Muni performance misses the bus

Almost exactly one month after the public approved Proposition A — allocating at least $26 million more to Muni while granting the Municipal Transportation Agency more authority to reform wasteful and unproductive personnel policies — the Muni quarterly report revealed that city buses, streetcars and cable cars arrive on schedule only 70.8 percent of the time, no better than a year ago.

Mayor Gavin Newsom’s response was a tough-love pronouncement that the 85 percent on-time Muni goal was merely an idealized dream requiring an impossible $150 million influx of annual cash. This cavalier dismissal was particularly irritating because Newsom was among the city supervisors in 1999 who backed Proposition E, mandating regular review of Muni performance and calling for an on-time standard of at least 85 percent.

However, after throwing cold water on hopes raised this autumn by Proposition A promoters, the mayor did promise that it was realistic to expect the entire Muni system to run 75 percent on schedule by the end of 2008. He also insisted there was no reason why an even better 80 percent on-time record could not be attained within a year on the most heavily used lines, such as the 38-Geary.

Newsom’s seemingly confident prediction has been duly entered into The Examiner news calendar, and we will be reporting next December on whether Muni reliability indeed does improve meaningfully in 2008. It would be especially nice then to find that MTA Executive Director Nathaniel Ford, who took over in January 2006 as The City’s highest-paid public employee, actually earned the $17,000 raise and a $20,860 bonus the board of directors gave him in mid-November, bringing his pay to $315,140 a year.

City officials also express hope that Muni service will improve as a result of the Transit Effectiveness Project, an 18-month study supposed to overhaul our transit system in which some buses have arrived on schedule barely half of the time during the last six years. We would like this report to give particularly close attention to what is done at the best-operated transit systems in the U.S. and overseas, instead of exclusively listening to demands of local advocacy groups as has been done too often in past San Francisco studies.

To function as effectively as possible on San Francisco’s congested streets, Muni will need a plethora of direct, practical ideas, such as this week’s suggestion by the MTA board chairman, the Rev. James McCray. He wants every driver and field supervisor to use the same accurate timepiece, so that runs are started exactly on time. This might seem overly simplistic, but on-time Muni performance is defined as a small window between one minute early and four minutes late.

At any rate, city voters have once again been convinced to hand over more money to improve city services, just as has been done before for libraries, schools, parks and all the rest. The public should demand that its new Muni investment quickly begins to deliver what it is paying for.

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