41st Anniversary Special: Bus stop

Muni remains a lucrative target for the private sector
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gwschulz@sfbg.com

There's a money room in the basement of 1 South Van Ness, where the Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, is headquartered. Workers literally count by hand bags of cash and coins taken in as fares from passengers throughout the day.

When Muni recently needed to pull some of those unionized bean counters away from the money room to staff kiosks around the city where transit passes are sold, its managers hoped to replace them with workers from a private contracting outfit.

The plan unsettled the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which persuaded Muni against the idea and instead encouraged it to create 10 new full-time city positions to cover the work that was needed. But the MTA's immediate turn to the private sector is telling.

Powerful local unions would no doubt fight it, but public-transit consultants working with the city have insisted that the outright privatization of San Francisco's municipal transit system is worth consideration. Advisors to the Transit Effectiveness Project, first unveiled by Mayor Gavin Newsom during a 2006 speech, insist nothing is too controversial for debate.

"There's nothing we've been told to take off the table," a consultant hired by the city told the San Francisco Chronicle late last year.

The Transit Effectiveness Project's final recommendations are expected next year, when it's likely Newsom will be starting his second and final term. Big segments of Muni have already been privatized over the years. In fact, Controller's Office records show the MTA has privatized far more formerly public services over the past two decades than any other city department by far.

In 1983 voters passed Proposition J, authorizing the city to contract out services performed by city workers who'd passed civil service exams to prove their skills as long as the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution certifying a cost savings. The MTA issued $46.5 million worth of private contracts last year covering 689 positions, according to figures maintained by the Controller's Office.

Muni has used private security guards since 1975, and 400 private workers handle paratransit services, which aid the disabled. Towing, janitorial, meter-collection, and citation-information services have all been privatized. In total, the MTA's purported cost saving is as much as $20 million per year.

But that's a sliver of MTA's $680 million budget, and there are perennial fears of more privatization pushes. This fall's Muni reform measure, Proposition A, nearly went to the ballot with language that could have allowed millions of dollars in new privatized work at Muni without review from civil service commissioners, but it was removed at the insistence of labor leaders.

San Diego privatized many of its transit services in the '80s, gradually contracting out services as public employees retired. By last year about half of San Diego's bus routes were managed by three private contractors, including Violia, an Illinois company that also runs Muni's paratransit services. Labor leaders say service in San Diego suffered under privatization, and they oppose similar changes here.

"Whenever you contract out a department, whenever you let go of control, then you don't have control of the product," Cristal Java, an organizer for SEIU Local 1021, told the Guardian.

Prop. A's language was changed to preserve union jobs if new routes and lines are introduced that may otherwise have been susceptible to privatization, but there are no assurances that city officials won't eventually point to Muni's widely bemoaned system deficiencies and claim that further contracting out is necessary.

"We see the same operational problems, and hiring new full-time, permanent people is a way to deal with it instead of contracting out," Java said. "The unions, allies, and MTA got together to make Prop.

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