This is a photo of the famous Gare Montparnasse train disaster of 1895. It is being used here as a metaphor.
“Information gladly given, but safety requires avoiding unnecessary conversation.”

On election night, politicians and Muni officials backing the massive transit infrastructure bond were waiting for their political bus to arrive. But, just like a real bus, complications ensued, and things got messy. 

Bonds require two-thirds voter approval and, when the initial ballot count dropped at 8:45 p.m., Proposition A was at just 64 percent.

“It’s reasonable to make that up,” Muni director Jeffrey Tumlin told our reporter, Annika Hom, at the time. But not really: It would have been reasonable if Mayor London Breed’s signature infrastructure bond, backed by every vestige of political power in the city, facing no significant opposition and touting a healthy war chest of nearly $1.5 million, had been into the 70s and gained from there throughout the evening. 

But that didn’t happen. In fact, Prop. A lost ground with every successive tranche of votes tabulated on election night.  

As of Sunday, with essentially all the votes counted, Prop. A has 65.1 percent of the vote. Again, it needed 66.7; the bus is not coming. 

If you’re keeping score at home, the last mayor to fail to pass an infrastructure bond carrying his or her imprimatur was Gavin Christopher Newsom in November, 2005 (Prop. B, a street and sidewalk improvement bond). This is humiliating, and it doesn’t happen a lot. Lessons were learned and, in recent years, applied. 

One of the biggest lesson learned in the ensuing decades: Massive infrastructure bond campaigns have typically been led by not one, but two, consultants. This indicates the huge dollar numbers at stake, as well as the vital and bipartisan nature of this giant ask of the voters. In hiring both a moderate-aligned consultant as well as a progressive one, no electoral stone was left unturned. “You want to have two campaign consultants,” explains a veteran of multiple bond campaigns. “That gives you 100 percent coverage. Getting two-thirds of the voters is hard in a town that’s so [politically] split up.” 

Precincts that went hard against Boudin

were less likely to support Muni funding.

Votes to remove Boudin (%)

Mission precinct

Other precinct

100

90

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30

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50

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Votes to reject Muni funding (%)

Precincts that went hard against

Boudin were less likely to support a

$400 million boost to Muni funding.

Votes to remove Boudin (%)

100

90

80

70

60

50

40

30

20

10

Mission precinct

Other precinct

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Votes to reject Muni funding (%)

Chart by Will Jarrett. Data from Department of Elections.

Prop. A, however, had only one lead consulting firm: KMM Strategies, helmed by Maggie Muir, Breed’s preferred consultant. KMM was facing the additional hurdle of being on the same ballot as Prop. H, the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin. And this was a truly odd situation, because the consulting firm handling the recall was — you guessed it — KMM Strategies. 

Among San Francisco political insiders, who long ago feared this bond would be derailed, this was something of a head-smacking situation. Weeks before Prop. A’s dismal election-night showing (and eventual ignominious defeat), city politicos worried that an influx of voters driven to the polls to oust Boudin, after a steady drumbeat of ads playing up the dysfunction, filth and wrongheadedness of this city, would not bode well for a chronically dysfunctional transit system asking for a massive handout. 

On election day, Mission Local predicted that Prop. H’s success could come at the expense of Prop. A. That appears to be exactly what happened. 

Precinct-level election data gleaned by Mission Local’s Will Jarrett reveals a 0.74 “Pearson correlation” between Yes on H votes and No on A votes. The “Pearson correlation,” named for British mathematician Karl Pearson, indicates the linear relationship between two issues. A “-1” correlation indicates a complete opposite relationship; a “0” correlation indicates no relation between two variables; and a “1” indicates an identical, perfect correlation. 

So 0.74 is pretty damn high. 

What does it mean? It means that in precincts where more people voted to dump Boudin, they also voted in greater numbers to stiff Muni. 

Digging further, Jarrett unearthed data regarding individual voters. Of the people who voted to recall Boudin, only 48.7 percent of them also voted in favor of the Muni bond. But of the people who voted to not recall Boudin, 76.7 percent of them voted for the Muni bond.  

This provides mathematical evidence to what was an intuitive prediction: Campaigns attempting to drive Prop. H voters and Prop. A voters to the polls were at cross purposes. So, truly, it was a remarkable decision to have one consulting firm handling both.  

DA Chesa Boudin on May 18, 2022.

Two days after the recent election, KMM Strategies disseminated a mass-email with the subject line “KMM Strategies Helps Recall San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin.”

“For the KMM Strategies team (based in both San Francisco and Seattle), this fight was a personal one as we fought to make our city safer for everyone,” read the communique. “Branding the campaign Safer SF Without Boudin, we led the TV and digital efforts that shaped the overall narrative … ” 

You’re not going to believe this, but there was no mass-email sent hither and yon by KMM announcing the jaw-dropping results on Prop. A. 

There were no laws broken here, and KMM helming both campaigns was no secret. But it was also no secret that Prop. A and Prop. H were, as noted above, at cross purposes. A number of experienced political hands I spoke with in recent weeks, some of whom had zero sympathy for Boudin, also predicted this recall would undermine the Muni bond. 

I have not yet received any answers to my questions of KMM: Were there internal strategies to keep Prop. H voters from derailing Prop. A? What steps were taken to reach the progressive voters most likely to vote for this bond — who were also most likely to vote against the recall? And why was there no second lead consultant for Prop. A, one with deeper ties to city progressives? 

Of the people who voted to recall Boudin, only 48.7 percent of them also voted in favor of the Muni bond. But of the people who voted to not recall Boudin, 76.7 percent of them voted for the Muni bond.  

While the recall campaign clearly got its preferred voters out, it’s hard to say the same for the Muni bond. The Prop. A campaign donated to only a handful of Democratic clubs or other city outfits of the sort doing slate mail campaigns or voter outreach. And it donated more money to Democratic clubs pushing for the recall in their outreach materials than anti-recall clubs. 

With all the votes counted, the recall triumphed, by a 55-45 margin. That’s not the evisceration that earned national headlines on election day, but it’s still a comfortable margin. A heavy investment by the Prop. A campaign in getting lefties to the polls would not have changed the results of Prop. H. 

But it could well have turned the tide for Prop. A. Yet, for whatever rationale, this didn’t happen. Coincidentally or not, the Prop. A campaign seemed more inclined to support partners who also supported the recall. 

A rough day on the 38 Geary. Photo by Jim Herd.

Some after-the-fact rancor is being directed at the left-leaning League of Pissed-Off Voters for its neutral stance on Prop. A. 

That was bewildering and unfortunate. That was a bad look; it was shortsighted to punish Muni for its poor performance by ensuring more of it. But it’s hard to see it as a significant factor in the overall outcome when compared to the goodly number of motivated, pro-recall voters handily rejecting the bond in what turned out to be a fairly high-turnout election. 

Besides, delivering endorsements like the League and other lefty political groups is ostensibly why you’d have that second, progressive-friendly consultant on the payroll in the first place. 

Where does this leave Muni? Where it was before, only worse off: It remains San Francisco’s political orphan. 

Muni is under the aegis of the mayor, who appoints its entire oversight commission and can micromanage agency leadership as much or little as she pleases. On this critical bond measure, it’s hard to say this mayor broke much of a sweat. Few people did, and the results are telling. 

You can’t have a functioning city without a functioning public transit system. But, it seems, a significant portion of the electorate is okay with that. Better-off people are, increasingly, opting out of Muni, just as they’re opting out of the public school system. For more and more San Franciscans, this just ain’t their problem, and the results are telling.

So, Muni is in a bad way. And the city must, in November, get two-thirds of the voters to reauthorize the Prop. K sales tax to fund roads and transit — which, unlike a bond, is actually a regressive tax. 

Polling is, we’re told, on the sales tax’s side, but that wouldn’t necessarily be the case if the big Muni bond is tossed onto November’s ballot for a second run. That may yet happen; a lot can happen between now and November.

Voters, in short, are surly. If city officials need to win their confidence and prove some competence before the next handout, we could see more election nights like June 7. 

The gravy train seems to be stuck. And, as a result, so is the Muni train. 

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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. I voted for the muni bond, but given how often on twitter Tumlin positions himself as an active opponent of people in SF who need their cars as well as endorsing every leftist scheme in SF that’s completely outside the scope of his job as head of Muni, I can well understand people voting down a Muni bond.

    It’s obvious Tumlin views Muni as a stepping stone and as his own personal toy.

  2. SF City spending is exorbitant. It is time for spending reform to see how the city can operate more efficiently. No more bonds or sales tax hike, it is wrong to just throw money that results in nothing being done or piss poor results. Enough is enough!

  3. Regardless of your personal feelings on Prop A, I think Joe rightly criticizes the PR team for mucking up what should’ve been a slam dunk. We almost always pass bonds, and the combo of better Muni and safer streets for pedestrians (a huge issue for many people in different communities across the city) should have been a good message to sell even given Muni’s poor rep. But the comments here reveal how KMM effed up with muddied messaging and poor outreach to potential supporters. And they had the gall to crow about passing a symbolic recall that will likely make no difference in the day to day life in the city, while going “meh” over a failed bond that will saddle us with broken transportation for another 10+ years. All the blame will rightly fall on Breed, and hopefully her pack of smarter-than-thou politicos who talk a mean game but don’t actually get anything done.

    1. Agreed. All this effort to focus on a recall that received tons of funding and media attention, but little to no effort on a proposition that should have passed with flying colors.

  4. This was the first time I’ve ever noted no to support a bond issue for public transit. I voted no because of the slow streets and closure of the Great Hwy and JFK to cars. Anti-car advocates like The SF Bicycle coalition and Kid Safe are embedded in the SFMTA and manipulate surveys and politicians for a mode of transportation used by a small number of residents at the expense of a far larger group. SFMTA’s own data shows all the money spent to discourage cars has resulted in only a 2% rise in bicycling, a large drop in Muni use and 11% rise in personal car use. Transit First has morphed into bicycles first and is polarizing the city and driving down support for Park and Rec and the SFMTA.

    1. This^ – I would have voted for A if it was truly just for MUNI trains and bus infrastructure, but they tacked on all of that other stuff that from my observation has created more congestion, more cars idling=more pollution and frustration. I do ride the bus frequently and am glad they’ve increased frequency of the 22. I appreciate it being free for kids and have sympathy for other folks who don’t want to pay. But the whole anarchy feeling on the bus does sometimes attract a more mentally unstable population and I can’t say I always feel very safe. I drive my car after a certain hour for sure.

    2. I’m curious, Where are you getting these statistics? Is there really a direct link to Muni’s discouraging people to drive and an 11% rise in car use? I think the pandemic muddies up the data as well as multiple other factors that really can’t be tied to Muni’s car policies.

      Prop a was meant to (direct quote)- “[repair] and [upgrade] its aging bus yards, street infrastructure work to help reduce travel time of buses and trains — such as smart traffic signals and dedicated transit lanes — and replacing the light rail system’s two-decade old control system so it can direct a higher volume of trains into underground tunnels.”
      Prop a was also focused on improving street safety for pedestrians and cyclists to prevent accidents and death.
      If you want the great highway to be reopened, then you should get signatures for it to be voted on in the next election cycle, not vote to destroy a proposition meant to maintain buses, light rail, and pedestrian safety.

      1. You can improve pedestrian/bike safety by enforcing the existing traffic laws and probably also bust quite a few fentanyl dealers as well without floating a $400m dollar bond. I understand turning right-hand turns into green arrow only turns, but everyday as I walk around downtown where this has been implemented I almost get run over by someone running the red arrow and ignoring the law. That is an enforcement issue. The infrastructure improvements downtown are straggling its economy. As a commenters said once before “no one wants to ride your dirty bus”

        1. I don’t think biking and pedestrian safety will improve just by enforcing current laws (and has little/nothing to do with busting fentanyl deals). Catching someone breaking a traffic law will not prevent traffic accidents from happening. Most traffic accidents are exactly as they sound, accidents. Not due to people ignoring the law on purpose and turning on red lights. Smarter street design and implementation are needed to make them less likely to happen. That, unfortunately, requires money. So does maintaining buses, trains, roads, tracks, and everything else that keeps travel in cities safe and effecient.

          1. If people think they will never get a traffic citation they are more likely to break the law. Check the 2020 traffic fatality stats for deaths per miles driven with all the top causes all illegal driving. Drive around the city for an hour and tell me that people feel they will never get cited. I see multiple traffic violations everyday. All because police have been told to not prioritize traffic citations. Yes, pulling over a car violating traffic laws often leads to probably cause to search the car and find weapons and drugs. Safer city all around. Enforce the laws on the books.

          2. @Cicero. I’ve driven around the city for years. I agree, enforcing traffic laws is important, and drivers are more likely to be careful and alert if they are afraid they will be punished for traffic violations. But it’s hard to believe that traffic accidents will stop solely by telling police to prioritize traffic citations. This suggests that all collisions are caused by people knowingly breaking the law. Traffic accidents occur despite driver’s best efforts and can be drastically decreased by better street design. I’m not saying proposition A would be perfect, but city lead street implementation measures can greatly improve safety for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians.

        1. But you made a connection between SFMTA’s policies to limit driving to increased car travel. What the data you posted shows is that people traveling via privately owned vehicles increased between 2019 and 2021, a trend which was seen all over the country largely due to the pandemic. Here’s data showing decreased public transit use in the Boston area https://www.bostonfed.org/publications/new-england-public-policy-center-regional-briefs/2021/the-covid-19-pandemics-impact-on-public-transportation-ridership-and-revenues-across-new-england.aspx. I doubt it has anything to do with Boston transit’s anti-car policies.

        2. Yes, the statistics make sense. But how are you connecting the idea that increased travel in privately owned vehicles between 2019 and 2021 is due to SFMTA’s policies to prevent car usage? The pandemic has lead to a decrease in public transit and increase in car usage across the country/world.

  5. The voters supported their interests on both issues. One happened to be a yes and on happened to be a no. The quiet west is being hit by the monster that destroyed the downtown and they are fighting back. It is called self-preservation.

  6. I think if A had been a more focused measure to give SF ‘world class public transportation’ (a la most European cities), it would have passed handily. As it was, the measure and the messaging gave the impression of a mish mash of bike lanes, “pedestrian safety” vand ague statements about “MUNI on-timeness”. Very difficult to track going forward in terms of knowing if all that money was actually making things better. It also conjured images of more forced left turns and colored lanes that make you feel like an ostracized second class citizen if you’re driving a car in SF. Add to that the sense that a major world-class city, especially one that is as uber-wealthy as SF is, shouldn’t have to float bond issues to have decent public transportation.

  7. I don’t understand the sentiment in the US to not fund public transit. You can complain all you want about how poorly Muni is run, but this is not unique to San Francisco. Neither is over-the-top spending and poor management of extension projects to existing rail/infrastructure. (Look at New York’s 2nd avenue extension project and Boston’s extension of the Green Line). This is a nation wide issue driven by little to no federal government oversight or funding.The fact remains that choosing not to fund public transit will continue to make it worse.
    https://archive.curbed.com/2018/11/20/18103459/transportation-mass-transit-funding

    Meanwhile public transit in Europe and Asia is miles ahead of ours and cities in the “underdeveloped” world like Mexico City and Santiago are also surpassing us.

      1. Fine, any major city of your choice in the “developed” world or even most of the developing world. They probably have better transit than every city in the US (except New York, where the majority of the transit infrastructure was built before the 1940s)

  8. MUNI mid-week ridership is still barely 50% of pre-pandemic numbers. But, I still see the same # of busses on the street…with very few riders per bus. This reminds me of the mid to late 90’s and using United at SFO to travel the west coast. They had a flight every 10 minutes to LA or Seattle. Most all flights were sparsely populated. That all changed after the filed C11 and then all flights were full.

    If MUNI needs money, they should look within. With ridership way down, they can easily furlough or layoff 35% to 45% of front line employees and get lean and efficient.

    Maybe we have something in the city charter that says the tax payers must employ MUNI employees for life, regardless of the need for their job (ala Recology contract)?

    Go Warriors

  9. Makes no sense that Yes on A and Yes on H both kept doing worse with successive tranches if they were so highly inversely correlated.

    1. Marcos —

      Because that’s not what happened. After election day, No on H and Yes on A both improved.

  10. Yeah, you can correlate Yes on H with No on A, but an even stronger correlation is geographical. The Sunset was the real home of No on A. And the ceaseless bleating of Luke Bornheimer and other bicycling monomaniacs notwithstanding, the big issue with those people was the premature closure of the Great Highway and the JFK Drive Diaper Poop Parade. But that’s okay, because we’re on the job with the museums and the neighbors to take your playdates away next season. You can have your bond after that. Yes, I know it’s hard to be expected to fix Sunset Boulevard and 19th Ave with no money, but really, Fuck You Jeffrey Tumlin.

    I mean really. Because of Covid I hear horror stories from my partner about how they have to take the 9 Bus, otherwise known as the Linkage Center on Wheels, to work and is now considering buying a car. We’re looking at Bentleys from the late 80’s, they age well but depreciate like crazy and get 12 MPG.

    Go Giants

  11. Joe –

    I am a bit surprised that nowhere in the otherwise solid story you wrote was it mentioned that the left (and usually pro-public transit) “League of Pissed Off Voters” came down with a “no recommendation” on A. And in their explanation, said that MUNI was a mess and needed to sort itself out.

    What role did that play in killing a proposition that is within 2 percentage points of passage?

    1. It’s right there in black and white. Not sure how you missed this.

      JE

  12. Boy, the powers-that-be are just beside themselves that the hoi-polloi just didn’t vote the way they wanted them to!

    The City Family’s failures are now the fault of the voters.

    Go figure.

    ** FYI & BTW, I vote Yes on both A & H.

  13. I got to admit this is a pretty strong result for PropA considering the long list of MTA’s misdeeds…. How often has the decrepit ACTS been waved around, it’s turned into a strawman by now. The undercurrent remains that Muni at her her heart is an employment program. Sprinkle over the top: Turning the drive around the city into an obstacle course of insanely mistimed traffic lights.

  14. I have link on my desktop to the Benjamin Wachs and Joe Eskenazi article:
    The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.
    Dated Wednesday, Dec 16 2009.
    Quote:
    “This year’s city budget is an astonishing $6.6 billion”

    The article is as brilliant as it is depressing.
    It gives a detailed list of rational fixes for The City’s issues back in 2009 and ends up with:
    “The far more likely scenario is that nothing will happen. The city will continue its orgy of waste and incompetence.”
    Prescient but easily foreseeable.
    Surprised the bond measure got as many votes as it did.

  15. Fewer and fewer people will consider using either the Muni or BART due to safety issues. Cal Train is still usable. Sad as a great transportation system would be a real asset.

    1. the city cannot survive in perpetuity without a functioning and affordable public transit system. It’s not optional despite techies not caring about anyone’s needs who’s not as economically privileged as they are. There’s a recession coming and $10 gas isn’t an anomaly. People dismissing the upkeep of the MUNI now will live to regret it.

  16. At least we recalled Chesa Boudin. That was the most important thing on this ballot.

  17. I want better Muni and more money for Muni, but I don’t see how you can write an article about the Muni bond and not mention the central subway line. Roughly $2B (originally estimated at $530M) for a 1.7 mile subway line which still isn’t even open after 10 years of construction begs the question — if we give Muni another $400M, will they just throw that down another hole as well? I can’t be the only voter asking that question.

    1. Greg —

      While I do think it was jarring and hubristic for Muni officials to make the Central Subway the backdrop for their big ask, this bond is not of the Uncle Scrooge’s Money Bin variety. Its funds would be directed toward certain manners of projects, many of which were for bike riders, pedestrians, etc.

      But, yes, the Central Subway, once again, is the gift that keeps giving in terms of funding Muni (or lack thereof).

      Best,

      JE

      1. Joe — Exactly! I received a bunch of mailers on Prop A, but none of them really gave me a good idea of what the money was for. My other frustration is that post pandemic, bus routes (which were never that reliable to begin with) are now completely unreliable, and for some reason the apps that used to give me real time info have become unreliable as well. Very frustrating to wait 30 minutes for a bus that never shows up … and then see two following each other a block apart. Useless. As I’ve always said, “Muni. Slightly faster than walking.”

      2. Joe,

        They have put in plenty of green lanes in the SOMA for all the tech people bicyling to their offices. They should probably stop since those lanes are empty and will be for at least a decade. We live in California, we love our cars, not in the Netherlands.

        Muni is still hoping that spoke-style public transit will survive – which is wont. It is an artifact of 19th Century urban planning. The City really needs a reality check that their wasteful spending on multiple different non-services is coming to an end and they need to look at Downtown, the Financial District and the SOMA and figure out how they are going to avert a total loss of their tax base

        1. Lots of people bike; it is not dependent on occupation. Cars park in bike lanes because it’s convenient for them. What drivers either do not know or do not concern themselves with is the fact that forcing bikers into car lanes–especially the weaving to avoid obstacles in the bike lane–is DANGEROUS. It dramatically increases the likelihood of getting hit by a car. It is extremely reasonable for people who bike to not want to sacrifice their bodies for the convenience of people protected by a steel box.

      3. Thank you, Joe! I had a strong impression, the specifics of which were overwhelmed by everything else, that the % of Prop A’s $ going to Muni was tiny, whereas the bike and other non-bus related projects had most of the $. In our 70s, wife and I no longer wish to wait an uncertain length of time to share a closed space with non-masked boors, all the while getting whiplash from either the electric buses or the others, whose drivers think that style of jerkiness is de rigeur.
        We live in a westside anti-Boudin precinct, and we didn’t see a relationship between H and A. So we voted NO on H and N on A, too. For what we thought were unrelated reasons.
        Had no idea the same flack agency was pushing both sides of the street, either. I know these agencies have no ethics; no laws, either?

      4. No, Money Bin is what it is. The text reads, “This bond money could be spent on City transporta­tion infrastructure projects, including….” Seems to be a best practice among bond-writers. For example, SFUSD gutted SOTA funding last year, despite the 2016 GO bond “allocating” $100 million for it. (They made a great case for that, btw.)

        I hated to vote against this, because I love the progress being made on traffic calming and bike and pedestrian safety. But SFMTA faces intense pressure to waste money on flashy projects. It’s encouraging to see that the conversation about the failure has mostly been framed as a referendum on Central Subway, which really was a terrible idea.

  18. Serious question: Could the consulting firm choice been the driver of the LoPOVs non encodement? I certainly didn’t know the connection, but surely the more inside baseball people would. Wasn’t their state reason, no free muni and slow service renewals?

    Honestly double dealing seems more problematic

  19. Alternatively, the type of people who find the current level of crime unacceptable also think this city’s mismanagement of funds is also unacceptable and recognize that giving them more will only make it worse.

  20. Why would any rational person vote for more spending, in a dysfunctional city with an over the top 14 billion dollar a year budget where it plainly seems nothing much really gets done, with all the money they already have to squander? Additionally, we all know know for a fact how corrupt and incompetent they are.