Neglecting Muni Costs the Economy at Least $50 Million Per Year

Photo: Aaron Bialick

Every time a Muni train breaks down or a bus is stuck in car traffic, San Francisco pays big time.

City staffers are beginning to tally up the economic toll of Muni delays, and presented [PDF] some alarming figures at a hearing yesterday called by Supervisor Scott Wiener.

In April, riders were delayed a cumulative 86,000 hours, or, as SF Weekly calculated, 19 years and eight months. That amounts to an economic loss of $4.2 million, or $50 million per year, according to the City Controller’s Office. And that’s a conservative estimate — it doesn’t account for delays outside of rush hours or the loss of potential customers who might otherwise use Muni to shop if the system were more reliable, a Controller’s Office staffer said.

“The system’s struggles have real-life consequences for our city,” said Wiener. “When service is unreliable, people are delayed and frustrated in getting where they’re going, leading to negative economic impacts and reduced quality of life.”

Last week, the N-Judah — Muni’s busiest line — shut down twice in two days due to damaged overhead wire equipment, leaving trains sitting on the street for most of a 24-hour period. Such meltdowns not only have internal costs for Muni, like overtime labor to run shuttle buses as a substitute for train service and the cost of repairing equipment. They also cost commuters time, and repeated delays lead them to consider other ways of getting around — or to question whether to make a trip at all.

“The bottom line,” said SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin, “is the transportation system matters to people when they’re choosing where to live, where they work, what modes of travel they’re going to use, and how they’re going to allocate their household budget between housing and transportation.”

With Muni being deprived of funding for decades — a situation that’s only getting worse — the system’s outlook is grim. Here are the stats, as reported by Muni and summed up by SF Weekly, since July:

  • Muni vehicles have only logged a 58.7 percent on-time performance. Perhaps worse yet, nearly 20 percent of all vehicles are showing up with “gaps” of five minutes or more than the scheduled time between buses or trains;
  • The system has had enough electric buses to meet peak weekday service only 64 percent of the time. It has had enough trains to do so only 33 percent of the time. In April, Muni only had enough trains to meet peak weekday service 9 percent of the time. That’d be two of the 22 weekdays in April;
  • There have been 216 line delays of 10 minutes or greater (and God knows how many of up to nine minutes). On any given day, an average of 181 vehicles are unavailable to carry passengers. Last month, those passengers experienced 172,195 hours of delays. So, yes, in April, Muni riders cooled their heels for a cumulative 19 years and eight months.

Hope you brought a magazine. But we haven’t even gotten to the financial angle yet:

  • Muni faces a $320 million annual structural budget deficit. This includes $70 million in unaccounted-for operating needs and $260 million which would be required to keep equipment and infrastructure in a “state of good repair”;
  • As of three years ago, an estimated $680 million in maintenance costs had been deferred;
  • Maintenance meltdowns resulted in an estimated $4.2 million hit to the city economy in April, which extrapolates to some $50 million a year.

As Wiener pointed out, declining Muni service only leads to a downward spiral. “When service degrades, people choose other modes of transportation, particularly the private automobile. Congestion and pollution thus increase, traffic and pedestrian safety decrease.” Meanwhile, “Public confidence in the system goes down, making it harder to convince our city to invest in the system.”

SF Weekly reporter Joe Eskanazi, who posted his article on the report just as the hearing began, wondered if officials would bring up the Central Subway, which he pointed out “is currently pegged to eat $15.2 million from the agency’s Operation and Maintenance budget — and any cost overruns for the $1.6 billion endeavor will be bled from local funds that could otherwise make vehicles go or fix them up.” Officials didn’t mention it.

While riders often tend to point the finger at poor management as the source of Muni’s woes, Wiener said the greater fault lies with the failure of city leadership to provide Muni the funding it needs to maintain its vehicles and infrastructure. “We’ve allowed the system to deteriorate over time, physically, by systematically under-investing for decades in its infrastructure,” he said.

“Sometimes I hear from people, ‘Muni doesn’t need any more money, Muni just needs to run the system better,'” he said. “Of course Muni needs to continue its process of reform… but I think it’s not reality to suggest that the system has every penny it needs.”

“Ultimately, the MTA has to do its job, but we at the Board of Supervisors have to do our job of showing a good financial commitment to the agency, and we have not done that.”

  • Judging by the number of tourists I’ve heard grumbling things like “I’m never coming to this fucking city again” during Muni’s infamous meltdowns, I’d say the $50 million figure seems like a low estimate.

  • Peter M

    Wasn’t Muni’s on time rate around 75% recently? I seem to remember Nat Ford considering it an accomplishment.

    Was it only because of their fudging of the numbers to redefine a minute?

  • Mario Tanev

    I would like to point out that $50 million looks small because it’s the loss relative to planned service. Planned service has itself been crippled due to the 2010 cuts and is generally inadequate on many core lines. For example, the J and and 24 have a scheduled 20 minute headway at night and on weekends – that’s a frequency otherwise reserved for community lines. Not to mention that the schedule has long ago been padded to account for traffic congestion.

    If the comparison was relative to BRT or other dedicated treatment that allows end-to-end service in less than 30 minutes, I am sure the loss would look much greater.

  • Jesse

    Even on a good day without any breakdowns, some lines are about twice as fast as walking. The 21 is miserably slow with tons of stops, sometimes 2 on the same block. I bet they don’t account for any of that.

  • Anonymous

    I guess Wiener is right — that we and our political reps have to invest in Muni’s infrastructure in order to expect reform or simple continuation of its present status to continue. But it is politically difficult to do so when the previously heralded reforms — of staffing, safety, consolidation into the SFMTA, BRT, and TEP remain largely unimplemented.

    Some of that lack of progress is due to lack of funds, but a lot of money has been diverted by mayors (like Newsome), funneled to other agencies (the police). Staffing remains in shambles — the highest absentee rate in the Bay Area, etc. Meanwhile, we are fed only excuses or dead-on silence for the non-implementation of most of TEP and eight years of public meetings about the Geary BRT. Lastly, the delivery of more on-time performance was shown to have been created by redefining the word “minute”. Nat Ford was a disaster. The jury is still out on Ed Reiskin.

    The public should get the straight scoop. Significantly more money for MUNI is a necessary prerequisite for reform and success, but it is not sufficient in itself to guarantee these reforms will take place. Can we look at cities that run successful, efficient, frugal, publicly accountable transportation agencies and copy what they’ve done right? I am willing to pay for a reasonable chance at success, but not further dribs and drabs toward inevitable failure.

  • wonkster

    I’m no fan of Muni, and I think it should be funded and managed much more intensely than it has been. And I’m a big fan of this blog and everything it supports. But I think this kind of “statistic” is really kind of artificial. They seem to have taken all of the delay time, multiplied it by the number of riders delayed, multiplied that by the average hourly wage (economic output?) and come up with the “cost” of the delays.

    But that’s not really what happens. People get to work/home later and still do what they otherwise had to do (or they may lose some time they would have spent staring into screens for entertainment, walking their dogs, playing with their kids, etc.). I get that the delays cost us time – which is really the most valuable thing in the world (“Lost time is not found again”), but trying to put a dollar figure on it is kind of a gimmick. I have a friend who is a lawyer who charges a high hourly rate ($500 per hour or so) and he often jokes that if he viewed his time that way it would be insane for him to iron a shirt or scramble an egg (“Lawyers making own breakfast costs zillions study says”).

    Again, I’m a huge fan of this blog, I walk everywhere I go (how much does that “cost” me?). But these attempts to put a figure on wasted time are pretty weak.

  • Anonymous

    Look on the bright side–poor MUNI service will fuel increased bicycle ridership!

  • biking in SF

    I agree. One cheap and easy fix is to remove excess bus stops. The 21 is a great example. Many times a bus stop removal to speed transit will be loudly opposed by one or two people who are inconvenienced, and the proposal will get dropped, thereby inconveniencing everyone on the line with slower service.

  • I’d rather fuel bicycle ridership by making driving less attractive than by making MUNI less attractive.

  • It is an artificial calculation but there is no denying that there is a real cost. Most of the time there is no cost. Then there is the time that an IT guy at BofA is stuck on MUNI when the system crashes, and that costs real money downstream for a lot of people.

    And frankly, I’m telecommuting most of the time now and I really really value the time spent playing with my kid and walking the dog. The telecommuting also involved leaving SF – and SF isn’t getting any of my money now.

  • Ryan Brady

    I think part of it is the inconvenience to disabled people?

    Honestly, I’d rather have the city institute a taxi program only for disabled people (at muni rates or less) than sacrifice the efficiency of the system catering to disparate groups.

  • Ryan Brady

    As much as I generally support labor, the MUNI employment system is really screwed up:

    They aren’t allowed to hire *anyone* part time, and they pay way too much overtime. I’m guessing that driving a MUNI more than 8 hours in a day is also what contributes to the typically sour attitude I see from drivers.

    Contracts should be renegotiated to allow for a percentage of workers to be part time, and to put limits on the amount of overtime hours drivers can get.

    It’s my opinion that the salaries are a bit high for the work too, but San Francisco is an expensive city, and people have to make a living, so I wouldn’t touch that part.

  • Mario Tanev

    They are paying overtime because Muni is understaffed. When a transit agency needs to provide X hours of service, they arrange for some redundancy in their staffing. Muni’s redundancy is too low by industry standards, which means that if something happens or if a worker is sick, some other worker needs to perform overtime.

    It’s true that worker absenteeism is also higher by industry standards, but even if it wasn’t, Muni would still not have enough workers to handle the service they aim to provide. Not to mention, that service needs to be increased.

  • Ryan Brady

    Yeah, I’d be happy with them saying it costs “100,000 man-hours” or something similar.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    So the solution to crappy maintenance, ZERO line supervision, hideous employee productivity and NO transit lane enforcement is …

    … to throw money money at “underfunded” Muni?


    Oh no, never that.

    Instead, pay more to have them not move, and pay more for them to not be repaired. (Remember: your friendly TWU-250A member gets paid whether the bus is in service or out of service, moving or stationary, on break or “working”.) And pay TWO BILLION for the Central Subway. (Remember: your inexpliciably0-unindicted transit-industrial mafia criminal gets paid regardless of meeting ridership “projections” or “budget” or “schedule”.)


  • I think this is a fine rule of thumb to quantify the loss in a unit everyone understands. You could, instead, literally write down everyone’s name and day and time of delay, and consequences, etc … this would not be informative.

    No, there is nothing wrong with this approach, if perhaps novel to some. Your lawyer friend really does lose (or the firm, rather) $500/hour when he irons shirts, but he still irons them, because he CHOOSES to. It’s worth that much to him (and really, who could lawyer 24/7?). It is a job requirement to have ironed shirts, it relaxes his mind, it perhaps even lets him organize his day ahead, all of which are even more valuable, if for a moment, than his rate. Your example does not invalidate the exercise’s logic.

  • Johnny

    History teaches us that investing more in a losing proposition is a bad idea. We should invest in winners, not losers and, sadly, Muni is a loser.

    If I had to speculate why, the single biggest reason would be the cost structure. Private-sector bus operators (maybe not the Google bus drivers as I suspect they are well paid) but tourist coaches and other bus drivers, make about 30K-40K a year. So why do Muni drivers get 65K pa plus insane healthcare and pension benefits?

    As a city taxpayer, I am not remotely interested in paying more taxes so that we can throw more money at a failed system. I’d rather invest in the one BayArea transit system that works well – BART. And privatize the marginal Muni routes along the lines of the jitneys that works well in Mexico City and NYC.

  • BART works precisely because we throw tons of money at it. And how much money are you willing to invest in getting a BART line that provides even minimal coverage to the rest of the city?

    For all that we wish MUNI was, it’s still a huge winner. If there were no MUNI, SF could no longer function.

  • wonkster

    I think an hour is a unit that “everyone understands.” And of course I don’t think that it would make sense to “write down everyone’s name and day and time of delay and consequences, etc.”

    My point – which you seem to have completely missed – is that attaching a wild ass guess dollar figure to these delays doesn’t really tell us anything.

    If my lawyer friend and a Starbucks employee are delayed by an hour getting home from work on the same 1 California bus it doesn’t lead to any economic loss that can be measured by their hourly economic output at work. It means they lost an hour of their free time (i.e., their life). Trying to put it into a dollar figure for “lost productivity” is just an attempt to reinforce some argument that he cost of the delays is X dollars compared to the cost of paying to prevent the delays (presumably less than X dollars).

    If someone doesn’t get home in time to put their kid to bed it sucks. If someone gets to work late it sucks too. But putting a dollar figure on all of the lost time is just a gimmick and feeds into the idea that everything in life can somehow be quantified in economic units.

  • Andy Chow

    BART has an advantage with dedicated tracks. Other than that, BART isn’t really better than Muni in terms of customer service and how much their employees get paid. Unless there’s a political will to greatly expand the system, BART is just one transit route through San Francisco, which has and needs many more transit routes.

  • Andy Chow

    Right now it is easier to create a privately run Muni alternative than to eliminate some unproductive Muni stops to speed up service. Although the city don’t endorse or license such operations there are regulatory gaps that some companies have taken advantage of. It seems like given that Muni can’t get its act together it might as well try not to actively prevent others to provide a Muni alternative.

    What Muni needs is a political will to get some of the basic improvements done, and should consider contracting out some of the operations to provide better management and supervision. I think people would appreciate a Muni that runs according to published timetable.

  • I’d rather invest in the one BayArea transit system that works well – BART.

    How timely a comment with the current BART meltdown…

  • Anonymous

    There’s nothing insane about people making 65K and receiving healthcare and retirement for a full time job in San Francisco.

  • Ryan Brady

    Exactly, and it looks like the salary caps out at around 75k. For decades of service, I think that’s fairly reasonable, even if it is a low skill job.

  • Ryan Brady

    BART operators actually look out the window to see if people are running for the doors.

  • at which time they shut them…

  • Andy Chow

    I don’t consider blue collar jobs as low skill jobs, since many people here with college degrees do not have the skills to perform those jobs. What these jobs require is vocational training outside the traditional higher education framework, and that the working conditions are harsher than white-collar office environment.

  • Ryan Brady

    I meant what I said. Agriculture is not a low skill job. Factory work is not a low skill job.

    Driving a vehicle that sits on a track is a low skill job.

  • Driving a vehicle that sits on a track is a low skill job. Until someone pulls out a knife on your vehicle. Or your train derails. Or there is a system wide meltdown and you need to figure out how to communicate to passengers and help resolve the problem. Or there is a suicide on the tracks in front of you.

    Pushing the button, $1. Knowing which button to push, $64,999

  • Brian


    It’s not about whether someone thinks the pay is “reasonable” or about what it costs to live here. It’s simply a matter of what that job goes for elsewhere.

    And if it is true that private bus drivers make much less than Muni, then something is wrong with Muni because it is over-paying.

    And that is money that cannot go into equipment, repairs etc.

    One obvious thing that slows down Muni is the number and frequency of stops. Seems like it is often one stop per block. Why? Can people really not walk the 200 yards that would mean just four stops per mile instead of (what feels like 15)?

  • Ryan Brady

    Yeah, I reconsidered shortly after posting that and tried to delete it, but it just deleted my name. Ah well.

  • TN

    There’s a reason that SF’s pedestrian modal share is already as high as it is. The current modal share is close to 20%. It is already at the targeted goal for the future. The plan does not foresee increasing pedestrian share over the next decades.

    Muni has been so troubled for so many decades that it has encouraged commuters and others who need to move around the city to literally vote with their feet. Granted, SF is a compact city by the standards of the Western US but the pedestrian share is exceptionally high.

    I think that were Muni to suddenly become a more efficient system, the pedestrian modal share would actually decrease. In other words, people walk not because its healthy, cheap, etc. but because the alternative of taking public transit currently sucks. For many, taking Muni is literally slower than walking.


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