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SFMTA prepares to replace miniature Muni buses

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The 39-Coit Muni bus stops to pick up people traveling visiting Coit Tower in North Beach on Feb. 13, 2018. (Daniel E. Porter/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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The tiniest buses in Muni’s fleet are known to be among its worst performers, and The City has taken its first public step to replace them.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority board awarded $356,422 to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency on Tuesday toward planning the purchase of 30 new buses by 2020. The new buses — coincidentally, about 30 feet long — will replace 30 diesel hybrid buses manufactured by the bus company Orion.

The smaller-sized buses are used to handle some of The City’s tightest turns and narrowest streets.

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Though the funding is just a drop in the bucket compared to the $43 million needed to buy the new 30-footers, it will allow engineers to develop a plan; $19 million toward the purchase has already been identified, according to the SFCTA, while the SFMTA must still seek the remaining amount.

Muni’s miniature buses roam “community routes” in parts of San Francisco where even a 40-foot bus would find trouble navigating, like the 36-Teresita route, which winds through the hills west of Glen Canyon Park, or the 39-Coit, which twists its way up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower. The tiny buses also roam the 35-Eureka, 37-Corbett, 56-Rutland and 66-Quintara routes.

But the Orion buses serving those routes are breaking down with greater frequency, which has “led to increased maintenance costs and decreased reliability,” according to a report by SFMTA staff.

The undersized buses are relatively expensive for their size. SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said the buses “have only [a] small section of the market share” and that the cost is high because there are “less than a handful” of manufacturers who make them. By contrast, the SFMTA leveraged a partnership with King County in Seattle to purchase an order of larger-sized buses from manufacturer New Flyer, Inc., for a reduced cost.

But if San Francisco wants to purchase tiny buses for its most narrow routes, it may have to go at it alone.

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