Plagued by aging vehicles and budget constraints on overtime pay for drivers, Muni’s service levels continue to deteriorate at a time when more people are riding the system.
In July, Muni missed an average of 650 service trips — a one-way trip on a line — each weekday. The missed transit runs account for roughly 5 percent of the agency’s total daily schedule. In March, the agency missed roughly 3 percent of its daily scheduled trips, meaning the number of missed service trips has increased from 390 a day to 650 a day over the past five months.
One contributing factor to the missed trips is that about half of Muni buses are at their retirement age and another 40 percent are expected to reach that mark within three years, leaving the fleet prone to frequent breakdowns. Although Muni is set to receive 45 new buses next year and 60 new ones in 2014, it currently has one of the oldest fleets of transit vehicles in North America, according to the agency.
Another factor is a decrease in operator overtime spending. With a shortage of operators, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, has been forced in the past to dole out overtime pay to its drivers to ensure service levels. However, the agency’s overtime payments have been criticized for habitually going over the budget, and the SFMTA has vowed to rein in spending in that category. Without using overtime to cover operators being out, the agency’s service levels have been reduced in recent months.
“These are the shadow cuts that passengers have been forced to deal with,” said Ben Kaufman, spokesman for the San Francisco Transit Riders Union, a local advocacy group. “At a time when more passengers are taking public transit, service is being reduced. We don’t think Muni is the enemy — but it’s clear that the agency has to be creative about finding ways to fund transit.”
The number of passengers has grown steadily on Muni over the past year. In July, average weekday ridership was up by more than 2 percent from the year before.
Ron Austin, spokesman for the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, which represents about 2,000 Muni operators, said his members have been “getting crushed” by passengers who are angry at all the missed service runs.
“There are 10 to 15 people at every stop now because of the missed runs,” Austin said. “Our operators are used to big crowds during the commute times, but now we’re seeing packed buses in the middle of the day.”
Dealing with the crowds of angry passengers has been mentally taxing for the operators, some of whom are increasingly apprehensive about coming in to work now, Austin said.
“It’s a pretty nasty cycle,” Austin said. “When people are getting beat over the head by the public, it’s hard to get them to stick around.”
SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said the agency is holding new training sessions to attract more operators, and it’s reviewing its wellness program to reduce the number of sick days taken by its employees. The new buses set to arrive next year will also make service more reliable, Rose said.
“We have to find ways to manage schedules to ensure that the least amount of passengers are affected on any given day,” Rose said.
*The agency has a goal of 98 percent for service hours delivered