A (Belated) MUNI Town Hall Report AKA Mr. Ford is Off the On Notice Board!
Sorry for the belated coverage of the MUNI Town Hall organized by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi - but the timing of the event, so close to events affected by my other job prevented me from writing a decent review of the meeting. And what a meeting it was!
It was notable, not just for the cool swag they were giving away, but also for the kind of straight talk MUNI riders have wanted from MUNI for some time. As such, The N-Judah Chronicles is now officially taking Mr. Nate Ford, General Manager of MUNI, off the goofy "On Notice" board we featured a while back.
Why? Simple - because he was willing to stand up on a stage at a community event, unfiltered by bureaucrats and spin-meisters, and give frank, informative answers to citizens' questions. That is all anyone really wants -and he was also willing to freely admit when he didn't know a solid answer to a question and would have MUNI department heads also get up in front of the group and answer some specifics as well.
True, some of the snarky folks sitting behind me (whose constant talking made it really hard for me to hear sometimes - please people this is not a movie theater, keep it down!) had their opinions, but I think most people who attended got a clearer picture of the status of MUNI today, and what it's going to need to survive in the future.
Topics covered ranged widely, from specific questions about the N-Judah and 44 lines, to broader questions about MUNI policy and future financial solvency. On the former, Mr. Ford pointed out that many decisions made in the past currently affect MUNI today. When one citizen asked as to why it seems MUNI drivers aren't polite or helpful to riders, he first told the crowd that there was no excuse for MUNI employees who weren't polite or respectiful to MUNI riders.
But he also indicated that one thing that has been cut over the years has been customer training, as part of one of those "let's save money quickly" ideas in years past that's now coming back to haunt us. He also told the crowd that by giving MUNI as much info as possible, they'd have a better chance of tackling a specific problem at a specific time.
Likewise, when a citizen asked a question that many of us wonder about - why it seems the N-Judah line is getting shorted on trains, while K,L and M lines run empty cars. Two challenges MUNI faces with the streetcars, according to Ford and his staff, have been the fact that they've consistently cut the number of mechanics servicing the trains - and that the maintenance barn can't hold all the cars in the system. Also affecting the assignment of trains to lines, he said, was that the assignment of operators to trains needs to change to serve the needs of customers, not just an abstract budget.
But not all news was doom and gloom. One of the most celebrated announcements was the one made by MUNI's assembled leadership about the changes to the 9th and Irving and 9th and Judah traffic lights, so that the signals for pedestrians and the signals for cars and MUNI trains will be seperate. This will not only speed up trains, but also ensure no pedestrians get run over by cars or trains. Finally!
And, when I asked Mr. Ford directly how often he rode MUNI, he gave a fairly detailed answer, indicating that he rides MUNI lines every week, both as The Boss, and as an anonymous passenger. He also said he requires his managers to ride MUNI on a regular basis, and that often times, specific "problem lines" will be ridden by all managers, for a period of two weeks, and required to report their findings.
Needless to say, he hit that one right out of the park. I assumed he'd say "Yes I do" and move on, but I have to say it was heartening to hear that he and the managers have to ride the bus and MUNI trains like we do, on a regular basis. Heck, when Our Mayor rode the 1 California, that seemed to inspire a pilot project to analyze the line in detail to get it moving faster. Wasn't there some crazy ballot thing years ago to make all the electeds ride the bus or something?
Many people who attended had specific suggestions on ways to improve MUNI service and it was suggested they get involved in the Transit Effectiveness Project since this is where decisions about the future of MUNI service (which as a system hasn't changed since the 1970s) are going to be made.
This is pretty important. Just about anyone who rides MUNI on a regular basis notices all sorts of contradictions, and other symptoms that the system hasn't changed, while our City has. And, at the same time, it is critical that MUNI start finding more stable, long term revenue sources to pay for those changes, otherwise the TEP will be a book of good intentions, without a way to pay for them.
Overall I learned a lot from the meeting and felt it went well. I spoke with Supervisor Mirkirimi after the event and he agreed it went well, but that he was already working on another meeting in six months, so that citizens could have another chance to ask questions, as well as hold MUNI accountable to promises made to citizens in the future.
I agree. While this was a good start, I think a slow-moving bureaucracy created over decades can't be changed overnght. That's why we, as citizens, have to continue to ask our elected officials to do the right thing and fix the system so it run on time and ends this chronic "no money" situation we keep hearing about. Keep your eyes open