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?"


When a driver pulls into the bus yard with a problem, she'll fill out a defect card and hand it to a mechanic at a central point called "the tower." From there, the "tower man" will manually enter the data from the defect card into Muni's computer system, noting, say, a blown headlight. He'll then inform his immediate supervisor, who assigns a second mechanic to deal with changing the bulb. That mechanic then ambles to the storeroom and requests the part from the shopkeeper.

So, if you're looking to answer the question: "How many Muni employees does it take to change a light bulb?" the answer is five. But the bulb hasn't been changed yet.

This metal piece provides roof access on electric buses. Should the rubber band used to keep it in place fail, a chest-high hook would essentially be protruding from the bus.
Courtesy of Chris Coghlan
This metal piece provides roof access on electric buses. Should the rubber band used to keep it in place fail, a chest-high hook would essentially be protruding from the bus.

Assuming the part is in stock, the shopkeeper will hand it to the mechanic, but not before both logging the transaction on the system and having the mechanic sign an invoice for the part. The mechanic will then drive the bus to the "work area" and actually do the job. After that, he'll walk, perhaps a full city block (bus yards are large), back to his supervisor, inform him the job is done, and complete his "work order" both on the computer and on paper. This process takes about an hour. It requires multiple mechanics, earning mechanics' wages — and possibly overtime — to spend time filling out paperwork, punching data into computers, and driving buses. And that's assuming everything goes by the book: If the shopkeeper and mechanics' lunch breaks sync poorly, the process may take three hours. The actual changing of the bulb takes five minutes.

Light bulbs are among the roughly 21,000 parts Muni tracks in its system — a system that uses no bar-coding. In 1992, the year President George H.W. Bush was derided as out-of-touch for his apparent wonder when confronted with a bar-coding machine, Alameda-Contra Costa Transit implemented such a system for its spare parts department. For Muni, like President Bush, bar-coding remains a thing of wonder.

AC Transit spokesman Clarence Johnson gushes that bar-coding allows real-time tracking of parts and inventory. It eliminates the tens of thousands of daily keystrokes required on older systems and virtually does away with paperwork. Mechanics can know exactly what part went into what vehicle, and when. And AC Transit can order new parts automatically — the transit agency uses the same parts codes that worldwide suppliers do, and their computers can easily communicate.

Muni can do none of these things. Forests of paperwork and untold amounts of manual data entry are the hallmark of its system. Every part is assigned a nine-digit code that is unique to Muni and must be manually punched into the system ad nauseam. What's more, these codes change over time, leading to errors. "It went from one type of inventory system to another," says Armando Guzman, a 31-year Muni electrical mechanic who retired in 2011. "You ask for a pressure relief valve and they give you a headlight." Cheney, a frequent whistle-blower, has been advocating for bar-code automation for decades. An audit by the Board of Supervisors Budget and Legislative Analyst was incredulous that such a system wasn't in place, and that was in 1996. "If bar-coding and tracking of parts was ineffective, if it wasn't the smartest way to do business, why does every business in the country do it?" asks Cheney, a diesel mechanic. "They can do it at 7-11 when you buy a pack of gum. But not Muni."

This has consequences, even beyond the eons of wasted hours for which Muni pays its employees to bang on keyboards or fill out forms when they could be fixing things. Multiple veteran maintenance workers — who, like many current Muni employees, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution — recalled an instance when light-rail vehicles began mysteriously failing. After weeks of lost service, costly experimentation, and mechanics futilely pulling apart and reassembling trains, the culprit was traced back to the storeroom. Without bar-coding to differentiate them, minuscule components intended for electric bus motors or train motors had been inadvertently dumped into the same parts bin.

In short, Muni's parts system is to efficiency and automation what the Sahara is to water parks. Haley notes this is a special burden for an agency like San Francisco's, which must scour the globe to unearth pieces for aging and exotic vehicles. In addition to eBay, components for the historic trolleys have been purchased from museums. Parts for the electric buses — like Coach 5427 — must be ordered from Eastern Europe. Yet unforeseen events on the other side of the world also can derail Muni. The Japanese tsunami left scores of electric buses high and dry because it disrupted the Asian supply chain.


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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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