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Rewarding Failure 

Streetcars that are too wide, long, and heavy (136 @ $3.5 million per). Bus engines that don't fit and are scrapped (20 @ $116,000 a pop). Manhole covers that take 10 engineers and three months to design (cost: $243,000). Muni's management has produced su

Wednesday, Dec 9 1998
In August, Muni's subway had the transit equivalent of a brain hemorrhage. Muni's computerized controls went haywire, and its trains lurched about the Market Street tunnel like stroke victims. Muni shuddered to infuriating halts for weeks.

Just two months after the subway meltdown, though, Muni General Manager Emilio Cruz coolly shared a wooden dais with the five mayoral appointees who serve as the Public Transportation Commission. Exuding the confidence seen usually on the faces of babies, astronauts, and highly paid publicists, Cruz bragged that 33 trains an hour were cruising through the Muni underground. The commissioners smiled and nodded. More trains were moving through the tunnel; the crisis was over.

Suddenly, an outrageous act of rebellion was perpetrated. Ray Antonio, president of the Muni drivers union, stood to deliver a fierce correction. "But those are only one-car trains," Antonio almost shouted. "They used to be four-car trains, but now they are only one-car trains." The implication was clear: More people were not moving through the Market Street tunnel, and even Muni's drivers could only bear so much commuter hell.

Cruz and his commissioners stared at Antonio as if he had spent the last week under a wet rock. "Most riders would rather have a shorter trip standing, than a longer trip sitting," Cruz explained in soothing tones. Antonio deflated and sat. Newspaper reporters yawned. The commissioners watched Cruz for cues.

Ready to move on, Commission President H. Welton Flynn asked, "Do you feel good about Breda?" Cruz nodded sagely. Flynn sighed, apparently in relief, and the commission voted to sign over another $167 million to Breda Costruzioni Ferroviarie S.p.A. of Pistoia, Italy. Without a whisper of dissent, the San Francisco Municipal Railway had spent another huge sum of money to buy 59 more Breda streetcars -- even though the Bredas long ago proved themselves to be a very bad fit for the Muni system.

Muni's subway suffered a stroke this summer because two of its main elements -- the Alcatel computer software meant to control trains in the tunnel, and the new Breda cars supposedly designed to work with that control system -- did not work very well, singly or together. In fact, in the wake of the Muni Metro disaster, Mayor Willie Brown threatened to sue Alcatel, and since then he has publicly savaged Muni's purchase of Breda streetcars.

The mayor's criticisms were understated by many orders of magnitude.
Breda's "light" rail vehicles are, public records show, too heavy, too long, too wide, and too noisy to work acceptably on Muni tracks. Also, they are far more expensive than comparable streetcars.

Alcatel's train control system -- according to contract amendments on file with Muni -- was unproven in service when it was acquired by the transit agency and outdated before it was unpacked. It has already cost at least $17 million more than its original budget had forecast.

Both Alcatel and Breda were shepherded into San Francisco by a McLean, Va., consulting firm, Booz Allen Hamilton. Both contracts were awarded and extended under unusual circumstances. What's more, under its contract with Muni, Booz Allen is paid for supervising Breda and Alcatel in a way that might have fit well in the novel Catch-22: The longer the Breda and Alcatel projects take, the more costly they become, the more money the consultant who recommended the Breda and Alcatel deals will make.

The Breda and Alcatel projects are not anomalies, and Booz Allen Hamilton is not necessarily a lone bad guy. Public documents show that Muni's long-range management decisions have produced incredibly questionable results for some time, whether Booz Allen was or was not involved. For every Booz Allen-recommended, glitch-happy train control system it acquires, Muni creates several other boondoggles entirely on its own.

Muni's top managers and the Public Transportation Commission hire consultants and make final decisions for the transit agency; they, therefore, bear responsibility for Muni's track record in long-term management. That record is full of overpriced, unworkable purchases and expensive, complicated plans that never seem to work, and are subsequently replaced by other complicated plans that do not work. Muni's long-term management record is so bad, in fact, that any reasonable analysis winds up asking the question: Is this incompetence or something worse?

As the 1990s dawned, Muni planners were eager to get rid of the streetcars then in use, built by Boeing-Vertol, the helicopter division of the Seattle-based Boeing Co. The Boeing streetcars had a history of frequent breakdowns and were themselves widely recognized as a Muni boondoggle. Excited planners envisioned acquiring a fleet of smart streetcars guided by the invisible hand of a computer. The new cars would be a special boon to the Market Street subway, where all of Muni's streetcar lines merge: Under central computer control, a train a minute would glide through the Muni underground, transforming the 100,000-passenger crush of morning and evening rush hours into a pleasant commuting experience.

The streetcars Muni eventually bought, at $3.5 million apiece, were made by the Italian manufacturing firm of Breda Costruzioni Ferroviarie S.p.A., but neither the cars nor the decisions to buy them were particularly smart.

Breda's streetcars are too big to comfortably fit Muni's tunnels. Yes, it's true: The streetcars, supposedly custom designed for San Francisco's system, are too wide (some platforms had to be shaved); too heavy (the extra weight, and a lopsided distribution of that heft, is destroying Muni's 70-year-old rails); and too long.

The length problem carries its own special irony: The Breda rail cars were bought, purportedly, to mesh with a computer control system that would move more trains and more passengers through the subway at peak hours. Because the rail cars are two feet too long, four-car Breda trains will not fit in front of several Muni station platforms. Therefore, even if a central control system could move more trains through the Market Street tunnel, the trains would each be one car shorter -- and fewer passengers would move.

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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