Muni's 2-foot-tall Christmas tree shows off the transit system's ups and downs of the year. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/S.F. Examiner)

Muni’s ‘holiday tree’ twinkles of transit ups and downs

For many years, Muni’s “holiday tree” has been, perhaps, one of the strangest looking Christmas trees in San Francisco –– and now it’s been overhauled, much like the buses on our streets.

At the seventh floor of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency past banks of cubicles stands a miniature Christmas tree about 2 feet tall.

John Haley, SFMTA’s director of transit (who is one white beard away from being a dead ringer for Santa Claus) doesn’t decorate it in the usual fashion.

First off, it’s a “holiday tree,” Haley explained.

Instead of multicolored lights, flashing blue emergency train signals light the tree.

Instead of tinsel, there’s copper wire from the guts of a Muni train.

And instead of hanging reindeer, colored orbs or Star Wars ornaments, broken train parts festoon the tree.

In years past, Haley said, this was to remind him and SFMTA employees of his engineers’ ingenious fixes, made deep in the guts of the steel beasts roaming our streets. There were door parts from train cars, a busted train computer motherboard, and a “sander hose” that used to grind morning commutes to a halt, until the ingenuity of Muni engineers found a fix.

This year, however, Haley has changed the theme of his tree.

“It’s more of a look ahead,” Haley said, and is also decorated in ways to remind the SFMTA of its tasks to come.

So if last year’s tree was more Ghost of Christmas Past, this year is more the full Scrooge treatment, with ghosts of Christmas present and future amid the green.

One of the largest decorations is a gold star commemorating Super Bowl 50, when much of San Francisco feared traffic would snarl to a halt. Though many jeer when SFMTA fails, the silence from the public around traffic woes signaled a win for the transit agency.

“This side of the tree is a tribute to the heroes,” Haley said, and showed off a photo hanging from a branch of two SFMTA employees who foiled a stabbing this year.

And looking to the future, a photo showing the construction of one of Muni’s new 64 light rail vehicles hangs near the top of the tree –– the arrival of which Haley eagerly awaits, like a kid the night before Christmas.

Those new trains will ease many commuters’ woes when they arrive over the next two years, he said.

“It’ll be fabulous.”

All is of course not roses on the tree, which shows Haley’s willingness to be honest about his fleet’s shortcomings. On the tree hangs a ticket with the note “NEVER RELY ON BRAND NEW PARTS,” which Haley said was a hard lesson learned from when a brand new part put a train out of commission.

But that’s the nature of Muni, too. We take our lumps, the occasional late bus, but also celebrate its 700,000 daily wins –– the number of trips made each day on the transit system, easily dwarfing its siblings, BART and Caltrain.

At this time of the year, every year, Haley lights the emergency blue lights and reflects on those wins, and losses, too.

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