Muni reform that might actually work

Pub date May 11, 2010

EDITORIAL The 2007 ballot measure that was supposed to give Muni more political independence and more money has failed to provide either. It’s time to say that Proposition A, which we supported, hasn’t worked — in significant part because the administration of Mayor Gavin Newsom hasn’t allowed it to work. It’s time for a new reform effort, one that looks at Muni’s governance structure, funding, and the way it spends money.

There are several proposals in the works. Sup. David Campos has asked for a management audit of the Municipal Transportation Agency, which runs Muni, and that’s likely to show some shoddy oversight practices and hugely wasteful overtime spending. Sup. Sean Elsbernd wants to change the way Muni workers get paid, and Sups. Ross Mirkarimi and David Chiu are talking about changing the way the MTA board is appointed. There are merits to all the reform plans, but in the end, none of them will work if they don’t address the fundamental fact that Muni doesn’t have enough money to provide the level of transit service San Francisco needs.

The basic outlines of what a progressive Muni reform measure would look like are pretty obvious. It ought to include three basic principles: work-rule and overtime reform; a change in the way other departments, particularly the police, charge Muni for work orders — and a sizable new source of revenue.

The work orders are, in many ways, the easiest issue. Last year, the San Francisco Police Department charged Muni more than $12 million in work orders. For what? Well, for doing what the Police Department gets paid to do anyway: patrolling Muni garages, putting cops on the buses, and dealing with Muni-related traffic issues. And a lot of that $12 million is police overtime.

The labor and revenue issues are trickier — mostly because they’re being addressed separately. Elsbernd, for example, wants to Muni workers to engage in the same collective bargaining that other city unions do, which makes a certain amount of sense. But he’s wrong to make it appear that the union and the workers are the major source of Muni’s financial problems — and that approach won’t get far. The bus drivers and mechanics didn’t make millions on large commercial developments that put a huge strain on the transit system — and the developers who profit from having bus service for the occupants of their buildings have never paid their fair share. Nor is it the fault of the union that car traffic downtown clogs the streets and makes it hard for buses to run on time.

We agree that the transit union needs to come to the table and talk, seriously, about work-rule changes. Every other city union, particularly SEIU Local 1021, whose members are among the lowest-paid workers in the city, has given something up to help the city’s budget problems.

But any attempt to change Muni’s labor contract needs to be paired with a serious new revenue program aimed at putting the transit system on a stronger financial footing — and traffic management plans that give buses an advantage over cars. The city can add a modest fee on car owners now, and if a Democratic governor wins in November, it’s likely that state Sen. Mark Leno’s bill to allow a local car tax will become law. That’s part of the solution, as is expanded parking meter hours. (And someone needs to talk about charging churchgoers for parking in the middle of the streets on Sundays.) But Muni also needs a regular stream of income from fees on developers.

And a seven-member MTA appointed entirely by the mayor does nothing for political independence; at the very least, the supervisors should get three of the appointments.

The city badly needs Muni reform — and the elements are all in place. But it can’t be a piecemeal approach.