[Carfreeliving] Matt Smith column from 5/4/05 SF Weekly
A P Thornley
apt at thornley.com
Tue May 10 23:07:01 MDT 2005
in case you didn't catch this in the edition
that's about to go off the stands (does anyone
know Matt Smith? is he on this list?)
SF Weekly May 04, 2005
Bill Lieberman, new planning director for the
Municipal Transportation Agency, wades into the
swamp of San Francisco transit politics
BY MATT SMITH
On a drizzly Thursday afternoon in April a pair
of construction workers in orange Mitchell
Engineering vests mucked around with shovels on
the east shore of Mission Creek, an industrial
slough cut into the century-old bay fill that
undergirds San Francisco's postindustrial south
side. Another worker guided a framework of steel
and composite beams onto pontoons on the creek's
surface. Yet another barked into a walkie-talkie.
A fifth hosed off some concrete forms. In all,
about a dozen workers putzed about on and near
the ancient Fourth Street drawbridge, which, once
retrofitted, will carry light-rail cars along a
$1.4 billion route connecting the outlying
Hunters Point neighborhood with, eventually,
Chinatown. Busy though they appeared, the
workers' main task that day was to bide time
while attorneys for their employer and the
city-of-San Francisco lawyers argued over cost
overruns resulting from a new discovery:
Retaining walls under and beside the bridge were
in far worse condition than anyone had
anticipated. Any settlement to the problem was
sure to add significant expense to the project.
Without a settlement, projectwide delays could
cost more money yet.
As dollars were being sucked by the million into
the retrofitted rail bridge, money for transit
was being slashed elsewhere.
The previous afternoon Michael Burns, chief of
the city's Municipal Transportation Agency,
discussed a new round of cuts to train and bus
service citywide, due in part to a year spent
relying on overtime pay to keep a full staff.
"Overtime hurt us for the rest of the fiscal
year. And we're hoping to fix that with service
cuts," Burns said at a presentation last week.
"They're not deep cuts. But any cuts beyond this,
and we're really going to hurt service."
How could our transit system spend a billion and
a half dollars -- and perhaps much more on
possible cost overruns such as are shaping up at
Mission Creek -- to extend itself to a commuter's
version of nowhere, while failing to pay for
maintaining basic service everywhere?
The answer is as simple it is confounding. San
Francisco's transit system is an expensive and
inefficient lattice of boondoggles, sinecures,
political deals, and delays because, for the most
part, the area's residents, politicos, and power
brokers prefer it that way. Though it's a
nightmare for most commuters, our transport
system works quite well for those in a position
to gain from paying close attention to it.
There exists a minuscule glimmer of hope that
things might change for the better. Last month
San Francisco hired a new, idealistic yet
hard-nosed czar of transit planning who could
theoretically help transform the system to
everybody's benefit. I propose we give him an
extended honeymoon of political support as he
takes on the forces that currently make riding
Muni a chump's errand.
Bill Lieberman, the newly recruited director of
planning for San Francisco's Municipal
Transportation Agency, has a gilded résumé and
broad new authority over employees who manage and
maintain streets, traffic, parking, buses, and
trains. If a talk he gave last week before a
group of urban policy wonks is any indication, he
has exactly the sort of expertise, ideas, and
enthusiasm necessary for such a task. But unless
he's blessed by a miracle -- such as support from
the hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans who
have a hard time getting around the city, yet so
far have paid little attention to why this is so
-- he'll fail.
Without such miraculous intervention, the system
of inertia that keeps transit so sluggish in San
Francisco -- the union officials, Democratic
Party hacks, neighborhood activists, bureaucrats,
developers, and elected officials who benefit
from our system remaining expensive and slow --
will eat Lieberman alive.
I can vouch for Muni's dysfunction. Last month I
fell ill and used Muni, rather than my bicycle,
to travel to work and other appointments. Thanks
to long waits and slow travel once the bus came,
the switch to Muni meant adding an extra 40
minutes each way to work, an hour each way to an
appointment in Noe Valley. At this rate, I
calculated, riding Muni would rob me of two full
days per month, or in the course of a normal life
span, five entire years, from my time on Earth.
There are convicted kidnappers and rapists who've
suffered less severe punishment.
Why are San Franciscans so condemned, and why are
commuters about to be sentenced to even more hard
time in the coming round of Muni cuts? Because a
relatively small group of people benefits greatly
from the system that produces slow Muni service,
and those people agitate mightily to keep it that
Excessive overtime payments -- to be covered by
riders who wait longer for the pauperized bus
system during the rest of this year -- are
typically triggered by union contracts that make
it easy for Muni employees to miss work
unpunished and hard for Muni management to put a
full staff in the field without paying overtime.
The union that negotiates those worker-friendly
agreements provides electioneering troops during
races for public office. Few bus riders who are
late for work because their bus didn't and didn't
and didn't come connect their plight to
officeholders who are backed by the bus workers'
union. So there's little incentive for those
officeholders to change the politically
beneficial dysfunction at Muni.
The 38 Geary -- our main bus route transporting
people from the Richmond District suburbs to
downtown -- spends much of its time lurching from
stop to stop on every block through the
Tenderloin District. The ride is so slow and
uncomfortable that many people drive instead,
clogging the streets and making the buses slower
Not long ago, Muni planners tried to quicken this
trip by removing a few stops, so buses would stop
every other block, instead of once or twice a
block. Riders with bus stops in front of their
apartment buildings launched a protest movement,
and the Board of Supervisors voted to disallow
the removal of stops, thus burnishing the supes'
profile as champions of social justice. There was
no harm done, politically speaking, and the 38
Geary remains an underused extended sentence in
One reason it costs so much to move people
swiftly in San Francisco is the expensive spread
of transit resources to serve sparsely populated
areas in the city's western and southern fringes.
Last year, city planners put forth a proposal --
dubbed "the housing element" of the city's
General Plan -- that would have allowed property
owners to build more and higher apartment
buildings along major bus and trolley routes.
This plan was intended, in part, to allow Muni to
move more people, more swiftly, for far less
money than is now possible, by putting more
people where transit lines already exist. But to
gain the political support of suburban homeowner
groups, which feared new apartment buildings
would make it harder to find parking spaces,
mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom promised in 1999
to kill the plan. Once elected, he did. And there
was no harm done, politically speaking, and
public transit will continue to be inefficient
and expensive far into the future.
If Congress continues to appropriate money for
its construction, the Third Street Light Rail,
the $1.4 billion trolley that will someday cross
the Fourth Street bridge, will continue into its
second phase, a so-called Central Subway
connecting the bridge to Chinatown. This platinum
extension is seen by people who pay attention to
transit in the Bay Area as a colossal waste of
money. Chinatown is not a particularly popular
commuter destination. The route is already served
by extensive bus service. The subway would
require boring deep underground at a cost of
hundreds of millions of dollars. Hunters Point,
meanwhile, could have been served just as
efficiently, at far less cost, by a system called
bus rapid transit, in which buses ride in
exclusive lanes cordoned off from other traffic
and riders use raised and gated platforms, à la
the city's light-rail stops. Bus rapid transit
would provide more speed and greater capacity
than light rail -- at a fraction of rail's cost.
Had the Third Street-Central Subway lines not
been pursued and the money for them been spent
elsewhere, the time San Franciscans suffer in
Muni incarceration could have been cut by eons.
The same funds dedicated to rapid bus lines along
the Geary, Van Ness, and Mission corridors would
move vastly more people per dollar spent. Trips
that now take 45 minutes might take half as long,
perhaps even approaching bicycle speed.
But a Chinatown subway line was offered as part
of a decade-old political deal involving Willie
Brown and neighborhood leaders whose backing was
critical to the mayor's electoral success. Brown
enjoyed substantial pull with federal officials
in a position to fund such a project. So
politically speaking, the Central Subway's a
winner, too, and efficient, cost-effective bus
service won't be funded, so a subway boondoggle
Well-planned transit -- which includes measures
that emphasize pedestrian, bicycle, and bus
(rather than automobile) access -- generally
pencils out as more cost effective than the
dramatic, politics-driven engineering projects
that Bay Area mass transportation is known for.
The cost gulf widens further once shovels start
piercing the earth. Invasive projects such as
subways and rail lines turn up unexpected
challenges and expenses, especially in a fragile
old city like ours. Take the example of the
Fourth Street bridge, a seemingly simple feat in
which an old drawbridge would be strengthened so
it could accommodate a new commuter rail line.
Once into the project, however, workers
discovered that the rotting concrete of the
Mission Creek retaining walls near the bridge
lacked the strength to build a satisfactory rail
platform. Returning to the drawing board will
entail significant additional cost, Michael Burns
said last week. Thankfully, the city has just
recruited a transit planning czar who seems
committed to reasserting an emphasis on simple,
relatively inexpensive planning as the best way
to make our trains and buses run on time.
If the smallish audience at the offices of San
Francisco Planning and Urban Research, an
urban-affairs lobbying group, were kids in black
T-shirts and new MTA planning director Bill
Lieberman were a rock singer, the crowd would
have been swaying with burning cigarette lighters
For nearly two decades Lieberman served as San
Diego's transit planning director, and before
that he helped launch Portland's acclaimed
light-rail system. Last week, he talked about his
post-college days working in Amsterdam.
"I saw what bicycles can accomplish in terms of
moving people in an urban area, and what it
requires to facilitate them," he said, as smiles,
approving murmurs, and nods of agreement spread
through the audience.
He acknowledged what a mess our system now is.
"In San Francisco it takes a long time to get
around by transit. It's just plain slow. It takes
forever to get anywhere," he said to more nods.
He uttered the urban planner's koan regarding walking.
"If you design around pedestrians, everything
else kind of takes care of itself," he said.
And he hinted at ambitious plans for bus rapid transit.
"With bus rapid transit, we have to make it a
spectacular thing. It shouldn't be just a better
thing. It should be such a fantastic thing that
it should attract people who don't use transit
now," he said. "Frankly, I wouldn't mind charging
more for it. We tend to look at
one-size-fits-all. But I think we need to start
looking at premium fares for premium service."
Lieberman said his job wouldn't be easy.
"I think my biggest challenge is with dealing
with elevated expectations, with people saying,
'We have a new transportation planning czar who's
going to fix everything,'" he said.
Actually, Lieberman's challenge is exactly the
opposite. This is a city where certain elements
of the political culture pillory those who would
try to make the city work more efficiently.
For the rest of us, he may be the best hope we'll
have at a get-out-of-jail card, and we should
root for him accordingly.
©2005 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.
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