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SF measure I would force costly CNG buses on Muni

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  • 2/27 SF Chronicle
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 28, 2004
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      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
      reserve fleet.

      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
      Resources Board.

      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
      examples see
      <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/16353> and
      <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/16343> ]

      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
      support it.

      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@...
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