Time to tie pay to Muni’s on-time performance 

click to enlarge San Francisco voted in 1999 that Muni should have an 85 percent on-time performance, a figure it has never met. - CINDY CHEW/S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • Cindy Chew/S.F. Examiner file photo
  • San Francisco voted in 1999 that Muni should have an 85 percent on-time performance, a figure it has never met.

Jerry Brown had a great idea: The people who run Muni should actually ride Muni.

In 1993, a grass-roots citizens group founded by Brown collected thousands of petition signatures and put a measure on the San Francisco ballot requiring the mayor, supervisors, and top city officials to ride Muni or other public transit to work at least twice every week.

In the voter information pamphlet, Brown wrote: "Government is getting out of touch because too many officeholders and city workers act like potentates, not public servants. Send them a message! VOTE YES on AA to get them back to reality by riding the Muni twice a week."

San Francisco voters overwhelmingly agreed, with 65 percent voting to make this official city policy.

So when was the last time you saw Mayor Ed Lee on your Muni bus?

Next month, Muni fares for the rest of us who do ride Muni regularly are scheduled to increase once again. This will be the fourth fare increase since so-called Muni reform was adopted by voters in 1999. Since voters were persuaded to adopt a sweeping change to Muni's governing and finance structure, fares for adults, seniors and the disabled have more than doubled while the price for monthly passes has gone up by 50 percent. Meanwhile, Muni service has been repeatedly slashed in neighborhoods across The City, with numerous bus stops closed and many entire bus lines eliminated or constantly under threat of closure.

Has this made Muni better or worse? Interestingly, a central performance metric specified in the 1999 Muni reform measure was a clear requirement built into the City Charter that Muni must meet an on-time performance goal of 85 percent by July 1, 2004. The idea was that, in exchange for giving Muni executives vastly increased power to raise fares and cut routes with very little oversight by outside bodies, they would whip the system into shape.

So how many times has Muni met the 85 percent required on-time performance mandate in the decade since the 2004 deadline?

That would be zero.

In fact, according to a report presented to the Board of Supervisors this spring, Muni's on-time performance rate last year fell to an all-time low of 57.2 percent, rising this spring to a whopping 60.2 percent -- 25 percentage points short of the required goal. Hearing this, Supervisor Scott Wiener reportedly said that he was "pleased with the progress" Muni is making. If that's progress, what's failure?

Two measures on November's ballot propose that San Francisco taxpayers contribute more money for Muni. I think most Muni riders and residents will support these measures and gladly contribute our fair share to fix Muni -- as long as we believe we will actually get better service as a result. But clearly, as the last 15 years have shown, more money from riders and taxpayers alone isn't the only answer to fixing what ails Muni -- we also need something else to ensure we get real results: accountability.

A fundamental flaw with prior Muni reforms is that they failed to link measurable performance standards with enforcement mechanisms that would ensure the penalty for failure was felt by the people in charge who failed to do their jobs, not just by Muni riders.

Instead, the salaries for top Muni executives have gone up at the very same time that Muni service has gone down and riders have been repeatedly asked to pay more. According to a report by the city controller, the transportation director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which runs Muni, is one of the highest-paid department heads in San Francisco, making more money than even the mayor, with a salary of $294,000 per year (Ed Lee makes $285,319). Ed Reiskin has nine top deputies who each get paid more than $169,000 per year -- a bigger salary than the director of transportation for the entire state of California.

Let's ensure some real accountability from the people who run Muni by requiring that, any year that Muni fails to meet the 85 percent on-time performance requirement mandated by voters, the head of Muni and his top executives will have their generous salaries reduced by the same percentage that Muni failed to meet its performance goal, with those funds put right back into improving Muni service. That way, the annual report from Muni about whether it has done its job to meet the voter-mandated goals becomes a real report card, rather than just a mutual back-scratching exercise with politicians at City Hall.

Speaking of City Hall, let's also take Gov. Brown's advice and make compliance with the policy requirement that the mayor, supervisors, SFMTA board of directors and top Muni executives have to ride Muni regularly, something that gets publicly disclosed at every Board of Supervisors meeting and SFMTA board of directors meeting. If politicians or their appointees ignore the will of the voters, voters need to know that information before they vote at election time to be able to hold them accountable.

Yes, it would be frustrating if the mayor is late to an important meeting because the bus skipped his stop for no apparent reason or the Muni chief got to the office late because the Muni train was so jam-packed that he couldn't squeeze on if he tried. But if the people who run Muni really knew what regular San Franciscans deal with every day just trying to get around town and live their lives, maybe they would actually find a way to fix it.

Jon Golinger an environmental attorney who lives in North Beach.

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