Steve Foti is a great big teddy bear of a man who resembles a retired football defensive end. But he's a retired bean-counter with the office of Harvey Rose, the Board of Supervisors budget analyst. On most days, Foti would find himself parked across from a pile of forms and files. But now it was 3 a.m., and he was parked across from the Muni yard on a chilly morning in 1996. He grins at the memory and explains his accounting adventure.
"It was like clockwork," he recalls. "We'd heard rumors about this — they started coming in and turning the bus headlights on. And we were blinded by the headlights of hundreds of buses staring at us!" Some of those buses were allowed to idle for four-and-a-half hours; 15 minutes would have easily sufficed.
"Pollution Menace at Muni, Audit Finds," read the subsequent front-page headline in the San Francisco Examiner following the 237-page indictment Foti and his team put together. A scientific study by Argonne National Laboratory included in the report's appendix helped the auditors peg Muni's idling diesel buses as a $670,000-a-year drain that produced the equivalent noxious fumes of 56,000 car engines caught in commuting traffic — every day.
"Management didn't dispute anything," recalls Foti of the scathing Muni audit. "Even they saw how ridiculous this was. They said they were going to take care of it."
That was 17 years ago. So they've had a little time to work on this.
At 4 a.m. on a recent Monday, however, scores of diesel bus engines rumbled within the same Muni yard Foti staked out. By 4:20, the yard was ablaze with headlights; the drone of idling motors drowned out the sounds of the night. Sunrise at 6 a.m. revealed hundreds of idling buses standing still yet shimmering behind the oily, distorting sheen of heat and fumes. Buses idled for hours; considering modern diesel vehicles are equipped with "engine idle limiters," it's possible that objects — perhaps the wooden wheel blocks — had been placed atop the brake pedals. By 7 a.m., the yard was largely clear. Buses had departed for their first runs of the day. Several minutes of idling will suffice to warm up any functioning diesel bus — but many had been running for two or perhaps even three hours.
"Take care of it," it seems, is a nebulous term.
Forget the pollution. Look past the unnecessary engine wear. And, for the sake of argument, ignore the gallons of squandered fuel (which is a shade more expensive now than in 1996). Avoiding all of this waste would be a matter of common sense and common decency — and, for a transit agency which regularly bemoans a billion-dollar underinvestment in maintenance, a fiscal benefit. Yet, as the saying goes, stupidity isn't a crime.
It is illegal, however, to idle buses for hours on end.
The practices observed firsthand by your humble narrator at the Muni yard constitute a bevy of violations of state law. Aaron Richardson, a spokesman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, confirms that buses are only permitted to idle 10 minutes, maximum, before loading passengers. Citations handed out by air inspectors start at $300 a pop.
A yard full of hundreds of buses idling for hours makes a mockery of such rules. But, Richardson notes, his organization hasn't fined or cited Muni for at least three-and-a-half years.
Blistering city audits — and the resultant front-page news stories — can be employed to shame vestiges of the city into slouching toward mediocrity. But that's about it; one of the scores of suggestions advanced by the 1996 audit was that Muni begin using bar-coding to keep track of the 21,000 parts in its inventory. It still doesn't.
"You write a report, present it to the commission, the general manager and his staff get to it, they say they'll implement it, and we move on," says former auditor Bill Gustafson, who rode shotgun with Foti during the '96 Muni yard stakeouts. "And then we do something else."
But Muni isn't doing something else. You can't shame someone if they haven't got any.
Whistle-blowing Muni mechanic Mike Cheney has been banging his head against the wall over Muni's practice of idling buses for 25 years, and all he's got to show for it is a headache. Cheney — profiled in this week's cover story — has gone so far as to report Muni to the U.S. Department of Transportation over the matter. In 1988, he handed his superiors a copy of the Argonne study (emblazoned with the jolly title "DON'T IDLE YOUR PROFITS AWAY!"). Eight years later, he had a few extra printouts handy for the city auditors.
Sadly, all that's been accomplished in that time is quantifying the level of Muni's waste. The news that, in 2013, Muni is idling buses for hours — just as it did 10, 20, and 30 years ago — came as no surprise to the mechanic. Muni, he notes, always regresses toward the mean.
Cheney wants a charter amendment barring this practice in San Francisco. Ordinances in this city find their way into the blue, green, or black bins of history. Charter amendments, however, require six supervisors to place them on the ballot, and subsequently carry the gravitas of a vote of the people.
"Who on the Board of Supervisors is gonna say 'We ought to be idling buses for hours'? Who's gonna stand up for that?" says Cheney. "If they want, I'll even help them write the legislation.
"We can turn the wheel," he continues. "Even a little bit."