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.

At first blush, this hardly seems to jibe with San Francisco values. In this city, departments are forbidden, by municipal ordinance, from even contracting with companies that profited from the antebellum slave trade.

Coach No. 8706 and others squirreled away in Alameda, still prior to the final sign-off on the deal to order them.
Josh Edelson
Coach No. 8706 and others squirreled away in Alameda, still prior to the final sign-off on the deal to order them.
Dozens of Muni buses sit in Alameda on Oct. 31, two days after the supervisors voted to approve their construction, and days prior to the money to pay for them was appropriated.
Josh Edelson
Dozens of Muni buses sit in Alameda on Oct. 31, two days after the supervisors voted to approve their construction, and days prior to the money to pay for them was appropriated.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, however, has repeatedly tapped BAE to craft the systems powering the hybrid buses generating low counts of particulate matter and high counts of self-congratulatory press releases.

It's not that no one is complaining about BAE; the rancor within Muni has been considerable. The gripes weren't ethically based, however, but of a more pedestrian nature. As in: Muni's would-be riders are forced to become pedestrians when the hybrid buses habitually fail.

BAE produces a "series" hybrid system, meaning that, like Christmas lights, if one battery dies it may paralyze the entire mechanism. And batteries die. A lot.

The loss of just one of the nearly four dozen batteries atop the BAE-powered Orion hybrid buses can knock the vehicle out of commission, forcing passengers to off-board and requiring a tow to a maintenance facility. An awkward and cumbersome ritual ensues, with mechanics skittering about on top of the bus, peeling open the "clamshell" containing the batteries, and removing and replacing the defective item.

And, if another battery goes out on the very same bus the very next day, it all happens again.

Especially in the system's early years in San Francisco, the high-maintenance hybrids consumed batteries by the pallet-full. Muni workers described the vast stacks of material coming out of and going into the costly buses as resembling the endless warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Batteries, cooling systems, resolvers, even hulking traction motors blew out. "They were our newest buses and our worst performers," concedes Haley.

Statistics obtained from Muni reinforce the transit director's glum admission. For years, the BAE-powered hybrids failed to crack 4,000 miles between in-service breakdowns — a mark routinely bested by diesel vehicles roughly twice as old and half the cost of the hybrids.

Haley, however, claims a "get-well" program for the "battery packs and components that were failing" has led to happier times of late.

That appears to be so, but it's still hardly a call for revelry. The latest numbers reveal 6-year-old BAE-powered Orion buses breaking down every 4,300 or so miles — an improvement, but still far worse than the aging diesel buses long serving as the backbone of the fleet (and forced into additional service due to the erratic hybrids). Muni's 40-foot diesels — now 11 to 13 years old — fail every 5,229 miles.

Distance between failures only scratches the surface, however. A bus moldering in the shop isn't "failing" — but it also isn't serving transit riders. Internal Muni "bus hold" lists obtained by SF Weekly reveal that, even in recent months, there are mornings in which more than a quarter of the BAE-powered Orions are held out of service.

Lamentations regarding BAE hybrid systems, meanwhile, are hardly limited to San Francisco. Online forums for North American public-transit maintenance workers quickly devolve into virtual support groups, as gearheads bemoan the litany of battery iterations and software modifications foisted upon them as BAE continually undertakes R&D on its system — none of which, the mechanics grouse, has rendered the hybrids competitive with older, cheaper buses. Interviews with Muni personnel over the past several years have revealed identical concerns.

So, by 2012, Muni was ready to kick the tires on a new hybrid power system, manufactured by someone else.

In a novel step, it arranged for a "split order" of 62 buses, pitting two hybrid systems against one other. To any Muni rider, the New Flyer buses would appear identical. But the wine in these bottles would be different: 39 of the coaches were outfitted with the latest BAE hybrid system, while 23 were powered by a hybrid system from Allison, an American company formerly under the aegis of General Motors.

Multiple attendees recount meetings in which Muni managers, controllers, and engineers piously stated the agency's next round of hybrid-purchasing would be based on cold, hard analysis of the respective buses' performance on the streets of San Francisco. Criteria for this competition, obtained by SF Weekly, came out to four solid pages.

And yet, the handshake deal arranged by Muni's upper management circumvented this pledge. The 50 buses crossing the country en route to clandestine depositories and retroactive approval were all BAE-equipped machines.

Meet the new bus. Same as the old bus.


In 2013, New York City's transit agency crafted a succinct epitaph for its nearly two-decade relationship with BAE-powered hybrid buses: You're fired.
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10 comments
Federale
Federale topcommenter

Communists are so stupid.  They keep thinking that government owned and run businesses are better for the people.  They are only better for the capitalists who sell junk to socialist governments. Stupid is as stupid does.

Cynthia McGarvie
Cynthia McGarvie

Sounds like they need a major organizational change initiative.

Manuel Francisco Seminario
Manuel Francisco Seminario

That's muni shady as always , I wouldn't be surpriced if instead of checking for tickets or bus fare on the clipper card that they actually are taking money away , and if you don't you get a huge fine. I wouldn't be surprised

sfreptile
sfreptile

Shouldn't we be buying American where ever possible?  Allison is a respected engine maker.  Was the company set up?  Everything in SF is smoke and mirrors. 

sebraleaves
sebraleaves topcommenter

Too many questions raised on this one:

How many times are city officials going to allow the SFMTA to kick them in the face before kicking back? 

What is the likelihood that nine out of eleven supervisors and their aides missed seeing and reviewing the documents?

How do you review a handshake contract?

Where were the buses being "kept" in Alameda prior to the supervisors signing off on the deal? 

How much did the SFTMA pay to store the buses, and what account did they use for this purpose?

Sierrajeff
Sierrajeff

Sorry, I just couldn't force myself through this faux-hip self-aware prose long enough to be able to comment intelligently on the article.

njudah
njudah topcommenter

The lack of honesty and competence at Muni's upper management is jaw dropping. Haley is a bullshit artist who has a long history of talk and double talk and he need to be fired along with a lot of others. 

ballew
ballew

@njudah  I went through the annoying sfweekly comment registration process to say this:


I've met with Mr Haley multiple times, and I think he is the busiest person at the SFMTA. He gets a lot done, and would be a colossal loss for the agency if he were let go. I'd like to hear what he has to say about the 50 buses that were pre-ordered before calling for the guillotine.


I've known about the drive train issues for some time on the Orions, and the vendor is on the hook for them. I'm not sure what to say about the New Flyer's, they are a pretty good vendor and between us and King's County they'll do the agency right.

 
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