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The Muni Death Spiral 

Your transit system is terribly inefficient, extremely slow, and wildly expensive. Here’s how you can fix it.

Wednesday, Apr 14 2010
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Is there a way to fix these problems? Possibly — but it won't be easy, and you'll have to withstand a lot of entrenched, well-funded antagonism. That's because Muni operators — unlike every other union in the city — have unaccountably had their pay rates locked into the City Charter, San Francisco's constitution. They're guaranteed the second-highest wages among comparable transit agencies in the nation, with a current base pay of just over $29 an hour. It also means drivers don't participate in collective bargaining — again, unlike every other union in the city.

If enshrining just one union's pay rate in the local constitution ever made sense, it sure doesn't now. The Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) was forced to make harsh cutbacks last year, including laying off unionized parking control officers, vehicle washers, and mechanics. Slashing maintenance costs, while politically expedient, has dire consequences. Overhead wire failures, breakdowns in the Metro tunnels, the growing number of vehicles unable to "make pullout" in the morning — these are not unrelated. Meanwhile, all operators took home a $3,000 bonus. This year, drivers will also receive an automatic pay raise costing $8 million, regardless of the agency's finances. That's essentially nonnegotiable — unless voters are willing to amend the City Charter. There's no other way to change this.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd has been pushing just such a charter amendment for the November ballot, which would do away with Muni operators' mandated pay rates and have them negotiate like every other union. Would this result in lower pay for drivers? Perhaps. But that's not really what Elsbernd is after. He wants leverage to get rid of the worst work rules.

With drivers deprived of their charter-determined pay rates, "If we go to collective bargaining, like we do with every other municipal union, we have a level playing field from which to negotiate fairly," Elsbernd says. Should his amendment be voted into law, its most powerful provision is tucked away on page 10: If the city and the Muni drivers go into binding arbitration, the union would have to justify why its existing work rules "outweigh the public's interest in effective, efficient, and reliable transit service and [are] consistent with best practices." With the aforementioned rules, that'd be a stretch, to put it mildly. Charter provisions precluding city employees from striking, meanwhile, remain in effect.

Elsbernd's amendment isn't the draconian, antiunion measure opponents wish to portray it as. It basically aims to alter the charter so drivers have to negotiate, instead of relying on a formula that nonsensically gives them an exalted position and mandates raises regardless of Muni's fiscal reality. For Elsbernd's measure to make the ballot, let alone pass, it requires the support of Muni rider-owners fed up with delays, service cuts, and spiraling costs — and unaffected by a potential flood of mailers and union-beholden politicians tying themselves in knots to explain why we should stick with our untenable status quo.

What suits transit agencies in the long term and politicians in the short term are rarely the same things. As you'd expect, the latter often win out — and not just here. "The goal of more autonomy [for a transit agency] is a noble one," says Martin Wachs, the former head of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley, who is now a transportation expert at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank. "But it's virtually impossible to separate transit politics from the rest of politics." As a result, politicians susceptible to influential or vocal groups' wheedling — or who consider picking what suit to wear at a ceremonial groundbreaking to be a "transit decision" — are often the ones calling the shots.

That goes doubly here in San Francisco — and not just because politics runs in the water like fluoride. Unlike any other major system, Muni is not a stand-alone transit authority like Boston's MBTA or the New York MTA, but a glorified city department. And while San Francisco politicians' heavy-handed interference to advance their pet projects or pander to their constituents is standard operating procedure with city departments, it's a hell of a way to run a railroad.

There's an upside to being a political football. Muni is the beneficiary of some $300 million in annual general fund dollars and parking revenue, subsidizing a system that recoups only a quarter of its costs via fares. Over the past three years, the state has reneged on providing $179 million to Muni; even the $36 million so-called "windfall" it recently gave the agency was only a fraction of the transit funding originally approved by voters, after the state government filched the rest. That means the agency's city funds are more vital than ever. But the city's largesse comes with strings attached. A proposal that would get a transit planner laughed out of the room suddenly becomes brilliant when it comes from a city politician.

Take the Culture Bus, a gaudily decorated yellow embarrassment that rolled about town in 2008 and '09. The buses, which purported to ferry tourists among the city's cultural institutions for a hefty $7 fare (later $10), were the brainchild of Newsom. They were clean. They were fast. They were virtually empty.

Without even consulting the MTA board, Muni CEO Nat Ford catered to Newsom's whims by yanking six buses out of regular service, to be piloted by Muni's best drivers, selected for their skill and courtesy. The bus line was awarded a $1.6 million budget — which was also yanked out of Muni's regular funds, at the expense of core transit service. In the first five months of its existence, the Culture Bus cost Muni 10 times as much as the fare revenues it brought in; along with the line's jarringly low ridership, this did not escape notice. Muni claims the Culture Bus was a victim of the down economy. Perhaps — but what it really demonstrated is that Muni itself is a victim of political vanity projects no transit agency should be encumbered with.

About The Authors

Greg Dewar

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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