SFMTA working hard to address big challenges

I want to thank The San Francisco Examiner editorial page for the consistent attention it’s paying to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Let me start by agreeing with the general premise that the SFMTA can and must be better managed to better serve the people of San Francisco. I took the job of leading this agency to do just that. The challenges of the SFMTA did not develop overnight and won’t be erased overnight. I and thousands of others in the agency are working hard to improve Muni and all aspects of the SFMTA. While I don’t expect kudos for efforts alone, I do want San Franciscans to understand the challenges and that there are no easy solutions, such as “cut work orders and overtime.” Three recent themes that have graced these pages deserve a more balanced understanding.

Work orders

These are accounts used to pay for services provided by other government agencies, such as power to run the Muni buses and trains, customer service, legal advice and security. We use work orders to pay for services we need. For those services — such as maintenance or customer service — for which we have discretion over the provider, our alternatives are to perform the service ourselves or outsource, neither of which necessarily reduces cost nor obviates the need for the service.

Two problems that have plagued SFMTA overtime are underbudgeting and overspending. With regard to the former, given the 24-7 nature of Muni service, it makes good financial sense to resource some of the scheduled service via overtime. With the use of part-time drivers, we’ll be able to reduce scheduled overtime, but not all of it. What will remain is service that’s cheaper to provide via overtime using existing staff, rather than regular time requiring additional staff.

We also have not adequately budgeted for special events that we must support; some of which we’re compensated for, most of which we’re not. On the overspending side, there is no doubt that with better and more active management, we can bring down some overtime costs. The demand for our services is not decreasing, so we need the person hours on the streets. To the extent we can cost-effectively do so through regular-time staffing, we will do so.

Cost overruns

A recent audit of SFMTA capital projects suggested significant overruns, which would be accurate when compared to the baseline budgets the auditors reviewed. However, many so-called overruns were due to added scope to meet city policy and community needs.

A good example is the Church/Duboce track replacement project. When we brought the initial project plan to the neighborhood, community groups and residents suggested broader improvements to pedestrian, bicycle and vehicular safety, as well as other enhancements. The SFMTA was able to partner with other departments and secure additional funding to make this a better project and more compliant with The City’s Better Streets Policy.

As to the suggestions that such “overruns” should be used to address the SFMTA’s operating budget shortfalls: using one-time capital revenues to plug ongoing budget gaps is bad policy.

While again acknowledging that there is much room for improvement in the management of the SFMTA — and I expect the SFMTA board, City Hall, and the people of San Francisco to hold me accountable to achieving improvement — it is important to recognize that costs due to labor, benefits and inflation increased the overall cost of providing service faster than available revenues could keep up. But the SFMTA was not able to reduce services in response.

We all want to have a great transportation system in San Francisco. I will certainly seek all available solutions and tackle all management challenges, and beyond that, we’ll need to work together as a community to understand what it will take to provide great transportation options and then have the will to provide it.

Ed Reiskin is the director of transportation for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

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