Who Should Run Muni, and How Should They Do It?

Talia Schaffer reports on the the Muni governance panel discussion

In addition to proposing specific improvements to Muni service, RESCUE MUNI has also been working on the broad issue of Muni governance - that is, high-level decision-making, public oversight, and funding. RESCUE hosted a panel discussion on the subject Sept. 30, with a panel composed of the leading thinkers about governance: Supervisor Tom Ammiano; Arthur Bruzzone, host of SF Politics; David Pilpel of the Sierra Club; Dick Swanson from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association; and Martin Wachs from the U.C. Berkeley Transportation Center. (Ammiano, Pilpel, and SPUR are also RESCUE members.) The event was moderated by RESCUE co-founder George Musser. It was a lively discussion and drew an audience of over 100 people.

Problems with Muni

In keeping with RESCUE's philosophy that riders come first, Musser first asked five audience members each to give one problem they had with Muni. The concerns were the usual: absent drivers, reliability, schedule, safety. The panelists then had a chance to explain how their governance ideas addressed these problems. Ammiano argued for increasing revenue, hiring drivers, and breaking down the bad culture. Bruzzone advocated privatization - that is, contracting management out to a private company. Pilpel answered the question, Who should run Muni? with: "We should run Muni." Whatever the organizational structure, the public must hold the decision-makers accountable, he said.

"Nobody is running Muni"

Swanson asserted, "Nobody is running Muni." Under the present arrangement, he said, responsibility for Muni is diffused among several governing bodies. Wachs described his study of 147 American transit systems and their experiences, often positive, with contracting out services. Competition, or even the threat of it, might help Muni too, although Wachs also noted that Muni does not get a fair share of regional transit funds.

A Metropolitan Transportation Agency?

Musser proceeded to ask a series of four questions that had been drawn up by the RESCUE Steering Committee. First, he asked how an independent public Metropolitan Transportation Agency, of the sort SPUR has proposed, might differ from the current set-up. Swanson, saying that Muni was too important to be politicized, argued that an MTA would consolidate the responsibility now spread among several bodies. But Wachs responded that Los Angeles tried to introduce an MTA, with disastrous results. In follow-up questions, panelists debated whether other transit systems' experiences could be legitimately applied to San Francisco.

Employee performance

The next question was: "How can we inspire Muni personnel to do a better job?" The panelists all agreed that Muni has to start treating its employees professionally if it expects them to treat the public well in turn. Bruzzone argued that privatization would solve this problem, and pointed to the improvement in airport door-to-door shuttles since competition emerged. Swanson added that one reason Muni service has plummeted is that more than 20 percent of pay goes for overtime, especially unscheduled overtime; such money might have been spent hiring additional drivers and mechanics or making other improvements.

"Customer charters"

Musser then asked panelists about an issue that RESCUE MUNI has been working on: "customer charters," which establish quantitative service standards and consequences (such as fare refunds) if they are not met. Swanson said it would be better to deal with Muni's systemic problems first; SPUR was pursuing a ballot measure for November 1998 to set up the MTA. Wachs was similarly dubious. He said that customer charters only work when there are direct penalties, such as docking workers' pay - which would be very hard to introduce in the existing union structure. Ammiano promptly accused Wachs of union-bashing, while Bruzzone said the unions were a real problem. Pilpel brought the discussion back to charters by suggesting that Muni needed to make its performance statistics public, just as BART does. In the follow-up period, the panelists concurred that everyone has to work together: riders, management, and unions.

Financing Muni

The final Steercom question was: "How can Muni get more money?" All the panelists had imaginative responses. Wachs suggested fees on downtown parking, which other cities have found effective. Ammiano wondered whether an assessment tax would be viable, and said a fare increase might work if done properly. Pilpel said that as a rider he'd be willing to pay more if the fare increases were small yearly ones. Bruzzone said that in Las Vegas and San Diego, privatization reduced costs substantially even as ridership increased. Swanson cited millions in uninvestigated workers' compensation claims as an example of how Muni wastes money.

Audience questions: Privatization, advocacy groups, absenteeism

At this point, Musser opened the floor to the audience. One audience member argued that privatization had historically been disastrous in San Francisco. The MTA was a better option, he said. Two panelists defended privatization: Wachs replied that privatization actually made it possible to offer more service, and Pilpel pointed out that SamTrans contracts out some of its service. Ammiano warned that privatization has risks, including low health benefits for workers. The next speaker inquired, "What's the proper role for a riders' advocacy organization?" Swanson and Ammiano said it should voice the riders' frustrations.

The third speaker recommended tying the Muni director's salary to the budget. Panelists argued that experience and motivation were more important than monetary incentives. Another speaker asked about the cost of maintaining the new Breda streetcars. Ammiano responded that the next procurement of streetcars supposedly won't have the whining noise. The next speaker suggested that we needed to bring in a consulting firm to get expert transit people at the helm. Pilpel responded by saying that consultants don't always do a good job; on the other hand, Swanson wondered whether Muni was really the best overseer of capital project construction.

Finally, the last audience member spoke about Muni's absenteeism problem. He suggested that employees engage in mutually beneficial absenteeism: One employee doesn't show up so his friend can get overtime, and next time the friend returns the favor. He asked, How can we address this without privatization? Swanson agreed the problem was serious, saying that in one period fully 31 percent of the operators were gone. Less than half of this was allowed absenteeism. Ammiano cautioned that you have to figure out who's going to hold the employees accountable. Pilpel put it in practical terms: If there aren't enough drivers, Muni ought to ratchet the schedule back to something it can realistically meet.

In closing, the panelists all said they foresaw a new level of political activism for transit issues. They urged riders to continue to participate in neighborhood groups, to call and lobby city leaders, to come to SPUR meetings, to join RESCUE MUNI, to learn from cyclists' advocacy groups, and to pursue ballot measures.

RESCUE MUNI members have continued to discuss these issues in order to formulate our position on the SPUR report. If you would like to participate in the Governance Committee, please leave a message on the hot line at 2731558 or send email to transit1@rescuemuni.org.

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RESCUE MUNI Transfer, Winter 1997-98.
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