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The Muni Paradox 

A new ballot measure could change this absurd concept: less management for more money

Wednesday, Aug 29 2007

If the devil is in the details, Satan's a frustrated Muni rider.

A review of a huge amount of transit data comparing San Francisco and other cities suggests that our public transportation system has managed to be under- and overfunded at the same time — both in ways that end up hurting efficiency.

On the one hand, according to data from the Transit Effectiveness Project, Muni has significantly less money to spend on administrative staff for its transit operations than other major transit systems. As a result, it has half as many supervisors per operator as the average system surveyed, and a third as many schedulers per transit division.

Put in simple terms: Muni has fewer people scheduling trains and buses to prevent problems like long delays. And when there is a problem, Muni has fewer people around to react and make the decisions that help fix it. Muni desperately needs more supervisors, but can't afford them.

However — this is where things get paradoxical — according to another large amount of data provided by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), Muni's administrative costs are significantly higher — two to three times higher — than those of other major metropolitan transit systems.

According to APTA, Chicago pays $1.10 in administrative expenses for every "revenue mile" (a mile traveled that generates revenue from passengers) on its bus system, and pays $1 in administrative expenses per revenue mile for its rail system. Los Angeles: $1.50 and $2.50. New York: $1.90 and 90 cents.

San Francisco? $3.40 and $4.20.

That's ... a lot more.

How is it possible that Muni could have fewer people doing administrative tasks like scheduling, and yet massively higher administrative costs?

Muni wouldn't comment for this article. A spokesperson confirmed that Muni provides the relevant raw data to APTA, but says Muni doesn't crunch the numbers itself or track these statistics, and so has no comment.

Some transit experts consulted suggested that the difference in figures is a statistical mirage: Transit systems calculate "administrative costs" differently, so an apples-to-apples comparison just isn't possible.

But APTA spokesman Mantill Williams said its data is consistent from system to system. "Administration" means "white-collar stuff that doesn't involve actually running or maintaining the vehicles." Not every agency does all the same things, but the things that count as administration are all the same. And, yes, it includes schedulers and off-vehicle supervisors.

One wonders how it's possible for Muni to be understaffed on key administrative functions, but have such high administration expenses.

Many experts we talked to said they would rather defer to Muni for an explanation (transit systems, they warned, should have "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" on the cover of their annual reports). But Martin Wachs (no relation to author), former head of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley and now director of the Rand Corporation's transportation program, said it's likely that the problem comes from yet another paradox — Muni is a city department, but it isn't.

Most major transit systems are independent of the cities they serve, so they don't have to consult with City Hall before they change a train schedule or partner with the Department of Public Works to repair a bus stop. But Muni is only partly independent: It has to do those changes and fixes, and yet anything it does can be second-guessed by city bureaucrats. That, Wachs suggested, could create the kind of expensive administrative work that adds nothing to the system's effectiveness.

David Noyola, an aide to Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, agrees that the bureaucratic slowdown is exactly where the problem stems from: Muni's relationship with the city is inherently inefficient.

"Muni has to get approval from the city departments and the Board of Supervisors for a lot of really routine things, like adding a stop sign or changing a parking zone, and it makes routine processes really intensive," he said. "When Muni's transit engineers identify a problem and work out a solution, the amount of time it takes to work that through the system to something being implemented is really incredible." That time costs money.

Peskin — who was out of town and unavailable for comment — has put a measure on the November ballot that would address both of Muni's administrative problems. It would almost fully sever Muni from city government, making routine tasks more routine, and it would provide dedicated funding to hire more of the nuts-and-bolts administrative staff that Muni lacks. (Part of the reason Muni didn't want to comment for this article, sources said on background, is that Muni employees are legally barred from trying to influence the vote on transportation ballot initiatives.)

Peskin's amendment won't do much to address the other potential source of high administrative costs: the strong union presence that ensures high wages while giving many top-level employees the same job security as the people driving the bus. Right now, Noyola admits, it's very difficult to fire ineffective managers — potentially another reason for unusually high administrative costs.

Peskin's original proposal had been to increase the number of "at-will" employees — specifically targeting high-level administrators — to 10 percent of the total work force, from about 2 percent today. But, to win union support and get the measure on the ballot, he backed down, and instead the number of at-will employees will increase by just 1 percent under the ballot measure.

Still, Noyola said this would be a big step to finally giving San Francisco the transit system it deserves. "We're aiming to streamline it and make it more efficient while adding more capacity to the street," he said.

Martin Wachs, however, feels that's probably an optimistic assessment. What the Peskin Metropolitan Transportation Authority charter amendment would do, he said, is create an opportunity for effective change — but it won't guarantee that it happens.

"It depends entirely on who you appoint [to the MTA's Board of Directors]," he said. "If they appoint people for political reasons, with little expertise or knowledge of transit management, there's no reason things will get better."

Right now, members of the MTA's board are nominated by the mayor and approved by the Board of Supervisors. San Francisco, of course, has a mixed record when it comes to appointments — until recently, a good appointee was one who showed up at meetings. During the debate over the Peskin amendment, its biggest foe, Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, said this was at the heart of his objections: Accountability will, in the end, rest with a group of political appointees whose names nobody can remember.

McGoldrick's own proposal — to put Muni directly under city control — was the exact opposite of what transit experts recommended for increasing efficiency, but he was right to be concerned about who'll run the show. Perhaps, if the Peskin amendment passes, the next step in Muni reform will be a closer look at who gets appointed to the MTA board, to ensure that transit professionals – whose only constituents are the riders – are given the top spots.

At that point, Muni might be paradox-free, and have administrative expenses in line with its peers – more money for administrators who affect service, and a whole lot less for time spent on meetings with bureaucrats.

About The Author

Benjamin Wachs


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