Editor's Notes

Every time you call 311 and ask about the next bus it costs the broke and beleaguered transit system almost two bucks


My friends and I were waiting for the bus the other day on Mission and 29th streets, wondering whether it made sense to make our kids walk about a mile to the Mission District branch library or to continue to hang out in front the donut shop and argue about why we weren't buying donuts that afternoon. So we did what hundreds of other San Franciscans do every day: we called 311 and asked when the next bus was coming. Six minutes, the operator said.

Although we didn't realize it at the time, we had just cost Muni $1.97.

That's right — during Muni's budget hearings last week, it came out that every time you call 311 and ask about the next bus — which is one of the main things people use that service for — it costs the broke and beleaguered transit system almost two bucks. That's more than the fare you pay when you finally board. (You can call 511 and get an automated response much more cheaply, but it's voice-activated software and can be frustrating.)

When Gavin Newsom set up his 311 system, he never told us that a fair amount of its funding would come from diverting resources away from the city departments the call center is supposed to serve. He sold it as one of his government-as-public-service programs, a way to make the city more businesslike by treating its customers — that's us, the residents and taxpayers — better.

I'm fine with that, and I've never had a problem with the 311 idea. It can be intimidating for people to get through to city agencies and figure out whom to call about what, and a central dispatch makes sense. The problem is, at a time when the city's really, really broke, I'm not sure the 311 center is more important than, say, nurses at San Francisco General Hospital or community-based mental health treatment.

Ah, but there's a secret here: Newsom doesn't have to fund 311 at the level of its real cost because he simply steals money from other departments.

Now that I know Muni is getting hit with a special "work order" charge (because Newsom never figured out how to pay for his pet project and is draining money from bus service to fund it), I'm done. I'm never calling 311 to ask for bus information again.

And I have to admit, I'll feeling a little cheated. *