What is the Forecast for “Progressive” Muni Reform? – Cloudy, With A Chance of Meatballs

Note: This post also appears at the SFGate.com’s Bay Area Transit Blog, which I’m trying out to see if it helps boost traffic and expand the ongoing discussion of Muni and San Francisco city life. If you’re new to the N Judah Chronicles, consider checking out the archives, as I’ve been covering these issues for over five years.
Ah, “reforming Muni.” The new hot topic everyone’s talking about. Whereas just a few years ago, you couldn’t get a local official or activist group to even say the word “Muni,” now, as the Muni Death Spiral gets faster and faster, suddenly everyone wants to get on board the Muni Reform Bus.
Which is wonderful, if local politicals and activist groups want to spend the time to carefully look at Muni and make the kinds of long term decisions that benefit everyone – even those of you who don’t ride Muni every day and drive a car or ride a bike or walk.
Unfortunately, while fixing Muni is like curing cancer (if there was only one cause, it’d be easy to cure, but it doesn’t have one single cause), trying to cure cancer in a politicized environment where the loudest screams get the most response isn’t likely to happen.
Back in May, “progressive” Supervisors introduced a proposed amendment to the San Francisco City Charter that included a myriad of changes to Muni, some of which were clear (set aside money for the agency) and some which were not. As of July 26th, not only is there no finalized amendment – it may never appear on the ballot anyway.
Frankly, I’m not surprised. From the beginning, this had the look and feel of a bargaining chip as part of the back and forth of the legislative process, and as such wasn’t worth taking too seriously. That’s too bad because Muni isn’t an “issue” that belongs to one faction or another – it’s a system we Muni Owners rely on to get around town that needs to work.
Likewise, there was a lot of shouting about the proposal to give Supervisors direct appointments to the SF MTA board. Currently whoever is Mayor appoints the MTA, and the Supervisors approve the choice. The proposal was to give Supervisors 3 direct appointments and one joint appointment with the Mayor to the MTA Board – effectively giving them majority control over the agency.
Since at the time I was researching this post this was a Really Big Deal, I decided to email the four supervisors who proposed this change (Chiu, Campos, Mirkarimi and Mar) and ask them just who they’d appoint to the MTA Board, why they’d do a better job, and how these new folks would be free of political interference.
The response?

Now, sure, they’re busy folks, but when I waited for almost a week for a response and got nothing, it became clear to me that this was either some political barb to poke Mayor Newsom in the eye with, or just a bargaining chip to get something else. Fine, but this kind of gamesmanship with a multimillion dollar transit system doesn’t serve you, the Muni Owner, at all.
On the other hand, I recently attended an event for the Fix Muni Now campaign. I’ve discussed the merits of this in the past, but the one thing that continues to strike as I talked to people at the event was how they weren’t there to bust unions – they really wanted a better Muni – and came from all sides of the political spectrum. It’s not an overnight fix to Muni that will magically turn the agency around, but over the long term it’s something we will probably be glad we passed.
I think it is time we challenge “progressives,” and everyone on all sides, to take Muni seriously. That means taking a deep breath, avoiding the urge for political games, and contribute reasonable, well thought out solutions.
Stupid soundbites like “Chop from the Top!”, “Tax Downtown More!” and the like from the left are useless. Likewise, expecting that the only thing causing Muni financial pain is “driver pay” and “waste” at Muni is overly simplistic as well. They are great at making people feel better, but they’re just as cloudy and full of meatballs as anything politicians come up with.
Fixing Muni isn’t easy or especially fun. But the benefits to everyone in the long run would be rather nice, though.
UPDATE: All the hoopla for nothing – they pulled their toys off the table. I guess that means whenever you hear David Chiu talk about Muni, expect him to talk. And talk. And talk.

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6 Responses to What is the Forecast for “Progressive” Muni Reform? – Cloudy, With A Chance of Meatballs

  1. david vartanoff says:

    well enough said, but IMHO the procedure for choosing the SFMTA Board is a meaningless distraction. The BOS vets the Mayoral appointments now. As is demonstrated daily in DC the US Senate blocks Presidential appointments all the time, IF enough of them are willing. The BOS has always had that option, never happened.
    And FWIW, there IS huge waste within Muni starting with an ED who is grossly overpaid given his performance.

  2. Greg Dewar says:

    the point wasn’t “There is no waste” more like “Yes there is waste and it should be dealt with but that’s not the only reason Muni has problems.”

  3. The problem is we’re never all going to fully agree on what is and is not “waste”. Low ridership lines and stops are not wasteful to the few people who use them.
    The Board of Supervisors also has control over the SFMTA through the budget. The SFMTA Board makes budget decisions based on what the Board of Supervisors will approve even when it’s at odds with the agencies own priorities.
    The Board of Supervisors also has control over the SFMTA through the Transportation Authority. The TA controls Prop K funding and it’s 11 member board is made up of the District Supervisors. The most recent example of the Board of Supervisors’ control is the $7 million it provided in funding with the requirement the SFMTA spend $14 million on Muni service. Only because the SFMTA was able to find other half of the funds elsewhere (through a combination of funds that became available only after the service cuts) were they able to accept the $7 funds from the TA and partially restore service this coming september. Had the Supervisors not placed that extra requirement, the recent service cuts would not have needed to be as bad as they were.
    And for all the Supervisor talk of cleaning up the SFMTA, they don’t seem all that eager to look at themselves and what might be considered waste at the TA.

  4. Bob Davis says:

    As someone who has been studying Muni for over 40 years (even though I live in Southern Calif.–sometimes I feel like an extraterrestrial hovering over SF in my spacecraft), I’m tempted to say “so what else is new?” I recommend the book: “The People’s Railway” to find that controversy and malfunction have been going on since the days of the United Railroads. I opened my copy at random and came upon “Chapter 13: The Difficult Birth of Muni Metro”. I recall the period around 1980, when Muni’s bus fleet was so depleted by underfunded maintenance that a motley assortment of 1950’s relics were brought in from Los Angeles (forgive us, Herb Caen!) to provide some semblance of service. All the citizens of The City can do is keep working for improvement, though at times, it may seem like trying to drain the ocean with a leaky bucket.

  5. gripman says:

    Thanks for a level-headed and sound article about MUNI. We need more of a sane discussion like this, as suppose to all the mud-slinging and blame-gaming.
    I’m a MUNI worker. In my opinion, the main problem with MUNI is that it has been underfunded for decades. Simply put: You get what you pay for!
    One example: The computer system that run the trains in the subway has not been upgraded and maintained properly. Every hour of every day there are glitches and problems that cause delays. Switches don’t throw; signals are stuck on red; trains suddenly go in to emergency braking for no reason… the list goes on.
    I’m no computer wiz, but it’s safe to say that MUNI needs to go through the whole computer system and replace both some software and hardware. Or maybe even replace the whole system with a new one. (I mean, how many of us are still using Windows 95?)
    This will of course cost money. And as citizens we don’t seem to want to spend it. Which leaves us where we are today.
    The ugly truth is that if we want good public services we have to pay for it and we have to accept the fact that not every penny of our taxes will be spent on projects we use ourselves. (I, for instance, have no kids, but my tax money still pay for schools. I’m OK with that.)
    I say, vote for politicians who promise to raise taxes and improve public services. Anyone who says he/she can improve those services without raising taxes is simply not truthful with you!

  6. Greg Dewar says:

    @Muni worker: EXACTLY. For years the politicos cut back on things like maintenance and infrastructure, and then wonder why it is things break. And the public is all too willing to buy the line of “oh just cut all the waste and we can have it cheaply” or “I don’t use Muni so frak it” and the lefties simply say “spend as much money” but don’t put in the safeguards to steer money to things like replacing the control system. (Someone once told me that an Iphone has more power than the system that runs the trains underground.)
    The biggest hit Muni took was the state stealing Muni’s money, the worst part of it is that it was illegal and things at Muni were actually getting better. I think we have to give up on the state sharing its money as it continues to be the financial and governmental equivalent of the Hindenburg, and go it alone and find local, stable revenue sources (and parking tickets aren’t stable, nor are they desireable to rely on for operating $)

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