What’s Next for the TEP?

2455082334_c06419a081.jpgCan the TEP transform Muni, dramatically improving its reliability and on-time performance?

Bashing Muni, an agency that has been historically underfunded, is a San Francisco pastime. Riders are used to break downs, delays and general unreliability. Could all that be about to change?

After an arduous process of gathering ridership data, community input, and considering best practices at other transit agencies, the Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP) -- at a cost of more than $3 million -- examined what's wrong with Muni and what needs to be done to turn it into a more efficient transit system.  The draft recommendations were released a year ago and TEP managers then made revisions in August, based on public feedback. The MTA says all of the changes won't come quickly, but Muni riders are used to waiting.

Still, the agency insists the TEP will bring change and it wants to make a splash when it begins to implement some parts of the TEP as early as July.

“We want phase one to be very high impact, to be very successful, but it also needs to balance within itself,” said Julie Kirschbaum, the MTA's TEP program manager. 

The TEP has been billed as the first major overhaul of Muni in more than two decades. Its goals are ambitious: improve customer experience, provide better reliability and on-time performance, attract 70,000 new riders with existing resources and reduce daily vehicle miles traveled in the city by 60,000, which is expected to cut CO2 emissions by 29 tons a year.

It hopes to do that by focusing on its busiest corridors, establishing rapid networks, restructuring routes and expanding limited-stop service, among other things, with a goal of shaving delays to increase speed.  

However, the TEP lacks a funding strategy, something the project's managers acknowledge is necessary. Critics have questioned whether the agency can really turn the system around with a deepening budget crisis. Muni is facing a $100 million deficit at a time when ridership is peaking and half of its aging fleet of overcrowded buses and light rail vehicles needs rigorous maintenance.

For its size, Muni is one of the slowest transit systems in the United States. Its buses plod along in (legal and illegal) mixed traffic at an average speed of eight miles an hour. The 38 Geary, as one example, spends half its time stopped. In the Mission, some blocks have two stops, slowing travel time on a busy corridor. Some historic routes aren't as journeyed because travel patterns have changed.

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Route changes proposed in the TEP are "budget neutral," which means that phase will likely come first, but the initiative recommends about $200 million in capital projects, many of which will probably be shelved until Muni's budget scenario improves or other funding sources are identified. That includes putting off hiring more staff, such as street and fare inspectors, parking control officers and maintenance crews. The agency, however, has been able to hire more operators.

"We’re developing the implementation plan with the resources we know we have," said MTA spokesman Judson True. "There’s no doubt that there will be some impact but any headlines that suggest the TEP is somehow doomed because of the budget issues are just wrong." 

Some advocates, like Tom Radulovich of Livable City, feel the two-year process that included more than 100 meetings and drew more than 4,500 written comments has largely been a waste of time and that the TEP is shaping up to be a service reduction plan instead of a long-term vision to transform Muni.

Kirschbaum contends one of the biggest misconceptions about the TEP is that it is a service reduction plan. 

"The overall service levels do not change and in fact the overall amount of service in the system increases because of the reduction in travel time. That, I think, has been an important piece of misinformation," she said. "We're recommending reallocating service and I think in some arenas that's been perceived as cuts but for many, many people service will increase."

The MTA's set of recommendations for the first implementation phase will focus on improving service where it's most needed along Muni's 15 busiest corridors, which carry up to 75 percent of the system's riders. Its first priority in the Implementation Master Plan, due out this spring, is schedules, considered "the game plan" of the TEP, with service reallocation and the elimination of some stops to improve reliability.

The stop-spacing recommendations, in particular, could prove to be the most controversial, politically-charged aspect of the TEP, as some riders upset about stops being removed on their particular blocks are likely to lobby their supervisors to prevent the changes.  The board technically can only accept or reject the TEP in its entirety, not make line-item changes, though the MTA is leery of political battles that could make its job more difficult.

"One of the things we’ve committed to do for our board is to bring them a policy document and approach to stop spacing before we roll out a specific list of possible changes," said Kirschbaum. "Getting their buy-in at the policy level we think is important. That way, we’ll be able to address the specifics."

The recommendations outlined in the implementation plan must also go through an environmental review, along with a Title IV assessment, to ensure it doesn't discriminate against low-income or minority residents.

Advocates remain hopeful, but skeptical about the TEP. The implementation plan will be a good indicator of whether the TEP can live up to what it promises. We'll be following its progress on Muni Monday.

Flickr photo: illeetyu