Muni Metro – the Case for In-Line Coupling – Part II

San Francisco’s Muni Metro system was originally designed to operate one and two-car trains on city streets, where longer trains weren’t needed, and then to couple the short trains into three and four car trains suitable for subway travel. This arrangement was used from the time the Muni Metro system opened in 1980 until the mid-1990’s when the General Manager of the SFPUC (which then operated Muni) made his fateful decision to discontinue the coupling. This meant that in order to keep up with demand it would be necessary to operate the one and two car trains in the subway. As demand increased it was necessary to continually increase the number of these short trains to the point of their completely overloading the subway and causing the entire Muni Metro system to be snarled up, virtually on a daily basis.

In early 2020 the drop in transit use caused by COVID temporarily put the problem on ice.

But now demand is starting to rise again, meaning that if nothing changes the SFMTA will likely soon be faced with the same problem. Absent coupling, the dreary choice will be to 1.) again overload the subway with short trains, or 2.) send unnecessarily long trains out into the avenues to disrupt cross traffic, or 3.) force a substantial number of Muni Metro riders to transfer between trains to get to the eastern parts of the city. None of the three is acceptable.

For this reason it is necessary to take another look at coupling, which the SFMTA has so far refused to do or even talk about, despite the fact that passenger trains are successfully coupled and uncoupled during revenue service in many parts of the world.

It is emphasized that in the case of the Muni Metro system, six branch lines all feed into one Market Street subway which make San Francisco’s system much more dependent on coupling than most other systems. Here are several ways of proceeding without gumming up the subway, disrupting the avenues or degrading the service for a sizable percentage of Muni Metro riders:

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Golden Gate Sleaze Awards

The Valley Link Project:  Who in their right mind would spend upwards of $3 billion to wind a second set of duplicative tracks through empty hills to make way for a second low ridership rail line?!

The East Dublin Parking Garage:  It would take 76 years to recover the investment.

SMART:  It currently costs SMART over $60 to provide a one-way ride on its system to a SMART rider, who pays back less of $4 of that amount at the farebox. The other $56 + is forked over by the hapless tax payers of Marin and Sonoma Counties.

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority’s (VTA’s) BART Phase II Project:  Four miles of gold-plated subway whose price has rocketed from $4.7 billion to an astonishing $9.15 billion.

The Muni Central Subway Project:  Oversold and Overpriced. It is now four years late and saddled with a $353 million unpaid debt.

The Link 21 Study:  Planners have spent 35 months and $42 million providing what? No one seems to know.


Fly in the SFMTA Soup?

San Francisco’s voters are being asked to approval two transportation ballot measures in 2022, one on November 8th and the other……. on June 7th.

The November 8th Measure, sponsored by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (CTA), would extend the existing ½ cent Prop K transportation sales tax for another 30 years and during that time raise a projected $2.6 billion. Pursuant to an extensive outreach program and much hard work on the part of the CTA’s Community Advisory Committee, the measure was thoroughly vetted and appears to be well thought out. It’s Expenditure Plan addresses SF’s outstanding transportation problems and furthers its transit-first policy in a well-balanced manner.

The June 7th measure (Measure A), sponsored by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA), would reportedly raise an additional $400 million by selling General Obligation Bonds. Measure A, developed by the MTA staff, has received relatively little public exposure but it too cites long standing transportation problems in need of attention.

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AC Transit’s Big Empties

In 2019 AC Transit operated 158 separate bus lines. Some run only during peak periods. Others run just at night. And that might be ok if most lines were running full. Some lines are… but many aren’t. Not even close.

If you find this hard to believe go out and observe the passing buses. As noted, some are carrying a respectable numbers of riders. But in almost every part of the East Bay you will see buses, including articulated buses with 60 seats, carrying anywhere from one to four persons including the bus driver. This dismal sight, which was evident even before COVID, can be seen at almost any hour of the day almost everywhere, from Fremont to Pinole and beyond.

Why is this?

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Governmental Transparency: Gone like the DoDo Bird?

When Bay Area transportation agencies don’t come clean, transit riders, tax payers and the region at large all get hurt. Government agencies have gotten into the bad habit of keeping everything secret that would in any way embarrass or otherwise reflect badly on them. As a result all we get these days in a timely manner are rosy projections and other good news. Here are seven flagrant Bay Area examples of what happens when secrets preempt forthrightness:

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Kudos to SMART’s Executive Search Team – Well Done

In addition to facing the severe ridership attrition created by COVID-19, the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit District (SMART) also had to address replacement of their Chief Financial Officer in December 2020 and their long-time General Manager’s retirement in late 2021. With the help of seasoned transit industry executive search experts, two exceptionally well-qualified leaders are now in charge at SMART.

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San Jose Mercury, Spur and Bay Council Weigh In

While each of these organizations has its own focus, all seem to agree that major changes in travel habits have occurred and also that how, or if, things will get back to “normal” is far from assured:

Changing Travel Patterns: On February 20, 2022 the San Jose Mercury reminded us of how the popularity of stay-at-home work was cutting into transit ridership. The article focused on COVID’s effects on transit travel which were, and continue to be, devastating. However, something else is going on. It’s more than just changes in commuting. Many types of trips, including auto trips, have been affected by factors other than the pandemic. Zoom meetings are easier and less time-consuming than traveling to public hearings, club get-togethers, advocacy group meetings, business meetings, seminars, workshops and adult education classes. Watching one’s favorite movie at home often beats going to the cinema. And there’s a growing tendency to acquire desired products including well-prepared meals on line rather than driving miles in search of the right retailer. It appears that technology and changes in lifestyle are affecting travel, even as the effects of COVID wane.

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Faster, Better, more Cost-Effective

People often wonder how the Bay Area, so full of highly-educated and talented individuals, finds it so difficult to develop cost-effective public infrastructure projects in a timely manner. Some think this is because of corruption. Others say it’s because of incompetence. With excellent input from experts Alan Pisarski, Bent Flyvbjerg and Darlene Gee, HNTB Senior Vice President, BATWG offers a less accusatory set of explanations:

The Projects: Large engineering project are inherently complicated, requiring thousands of planning, design and inter-agency decisions. As well documented by Bent Flyvbjerg, budget and scheduling problems are common in all large projects throughout the world.

Qualifications:  Inexperienced and in some cases unqualified individuals without any training or even orientation are randomly picked to sit on powerful boards and commissions that control millions and sometimes billions of dollars. Insufficiently educated on the importance of their new function, many policy-makers remain confused about regional priorities and overly susceptible to parochial priorities, developers, unions and other outside pressure groups. This sorry practice must end. Qualifications and experience are of critical importance, and every incoming Board member should well understand both the objectives of the new agency and the kinds of decision he or she will be called upon to make. To ensure this result, it is essential that the appointing decisions are made thoughtfully and that incoming new members receive intensive training and orientation.

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