Transit on Trial: Our Muni Cover Story Spurs a Public Hearing

Earlier this month, an SF Weekly cover story revealed an intriguing handshake arrangement between Muni and bus manufacturer New Flyer.

The company built and transported a platoon of $700,000 hybrids to clandestine East Bay warehouses, all without the benefit of any paperwork or money changing hands, and weeks prior to the oblivious Board of Supervisors approving the $38.3 million contract. This handshake deal also nixed an in-house Muni competition between rival hybrid propulsion systems, meaning the 50 new buses were all equipped with hybrid components manufactured by the British munitions titan BAE.

That's the company responsible for the propulsion systems in the city's current crop of hybrids, described by Muni transit director John Haley as “an embarrassment … our newest buses and our worst performers.”

Supervisor David Campos is inclined to agree. Last week he called for a public hearing before the board's Government Audit and Oversight Committee to address lingering questions regarding the bizarre manner in which these buses were obtained, and nagging concerns about their reliability. The material covered in our story — and Campos' subsequent communications with Muni higher-ups — have left him scratching his head.

“The fundamental issue is, is this really how we want to do contracting? I think the answer is no,” he says.

While New Flyer purportedly assumed all risks in the event the supervisors deigned to vote down the pending contract, this was an arrangement undertaken without the benefit of paperwork — leaving Muni in a precarious position had things gone badly. Similar undocumented deals have resulted in irate vendors suing the city, Campos notes. “And even if you win, it's expensive.”

The supervisor seemed most puzzled, however, by the decision to hurriedly consummate this handshake deal and equip all the buses with BAE hybrid systems — despite an ongoing Muni analysis of whether BAE or Allison hybrid drives are performing better on the streets of San Francisco. Haley admitted to SF Weekly that Muni may just have rush-ordered 50 buses its own testing will reveal to be the inferior vehicles.

“If you're going through a process of analyzing which hybrid system is more reliable, and if you have buses underperforming to the point you feel there's a need to do that, why would you just go ahead and make an investment in one of those systems before the analysis is even completed?” asks Campos, who hopes to hold the hearing as soon as next month. “Wouldn't you want to know what the results are before you make your investment? If it was your money, you'd want to know that.”

Funny thing: It is your money.

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