Muni boss admits to big problems

San Francisco’s transit chief spoke with welcome frankness about the bus and streetcar system’s major problems with “institutional infrastructure issues and operator availability” Tuesday at City Hall. Municipal Transportation Agency Executive Director Nathaniel Ford was answering Board of Supervisors’ questions about the citywide tie-ups stemming from this month’s launch of the T-Third light-rail line.

Ford insisted that T-Third service was improving daily and would “be fine in a couple of weeks.” With riders waiting up to 50 minutes the first few days of the line, Muni quickly sent senior managers to troubleshoot problems at hot spots and assigned extra customer service at stations. Ford himself rode the streetcars the first week to talk with commuters.

But the Muni chief’s most revealing comments centered on his admission that most of the problems sparked by the new line’s debut were nothing new.

When the T-Third attempted to start phasing nine new trains into the commuter schedule, long-recognized shortages of drivers, mechanics and reliable equipment overwhelmed the entire Muni Metro system. Ford said bluntly that Muni will not attain its voter-mandated 85 percent on-time target if these chronic problems are not addressed.

Mayor Gavin Newsom is counting on the 18-month Transit Effectiveness Project study to improve Muni reliability via a top-to-bottom overhaul of routing, service frequency, traffic patterns and parking regulations. The review, due for completion this autumn, is being jointly carried out by the MTA and the City Controller’s Office.

We would be more confident about this pending study if it were being prepared by an independent blue-ribbon panel instead of by the MTA itself. At least it is somewhat heartening that the City Controller’s Office is involved, because its latest city services audit poll pulled no punches in giving Muni a report card grade of only a “C.”

But so far as we can see, the vaunted Transit Effectiveness Project is not even looking at the two painfully obvious underlying causes of the all-too-visible problems.

Muni cannot keep sufficient vehicles reliably in service because its equipment budgets are routinely raided by city politicians pushing showier causes. Buses and streetcars sit immobile in long waits for outdated parts. With the T-Third running, Muni’s train-control computers and single radio channel are operating beyond their approved capacity.

Even worse, Muni staffing is hobbled by arcane work rules that have been near-impossible to modify. While it is true there are 150 driver vacancies because of a long-term hiring freeze, there are also 240 drivers out on long-term leave — and a disgraceful 16.5 percent of drivers are absent each weekday.

Tinkering with surface problems and not really facing the underlying causes virtually guarantees that Muni will continue running its $150 million structural deficits and not improving service enough to increase ridership.

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