Victory on Muni Reform

The creation of the SFMTA

Urbanist Article

How It Happened
SPUR's efforts began in 1995, when we convened our first Muni stakeholders' workshop. We brought together several hundred people for three workshops, including riders, transportation planners, city officials, Muni workers and managers, and, of course, SPUR members, to identify the core problems with Muni and their solutions.

Out of these workshops we developed our report, "A Comprehensive Approach to Fixing Muni," in 1996. At the time we called for:

The creation of an independent transit agency that would leave day-to-day management to transportation professionals instead of elected officials; A stable source of funding so that Muni can carry out long-range planning; Empowering Muni to do its own hiring, purchasing, and labor negotiations, instead of being dependent on other city departments; A merger of Muni with the Department of Parking and Traffic (DPT), so that instead of a separate department for buses and department for cars, we can assurea coordinated transportation policy.

We brought this report around to everyone who would listen, but as is often the case with government, the kinds of changes that Muni needed could not emerge from within the system. In 1997, we convened a group of volunteer SPUR lawyers and experts in city government to draft a charter amendment that would reorganize Muni.

A major contribution to this process was made in that same year when we began to work closely with Rescue Muni. Under its energetic leadership, this grassroots group of riders played a key role in bringing Muni reform to the center of the political stage.While SPUR's expertise was critical to the passage of Prop. E, we acknowledge that it wouldn't have happened without the grassroots strength of Rescue Muni.

At the end of 1998, after two years of advocacy on behalf of our proposals, we decided to take the measure directly to the voters. Working with Rescue Muni and the Environmental Organizing Committee, we wrote and re-wrote our charter amendment. At version 42, we filed our papers with the Department of Elections and began to gather signatures.

Supervisor Gavin Newsom introduced our measure to the Board of Supervisors, and began a parallel process of trying to get the supervisors to put the measure on the ballot. It was not until this point, when Rescue Muni and the Environmental Organizing Committee (EOC) were on the street getting signatures, that the political establishment actually took our measure seriously.

In an effort to avoid having two "dueling" proposals on the ballot, a long series of negotiations began, led by the Mayor and involving SPUR, Rescue Muni, the EOC, labor, department heads, and the Supervisors. The result was Proposition E, which, we are proud to say, contains all of the core principles of our 1996 Muni report.

What it Means
SPUR's election night quotation in the Examiner was exactly right: The meaning of this election is that it reaffirms the mandate for San Francisco being a "transit-first" city. We can't solve gridlock by dumping a lot more cars on the streets. We have to make it easier for people to get out of their cars by investing in transit. After the fact, it may seem obvious that any measure which claimed to fix Muni would have passed. But some of the provisions in Prop. E, even though reasonable and practical, are different enough from established San Francisco procedures and practices that we were up against great odds. The new MTA Board of Directors that will govern Muni and DPT is going to have more autonomy and constituent accountability than any other city commission. The general manager of Muni will have under his control most of the functions essential to the operation of the Muni, particularly the hiring of personnel. Prop. E empowers the general manager to employ 60 middle managers outside civil service. As part of the negotiations, Muni operators agreed to four changes in work rules. And for the first time, Muni will be held to performance standards.

I believe Prop. E's victory is part testament to the public's faith that city government can be made to work effectively-if it has the right tools-and part desperation because people realize that San Francisco simply can't function without a good transit system.

This last point is worth emphasizing: I believe if we had been able to get something like Prop. E in place five years ago, we would probably not be witnessing the decline in Muni patronage and increase in congestion on the streets which we see today. San Francisco is dependent on an extensive, reliable, and safe Muni, for we are simply too dense to rely principally on automobiles to commute to and travel about in the main business district.

I only hope that we are able to be patient enough to give the changes at Muni time to take effect. At the same time, the city's Planning Department, the new MTA created by Prop E, the Board of Supervisors, and the citizenry must create a vision and strategy to deal with transportation into, out of, and around the city. This strategy and vision must involve some thoughtful decisions on land use and ways to reduce congestion on the streets.

What Happens Next
While Proposition E sets up the conditions under which Muni can succeed, it does not guarantee success. Success will depend on: The appointment of a qualified Board of Directors to run the new MTA. It must consist of competent individuals who understand good management, public transportation, finance, labor relations, and the way in which San Francisco government works. The ability of the director of transportation who heads the MTA to assemble a management team that has the professional skills, understanding and dedication to run a reliable and efficient Muni. Changing the labor-management culture of antagonism to one of mutual respect so that every employee of the MTA will be working together to create a culture of customer service. The adoption of meaningful service standards, and the enforcement of management accountability to assure that they are met. A successful merger of the complex functions of the Department of Parking and Traffic with those of Muni, to create a coordinated transportation policy. It will take much hard work and cooperation within the MTA as well as with the mayor, the Board of Supervisors, and other city departments to realize the promise of a reliable,safe, and efficient Muni and to develop and implement long term plans to serve San Francisco's transportation needs in the next century. The passage of Prop E has now made this goal achievable.SPUR logo

Peter Mezey is a member of the SPUR Board of Directors.