Open Forum: Save Muni from itself

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People stand at a bus stop at Market and Church streets waiting for shuttle buses headed to downtown San Francisco. After a power line failure disabled Muni Metro subway trains, commuters had to take alternative routes to get to their destinations. Photo: Jana Asenbrennerova / Special to The Chronicle

Save Muni has long called for a management audit of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. To that request we now must add: Review the agency’s structure. Well-reported problems with new train cars, operator shortages and maintenance problems last month have only highlighted the agency’s shortcomings.

The SFMTA was created over a decade ago to bring all the city’s transportation under one agency. As envisioned, professionals would work together to develop integrated policies and programs that served the public better than separate taxi, streets and transit departments. It simply was assumed that keeping politics out of transportation, by insulating the SFMTA from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, would assure better decisions.

But the outcome has been a spectacular failure.

The Board of Supervisors was removed from transportation decision-making, other than voting for the SFMTA budget (without the ability to make amendments). But politics wasn’t eliminated — it simply went underground.
An expansionist bureaucracy devoted itself to ginning up a huge range of disconnected projects that often were pushed onto the agency’s agenda by well-connected advocacy groups. To cite just one example, a multibillion-dollar project to reconstruct the Muni’s M-Ocean View Metro Line suddenly gained momentum when the developer of the Parkmerced Project agreed to give the agency $70 million for a study.

While projects proliferated, the agency failed to set priorities that improved transportation citywide. Muni was downgraded within the agency to just one type of transportation among many. A small politically powerful group elevated bicycles to equal consideration, never mind that bicycles account for less than 5% of Muni’s trips.

The governing board, rather than the solution, has proved to be a part of the problem. All members are chosen by the mayor and serve for fixed terms. The board has the sole authority to hire and fire personnel and to set budget priorities. Unique in San Francisco government, this board wields power over all aspects of transportation.

It’s time to get serious about straightening out the mess.

San Francisco should adhere to its transit-first policy, and officials shouldn’t automatically say “we can’t do that here” whenever compared with world-class transit systems such as those in Tokyo or Zurich.

The SFMTA needs to:

Install an automated train control system for the Muni Metro so that four-car trains can provide reliable service in the subway tunnel.

Develop a reliable notification system so that Muni riders can set their watches by the arrival of trains and buses.

Assure safety on every part of the public transit system.

Eliminate transit-driver shortages by developing a training pipeline. Listen to the people who make the system work and pay them fairly.

Improve the structure and governance of the SFMTA to ensure that the Muni receives the attention it deserves.

Develop an integrated plan to cost effectively improve public transit for riders all over town, not just downtown.

Bob Feinbaum is president of Save Muni

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