(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Muni aims to end operator shortage by summer 2021

Director of Transit warns that further service improvements may not be possible until then

The Muni operator shortage leading to bus and train service gaps citywide will finally end by summer 2021.

That’s the target set by San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum at City Hall on Tuesday.

But while that’s potentially crowd-pleasing news for Muni riders stuck waiting for late buses, Kirschbaum also recommended the agency not make any major service improvements while they concentrate on shoring up basic, everyday performance.

Speaking to the SFMTA Board of Directors, Kirschbaum struck an upbeat note: While Muni service had plummeted citywide just a year ago, the agency is now back on track to restore bus and train reliability for its 700,000 daily customers.

“This board needs no reminder that we are currently not meeting our scheduled service,” Kirschbaum told them. But, “I’m proud that we’ve made some really key headways in solving this problem.”

While the target has been discussed at SFMTA committee meetings previously, this is the first time Kirschbaum has brought it to the full board publicly.

A dearth of Muni operators led to a severe dip in Muni service in the summer of 2018, which was revealed in an investigative report by the San Francisco Examiner after a review of bus service data for June and July 2018.

That review showed hundreds of buses sitting in Muni garages, undriven. Eventually SFMTA acknowledged the service gaps were caused by a lack of operators.

Since then, a great amount of political pressure has spurred key fixes: Muni operators negotiated higher pay and a shorter amount of time to get that pay in their last contract negotiations this year — a change intended to lure more drivers to work for Muni and stay at the agency — and Mayor London Breed helped jumpstart the Office of Economic and Workforce Development’s CityDrive program to cut the red tape in the Muni operator training process.

Kirschbaum told the SFMTA board on Tuesday that the agency graduated 200 new bus operators in 2019, more than double the 78 operators who graduated in 2018. But the agency still isn’t quite meeting its hiring goals, as 100 bus operators leave annually, mostly through retirement, and 50 to 60 bus operators are expected to be promoted to supervisor positions in 2020 and 2021.

Between 2019 and 2020, SFMTA will boost its trainer ranks and institute even more bus and train operator classes.

But, Kirschbaum recommended that in SFMTA’s new budget for fiscal years 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, the SFMTA Board of Directors should push any desired Muni service improvements into 2021-2022.

She wants the agency to remain laser-focused on improving its already-existing bus and train lines.

“We will not be recommending any service increases until the second fiscal year,” Kirschbaum told the board. “We think it’s important to get healthy before recommending additional service.”

joe@sfexaminer.com

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