On-time reliability to be stressed in Muni pilot program 

Transit agency launches plan on 1-California that sets goal of alleviating system delays

Although the reliability of Muni has been a perennial problem in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom said it wasn’t until last month, when he was left standing on the corner of Fillmore and California streets after four crowded Muni buses rolled by him, that he really got it.

Pulling out his cell phone, Newsom called Nathaniel Ford, who was hired last year to head up the financially struggling transportation agency, to see what needed to be done to improve its service.

"I thought, ‘this is ridiculous,’" Newsom said.

Under a new 90-day pilot project that began Monday, the 1-California will have a manager to troubleshoot problems and make sure all scheduled buses go out; more traffic officers to relieve gridlock in busy intersections that throw buses off schedule; and more parking officers to aggressively ticket double-parked cars that make it difficult for buses to pass.

The goal, Ford said, is to see what it will take tomake the route 100 percent reliable, and then duplicate those practices on other bus lines.

Muni is supposed to be on schedule 85 percent of the time, according to a goal approved by voters in 1999, although data has shown that the average on-time rate of Muni vehicles has hovered around 70 percent since 2001. Last month, Ford told the agency’s governing board that a more modest target of 75 percent could be achieved systemwide by next summer.

Last year, Muni’s on-time rate for buses averaged about 67 percent. The 1-California is Muni’s third busiest route, after the 38-Geary and the 14-Mission. The 1-California transports nearly 30,000 residents across The City daily.

The new pilot program comes in the wake of a budget deficit that resulted in service cuts and fare hikes last year, and according to fiscal forecasts, Muni faces a possible $43.7 million deficit in just a few years. Ford has been called upon to increase ridership to stave off such a financial crisis, and increasing the efficiency and speed of Muni is expected to encourage more riders to get on board.

Ford has also promised to decrease overtime costs, reduce expensive legal settlements due to accidents and crack down on fare evasions and drivers who double-park along bus routes, among other budget-boosting measures. Last year, only 300 citations were given for double-parkers, according to data from San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency.

Dan Krause, managing director of Rescue Muni, a watchdog organization for the Municipal Railway, said he’s pleased Newsom is paying attention to The City’s public transportation system.

"Things have fallen back recently. It’s time to refocus on it again," Krause said.

Krause isn’t the only one who has noticed. A recent poll commissioned by San Francisco’s Chamber of Commerce found that only 53 percent of those surveyed gave Muni a favorable review, compared with 64 percent in 2003.

With a mayoral election just around the corner in 2007, Newsom promised in his State of the City speech last week that, under his watch, Muni’s reliability and on-time performance would improve.

"Frankly, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the buses to run on time," Newsom said.

MTA: Driver leave causes late buses

Muni buses are consistently running behind schedule partly because many drivers are offduty on disability, according to the agency’s executive director, Nathaniel Ford.

Missing drivers forces Muni to pull scheduled buses, leaving passengers waiting for the next scheduled bus, which is more likely to be crowded, Ford said.

"It’s not just the bus and the traffic, but what is happening behind the scenes, like driver availability," Ford said.

About 277 of Muni’s 2,075 drivers are on long-term disability leave, according to data from San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency. In addition, another 275 to 300 operators are out on any particular day for vacations, sick days, etc., said Diana Hammons, the agency’s director of government relations and public affairs.

Mayor Gavin Newsom said that although he believes many of the on-the-job injuries and illnesses are legitimate, he still felt more needed to be done to "address this more aggressively."

Irwin Lum, president of Transport Workers Union, Local 250-A, which represents the bus drivers, said Muni’s shortage of drivers was not solely the result of disability cases, but also caused by the agency offering early retirement to about 70 of the veteran drivers last year to cut agency costs.

Ironically, Lum said, the shortage of drivers and other Muni staff has increased the possibility of physical and emotional injury, adding that a new Muni pilot program on the 1-California line would reduce the pressure drivers deal with every day if it was added to all routes.

Transit operators experience high levels of stress, according to a study published last year in the Journal of Urban Health that used surveys of Muni drivers for its research. Disabilities that drivers incur also include injuries to their back, neck and shoulders, Lum said.

Making Muni faster

A 90-day pilot program on Muni’s 1-California line has a goal of 100 percent on-time performance. Muni has a 70 percent on-time performance.

» Program will be conducted through January 2007, Monday through Friday, during peak hours: 7 to 10 a.m. in the morning and 3 to 7 p.m. in the afternoon and evening

» A dedicated manager will be assigned to the route to troubleshoot and ensure efficiency

» Department of Parking and Traffic officers will be assigned to assist with preventing gridlock and blocking of the intersections that cause bus delays

» Parking control officers will aggressively ticket double-parkers who block the paths of buses

» Operators will be scheduled for all runs; there will be no missing buses

» Monitors will document at what point in the route buses get full and at what times of day

» Report will be compiled with data from 90-day program, including equipment readiness, operators availability, on-time progress and parking enforcement efforts

» Cost for pilot program has not been determined; will be tracked during duration of program

Source: San Francisco Municipal Railway

beslinger@examiner.com

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Bonnie Eslinger

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