Muni buses violate regulations; repair backlog looms

In the most recent safety compliance report of Muni’s bus fleet, 70 percent of the vehicles inspected were cited for violations of some sort. The infractions ranged from corroded batteries to defective stopping systems to broken blinkers.

Under long-established state guidelines, the California Public Utilities Commission is the chief oversight body for Muni’s rail operations, while the <a href="/topics/california-highway-patrol" target="_blank">California Highway Patrol handles regulation of the agency’s bus fleet.

Click on the photo to the right to see more pictures of Muni buses being repaired.

Of the 20 buses from the agency’s Flynn Division yard that the CHP inspected in January, 14 had problems, and one had to be taken out of service, according to a compliance report.

The vehicle taken out of service had a litany of issues, including a corroded battery, a broken exit-side window, a defective brake part and stress cracks above an axle.

The CHP flagged another vehicle for a defective emergency stopping system, a broken wheel stud — one of the pins that help secure a vehicle’s tire — and inoperative instrument panel lamps, although that bus was allowed to stay on the street.

The California Highway Patrol tagged 10 other buses for multiple violations. Emergency exit windows did not work on four of the 20 buses. Despite the numerous violations, the CHP gave Muni’s bus fleet a satisfactory grade.

Spokesman Paul Rose of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, said the problems identified by the CHP’s latest bus inspection were all maintenance issues and didn’t present any safety risks.

He said the violations have since been addressed, and that the bus taken out of service has been fixed up and is now back on the street. The braking problems uncovered by the CHP were minor issues that wouldn’t affect the vehicle’s ability to stop, Rose said.

Earlier this year, the California Public Utilities Commission issued a scathing report about Muni’s crumbling light-rail line infrastructure, with state officials calling San Francisco’s rail system the worst in the state. Following the attention produced by that agency’s report, many of the agency’s transit operators said the system’s bus fleet was just as poorly maintained.

“We’ve been complaining about the buses for years,” said Walter Scott, secretary-treasurer for the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, which represents 2,200 Muni operators. “This job is stressful enough as it is. Driving around in vehicles that are broken all the time makes it almost impossible.”

With a coverage area that includes narrow, winding streets and ridiculously steep ascents and descents, having buses that are fully maintained and equipped would seem to be an essential safety component for Muni’s transit system.

Agency spokesman Rose noted that in the 30 years of its reporting, the CHP has never issued Muni an unsatisfactory grade.

But Scott disagreed with the SFMTA’s assessment of the vehicles. He said operators drive in unsafe buses, and then get blamed by management for service problems.

Faced with consistent fiscal problems, in recent years the SFMTA has been diverting funding away from deferred maintenance programs to help balance its operating budget.

And while Scott said operators frequently raise concerns about the safety levels of the ill-equipped buses, the latest CHP compliance report also faulted the drivers for not properly notifying inspectors about problems with the vehicles. Rose said the agency is working with the operators to improve their reporting records, which should lead to improved maintenance reports.

Rose said about 330 of Muni’s buses — roughly 40 percent — will need to be replaced over a five- to six-year period starting in 2013. Under guidelines from the Federal Transit Administration, buses are supposed to have a useful life of 12 years, although Muni has some vehicles that are older than that. According to a 2010 SFMTA report, the agency has a $127 million backlog for needed bus repairs.

Despite this shortfall, Rose said the agency can continue to keep its buses in safe working order.

“Because of our constant in-house maintenance and oversight, our bus fleet will continue to remain safe for our customers,” Rose said.


Despite safety inspections, CHP gave the green light

During a recent inspection of 20 Muni buses, the California Highway Patrol reported 51 separate violations, with all but six of the vehicles cited for at least one infraction. One of the buses was in such miserable shape that it had to be immediately taken out of service.

Yet despite the buses’ problems, the Highway Patrol officials in charge of the inspections gave the agency a satisfactory grade for its bus upkeep.

In fact, in the 30 years that the CHP has been investigating the agency, it has never given Muni an unsatisfactory rating, even back in 2007 when an inspection uncovered 120 different

According to Chris Korntved, a motor carrier field supervisor for the Highway Patrol, public transit agencies such as Muni can only receive failing grades if they have a violation that could put passengers in imminent danger.

Korntved said dangerous violations are determined by a nationwide body called the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance and include infractions such as flat tires, broken steering wheels, completely defective brakes and inoperable suspension springs.

The Muni brake problems uncovered in the latest CHP reports did not qualify as an imminent danger violation, Korntved said, because they were one of only three components of the stopping

Transit agencies rarely receive unsatisfactory ratings, Korntved said. If an agency is bestowed an unsatisfactory rating, it has 120 days to fix its problems. If the issues aren’t resolved by then, the agency is granted an extra 120-day extension, Korntved said.

If the violations still aren’t cleared, the CHP goes to local and state funding sources and requests that money slated for the agency be withheld. In his 20 years doing inspections, Korntved said that has happened just once.

Running out of gas

  • 20 Muni buses inspected by the CHP in January
  • 14 Buses that were found to have violations
  • 51 Violations uncovered
  • 24 Violations related to equipment requirements
  • 12 Violations related to maintenance requirements
  • 10 Violations related to light and signal requirements
  • 5 Violations related to brake requirements
  • 1 Bus that had to be taken out of service
  • 800 Buses in the transit system
  • 330 Buses that need to be replaced within five to six years (starting in 2013)
  • $127M Cost of backlog for bus maintenance work

Sources: SFMTA, CHP

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