By all accounts, 2012 should be a banner year for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.
Muni, the transit system run by the agency, is celebrating its 100th year. Contentious labor negotiations between management and the powerful operators union are a thing of the past. And SFMTA chief Ed Reiskin, a widely respected leader now in his second year, has a clear mandate to improve the agency.
However, the mammoth agency with 5,000 employees is lurching in the wrong direction, particularly beset by the problems facing Muni. The transit system has posted six months of steadily regressing service levels, including an abysmal 57 percent on-time performance rate in August, well below the voter-backed goal of 85 percent.
With the agency struggling to right Muni’s ways, it remains unclear if it can meet the ambitious goals of its six-year strategic plan, including getting people out of their cars and into other modes of transportation.
Adopted last year by the agency’s board of directors, the strategic plan outlines a number of objectives, including the goal of moving 50 percent of all trips taken in San Francisco out of private automobiles. Right now, only 38 percent of trips in The City employ transit.
“This is the type of goal that I think the Board of Supervisors wanted when they adopted The City’s transit-first policy in 1973,” Reiskin said. “By putting that 50 percent benchmark in our strategic plan, we are imposing a discipline on all of us at the agency. If we set a consistent framework, we can’t go sideways.”
The plan also calls for a 10 percent reduction in Muni collisions for every two-year budget cycle, a 25 percent reduction of 1990 CO2 levels by 2017, and a 5 percent reduction in the cost of transit service per revenue hour.
Nearly every strategic goal is contingent upon transitioning people from private automobiles to alternative modes of transportation, such as biking, walking, taking cabs or riding transit.
Persuading people to ditch their cars may be tough, particularly with Muni facing some steep challenges. The agency’s fleet of buses is the oldest in North America, making them prone to frequent breakdowns. There is a mass shortage of available operators to drive the buses, giving Muni little wiggle room to schedule its 13,000 daily runs.
The effects have been telling. In August, Muni delivered service for only 94 percent of its schedule, well below its 98.5 percent mark.
“I would have hoped to see Muni turn around in the right direction, but clearly that hasn’t happened yet,” Reiskin conceded. “We’re hoping to turn the corner in the next six months, but to be honest, we were saying that same thing six months ago.”
As reasons for optimism, Reiskin pointed to the 45 new buses set to hit the streets next year and to the hiring of more trainers for Muni operators. The agency also is working on a new sick policy to cut down on unscheduled absences.
Transit advocates, however, say the agency needs to undergo some much more substantive changes to achieve its strategic goals.
“It’s certainly possible to achieve some of these objectives,” said Greg Dewar, a Muni blogger who runs the website the N-Judah Chronicles. “But to do that, they need an engaged Board of Supervisors and mayor, and an electorate willing to invest in the system. That is not the case right now.”
The agency is historically underfunded, and unless it receives greater financial support from the board and mayor, Muni will continue to be unsafe, slow and inefficient, making it unattractive to motorists, Dewar said.
Jason Henderson, an urban planning professor at San Francisco State University, said that even if Muni vastly improved its standards, there wouldn’t be enough system capacity to handle an influx of commuters.
“We need at least twice as many buses to handle the expected increase in ridership,” Henderson said. “It’s good and laudable to want people to take transit, but we need more buses, and there just isn’t any money now to pay for them.”
Henderson said that a congestion-pricing scheme, where motorists would pay a fee to enter certain parts of downtown San Francisco, could help provide a more stable funding source for the chronically underfunded agency. Dedicating a portion of current property taxes to transit uses also could shore up agency finances, Henderson said.
“Muni has a huge potential,” he said. “It’s a shame it never been funded in a way to meet that potential.”
Ron Austin, spokesman for the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, the organization that represents Muni operators, said the agency’s problem isn’t its funding, but its inefficiencies. Taxpayers supported measures in 1999, 2003 and 2007 that were supposed to help balance the agency’s budgets, but never did, Austin said. Asking the taxpayers to go back to the well one more time is unreasonable, he said, giving the performance of the past measures.
“In the last several years, the agency has morphed into a huge bureaucracy, and frankly, we don’t know what a lot of these people do,” he said. “If we put more focus on our transit operations, and clean up our inefficiencies in scheduling, maintenance, training and ability to recruit new drivers, the agency can succeed. There is plenty of money here, we just have to spend it the right way.”
Despite the agency’s challenges, board president Tom Nolan said he thinks it can still reach its lofty objectives.
“Yes, these are ambitious goals, but I think it’s important to set the agency to a high standard,” Nolan said. “Part of the function of leadership is to have that kind of direction. We have Ed, who’s a great leader for the job, and I think we have an engaged board of directors to work with him. I think that success begets success, and if we can just restore some confidence in Muni, we can make this thing work.”
Goal: 50 percent of all travel trips in city taken by mode other than private automobile by 2018 fiscal year.
Reality: Currently, 62 percent of all travel trips are taken by private automobiles.
Goal: Reduce Muni collisions by 10 percent every two year budget cycle
Reality: This year, Muni collisions have remained relatively constant. There was an average of 4.3 incidents per 100,000 miles in January. In April, that rate increased to 6.0, but by August it had returned to 5.0
Goal: By 2018, reduce instances with no or duplicate service by 65 percent
Reality: Gaps in service accounted for 17.4 percent of all bus trips in January, but had risen to 19.8 percent in August. Bunches involving multiple buses have also increased, from 5.1 percent of trips in January to 5.7 percent of trips in August.
Goal: Reduce average cost of transit trip per hour by 5 percent every two-year budget cycle.
Reality: During the 2005 fiscal year, Muni spent $163 on transit trips each hour. It now spends $198. However, that is slightly reduced from last fiscal year, when it spent $200.