We Called 511 Instead of 311 For Muni Advice -- And Didn't End Up In Zanzibar

Muni bus.jpg
It turns out numerous city departments want to "take" Muni as well -- for millions of dollars
Willie Sutton is the man who is now less famous than his quote for posterity that he robbed banks "'Cause that's where the money is."

Makes sense. And, as we learned at Supervisor Bevan Dufty's timely inquisition yesterday, other city departments billing the Municipal Transportation Agency to the tune of $80 million in "work orders" for services they may -- or may not -- render have the same rationale as Sutton. It's oddly fitting that you can't spell MTA without ATM.

Even though it represents only a fraction of that money, the news that Muni calls to 311 cost the MTA $1.96 apiece to the tune of perhaps $6.2 million a year is in many ways the most galling. As a rider and caller, your humble narrator did not know this -- and, as a journalist, I failed to ask. It's even more problematic when you consider that the state-funded 511 line will give you the same information without costing Muni dollar one.

It's also more than a little maddening considering Mayor Gavin Newsom has pushed 311 -- or "the power of one" as he likes to call it -- as the answer to all the city's technological and logistical woes. Perhaps it can even cure rheumatism. This fervency was on public display during Newsom's 7.5-hour YouTube State of the City address -- remember that? -- when he actually spent more time plugging 311 than addressing the city's looming budget deficit during the "economy" portion of his harangue. The disparity became so awkward that SF Weekly's Benjamin Wachs -- who documented Newsom's entire 7.5 hour address -- actually called 311 to see if its operators could offer what the mayor would not: Details of our budget deficit (they didn't, and now we can all wonder if a rationale was devised to bill Muni for that call as well).

Since mayoral spokesman Nathan Ballard has consistently failed to return calls or e-mails (with two startling recent exceptions when to do so offered him an opportunity to give public defender Jeff Adachi a hard time), please consider this an open e-mail:

Did the mayor know that Muni was getting pinged for nearly two bucks per 311 call to the tune of millions of dollars? If not, why not -- especially considering Newsom's passionate backing of the 311 service? And if the mayor did know -- well, why keep it a secret? Does he consider this acceptable?
Sure, it's nice to chat with a real, live operator at 3:14 a.m. when you're unsure how to get home -- but this work can be handled by the automated 511 phone line -- which is state-funded (i.e., it's already paid for, use it as often as you like). This morning, I dialed up 511 and gave it a whirl. While the computer voice on the other end made me feel like I was talking to an animitronic game show host, the voice-recognition program was remarkably accurate. I was able to nail down an arrival time for an inbound N-Judah at Duboce and Church within two minutes of calling in.

I was also not subjected to nauseating strains of "Earth Blend" or "Easy Listening" hold music a la 311 -- or the high-decibel, ear-breaking announcement informing me that, yes, I am still on hold.

Seems like a pretty painless way to save Muni millions of dollars -- literally in the case of one's ears.

Photo   |   Tom Prete
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