The 39 Coit line, shown here in 2018, is one of several currently discontinued routes that used smaller buses designed…

City supervisors acting as the San Francisco County Transportation Authority approved a request from the City’s transit agency for $16.2 million Tuesday to purchase a fleet of new Muni buses specifically designed to run on community routes with hilly terrain and narrow streets.

Coming from Prop K tax dollars, the funding will be used to replace 30 32-foot hybrid diesel buses that reached the end of their useful life back in 2017, improving reliability and reducing maintenance costs. Overdue for replacement, the fleet is experiencing “increased mechanical failures,” with buses now expected to run only 4,000 miles before needing another repair.

The only catch? Many of the routes these buses serve are currently shut down due to pandemic-related service cuts, and it’s unclear when they will return.

Julie Kirschbaum, director of transit for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, told supervisors it made more sense to invest in the new vehicles as opposed to “spending money to keep old buses running,” especially given the increasingly difficult task of maintaining vehicles whose parts and infrastructure are either expensive or no longer produced.

Muni uses the 32-foot Orion buses in order to access neighborhoods that wouldn’t otherwise have transit service. They’re found on lines such as the 35 Eureka, 36 Teresita, 37 Corbett and 39 Coit.

“The 32-foot motor coach is Muni’s smallest vehicle, and with only 30 of them, these coaches are essential for providing service to our hardest-to-reach neighborhoods where our larger vehicles (40-foot and 60-foot variants) cannot climb the hills or make the turns,” a staff report notes.

Transportation Authority Chair Rafael Mandelman and Supervisor Myrna Melgar, who both represent hillside neighborhoods currently lacking swaths of their pre-pandemic transit access, both called on the SFMTA to bring back these community routes swiftly.

“It’s hard to describe some areas of the City as transit deserts, but in fact there are some people in the hills that are stranded and don’t have access to Muni right now,” David Pilpel said during public comment. “I don’t think that is equitable, in any sense of the word.”

Mandelman did raise concerns that the purchase of 30 new hybrid diesel motor coaches doesn’t necessarily help San Francisco achieve its goal of zero emissions.

SFMTA lags behind other city agencies in terms of switching over entirely to electric operations.

The agency’s current plan will require electric-only purchases starting in 2025, with the goal of transitioning SFMTA’s entire roster of vehicles to battery-powered by 2035, although Kirschbaum did point out that this timeline could be re-evaluated and re-adjusted at some point by roughly 18 to 24 months due to the pandemic.

SFMTA also announced in September 2020 that it would run a battery bus pilot program starting later this year that will test three 40-foot buses from three different manufacturers over the course of an 18-month period in regular revenue service.

Such an option does not exist for 30-foot buses, Kirschbaum said when asked why the agency wasn’t exploring the purchase of electric buses for this new fleet.

She also pointed out unique challenges facing SFMTA in its efforts to move towards battery-run buses, specifically the lack of infrastructure and the high cost of facility upgrades to install things such as battery chargers, a new switchboard and other electrical support equipment.

SFMTA plans to procure the 30 vehicles by joining an existing contract between the state of Georgia and Creative Bus Sales, Inc, a company headquartered in Southern California. That approach that will allow the agency to get the buses faster and at a cheaper price. According to SFMTA staff, they expect to approve the contract in early 2021 and receive the vehicles by March 2022.

Approval from the supervisors was contingent on the agency’s commitment to keep the buses in a state of good repair over the course of their use.