Ford: Muni issues are ‘institutional’ 

Muni is plagued by major institutional troubles, many of which led to the faulty opening of the T-Third metro line, transit officials admitted Tuesday.

A laundry list of problems is keeping Muni from being on time, reliable and fully staffed, Municipal Transportation Agency Executive Director Nathaniel Ford said. The issues haunting the oft-criticized system — which carries 700,000 weekday riders on 1,000 buses, streetcars and trolleys — include overcrowded maintenance facilities, outdated equipment and a severe shortage of drivers, mechanics and vehicles, Ford said.

Muni has been under increased scrutiny since the $648 million T-Third line began weekday operation April 9. The launch of the line caused systemwide delays and left riders stranded for up to 50 minutes. Commuters who use the N-Judah, J-Church and K-Ingleside metro lines were late to work and class because of the T-Third debut, which also changed three bus routes and eliminated the 15-Third bus route altogether.

Only 11 percent of the T-Third trains were on time the first day, MTA Chief Operating Officer Ken McDonald said.

"We won’t reach the 85 percent on-time target if we don’t address institutional infrastructure issues and operator availability," Ford said. In 1999, San Francisco voters approved Proposition E, which set performance standards and targets for Muni. The measure requires 85 percent of Muni’s vehicles to be on time.

Most of the problems affecting the T-Third, however, were not new, Ford said, adding that driver and vehicle shortages overwhelmed the system at the T-Third’s launch.

Muni is facing a shortage of 150 drivers — positions left open because of budget constraints and a hiring freeze. There are, however, 240 drivers also out on long-term leave and a large number of other absent drivers each weekday, officials said. According to the MTA, 16.5 percent of drivers are absent each weekday.

The lack of drivers is causing the light-rail system — which includes the J-Church, K-Ingleside, L-Taraval, M-Oceanview, N-Judah and T-Third lines — to miss 3.5 percent of peak-time runs. Buses and trolleys are missing 3 percent of peak-time runs, officials said.

An operations and human resources task force has been convened to make sure drivers are returning to work when they should, officials said.

Besides drivers, the light-rail system is also down vehicles, as some cars have been kept out of service awaiting parts and others have been damaged. While dozens of mechanics have been hired in the last year, there still are not enough to service the vehicles.

With the addition of the T-Third, Muni’s radio and train-control systems are operating outside capacity. Ford said there is too much radio traffic for one channel to bear, and the train-control system is monitoring three more trains an hour than it should be.

Muni’s service problems come at a time when the agency is functioning with a $150 million structural deficit. The agency, which last month approved a $680 million budget for 2007-08, will continue to face the deficit if it doesn’t improve service and increase ridership.

Officials rush to mend T-Third issues

Although the T-Third metro line wreaked havoc on Muni’s light-rail system the past two weeks, officials have implemented a number of measures to help the new service find its niche.

The T-Third, which runs from Castro and Market streets to Bayshore Boulevard and Sunnydale Avenue, began carrying weekday commuters April 9. The line had been operating on a weekends-only schedule since January.

The line introduced an additional nine trains into the system, causing major backups at the Fourth and King streets station, which services ballgames and Caltrain commuters; at Church Street and Duboce Avenue, where trains enter the Market Street tunnel; and at Embarcadero Station where inbound trains turn around to head outbound.

With riders stranded and waiting up to 50 minutes the first few days of the line, Muni officials quickly sent senior managers to hot spots to time trains and troubleshoot problems.

Muni also assigned staff to provide customer service at the stations. MTA Executive Director Nathaniel Ford rode the light-rail vehicles the first week to talk with commuters.

Ford said Tuesday he didn’t have current travel times for T-Third trains; however, the vehicles are now spending less time in the Market Street tunnel than the first week, according to a report.

"We’re running the system each day. It’s going to be fine in a couple of weeks," Ford said.

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