Muni-ficent PR a useless waste of San Francisco's money

It’s ironic that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, by agreeing to spend $100,000 for a public relations firm, has created a PR nightmare. Facing a $21 million deficit and a history of problematic service, the last thing the SFMTA should be doing is wasting money on outside media consultants, particularly when the agency already has a press office.

Agency officials feel that they need extra PR help to deal with contentious labor negotiations in the coming months.

“Labor negotiations are fraught with land mines,” Civil Service Commission chair E. Dennis Normandy told a San Francisco Examiner reporter. He added that sending out the wrong message “could have severe consequences to the MTA.”

But with the overwhelming passage of Proposition G by frustrated San Francisco residents in November, which eliminated a guaranteed pay scale and other union-backed restrictions, SFMTA officials are in the strongest position in years to negotiate new union contracts that will help plug the budget hole and decrease inefficiency and waste.

If the agency really wants to improve its public image, it should start by reducing the lateness of Muni’s vehicles and decreasing the unexplained absences by transit operators. Muni registered a sorry 71 percent on-time mark from October to December. The agency has a mandate to achieve an 85 percent on-time rate, which it has never approached.

In addition, the agency recently recorded a 13.7 percent unexplained absence rate for its transit operators, which includes sick days, jury duty, suspensions and other factors. The goal is a 10.5 percent rate, but it’s hard to imagine a private company tolerating one-tenth of its employees failing to show up for work without an explanation.

Instead of spending $100,000 on PR flacks, the SFMTA would be better served by hiring more security officers to catch or deter fare evaders. Muni lost an estimated $19 million last year due to boarding scofflaws — the same amount it missed out on in 2009 when it vowed a crackdown. If everyone who rode Muni paid for it, the budget deficit would nearly disappear.

Is it any wonder that many are questioning whether the SFMTA, which was set up by a ballot measure in 1999, is a failed experiment? BART board member Tom Radulovich was a key advocate for the measure, but now wants to disband the agency. He argues that it has not done enough to improve Muni’s reliability and chronic underfunding.

State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, also supported the measure but now says the SFMTA should be thoroughly re-evaluated. “The basis to create the SFMTA was to improve the efficiency and flow of transit vehicles, and clearly that has not happened,” said Yee, who is running for mayor.

With its legacy of late trains and buses, ever higher fares and taxes, and record of unexplained absences, it is disappointing that SFMTA has decided to spend thousands more on public relations to assure us that everything is just fine. The City deserves a transit agency that thinks more about how to improve service to its riders and less about preening its public image.

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