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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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Perhaps the most striking example of Muni being leaned on to make an indefensible transit decision — other than the politically charged boondoggle-to-be that is the Central Subway project — comes via San Francisco's most heartfelt symbols. To borrow Tony Bennett's line, it's those little cable cars climbing halfway to the stars. Unfortunately, the cost of running them climbs even further — and Muni is stuck paying the toll.

Even with their exorbitant, $5 one-way fares, cable cars are a financial runaway train. According to the 2008 statistics Muni reported to the National Transit Database, cable cars brought in $24.2 million in fares — but required $51.3 million in operating expenses. The century-old cars and cables break down frequently. And when they are running, on a mile-per-mile basis, they have long accounted for more accidents and injuries than any other form of mass transit in the nation.

San Franciscans will not tolerate any talk about dismantling the cable cars. Yet making Muni — and only Muni — foot the bill for a rolling city monument makes about as much sense as asking Paris' mass-transit agency to start subsidizing the upkeep of the Eiffel Tower. San Francisco's cable cars may well be a financial benefit to various city players, but the one agency they certainly aren't benefiting is the one stuck paying for them. From a transit perspective, it's bizarre for Muni to bleed core funds to underwrite what is essentially a pleasure trip for tourists.


Simply put, this is not sound policy. Twice in the last decade, San Francisco voters have approved measures purporting to take the politics out of Muni and let transit professionals make transit decisions: Proposition E passed in 1999, and Proposition A was successful three years ago. Yet things may now be worse than ever.

Take Prop. A: Voters approved redirecting $27 million in parking meter revenue from other city departments to establish "dedicated funding" for a more independent Muni. But that's not what happened. Rather than abide by the will of the voters and take their lumps, city departments — police, ambulance drivers, and others — began jacking up the rates they charged Muni for services via "work orders" that quickly ate up that $27 million and then some. This was no coincidence. With the consent of Newsom and the MTA board, work orders have skyrocketed from $36 million in 2006 to $64 million today. Even if Elsbernd's charter amendment saves Muni millions, there's no guarantee the money won't be gobbled up by other departments.

In addition to work orders, Muni is now required to earmark $5 million for San Francisco General Hospital in its claims budget for Muni-related accidents (by this logic, Muni could just as easily charge other city departments for the services it's funded to provide anyway). Additionally, General Hospital has presented Muni with a bill for $1.8 million for a single 2007 accident on Geary Boulevard. The agency is mulling whether to pay.

On paper at least, the mayorally appointed MTA board runs the agency, with Ford reporting to the board. But then, Muni timetables are printed on paper, too. That the board would acquiesce to being pillaged by other city departments points to the inescapable flaw in attempts to render the system "independent." Muni has been largely freed from the oversight of transit matters by the Board of Supervisors — and that's a good thing. But it is, more than ever, run to service the caprices of Newsom. "The mayor completely controls Muni," said Dave Snyder, a transit expert attempting to kickstart a Muni riders' union. "The whole goal of Prop. A, to get politics out of decisions so transit professionals could make them efficiently — it hasn't worked."

The mayor appoints all seven board members — and contrarian voices such as Leah Shahum, Peter Mezey, and Mike Kasolas found themselves to be ex-members. "The mayor is very schizophrenic about the way he claims that he has nothing to do with how Muni runs," said former Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin, the driving force behind Prop. A. "He generally says he has nothing to do with Muni, except when it's abundantly clear he's micromanaging the living daylights out of it."

Multiple sources within Muni independently confirmed to SF Weekly that the mayor's office dictates the transit agency's budget down to the smallest detail. More disturbingly, Muni insiders intimately involved in the budgeting process claimed the agency's deficits were deemed by the mayor's office to be "too high" for public consumption, and that Muni is cajoled into presenting "smaller numbers" that are "politically palatable."

Calls to Newsom's chief of staff, Steve Kawa, were returned by mayoral spokesman Tony Winnicker, who said Newsom's involvement is a good thing. The mayor has "a great degree of day-to-day interaction" in crafting Muni's budget, he said: "That's appropriate and what the people should want." But Winnicker denied the mayor's office orders Muni to spin its numbers. "In terms of their deficit this year and next year, it's pretty transparent."

But is it? A Muni manager flatly told SF Weekly that the mayor's office "makes the deficit numbers smaller." Another key figure involved in budgeting said, when it comes to presenting deficits, "We're told, 'This is the number we want. Make it happen.' 'Make it happen' is the mayor's favorite phrase."

Budget numbers published by Muni last November state the service was running a deficit of $19.5 million, but this relied upon factoring in $25.5 million in budget "solutions" (some, but not all, came to pass). Yet the unpalatable but honest tabulation of a $45 million deficit was nowhere to be found in Muni's report (though it was buried in an April document). Similarly, in Muni's February assessment, the service pegs itself as running a $12.1 million deficit in fiscal 2010. This, however, assumes a number of monetary trick shots, including a dubious $5 million reduction in overtime and a supremely optimistic $11.2 million bonanza from selling taxi medallions. Muni's April 6 assessment similarly relies upon highly uncertain taxi money and overtime reductions. It also leans on $20 million in hypothetical labor concessions in fiscal years 2011 and 2012 and savings of $58 million via service cuts that Newsom already put out a press release congratulating the MTA board for nixing.

About The Authors

Greg Dewar

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
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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