Transit agency head’s departure comes following video of woman dragged by train, revelations of defective vehicles, daylong Muni meltdown — and so much more

Embattled Muni boss Ed Reiskin today announced he will step down after eight-odd years at the helm, following his contract’s expiration in August. Mayor London Breed, who had grown openly critical of Reiskin as Muni’s performance increasingly resembled a disaster-movie montage, simultaneously released a letter to the transit agency’s board, marking the commencement of a national search for Reiskin’s replacement — and announced an early afternoon press conference doing the same.

So, the only way this could’ve been more choreographed is if there was a song-and-dance number to go along with it. Who knows: Perhaps at today’s press conference, there will be.

Reiskin’s announcement was met with virtual gasps on the internet. But it shouldn’t have been. All of these things happened just last week, culminating in rail service being knocked out for 10 hours on Friday.   

This is, rather literally, no way to run a railroad.

As such, crass attempts to circumvent the rules by ride-share companies or VC-backed scooter outfits — which are often one and the same — were given undue credence because San Francisco’s public transit system has grown so unpleasant and unreliable.  

Muni has had such an awful run that many of you may have forgotten about last year’s service meltdown. Well, Mayor Breed hasn’t.

In a nutshell, while our transit service diligently publicized the closure of the Twin Peaks Tunnel for necessary upgrades, it failed to publicize that it would backfill service affected by the tunnel’s closure by secretly syphoning buses and drivers off of other lines — some of Muni’s busiest lines, in fact. Statistics obtained by Mission Local reveal this resulted in de facto service cuts of 33 percent or more on some of the city’s most critical and crowded bus lines.

These lines were often miles from the Twin Peaks Tunnel, and riders were blindsided. Sans an explanation, they were left to grind their teeth, grumble “Muni sucks,” and hop on a scooter or summon an Uber. It really is incredibly cynical and damaging to not only shield yourself via Muni’s evil reputation but to reinforce and enhance it.   

But wait! There’s more! In an astoundingly cavalier move, Muni failed to inform the mayor’s office that it planned to do this, leaving Mayor Mark Farrell and, subsequently, Mayor Breed, flat-footed. You’d think, in a normal city, this combination of presumptuousness, insubordination, and callousness would lead to a mass of gratuitous dismissals.

Data obtained by Mission Local revealed a tremendous spike in missed service hours following last summer’s closure of the Twin Peaks Tunnel. While this move was planned by Muni, it was not publicized.

But this is not a normal city. Former Muni transit head John Haley was shown the door not for this, nor other questionable moves, but after a female underling filed suit, claiming he discriminated against her and put his hands on her. And Reiskin, his boss, was not eased out until a week of gruesome and public Muni miscues that grew in intensity like the closing stanza of a fireworks show.  

To wit, in just the last week and change: A second woman sued Haley and the agency; reports surfaced that Muni’s costly new custom-designed train fleet of the future came with bum doors (and video surfaced of a woman being dragged); a story broke that the agency is rushing potentially unqualified drivers into those trains; it came to light that braking issues cause the Siemens trains’ wheels to flatten, knocking many of them out of service prematurely; and service went into the toilet because Muni was relying on drivers working on their off-days to fill routes and they refused.  

And then an electrical failure knocked out service in the Metro Tunnel for 10 hours on Friday, resulting in transit scenes of the sort you’d expect in a city where rebel armies are dropping barrel bombs from helicopters. People seemed way more upset about this infrastructure failure than the system being intentionally kneecapped by Muni management — as did Mayor Breed — but, as the ballplayers say, it is what it is. 

All of this took place, incidentally, after Reiskin pledged to show Mayor Breed that things were on the up and up after she wrote him a sharply worded letter in August.

So, that’s what had to happen for Ed Reiskin to lose his job; he got more chances than Steve Howe.

But it wasn’t all bad. Muni did obtain billions of dollars worth of new vehicles. But even this came with caveats. Its new green hybrid buses were bought in 2013 via a bizarre handshake deal with the manufacturer in which the city’s unknowing Board of Supervisors was made to vote to fund the purchase of a fleet of vehicles they had no idea was already paid for and, in fact, sitting across the bay in an Alameda warehouse. What’s more, the deal conveniently undermined Muni’s own internal study on which manner of hybrid engine to invest in, tossing business to an ostensibly favored vendor.

And, as noted above, the billion-and-change spent on the new Siemens rail cars has, in too many ways, been a drag.

These are troubled times for Muni. Photo by Joe Eskenazi.

How did Reiskin hold on so long? Well, for one thing, the city would have been on the hook for a six-month severance payout if he left before the termination of his contract. That’s in the ballpark of $150,000 — which is a lot of money but is also around one-tenth what this city spends on toilet paper every year.

Breed, who is running virtually unopposed for re-election in November, had not previously moved to dismiss any department heads (former health department boss Barbara Garcia, who was accused of steering contracts to her wife, voluntarily stepped down). The mayor is keeping an even hand on the city’s tiller up to this winter’s election.

But following Muni’s recent theatrical failures, something had to give. And, with the search for Reiskin’s successor under way as of this afternoon, an interesting dynamic will play out. Even among progressive politicos who, like many in this city, were critical of Muni’s ongoing slump, Reiskin’s antipathy to Uber and Lyft and move-fast-break-things scooter companies was seen as a big plus. It evinced the opposite reaction from Mayor Breed, however.

And now Reiskin is on his way out. Through it all, and through his eight-odd years atop Muni, he never appeared anything less than caring, decent, hard-working, and committed. Reiskin’s predecessor, Nat Ford, purportedly issued a verbal directive informing Muni staff not to speak to him unless spoken to. Reiskin didn’t do this. He biked around town and chatted on a one-to-one basis with Muni’s front-line employees and daily users.

Despite Reiskin’s gaudy salary, he wore notoriously ill-fitting second-hand suits. He was approachable. He was well-liked. Everyone thought he was a nice guy and, more than that, a good guy. But, for all that, it’s tough to say Muni is performing better now than it did under Ford. And Reiskin wasn’t a transit specialist. The transit specialists in his staff appear to have taken liberties a more expert boss may have noticed and not countenanced.

So, Muni is off the rails. It remains to be seen who, if anyone, can put it back on track.