San Francisco's Muni system did not have a good Easter week. Multiple system failures and seething labor issues paved the way for the impending departure of SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin, and Mayor London Breed’s announcement of a national search for his replacement. Whoever is selected will still have to deal with solving Muni's manifold problems, along with a possible governance challenge from the Board of Supervisors.
An Outgoing Director
Reiskin has been in the doghouse with the Mayor since last August, when she put the Director on notice over a number of different lapses, such as the mishandling of the Twin Peaks Tunnel renovation. That renovation included a fatal accident involving a contractor whose safety record had apparently not been properly vetted and a system rerouting which amplified the impact of the agency's ongoing operator shortage on other lines.
Reiskin also faced criticism for slow progress on safer bike lanes, in part prompted by the move to remove protected bike lanes from the Sixth Street Safety Project. He faced additional heat over the handling of last year's rental scooter pilot program.
As of now, any progress which has been made in those areas has been eclipsed by last month’s service failures, including on Muni's new Siemens LRV4 light rail trains.
The most spectacular of these incidents involved the train’s exit doors. On April 17th, an elderly woman became caught in a door and was dragged from the platform at the Embarcadero Street station.
The following week, service on several lines was impacted by a union work slowdown that was called to bring management attention to long-simmering staffing issues.
Finally, on the morning of April 26th, overhead power lines between Powell and Civic Center stations, like the Camel’s Back, snapped, halting Metro service for the rest of the day.
By the following Monday, Mayor Breed was calling for a national search to replace Reiskin. Reskin responded with a public statement that he would not seek to renew his contract, which terminates in August.
New Trains, Few Operators, Many Problems
Design issues may also be compounding the problem with the Siemens LRV doors. The new vehicles lack safety mirrors which allow operators to manually ensure that the sides of trains are clear before departing. Instead, this function is provided by camera systems, which, according to reports from operators and other sources, have “blind spots” and light sensor issues which prevent operators from getting a full picture of whether a train is clear for a safe departure.
Operators have also had ongoing complaints about coupler system failures on the new train cars, impacting capacity.
Lack of familiarity with new systems brings in another issue which has impacted the operator shortage: training. Muni operates many different types of vehicles, all of which require specialized training and licensing.
Ensuring that operators are properly trained to fill the different needs in the system is another bottleneck to getting qualified operators out on the streets. At least one senior manager at Muni has come forward with allegations of being pressured to let unqualified student operators pass through training.
The human factor may have been the most neglected issue now coming to the fore. The transit agency is now under pressure to fix the operator shortage – just as they're negotiating a new contract with the operators’ union, Transport Workers’ Union Local 250. Union leadership says operators, especially those just starting out, are getting a raw deal with both initial pay and raises. The union argues it's a big part of why Muni can't recruit and retain new operators.
According to union president Roger Marenco, new Muni operators get paid 63% of top-level wages. It takes an entire year before they can get their first raise and up to 48 months to reach parity with other operators.
The wage progression issue has played a significant role in the rise of Marenco as TWU’s local chief. He first ran for the position in 2014 and lost, vowing to run again. He leveraged a text message list and his YouTube channel to win the job with an overwhelming majority in 2018 - but not without pushback from the union’s old guard. Those differences appear to have been resolved for now, with the help of the union’s national leadership.
The operator shortage is not a new problem. During Supervisor Vallie Brown’s hearing at the Government Audit and Oversight Committee last December, a Legislative Analyst report revealed was that Muni has been facing an operator deficit of close to 18% since fall of 2016.
At the hearing, Reiskin described the problem as “a perfect storm” of simultaneously trying to reconcile training timelines for new equipment, maintain service delivery, and compete with general labor trends disfavoring public employment.
The takeaway from the hearing was grim: Muni is relying on overtime in order to maintain routine service, and operators are overworked.
"We have a recruitment problem, and the result is an unsustainable situation," says Marenco. "We have operators working seven days a week, they're giving up family time, legitimate days off, and their health just to keep Muni service running on time.”
A History of (Troubled) Governance
The situation is a far cry from the public perception of Muni employees in the 1990s and 2000s. Back then, highly liberal work rules allowed for perks such as “missouts", where operators could simply take no-show days without notice.
Public resentment over such perks, along with continuing service difficulties such as the 1998 “Muni Meltdown,” helped create a "perfect storm" of their own. Emerging stakeholder groups such as Rescue Muni called for reform.
In the interceding years, San Francisco voters have passed a number of ballot measures aimed at fixing Muni governance. These began with Proposition E in 1999, which created today's SFMTA by merging Muni with the Parking and Traffic Department and the Taxi Commission.
The process continued with measures in 2007 and 2010. The latest measure, Proposition G, championed by then-Supervisor (and now Mayor Breed’s Chief of Staff) Sean Elsbernd, was aimed squarely at resetting Muni employee pay policies and work rules.
Since the process of reform began, Muni’s performance has gradually improved. But the ride has not been without some bumps.
Proposition E began the process of significantly reforming the work rules for Muni employees, along with other fiscal reforms. Most importantly, it placed policy direction for traffic management in the City under a single roof, reinforcing the City’s "Transit First" policy.
That has accelerated other policy initiatives which favor public transit and other low-impact transportation modalities over private automobiles, such as Bus Rapid Transit or the Better Market Street plan. While the overall benefits of such policies are well articulated, they’re also raising the hackles of neighborhood traditionalists.
As a result, the district-elected Board of Supervisors, which has fiscal influence over transit policy as the State-mandated County Transportation Authority, has become a source of perennial pushback against the policies of the SFMTA Board of Directors.
Supervisors attempted to grab some authority over the agency with a failed ballot measure in 2016. Supervisors Aaron Peskin and Ahsha Safai have floated the idea of disassembling SFMTA entirely, turning the clock back to 1999. The measure would have reversed San Francisco’s pro-transit agenda - one repeatedly supported by the City’s voters, but which has occasionally stumbled in the face of technological and political pressures.
Mayor Breed, on the other hand, seems committed to the “Transit First” agenda - she’s recently filled a vacancy on the SFMTA board with Steve Hemminger, the former head of the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission. At the MTC Hemminger oversaw the implementation of the Clipper card, as well as the body’s absorption of the Association of Bay Area Governments - an agency often seen as a structural impediment to progressive planning and transit policies.
Given last month’s events, calls from the Supervisors to reset governance at SFMTA have intensified again. That said, Reiskin’s departure, the search for his replacement, and concluding contract negotiations with the TWU may give a modicum of breathing space before the next evolution of Muni Governance Wars unfolds.
“There's been a lot of reform in the last decade and things are nowhere near as bad as they were in past years, but there's still a lot to do,” says Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, whose District 8 is heavily dependent on the Muni Metro. “I'd probably support some changes, but now is probably not the time. Let’s take a deep breath, recruit a new Director, and make sure that any future conversations on organization are as thoughtful and nonpolitical as possible."
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