How Can San Francisco Spend $829K on Two Kiosks? Here's How.

rsz_kiosk.jpg
SFMTA
It's nice. But is it $415,000 worth of nice?
The other day, Muni announced it would build a pair of avant-garde new kiosks to hawk Clipper cards and transit passes. Almost as an afterthought, the price of these two booths was mentioned late in news articles: $829,000.

For those of you who never thought you'd see the terms "kiosk" and "$415,000" in direct correlation -- well, welcome to San Francisco. "The cost of doing business in San Francisco isn't cheap," is a quote we could put in just about every article we write. In this city it costs well over half a million dollars to install a restroom in the park. You can blame the peculiarities of San Francisco for this spectacular ability to hemorrhage money -- and we will, in a moment. But, in the case of the Muni kiosks, you can also blame a higher authority.

Muni spokesman Paul Rose notes that the $829,000 in question were grants funded by federal stimulus funds. So, while it's not as if taxpayers have no connection to this money, it isn't as if this "use it or lose it" gift could have been used to pay workers' salaries or clean up the 38 Geary.

On the other hand, it also couldn't be used for a number of things that are relevant to selling Muni passes. Would it have been cheaper to, say, rent out space in one of the thousands of empty storefronts in the vicinity of the new kiosks on Geary and Masonic and at the Powell cable car turnaround? Quite likely. Would merchants at an existing store have welcomed a Muni booth within to draw customers? Possibly. Would this have been allowed under the terms of the grant? No way.

"We couldn't spend it on office space," explains Rose. "Any rental costs for nearby locations couldn't be paid through grants or capital funding. We would have to use our own operating dollars on that."

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Cheaper than an 11-by-11 Muni kiosk. By a lot.
So, you can blame the terms of the grant -- awarded by the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission and various vestiges of the federal government -- for mandating Muni build new structures to accomplish a task that essentially could have been done by retrieving a folding table from a church basement and setting up shop in the vacant Mervyn's building.

But you can blame San Francisco for ensuring a kiosk will cost more than a three-bedroom, three-bath home in a nice part of Cleveland -- a Georgian colonial with a marble foyer and views of Lake Erie, no less.

The hefty price of the kiosks comes via their "design, construction, and delivery," Rose notes. In San Francisco, prefab parts, if any, will be trucked in from thousands of miles away. Construction is undertaken by union workers earning top dollar. And, in this city, you need an architectural firm to design a kiosk -- and the blueprints need to pass muster with any number of city boards. After a while, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an 11-by-11 edifice without plumbing begins to sound downright reasonable.

You want a happy ending? Okay. Rose says that folks buying passes at the pricey new kiosks won't be dinged with a $3 fee like customers at Muni headquarters. For now, at least.

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