Garcia: Muni is watching 

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in San Francisco, a snapshot may soon be worth $100. That could be the cost for drivers caught on cameras installed on Muni buses if their vehicles are caught double-parked in bus-only lanes.

It’s part of a new proposal being pushed by Mayor Gavin Newsom and transit officials who want to speed up Muni’s timeliness — something that was knocked by a city auditor’s report this week.

Newsom is fairly obsessed with Muni these days, and rightly so. Riders who have been plagued by slow times on the Metro system following the introduction of the new T-Third light-rail line are hopping mad, and when that happens, the "M" in Muni is usually associated with the mayor. Just ask Willie Brown, who turned his re-election bid into a close contest after he failed to meet his 100-day promise to fix Muni by about three years.

Newsom knows that during a re-election year, the light at the end of the tunnel better not be another stalled Muni train.

Later this month, a bill by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, authorizing The City to mount forward-facing cameras on buses to enforce parking violations is expected to be heard at a legislative committee. Ma is carrying the bill at the behest of Newsom and MTA officials who say that parked vehicles in bus-only lanes are one of the biggest hurdles to Muni’s elusive on-time schedule. Legislative approval is necessary because while the state vehicle code authorizes the use of red-light cameras and police radar for speeding tickets, it does not allow the use of cameras for parking enforcement.

I was shown some footage taken by a camera mounted on a Muni bus last week and the video was rather revealing in that many drivers seem to heed the giant "transit only’’ signs about as often as bicyclists brake at stop signs. Transportation officials say the only way to deal with the problem is to crack down on illegal vehicles in the same way they tripled the fines for cars parked in bus lanes several years back.

Under Newsom’s proposal, license plates caught on the cameras would be cited with the tickets — and the photographs — being sent to the registered owners. At present, city officials are pushing for a $100 fine. Ma’s bill would amend a state law that does not allow parking citations to be issued after the time of the violation — the tickets would be sent about two weeks after the illegally parked cars were caught on camera.

"When I saw the video, I was stunned,’’ Newsom told me. "We need the technology to help us deal with the double-parking problem because it’s turned out to be a very big issue. It’s going to be great if you’re on the bus, but it’s going to be horrible if you’re double-parked.’’

This is not an "only in San Francisco’’ feature — words that usually accompany another wacky piece of local legislation. London has used video enforcement of transit lanes for a decade now, with more than 500 roadside cameras and another 900 cameras mounted on buses. More recently, Chicago adopted a pilot program using cameras — based on London’s model — but used it to focus on cars parked in bus stop zones. New York is mulling a program similar to the one Newsom is pushing.

And make no mistake — Newsom is pushing. A report released this week by the City Services Auditor only reaffirmed the growing dissatisfaction by the public with Muni, with the transit agency’s overall grade falling to a "C.’’ The survey of 3,600 residents found that the positive opinions about Muni are "falling toward those of earlier years’’ though not quite at the level of 1999 — the year of the famed Muni meltdown when the computer system crashed and some trains took off without drivers. (Although it’s worth remembering that no one on those cars noticed.)

"No one cares that we’ve had historic budget cuts — I get that,’’ Newsom said. "But the report is hardly a surprise. People want it to be great overnight. But what’s good about it is that it underscores our resolve to address those issues.’’

The on-board camera proposal is just one of the many fix-it tasks facing Muni, but it’s a significant one. San Francisco has nearly 14 miles of bus lanes on Market, Mission, Geary, O’Farrell, Post, Clay, Sacramento, Fremont, Potrero and a number of other downtown streets. Transportation officials say the on-time performance of buses could improve steadily once drivers start learning of the potential financial pain that awaits them if they stray into bus-only lanes.

For Newsom right now, Muni is more of a mantra. He knows as well as anyone that during a re-election year, the light at the end of the tunnel better not be another stalled Muni train.

Watch a video of another Muni-related parking problem — Muni employees who erased chalk marks from their tires to get away with parking illegally in two-hour spaces — on Examiner's video blog.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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