The Three Words SF Weekly Didn’t Print

Last week SF Weekly published a cover story titled The Muni Death Spiral, charting the decline of the city’s mass transit system. While the article did provide good reporting on the relationship between Muni and Mayor Gavin Newsom, getting into the details of how Newsom’s policies have weakened Muni, the bulk of the article was given over to a sustained attack on Muni workers. The article’s primary effect is apparently to attack transit operators as being to blame for the system’s problems by getting paid too much and having favorable work rules.

There’s just one problem with the above thesis: it ignores the actual root problem with Muni, which is that it has never had the funding necessary to significantly improve its situation.

There are three words you won’t find in the SF Weekly article, and they are “Sacramento” and “Arnold Schwarzenegger.” State budget cuts to public transit funding means Muni is being starved of resources at precisely the moment it needs more funding to boost service levels, which is the key to fixing the system. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been waging a sustained war on mass transit for the last 3 years, but you wouldn’t know it from the SF Weekly article.

Instead of talking about the state’s elimination of public transit assistance funds (a supposedly temporary measure) and its role in producing Muni’s $129 million deficit, writers Joe Eskenazi and Greg Dewar instead create a narrative that suggests any increased funding would be wasted on mismanagement and public workers. That repeats a similar process seen across the state, where anti-tax sentiment is fueled by public belief that their current tax dollars are wasted, so why vote for new revenues?

I don’t know if that was their intention. In fact, Greg Dewar has been a strong supporter of new revenues for Muni and has consistently slammed Sacramento politicians of both parties for their public transit cuts, including in numerous comments here at Calitics.

Which makes it all the more unusual that the article didn’t include any mention of the state budget cuts. If anything is causing Muni’s “death spiral” it is the state budget cuts, which leave SF politicians with few options to even avoid major cutbacks in service, not to mention improve service and fix ongoing problems.

Breaking the Muni operators’ union, as SF Supervisor Sean Elsbernd is attempting to do with a city ballot initiative this year, will do precisely nothing to accomplish the above tasks. What Muni needs is a massive infusion of funding to achieve the following fixes:

• Maintain and increase levels of service on its routes, including more buses on heavily used routes

• Implement more robust bus priority policies on SF streets, and pay for the enforcement of these policies, including aggressive ticketing and towing of drivers who block buses

• Build out the long-planned and desperately needed mass transit plans for some of the key corridors, including 19th Street, Geary, and so on

• The above investments will themselves reduce common problems of overcrowding and delays that create tensions between operators and passengers.

That will likely require a combination of restored state funding and local funding to pay for the investments and operations. But it’s going to be much less likely to build public support for those solutions if all the public hears is that Mayor Newsom hates Muni and the transit operators are greedy.

To be clear, that’s not to say that the article shouldn’t have been written. Eskenazi and Dewar have told an important story about the internal operations of Muni and pointed out things that can and should be improved with system management. Public support for a new revenue measure will be bolstered when those issues are addressed.

But the failure to contextualize those problems by showing the devastating impact on Muni of state budget cuts and an overall inability of funding to keep pace with system needs and ridership growth means that readers haven’t really been given the whole story about the causes of Muni’s death spiral. And that will make it harder to rally public support for the new investments we all seem to agree Muni needs to survive.

7 thoughts on “The Three Words SF Weekly Didn’t Print”

  1. Muni’s problems significantly predate Arnold Schwarzennegger, and the point of the SF Weekly article is less about recent problems but the general decline of the Muni system in general esp since the late 1990s.  I think a lot of the union bashing in general is unjustified (I personally think Mickey Kaus and his followers are pretty ridiculous in their demonization of unions), but Muni really is a organizational disaster–multiple unions representing the same workforce?  Unions are important to protect workers’ rights, but do you think it’s at all possible to criticize union practices without being attacked as a “union basher”?  

  2. “Over the past three years, the state has reneged on providing $179 million to Muni; even the $36 million so-called “windfall” it recently gave the agency was only a fraction of the transit funding originally approved by voters, after the state government filched the rest. That means the agency’s city funds are more vital than ever. “

    (from the story)

    We could have easily written a book and still not covered everything to every single activist’s liking. But I think we hit the main points and it’s not the only article to be written about Muni. It’s unfortunate that the Chronicle prints the party line from Newsom (even going so far as to censor its bloggers) and other papers aren’t asking Muni, and the public, the tough questions. I’d much rather see 10 articles about Muni and HSR, or 50. But that’s not up to me.

    Also, there is no union busting in the Elsbernd Amendment. Having spent a lot more time than anyone should studying a lot of public records and stats I can say that. Believe me, I was against it until I actually spent the time reading up on all of this.

    I know that “driver pay” isn’t the budget buster or the solution to the agency’s woes, and that’s stated. But do you really think we’re served well when people can not show up to work without warning, causing a domino effect of service losses and increased costs is a good thing?

    Also there’s nothing in the Elsbernd amendment that cuts pay or benefits. They simply are negotiated through collective bargaining, like EVERY OTHER UNION IN THE CITY.

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