Supervisors committee approves $1.2B contract for new Muni light-rail vehicles

Jessica Christian/Special to the S.F. ExaminerA 15-year

Jessica Christian/Special to the S.F. ExaminerA 15-year

San Francisco's political leaders have bitterly fought recently over transit-related issues from enforcement of parking meters on Sundays to an increase of the vehicle license fee. But when it comes to the proposed 15-year, $1.2 billion contract to buy hundreds of new light-rail vehicles, everyone appears to be on board.

Complaints of perennial lackluster Muni service is common discourse in San Francisco. Residents say they are routinely frustrated about the system's unreliability, employees are known to use Muni as a foolproof tardiness excuse and politicians routinely promise service will improve.

But whether the replacement and augmentation of existing light-rail vehicles will lead to a more reliable Muni service is something city politicians and Muni officials are counting on.

The Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved the proposed $1.2 billion contract for up to 260 light-rail vehicles with Siemens Inc. The full board is expected to vote to approve it next week. The vehicles will be manufactured in Sacramento.

Supervisor London Breed said that “a day doesn't go by where we don't receive numerous complaints about what's happening with public transportation all over The City,” adding that “we have a fleet that's held together by duct tape and broken promises.”

The existing 151 light-rail vehicles used by about 173,500 riders daily are notoriously in disrepair, costing the agency $33.9 million annually in maintenance and repairs, according to a report by Budget Analyst Harvey Rose. On average, 114 of the vehicles are in service while the other 37 are in the shop.

The first batch of vehicles, however, would not serve the existing service routes but a new one. The first 24 cars under the contract would come in 2017 for the under-construction $1.6 billion Central Subway line, a 1.7-mile route running from Chinatown to where the T-Third line ends near AT&T Park. The replacement of the existing 151-car fleet would begin in 2021.

While the agency has the $957 million to purchase 215 trains, it has yet to figure out how to come up with the $234 million to buy 45 more, a need identified for 2027.

Among the improvements the new fleet would bring are better doors and less noise. John Haley, director of transit for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said that “the doors in the current LRV fleet are the bane of our existence.”

The vehicles will also be lighter, which means less noise and less wear and tear. “We have issues with noise, vibration, pounding on the streets, pounding on the tracks because of the weight on the car,” Haley noted. The new vehicles would be 78,000 pounds, 4,000 pounds lighter than current cars.

Haley explained that the current vehicles break down about every 5,000 miles traveled, but the new ones are expected to travel 58,000 miles before repairs are required. The transit agency is also exploring longitudinal seating to create more space in the cars, which will be discussed in the coming months.

The City doesn't have much choice in ultimately needing to replace the current fleet by 2021.

“That is when the cars become retirement age under the federal transit administration guidelines,” Haley said.

Bay Area NewsGovernment & PoliticsJohn HaleyLondon Breedparking metersPolitics

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