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Bill Lieberman, new planning director for the Municipal Transportation Agency, wades into the swamp of San Francisco transit politics

Wednesday, May 4 2005
On a drizzly Thursday afternoon in April a pair of construction workers in orange Mitchell Engineering vests mucked around with shovels on the east shore of Mission Creek, an industrial slough cut into the century-old bay fill that undergirds San Francisco's postindustrial south side. Another worker guided a framework of steel and composite beams onto pontoons on the creek's surface. Yet another barked into a walkie-talkie. A fifth hosed off some concrete forms. In all, about a dozen workers putzed about on and near the ancient Fourth Street drawbridge, which, once retrofitted, will carry light-rail cars along a $1.4 billion route connecting the outlying Hunters Point neighborhood with, eventually, Chinatown. Busy though they appeared, the workers' main task that day was to bide time while attorneys for their employer and the city-of-San Francisco lawyers argued over cost overruns resulting from a new discovery: Retaining walls under and beside the bridge were in far worse condition than anyone had anticipated. Any settlement to the problem was sure to add significant expense to the project. Without a settlement, projectwide delays could cost more money yet.

As dollars were being sucked by the million into the retrofitted rail bridge, money for transit was being slashed elsewhere.

The previous afternoon Michael Burns, chief of the city's Municipal Transportation Agency, discussed a new round of cuts to train and bus service citywide, due in part to a year spent relying on overtime pay to keep a full staff. "Overtime hurt us for the rest of the fiscal year. And we're hoping to fix that with service cuts," Burns said at a presentation last week. "They're not deep cuts. But any cuts beyond this, and we're really going to hurt service."

How could our transit system spend a billion and a half dollars -- and perhaps much more on possible cost overruns such as are shaping up at Mission Creek -- to extend itself to a commuter's version of nowhere, while failing to pay for maintaining basic service everywhere?

The answer is as simple it is confounding. San Francisco's transit system is an expensive and inefficient lattice of boondoggles, sinecures, political deals, and delays because, for the most part, the area's residents, politicos, and power brokers prefer it that way. Though it's a nightmare for most commuters, our transport system works quite well for those in a position to gain from paying close attention to it.

There exists a minuscule glimmer of hope that things might change for the better. Last month San Francisco hired a new, idealistic yet hard-nosed czar of transit planning who could theoretically help transform the system to everybody's benefit. I propose we give him an extended honeymoon of political support as he takes on the forces that currently make riding Muni a chump's errand.

Bill Lieberman, the newly recruited director of planning for San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency, has a gilded résumé and broad new authority over employees who manage and maintain streets, traffic, parking, buses, and trains. If a talk he gave last week before a group of urban policy wonks is any indication, he has exactly the sort of expertise, ideas, and enthusiasm necessary for such a task. But unless he's blessed by a miracle -- such as support from the hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans who have a hard time getting around the city, yet so far have paid little attention to why this is so -- he'll fail.

Without such miraculous intervention, the system of inertia that keeps transit so sluggish in San Francisco -- the union officials, Democratic Party hacks, neighborhood activists, bureaucrats, developers, and elected officials who benefit from our system remaining expensive and slow -- will eat Lieberman alive.

I can vouch for Muni's dysfunction. Last month I fell ill and used Muni, rather than my bicycle, to travel to work and other appointments. Thanks to long waits and slow travel once the bus came, the switch to Muni meant adding an extra 40 minutes each way to work, an hour each way to an appointment in Noe Valley. At this rate, I calculated, riding Muni would rob me of two full days per month, or in the course of a normal life span, five entire years, from my time on Earth. There are convicted kidnappers and rapists who've suffered less severe punishment.

Why are San Franciscans so condemned, and why are commuters about to be sentenced to even more hard time in the coming round of Muni cuts? Because a relatively small group of people benefits greatly from the system that produces slow Muni service, and those people agitate mightily to keep it that way.

Excessive overtime payments -- to be covered by riders who wait longer for the pauperized bus system during the rest of this year -- are typically triggered by union contracts that make it easy for Muni employees to miss work unpunished and hard for Muni management to put a full staff in the field without paying overtime. The union that negotiates those worker-friendly agreements provides electioneering troops during races for public office. Few bus riders who are late for work because their bus didn't and didn't and didn't come connect their plight to officeholders who are backed by the bus workers' union. So there's little incentive for those officeholders to change the politically beneficial dysfunction at Muni.

The 38 Geary -- our main bus route transporting people from the Richmond District suburbs to downtown -- spends much of its time lurching from stop to stop on every block through the Tenderloin District. The ride is so slow and uncomfortable that many people drive instead, clogging the streets and making the buses slower still.

Not long ago, Muni planners tried to quicken this trip by removing a few stops, so buses would stop every other block, instead of once or twice a block. Riders with bus stops in front of their apartment buildings launched a protest movement, and the Board of Supervisors voted to disallow the removal of stops, thus burnishing the supes' profile as champions of social justice. There was no harm done, politically speaking, and the 38 Geary remains an underused extended sentence in transit jail.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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