Between 4:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. on the day of Game 1 of the World Series, Muni melted down in a spectacular way. During this 90-minute period, three light-rail vehicles in the subway broke down because of inadequate maintenance. Nice way to showcase our world-class city during the World Series, though unfortunately not an isolated occurrence.
San Francisco is facing a test: An upcoming decision by the Board of Supervisors and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency will let us know whether our city leadership is committed to reversing Muni’s downward spiral — including a 57.2 percent on-time rate in August — by investing in the system to improve reliability. The alternative path promises only more of the same neglect.
Recently, the agency secured $6.7 million in regional funding earmarked for increasing Muni’s productivity and ridership. These funds can and should be dedicated to improving the system by fixing and rehabilitating vehicles and purchasing new ones, thus improving the system’s flagging reliability.
Despite the clear need to dramatically increase investment in Muni’s infrastructure and maintenance — and despite the voters’ unequivocal mandate that reliable service be Muni’s top priority — some at the SFMTA and on the Board of Supervisors are arguing that we should use a significant portion of this money to pay for 22 months of free Muni passes for The City’s low-income youths, even though youths already receive a 70 percent fare discount.
While improving access to transportation for low-income youths is an important goal, diverting this money from basic system maintenance is not the right answer. When we have a $420 million deferred maintenance backlog, and passengers are forced to get off buses in the middle of routes because there aren’t enough operators, we can’t afford to use this money for anything other than investment in our system. A free Muni pass doesn’t mean much if the bus doesn’t arrive.
Not only is this diversion of funds bad for Muni’s ability to provide quality service, but it also undermines public confidence in the transit agency’s decision-making process. Why would the voters give Muni more money without having full confidence that it will actually use that money to improve the system’s inadequate performance?
Recently, an editorial in The San Francisco Examiner favoring free Muni for youths made the extraordinary claim that this money shouldn’t go to service improvements because there is no way to sustain them in the future. That argument makes little sense. Making capital improvements and back-filling deferred maintenance are one-time costs that can reduce breakdowns and improve reliability. Also, how does The S.F. Examiner think free Muni for youths will be sustained? Once the 22-month pilot program ends, the program will inevitably be renewed — it’s incredibly hard to give something for free and then take it away — and that funding likely will, once again, come from funds that could be used to maintain the system and improve reliability.
In light of this debate, I introduced a resolution requesting that all funds available for Muni maintenance be used to fix our aging system. This might seem like common sense to anyone who has squeezed onto an over-crowded bus or stood on a subway platform waiting for a train breakdown to clear, but it’s unclear whether the resolution will pass, given the intense political pressure to fund the free Muni program.
The resolution will be heard at a meeting of the Government and Audit Oversight Committee on Nov. 19. Please contact your supervisor and ask for his or her support in improving Muni service for you and the rest of San Francisco.
Supervisor Scott Wiener represents District 8, which includes the Castro.