Transit troubles

Fixing Muni is going about as smoothly as boarding a crowded bus with a bundle of groceries

Muni buses and trains have been particularly crowded since service reductions were implemented this spring

Peggy da Silva is an avid cyclist, public transit advocate, and member of the San Francisco Transit Riders Union — a new organization made up of several hundred San Franciscans who want to see improvements to Muni.

Yet even she admits that when it comes to getting to work, it takes just 15 minutes by car or an hour if she opts to go by bus. "I am committed to transit and cycling" for environmental reasons, she said, but "it gets really frustrating" to wait for the bus or light rail cars to arrive.

Da Silva could be considered lucky in that she can opt to drive if she feels it's necessary, while many lower-income San Franciscans cannot afford a car and have no choice but to rely on Muni to get to work, buy groceries, or make doctor appointments. It's even worse late at night when the buses run less frequently and the streets are dark and empty.

Speaking at a June 29 transit rally, the Rev. Norman Fong of the Chinatown Community Development Center joked that Chinatown is one of the city's greenest neighborhoods — but "not by choice." Most Chinatown residents just can't afford to own a car, underscoring the point that Muni service cuts affect lower-income communities more significantly than those with more transportation options.

The perception that Muni is broken isn't unique to transit advocates. Around City Hall, a number of proposals have been put forth to fix the ailing system, which has been mired in delays and overcrowding as fares have gone up and service was slashed. But determining what the root problems are, how they should be addressed, and what the best path forward may be has proved arduous.

Rather than a simple calculation or a study in efficiency, the debate surrounding Muni is spinning into an emotionally charged affair. For those aiming to protect low-income riders from service cuts or fare increases, it's a discussion about social justice, calling into question why the city is asking more of bus riders than motorists in a city with a "transit-first" mandate in its charter.

The strong opposition to the cuts by supervisors and the public has led to a rollback. On June 30, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) announced that on Sept. 4, it would be able to restore half of the 10 percent systemwide service reduction that went into effect in May.

"Due to stronger than expected revenue streams, operational efficiencies, and new grant opportunities, staff is recommending the restoration of service on some routes and lines this fall," according to an SFMTA press release. Buses that run all night would come more often, and the partial service restoration would help ease over-crowding.

While this was welcome news for anyone who takes transit, the expected improvement still leaves untouched many key issues plaguing the city's public transit system. Two separate initiatives most likely destined for the November ballot seek to deal with systemic problems — but both have met with resistance.

On July 1, Sup. Sean Elsbernd announced that he had submitted some 75,000 signatures for a proposed charter amendment for the November ballot to change the way transit operator salaries are determined. Since they only needed 46,000 signatures, "presumably, we'll qualify," Elsbernd told us.

"It presses the reset button on all the [memorandums of understanding] and then puts the riders at the table," he explained. "It also eliminates the side letters that allow the six leaders of the union to get full-time salaries and benefits without needing to drive."

Elsbernd's proposal would require operator wages and benefits to be set through collective bargaining, instead of the current guarantee that their wages be at least as high as the average wage rate for transit operators in the two highest paying comparable transit systems.