Published Friday, February 27, 2004, in the San Francisco Chronicle
Bid to replace Muni's diesel buses on ballot
By Jane Kay
After years of bitter fighting between Muni and the San Francisco
Board of Supervisors, voters will get to weigh in Tuesday on what to
do about the city's diesel buses.
[BATN has always thought that a plebiscite is the correct way to
decide technical issues involving bus drive trains.]
Proposition I, if passed, would require the San Francisco Municipal
Railway to replace all of its pre-1991 diesel buses by 2007 with new
buses that meet the state's air-quality rules. That translates to
about 145 of the city's 540 diesel buses, including those in the
Residents, pedestrians and bus passengers have often complained about
the diesel exhaust and noise.
Diesel exhaust is a major source of particulate pollution that can
trigger problems for those with respiratory illnesses. And diesel
exhaust from all vehicles accounts for 70 percent of the cancer risk
from airborne pollution in the state, according to the California Air
Supporters of Prop. I, formally known as the Healthy Air Enforcement
Act of 2004, say that the measure is necessary because Muni clings to
outmoded, polluting diesel buses, even as most other major cities have
switched to cleaner buses powered by compressed natural gas (CNG).
[BATN notes that "most major cities" have done no such thing, and that
those who have been pressured into doing so -- such as New York City
and Vancouver -- are busily trying to undo the operational and
maintenance and economic disaster that is CNG buses. For very recent
Among groups backing the measure are the American Lung Association,
the Union of Concerned Scientists and the San Francisco Medical
Society. Six members of the 11-member Board of Supervisors also
Opponents of Prop. I, primarily the watchdog group Rescue Muni, say
that Muni already has plans to replace its most polluting buses -- not
with compressed natural gas vehicles, but with diesel-electric hybrid
buses or another technology. The measure, they say, would force Muni
to scrap many perfectly good vehicles.
In 2001, Muni tried to buy 95 upgraded diesel buses, a first step in
replacing about 100 old clunkers. But the San Francisco Transit
County Authority, composed of city supervisors, blocked the purchase,
citing federal and state tests showing that natural gas alternatives
were much cleaner.
"Since 1997, we have passed a half-dozen resolutions stating that Muni
should not buy diesel buses. Muni has completely ignored those
resolutions," said Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, who supports the
measure. Out of frustration, the board in 2002 finally denied money
to buy diesel buses.
Prop. I supporters say Muni could buy 100 new natural gas buses over
the coming years, then in 2007 -- the deadline year -- use 45 of its
1999 diesel buses to replace the reserve fleet.
Other cities -- including Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, Dallas and
Washington, D.C. -- have switched to natural gas. The Sacramento
Regional Transit District says a decade of using natural gas bears out
that the cost, including maintenance and fuel, is similar to that of
diesel and there are no irritating fumes or noise.
Muni is barred from taking an official position on a ballot measure.
But Michael Burns, Muni's chief executive officer, has long objected
to buying compressed natural gas buses, currently the primary
non-diesel alternative, saying they're hard to maintain.
Burns prefers diesel buses upgraded with new pollution-control
equipment and a diesel-electric hybrid bus that is just emerging on
the market. The state air board is reviewing the diesel-electric
hybrid to see whether it meets California's air-quality rules.
"We would like to have these old diesel buses off the street," Muni
spokeswoman Maggie Lynch said. "(But) we tested CNG, and it breaks
down more often than the old diesel buses that we have. It doesn't
have the power for our hills or our loads."
Jon Golinger, campaign coordinator for Prop I, said Muni's opposition
to natural gas buses comes in part from a small test on six buses in
2001. A supervisor-appointed oversight committee called the test
results "inconclusive" and not a good measure of buses for the city.
"The buses Muni would buy over the next couple of years are more
reliable and are cleaner than the 2001 models of natural gas or
diesel-electric buses that it tested," Golinger said. The Prop. I
backers don't object to diesel-electric hybrid if it's clean enough
to meet state air standards.
"Prop. I would ensure that Muni moves forward with one of these
alternative-fuel buses," he said.
Supporters also point out that the measure allows for a onetime
extension of up to 12 months "if replacement buses are not
commercially available or unforeseen circumstances prevent Muni from
procuring new buses on a timely basis."
Backers say the new buses could be paid for with money from the
Federal Transit Administration and Proposition K, a measure that San
Francisco voters passed last year extending a half-cent sales tax for
city transit projects. [BATN notes that vehicle replacement funds
from Proposition K are intended to be spent over a 30 year period, and
that unnecessary, fiscally nonsensical and federally unfundable
replacement of older buses in the reserve fleet was never anticipated
and never budgeted into the sales tax. Unnecessary early bus
replacement can only be done by stealing funds intended for other
According to the city controller's assessment, if Muni couldn't get
matching federal funds, the cost would be up to $20 million taken from
Prop. K funds. Supervisor Sandoval said the sales tax fund was
designed precisely to help Muni buy new buses.
But Andrew Sullivan, executive director of Rescue Muni, said he
doesn't want to "raid" Prop. K funds. "It's a terrible use of
taxpayer money because we're replacing buses that are halfway through
their useful life and getting no federal replacement dollars for
them," he said.
And, Sullivan feared, without Prop. K funds to replace the buses,
service would suffer.
E-mail Jane Kay at jkay@...