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Firefighters union asks mayoral candidates for veto power over bike lanes, pedestrian safety projects

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The San Francisco firefighters union is asking mayoral candidates to support fire department veto power over street safety projects. (File art/S.F.Examiner)

Firefighters want their department to wield veto power over Vision Zero street safety projects — which often include bike lanes and pedestrian safety improvements — and they’re asking mayoral candidates to help them achieve it.

That’s according to a questionnaire sent to mayoral candidates by San Francisco Firefighters Local 798, which was obtained by the San Francisco Examiner Wednesday.

The questionnaire states that though firefighters support Vision Zero, such street changes can create “serious problems” for fire engines navigating narrow streets and firefighters deploying ladders.

It continues, “Do you support giving the SFFD Fire Marshall more discretion and the ability to reject any Vision Zero proposals that will compromise public safety and the ability of SFFD Firefighters to respond to local emergencies?”

Local 798 did not respond to requests for comment.

The effort comes amidst recent political conflict between the San Francisco Fire Department and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, including the fire department’s successful push in December to change street parking spaces meant to protect cyclists at Upper Market into white loading zones.

State Senator Scott Wiener told the San Francisco Examiner “the Fire Department has for a while now been attempting to exercise veto power over all street design changes.”

Wiener said The City has a “huge problem” with pedestrians, cyclists and drivers being killed and injured in collisions that Vision Zero street projects are intended to address.

“We all take fire department feedback very seriously,” he added, but, “They should not have the power to override every other department, including the Mayor’s Office, in city decisions on the best design of our streets.”

SFMTA, the fire department and other agencies meet bi-weekly on a body called the Transportation Advisory Staff Committee to share input on street changes.

The fire department has argued in public meetings that some changes to make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists make it difficult to navigate fire engines and deploy ladders.

Such street changes are part of The City’s stated Vision Zero goal to reduce annual pedestrian deaths to zero by 2024.

Mayoral candidates London Breed, Jane Kim, and Mark Leno each told the Examiner they answered with a call for collaboration with street safety advocates and SFMTA. None openly endorsed veto power.

Kim, who with Mayor Ed Lee ushered through Vision Zero’s adoption, told the Examiner her answer was more “nuanced” but “I had to check ‘oppose’ because I could not just unilaterally agree to give broader discretion and veto power to the fire marshall for Vision Zero projects.”

She supports the adoption of more nimble, smaller-sized “Vision Zero fire engines” she said, like Fire Engine 13, which the San Francisco Fire Department debuted November last year. It also boasts a tighter turn radius than other fire engines.

The answer on Breed’s questionnaire called for dedicated fire personnel to review safety projects. “Of course we don’t want to create situations where a ladder could hit overhead Muni or power wires, or where a turning radius precludes access,” she wrote.

Leno’s answer to the firefighters emphasized all stakeholders, including merchants and transit advocates. “Any challenges in implementing Vision Zero must be discussed with all stakeholders at the table, working together in good faith,” Leno wrote.

Local 798 is hosting a mayoral candidate forum Feb. 8 to inform their members before they conduct an endorsement vote.

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