ehmn2001
Ehmn2001

You're seriously bringing up Japan Rail as an example of good privatization?!? Ha! They're so up in their eye-balls in debt, they've been bailed out numerous times by the Japanese government. Based on that alone, is why you'll never see too much privatization of public transit. Public Transit systems based off this article alone show that they're never profitable and very risky.

Peter Jones
Peter Jones

As bad as you paint things at MUNI, it's even worse in the private sector. For years, due to Mitt Romney style 'Parasite Capitalism' (as SF Weekly pointed out in a previous article), maintence was routinely 'deferred'. But since 2008 maintenence of infratsructure in the private sector has been pretty much deleted from the budget. I can provide 1st hand accounts that will raise hair and pop eyes. Not the least the year I spent in the building materials department of a big box retail establsihment on Bayshore Boulevard here in The City.

Union_Yes
Union_Yes

An independent agency should AUDIT the Muni Staff's productivity. If the mechanics on hand did their job, instead of planning their next lunch break, or deferring work, MUNI would improve 5 fold.

angrytaxguy
angrytaxguy

its always been political-the difference is political compassion...local 250a negotiated a no strike clause in favor of labor peace but now you have illegal prop g orchestrated by evil Elsbernd aka no political compassion

angrytaxguy
angrytaxguy

Amen-except the Willie part-at least City Jobs were provided back in 1998

 
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