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Shock and Awe: The Little Hybrid Engine That Couldn't 

Wednesday, Jan 8 2014

Blake Ritterman emerged from a deep sleep and peered out the window of the 1993 Ford Econoline van as it chugged down the road. The drummer for the San Francisco band Posole was greeted with a typical San Francisco scene: a Muni bus driving alongside.

Spotting a Muni bus in this town is a bit like pulling a rabbit out of a rabbit hutch; some 1,000 coaches slowly haul San Franciscans around a city in which one is never more than two blocks from a transit stop. Ritterman, however, spotted this Muni bus cruising across Wyoming, somewhere between Rock Springs and Rawlins. His snapshot of coach No. 8706 gallivanting through The Cowboy State went viral, traversing the Internet with a speed never before attained by a Muni vehicle.

Truly, this was a magic bus.

And yet, as details emerged regarding this and other Muni coaches wending their way toward the Bay Area from the New Flyer factory in Minnesota, it became clear they were magical in a way no one outside Muni's inner sanctum could conceive of.

The musician's photograph hit the Internet in mid-October. But the $38.3 million contract authorizing the creation of the $700,000-a-pop hybrid buses wouldn't be voted on by the Board of Supervisors until two weeks later. These funds wouldn't be released for longer still. And yet, there it was: Coach No. 8706, assembled, bedecked in Muni colors, and even blessed with a vehicle number. A convoy of 50 such Muni buses surreptitiously rumbled our way late last year. (In a development equal parts ominous and humiliating, five conked out en route.)

By the time the board unanimously greenlit their mere existence on Oct. 29, scores of these buses were already squirreled away at a warehouse in Alameda. A majority of the city's supervisors tell SF Weekly they had no clue this was the case. "Well, that's fascinating," says irked Board President David Chiu. "This is information that should have been disclosed to us. Boy, I'd kind of like to see this in writing."

But that would require a conjurer's touch. Muni boss Ed Reiskin and transit director John Haley confirm the acquisition of these 50 buses was predicated on a mere handshake. Bus manufacturer New Flyer, they claim, offered to crank out a platoon of hybrids to Muni's specs, while assuming all the risks if the board saw fit to spurn the pending contract.

Asked to produce the paperwork verifying this, Reiskin and Haley claim none exists.

But that's just the beginning of a particularly strange and harrowing journey. Further deconstructing the inner workings of these buses and the deal that landed them, peculiarities emerge one after the other, like rabbits out of a rabbit hutch.

Even before our era of smartphone-induced catatonia, the very last thing on the minds of most transit patrons was transit.

So, few passengers riding a Muni vehicle likely give much thought to the complex systems enabling their trip. You are, all but certainly, unaware of the fiercely contested competition Muni launched in 2013 to determine which company's hybrid propulsion system would grace the interior of your ride. And, as your hybrid bus struggles to surmount O'Shaughnessy, you would never think of a far-off tank — powered by eerily similar hybrid components manufactured by the very same multinational defense conglomerate — patrolling less hospitable terrain.

San Francisco, counterintuitively, came late to the hybrid transit game. But we've made up for lost time by racing into a spectacular glut of system failures.

Muni obtained its first 86 spiffy hybrid coaches starting in 2007; these were manufactured by the now-defunct company Orion and, like the New Flyer buses spotted meandering through Wyoming, powered with hybrid drives from British munitions titan BAE Systems.

In many ways, a bus is merely the vessel for the hybrid drive, as a bottle is for wine. These components are the most expensive on board and the element that renders a hybrid a hybrid. Bus companies come and go. But, in San Francisco, hybrid drives stay.

Regardless of how poorly they perform.

The city's initial batch of BAE-powered hybrid buses compounded a steep cost with a predilection to break down at rates far exceeding Muni's much older — and cheaper — non-hybrid vehicles. San Franciscans have for years been left soaking in the rain and/or crammed into substitute diesel buses while crippled hybrids are continually towed to the shop. (And kept there).

Other transit agencies — and their beleaguered riders — have been locked in this grating pas-de-deux since the 1990s. Some have had their fill: New York City last year took the extraordinary step of drafting plans to disembowel up to 389 of its failure-prone BAE-powered hybrids and replace the tetchy systems with diesel engines.

Haley, San Francisco's top transit official, describes Muni's first six years of coping with BAE hybrid systems as "an embarrassment." And yet, the hastily consummated handshake deal he helped engineer delivered the city 50 more BAE-equipped hybrids. Per federal regulations, these are Muni's obligation to nurse along for a dozen more years.

But that's a situation for future San Franciscans to cope with. In the here and now, everyone stands to gain: Obliviousness aside, the supervisors can still crow about bestowing shiny new hybrid buses upon the city; Muni gets to crow, too, while plugging its crumbling fleet with those 50 new vehicles; New Flyer sells San Francisco a batch of pricey buses; and BAE can further research and develop a hybrid system with potential applications far more lucrative than merely toting San Franciscans hither and yon.

All parties obviously benefit, save one: San Franciscans. Muni's riders, the agency's raison d'être, are left to file aboard vehicles powered by the same company responsible for years of "embarrassment."

San Francisco is a city with lofty goals regarding clean power. It opts to entrust those goals to entities it'd be challenging to describe as clean.

BAE Systems has amassed billions by arming the free-spending military forces of the world. Like fellow defense giants Boeing and Northrup Grumman, it branched into the municipal transit market, and benefited from the resultant bonanza of federal cash. But the real money remains in supplying nuclear subs, fighter jets, and other weapons of war to the highest bidder.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" is a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly, which he has written for since 2007. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers... more


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