Will SF Transit Advocates Fall For a Right-Wing Attack on Muni?

(As I’m sitting in an SF Democratic Club meeting, this just seemed really important to me.   – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

There’s no doubt about it: public transit in California is facing a dire crisis. After three years of state budget cuts, the worst recession in 60 years, and deep declines in local sales tax revenue, it is becoming more difficult than ever to maintain the kind of public transit systems that California needs to survive.

It’s not just a matter of bus and rail service in the urbanized cores. As we learned in 2008, rising oil prices place all of California on the precipice of long-term poverty. For decades we have pursued land use policies that force people to drive to get to work, to school, to the store. However, since the 1970s, California has made some respectable strides in building up a public transit network that, while much less effective than it needed to be, at least helped absorb some of the impact of soaring gas prices. This was as true in Orange County as it was in San Francisco.

By 2010 that has changed. Arnold Schwarzenegger has used the budget crisis to do the bidding of his oil company buddies and destroy public transit in this state. Last year the legislature even eliminated ALL state funding for public transit, even as local transit operators faced rising demand and declining sales tax revenue.

The result has been a crisis for public transit systems the likes of which California has rarely seen. As Transportation For America shows, public transit cuts in America during the recession have been concentrated here in California. Despite a series of votes in favor of taxes to grow public transit in places like Santa Clara County, Los Angeles County, and Sonoma-Marin – votes that cleared the insanely high 2/3rds hurdle – the elimination of state funding has forced many local transit operators to make devastating cuts, or to increase fares to unfair levels – or both.

One of the most high-profile victims of Arnold Schwarznegger’s attack on public transit has been San Francisco’s Municipal Railway, aka “Muni.” Muni went into the recession in a weakened position. For decades SF residents have been complaining about infrequent service, unsafe conditions on buses, and a lack of high-capacity transit on key corridors. (Seriously – when I pored through neighborhood newspapers from the 1970s as part of my dissertation research a few years back, complaints about Muni were the most common thing I came across.) Efforts to fix Muni have run into various obstacles, none more troublesome than a lack of sufficient funding.

So when the recession hit, and when Arnold Schwarzenegger eliminated state funding for local transit, Muni was not in a good position to deal with the effects. Then again, I can’t think of a local transit agency in the entire state that has weathered the storm without experiencing major problems.

Like other local transit agencies, Muni has had to hike fares and cut service to deal with the loss of state funding. This in turn has understandably angered San Franciscans who put up with the other problems on Muni for years, only to see service decline instead of improve.

Clearly Muni needs help. Which is why the newest campaign claiming to support Muni reform, a boycott of the system, is such a stupid idea.

Called the March Against Muni, what is billed as a “protest” against Muni’s mounting problems is in fact nothing more than a deeply right-wing attack on the transit agency for problems that are largely out of its control. Instead of helping fix Muni, the planned boycott will merely accelerate its downward spiral, making it more difficult to fix what ails Muni and help San Francisco become less car-dependent.

As anyone with even a passing familiarity with the problems facing public transit in California would agree, the top priority for fixing Muni is to infuse it with new funding to restore and expand service, preventing fare increases and route cuts.

However, you won’t find that anywhere in the list of demands that the March Against Muni organizers are making:

1. No More Route Cuts

2. No More Fare Hikes

3. No More Overcrowding

4. No More Delays

5. No More Rude Drivers

6. No More Exploiting Seniors & Disabled

7. No More Filthy Conditions

8. No More Fare Theft

9. No More Excessive Pay

10. No More Paper Fast Passes

Aside from #9, these seem like reasonable demands (and demand #9 reveals the inherently right-wing nature of the entire enterprise – paying workers a decent wage in what is NOT an easy job is a good thing; there is nothing more friendly to a conservative agenda than workers attacking workers in a recession). But how the hell are these to be accomplished in a severe recession where Muni has faced at least a $129 million shortfall?

Preserving routes alone requires new money. Avoiding fare hikes requires more new money. Adding service to reduce overcrowding requires still more new money (to buy buses and hire operators). Reducing delays requires the same. A better funded system with more routes and service would itself lead to better working conditions for operators, reducing what rudeness exists. Keeping buses and trains clean requires even still more new money to hire more police and cleaning staff. I don’t know what the hell “fare theft” refers to, and if people want to upgrade beyond paper fast passes, they’ll need – you guessed – yet more new money.

So to see this silly boycott organized without any reference to the funding required to implement the desired reforms suggests to me this is not a serious effort to fix Muni. Instead, by reinforcing the notion that somehow government has failed and that we must attack government to produce change, the organizers are drawing upon and reinforcing right-wing narratives to justify and articulate the protest. The emphasis on driver pay would make Meg Whitman proud. The total absence of the name “Arnold Schwarznegger” or the term “state budget cuts” proves this is a ridiculous idea that will merely cause further damage to Muni by masking the true causes of its crisis.

It also ignores the fact that cities and local governments in California don’t actually have very much power. State rules, including but by no means limited to the 2/3rds rule for passing budgets and raising taxes, severely circumscribe and limit what localities can do. Perhaps if San Francisco became its own state it might have the flexibility it needs to fix Muni on its own – but good luck getting that through Congress.

Instead the only way to fix Muni is to either muster the 2/3rds majority to approve a local transit tax, or march on Sacramento and demand that the governor and legislature stop trying to destroy public transit in California.

In short, this boycott is the dumbest fucking idea I have ever heard for improving public transit in California. True friends of mass transit should shun it and instead organize to address the lack of revenue and Sacramento-based causes of the crisis that is hitting Muni and other local transit agencies across the state.

13 thoughts on “Will SF Transit Advocates Fall For a Right-Wing Attack on Muni?”

  1. As someone who’s been a Muni advocate for some time now, the fact this “March on Muni” is getting so much attention is a disappointment.

    The people organizing it didn’t really do any outreach to anyone previously involved in said issues, and haven’t been willing to listen or consider how this whole thing could be a disaster. It’s also unfortunate that the debate about improving Muni has devolved into a “Driver pay is the only thing wrong with Muni” meme, in part because grandstanding politico Sean Elsbernd (who voted to loot Muni via “work orders” which analysts have studied and said are a bad deal for Muni and the taxpayer) pushed this to raise his profile.

    We know how much it costs to run an effective Muni – we have the blueprint provided by the Transit Effectiveness Project. We also know that the state illegally stole gas tax money (which is never coming back despite the rulings) and we won’t fill the gap with more parking tickets and a few half-assed extensions of parking meters and with more cuts.

    We need a real revenue stream, and of course, that’s not addressed by the “March on Muni” folks – and they’ve shown no interest on their discussion boards on Facebook to listen or address this issue.

    While it’s nice to see the usual acceptance of failure challenged, we also had these problems for a long time and it wasn’t until now that anyone decided to say anything, which also says a lot.

  2. IMHO, the only solution involves raising revenues, something like a parcel tax for free muni (my husband’s a big proponent of this plan). MUNI is a service used by everybody, whether they ride or not. It allows services to be provided more affordably and our city to be effective.

    Boycotting MUNI makes no more sense than boycotting CalGrants or MediCal.  

  3. I’m a San Francisco progressive, have worked in the policy arena for 15 years, and am not a right-wing troll, and I can say for certain that this diary (and the disappointing confirmation by Greg Dewar) is not grounded in the facts – at least, not facts that those of us who actually live in San Francisco have to live by.

    The fact is, Muni operators – whose salaries account for 80% of Muni’s operating expense – make an average of $106,000 in salary and benefits, and receive raises every two years no matter what. This is far more than the median salary in San Francisco (the median for software engineers is around $80k), and appropriately raises the hackles of residents who both a) make a lot less money, with less job security, and b) are forced to ride Muni as a result of their economic condition.

    It’s a fairly irrefutable fact that SF Muni drivers’ service and performance is offensive, at best, and endangering at worst – and not just because Muni drivers tend to run over pedestrians and bicyclists at an alarming rate.

    It’s fairly common for riders to be insulted by drivers, passed by drivers who don’t want to stop, assaulted by passengers on buses and trains whose drivers won’t stop to address the assault, etc.

    The hatred of the Muni operators’ union is highly bi-partisan in SFO, as most people have had to deal with this problem; the fact that the union essentially flipped us all the bird last week with its vote to block budget measures has lead to this open revolt among riders, and I’ll proudly be helping to carry the torch.

    If this goes on, I’ll even break progressive orthodoxy and call on the Mayor to fire the union – I’m beginning to feel the same way about the Muni union as I do about the prison guards’ union. Does Calitics also stand with the prison guards, simply because they’re a union?

    So your post is both factually wrong, and clearly devoid of political and economic context. It is entirely appropriate to protest a group of city servants whose pay is completely out of whack, whose performance is notoriously bad, and whose intransigence in the face of budget crises is inexcusable.

    In light of this, Calitics would be wise to dispatch a writer who knows what’s actually going on with San Francisco’s Muni system.


  4. It is not only the absurdly inflated wages, the union has demanded, it is the work rules, if the term “work” can be applied to them. For instance, regular working stiffs who ride the Muni don’t have ten days when they can just not show up for work at all, and receive full pay. Parking fines, residential permits, and meter rates have risen to absurd levels, all to feed the maw of Muni. Ride the filthy, poorly maintained buses, put up with the deliberately rude and petulant drivers, jump back out of the crosswalk when yet another Muni bus ignores a red light.

    There are some good drivers who work for Muni, and it must be very frustrating for them to see the service deteriorate. Get real, Brian. Spend two bucks and see.

  5. i couldn’t quite understand where any of this “boycott MUNI to fix it!” was coming from – i mean, the what? don’t ride the bus and then they’ll be sorry? and that will do what?

    but from the comments in defense – which immediately and solely focus on Those Drivers – and from comments from people who are arguing against the boycott but still seem to need to establish themselves as reasonable by saying, hey, we hate those drivers too – it is a little clearer now.

    it’s Waste, Fraud and Abuse. the same fairy tale that sold Prop 13, and that Reagan and Bush (and so many others) rode through their times in office.

    you see, really, they HAVE enough money to make MUNI run on time and never splash water on your shoes and have nice polite drivers who tip their hat and know their place. but Those Drivers are gypping us out of it with their unions and their backtalk.

    the Two Santa Claus Theory in full effect. we want it to be true so it ought to be true. can’t ever admit that more spending is needed. so there has to be a scapegoat. how surprising who that turns out to be.

    it’s like blaming the financial collapse on bank tellers (if people still had to deal with tellers – too bad there’s no Automated Driving Machines they could use instead, eh?)

  6. The cause of Muni’s fiscal woes are quite plain: 1) the recession; 2) the 2/3rds rule to pass a tax of any sort at the state level and during some cycles of local elections; and, 3) the yanking of $179 million in State Transit Assistance funds by the governor for the past three years.  We could throw in there rising fuel costs.

    In the absence of power to do anything about these things, I believe some unscrupulous individuals and groups are stepping in to give the public a more accessible boogeyman: bus drivers.

    I invite people to join Muni First! (instead of last):


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