Absenteeism and Maintence Concerns Could Spell Trouble for Muni

lrv_derailment_small.jpgPhoto: Octoferret

In an annual performance review of San Francisco's Muni transit service presented at the final MTA Board Meeting of 2009 yesterday, several troubling indicators cast a shadow on the agency's efforts to improve its reputation and service performance.

Bonnie Nelson of Nelson Nygaard reported that unscheduled absenteeism among MTA operators reached 14.4 percent in the middle of 2009, that vacancy rates for maintenance shot up to 16.2 percent from 5.6 percent at the end of 2008, and that vehicle breakdowns were on the rise, particularly among the Breda Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs) that are the backbone of the Muni metro system. Furthermore the MTA's aggregate on-time arrival percentage had dipped after recent increases to 73 percent, far short of the 85 percent target.

"We want to reduce absenteeism and we want to make sure our vehicles don't break down," asserted MTA Spokesperson Judson True. "We're making that significant capital investment to keep those light rail vehicles in good condition."

Board Director Malcolm Heinicke, however, was concerned that cutbacks in maintenance and a rise in absenteeism, coupled with the 10 percent spike in operating costs in 2008, was leading to a grim scenario.

"There was a dramatic... worsening in the mean distance between LRV failures," he said, addressing Ms Nelson. "You suggested... that it may be fewer mechanics.... I also want to make sure this is not an issue that we have deferred capital rehabilitation and that sort of thing too long, that this is now coming home to roost and we're beginning to see a trend."

MTA Director of Capital Programs Carter Rohan, who was sitting in for absent MTA CEO Nathaniel Ford, said the agency was doing everything it could on the capital side to improve MTA's rolling stock and that the federal stimulus funds would buffet the agency against capital degradation, albeit temporarily.

"What we're doing in the areas that we can, particularly on the capital side, is stepping up the capital programs. We've brought the LRV renovation program to a quick closure," said Rohan. "We're moving very quickly on the repairs to other rolling pieces of our fleet. I think you see this year a lot more activity on the capital side, which will help us stem some of that trend."

Board Director James McCray asked pointedly how the worsening statistics from 2008 would stack up against the expected budget shortfall in 2010 and whether they should be even more alarmed about meeting growth targets.

"It's going to be a particularly tough operating budget in the coming up two-year cycle," replied MTA CFO Sonali Bose, though she didn't offer specifics. Choosing her words carefully, Bose added that the agency would "see more stress on the operating side.... You will see the impact of the reduction of the operating budget on some of the performance criteria when we talk about the budget process."

As to how significant those impacts will be, True could only respond, "I'm going to check with Operations and get back you with."