Shift astounds city supervisor: “They don’t know what the fuck is going on with their buses.”

In August, Mission Local broke the story that Muni’s New Flyer diesel-electric hybrid buses, which come with a nearly $750,000-a-pop price tag justified by their environmental bona fides, did not have a rudimentary pollution control device installed on them. These buses, Muni yard workers were dismayed to discover, were not programmed to automatically shut down after five minutes of idling, the length of time allowed by state law. Instead, they could idle indefinitely, until they ran out of fuel.

On Monday, we reported that media exposure and scrutiny by city government appears to have changed Muni’s tune. Warning stickers noting that idling a bus for more than five minutes is illegal are going up in every diesel or hybrid coach. And, in an October closed-door meeting with Supervisor Aaron Peskin and his staff, Muni transit director John Haley pledged that all of Muni’s problematic buses would be upgraded. He said this would take time, however — perhaps well into next year — and cost an estimated $1,200 a vehicle. That would put the bill for bringing the buses into compliance at several hundred thousand dollars.

Technical sources contacted by Mission Local were incredulous. Upgrading the buses was likened to upgrading apps on a smartphone — which can be expediently accomplished for significantly less than $1,200. “That’s a bullshit number,” we were told.

And that turned out to be the case.

This week, we learned that Muni has already begun to update the problematic buses, via WiFi technology, and is doing so for free. Muni spokesman Paul Rose confirmed this. “We were able to work with New Flyer to provide a wireless software upgrade at no cost,” he wrote. “One-hundred and twenty buses have already received the upgrade, and the remainder of the fleet will be complete in 60 days.”

Reached for comment, Peskin was displeased that “bullshit numbers” had been fed to his office by Muni management, which he decried as “incompetent.”

“Sounds like they don’t know what the fuck is going on with their buses,” he continued. “It does not instill confidence that they don’t know the capabilities of their shiny new product.”  

Peskin’s office was subsequently informed by Muni management that the work could be done rapidly, via the bus manufacturer, to remotely monitor and update the vehicles’ on-board computers. Because this was considered “research and development,” the supervisor was told, it was done free of charge.

“New Flyer had not done this before,” wrote Rose, “and are using this as an opportunity to test their new diagnostic system.”

This, too, jolted Muni technical sources. All upgrades to Muni’s New Flyer buses’ onboard computers are now done wirelessly. This is, in fact, the only way to upgrade those computers. Muni maintenance staff has long been trained to do this.

(Muni has not answered our queries on how and when — or if — older buses and non-New Flyer buses will be upgraded to comply with state law).

Muni management is taking steps to put out the fire of its own making. New Flyer has remedied what could have been an ugly PR situation. This is good. It’s good for everyone who lives and/or breathes in San Francisco, and it’s good for city taxpayers that it isn’t costing $1,200 per bus. But the agency’s explanation for why it saw fit to buy and put into service buses missing a long-standing pollution control device remains problematic.

In August, an agency spokeswoman told Mission Local that Muni simply piggybacked on a procurement operation set up by the state of Minnesota, in which the buses “did not include an automatic shutdown for idling” in their specifications (in a state in which winter temperatures are downright arctic, this is understandable; the buses might not restart).

And yet, a bus must undergo a number of specific Muni customizations and pass inspection before being put into revenue service. It must be painted and numbered with the Muni colors and logos. It must be specifically wired for the Clipper payment system and to accommodate the vehicles’ “people counter.” You have to install a fare box. Hilly San Francisco also requires specific features on the “interlock,” which ensures a bus with open doors won’t roll away.

Not on this list, apparently, was updating the buses’ on-board computers to comply with state law and ensure they don’t idle indefinitely. Though, as since amply demonstrated, this was — by far — easier and less labor intensive than any of the items on the list above. Cheaper, too.

Muni has, for decades, cavalierly disregarded state laws regarding idling buses. When its vehicles’ onboard computers were, belatedly, equipped with failsafe devices to cut excess idling, Muni workers devised manual overrides to cheat the system. And, with its newest, greenest hybrid buses, it simply ordered them manufactured without the failsafe system in the first place.

Mission Local on Thursday sent Muni director Ed Reiskin a simple yes-or-no query. After all of this, does Muni acknowledge it is responsible for abiding by state idling restrictions, regardless of whether there’s a driver behind the wheel?

He responded essentially, with a yes. Reiskin acknowledged that his transit agency is governed by the state’s air regulation board. “And we work regularly with them to ensure that we are compliant.”