Photo by Lydia Chávez

It feels like Muni is under a cloud of late. One of its own making.

This week, Mission Local revealed that the agency’s new diesel-electric hybrid buses are operating without a pollution-control program that has been par for the municipal transit course since the 1980s. The buses’ onboard computers are not programmed to shut down the engine after several minutes of idling — and sources say buses are being allowed to idle excessively in the yards, a decades-long Muni malady.

Muni, it turns out, is on an emissions kick. In September of last year, it quietly agreed to a settlement with the California Air Resources Board: Muni pledged to fork over $220,500, mend its ways and make investments in training and maintenance after the state regulators alleged San Francisco’s transit agency failed, for years, to ensure its vehicles met California emissions standards — and failed to even attempt to do so.

“SFMTA failed to test, measure, record and maintain records of smoke emissions from its fleet of heavy-duty diesel vehicles for years 2013 and 2014,” states the settlement agreement. The state says some 329 buses failed to meet “the applicable in-use performance standards.

While the Air Resources Board occasionally puts out a press release trumpeting its settlement agreements  it did not do so in this case. Muni was the only municipal transit agency dinged by the state in 2016. No news stories — prior to this one — have been written about Muni’s hefty fine and settlement for evading emissions requirements.

Muni’s failure to measure, maintain and record emissions levels led, unsurprisingly, to its failure to submit mandatory annual reports detailing the above. In addition to the fine, Muni was required to remedy this and other mechanical and clerical practices. The transit agency was ordered to train its staff on emissions testing procedures — and to begin smog-testing its vehicles.

One of the settlement’s stipulations stated that “SFMTA shall instruct all employees who operate diesel-fueled vehicles to comply with the idling requirements” of section 13 in the California Code of Regulation

The state, bluntly, is ordering Muni to cease violating the law. And, intriguingly, it was these very laws regarding over-idling buses that Muni workers allege are still being broken when coaches are allowed to rumble on indefinitely at bus yards. These are the buses, again, in which Muni opted to not install automated programs that would curtail excessive idling.

It is questionable how well this stipulation is being followed. Muni is allegedly doing one of the very things the state ordered it to not do, and its decision to not install idling auto-shutdown programs further enables that.  

When queried about the settlement, Muni officials sent an e-mail claiming the situation had “less to do with the actual emissions of the vehicles than … with paperwork and regulatory policies” — and was exacerbated by the inconsistent advice and faulty equipment of the Air Resources Board.

Queries to the Air Resources Board seeking its view of Muni’s response — and asking whether Muni could be subject to further fines — have not yet been answered.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Dilligent efforts? How about some diligent efforts to stop the daily Game of Thrones-like environments on Muni vehicles, whether buses or trains. It’s awful. I used to daily commute on Muni, now I use other methods because Muni is so unsafe, unsanitary, and unpleasant.

  2. Just wanted to provide some more details about these findings, which were identified in 2011. They have less to do with the actual emission standards of vehicles than they do with paperwork and regulatory policies. In fact, all of our buses met the emissions requirements at that time and our new Hybrid buses continue that trend today. All of our vehicles are either electric, hybrid or clean-diesel, making Muni one of the greenest fleets in the world. These particular findings can be broken up into three parts:

    1) Of the violations, 226 were assesses for reconditioned engines. Initially, ARB staff advised that these buses were exempt from testing. Because of that guidance, we did not include those vehicles in the testing. ARB later said that the initial information we received was wrong, so we tested those vehicles and they passed as well.
    2) 162 of the violations were related to an invalidation by ARB because the test receipts included a date that had been handwritten by SFMTA due to a malfunction of the testers’ date display. In each of those cases, the engines “passed”, but were invalidated because of the handwritten date.
    3) ARB stated that SFMTA failed to submit fleet reports between 2011 and 2015. In 2015, SFMTA contacted ARB staff to report problems encountered in submitting the online annual report form. ARB staff acknowledged the problem as a technical glitch and would look into resolving the issue.

    ARB also stated that the penalty was discounted based on the fact that this was a first time violation and we made diligent efforts to comply and to cooperate with the investigation. Thank you!

    Paul Rose

    1. Hi Paul,

      I appreciate the detailed response. I had a question and maybe you can answer it. Are the new XDE40 and XDE60 buses not hybrids? I saw a MTA article on the buses being ‘bio-diesel clean fuel vehicles’, but I assumed that they were hybrids and so would stop idling or would have regenerative braking, no?


  3. Busted. Muni’s response standard double talk BS. But they cash their City checks every 2 weeks, no one will be fired.