Ballot proposal would split SF’s transit agency into Muni, traffic departments

Two San Francisco supervisors want to divide Muni’s parent agency into two departments.

Concerned with The City’s allegedly mismanaged transit policies, supervisors Aaron Peskin and Ahsha Safai have told stakeholders they plan introduce a June 2018 ballot measure that would split the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which manages Muni as well as San Francisco’s streets, stoplights, parking and curb colors. 

Under the proposal, one agency would handle just Muni, and the other would handle San Francisco’s parking and streets, sources with knowledge of the measure told the San Francisco Examiner.

“A proposal to split back apart parking and traffic management from Muni, I think, would be a big step backwards,” said SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin on Tuesday. Reiskin clarified that while he had not seen the ballot language, he is aware of the measure.

The proposal would also allow supervisors to make appointments to the SFMTA’s seven-member Board of Directors. Right now, directors are only appointed by the mayor.

Peskin and Safai have approached stakeholders with the ballot measure over the last week, and discussed introducing it as an amendment to The City’s charter at next Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, according to sources with knowledge of the measure.

Peskin and Safai declined to comment.

Pushback on the measure would likely be substantial, sources said, who also pointed out the failure of Proposition L to split SFMTA board appointments in 2016.

Next Tuesday is the supervisors’ last opportunity to introduce the measure for the June 2018 ballot, before the annual deadline for such charter amendments, according to the Clerk of the Board.

The ballot measure proposal follows a May pilot program introduced by Mayor Ed Lee to create curb space for Uber and Lyft drivers. The pilot program drew criticism from Peskin and others for its lack of public input — and sources say the ballot measure may be retribution.

The agency is widely described as being controlled by a “strong mayor” system, and members of the SFMTA Board of Directors have told the Examiner previously that decisions are often swayed by Lee’s policy positions, as evidenced by the elimination of paid Sunday parking meters and the removal of cannabis ads on Muni.

Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of public policy at the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, said he offered to broker peace between the supervisors and the SFMTA.

“A group of us have sat down and will with both Supervisor Peskin and Safai and with Ed Reiskin to talk about this,” Lazarus said.

The proposal would reverse an 18-year-old ballot measure, Proposition E, that Lazarus helped author. Prop. E first merged various transit-related government bodies together to form the modern-day SFMTA.

Muni used to be governed by the Public Transportation Commission, and the Department of Parking and Traffic had its own commission, according to San Francisco’s 1999 ballot digest for Prop. E. The measure also merged the Taxi Commission into the SFMTA; the taxi industry was previously under jurisdiction of the San Francisco Police Department. 

Before the SFMTA was created, “there was a lack of coordination” between those entities, Lazarus said.

The problem was widespread: Before 1999, projects underway by both Muni and the DPT often overlapped, Lazarus said. Yet, the two agencies didn’t communicate well enough for those projects to be completed on time.

The need for new oversight over Muni was exacerbated by the infamous “Muni Meltdown,” which saw the metro system shutdown citywide from a technical snafu in 1998.

Prop. E was placed on the ballot by 10 of 11 members of the Board of Supervisors.

In 2007, voters approved Proposition A, which cemented the SFMTA’s governing independence and provided additional funding. That measure was also voted onto the ballot by the Board of Supervisors, including Peskin.

“I think [Peskin is] having buyer’s remorse about his role in Prop. A,” said Tom Radulovich, executive director of the nonprofit Livable City.

The DPT of old was ideologically committed to moving cars through The City, and transit, walking and cycling always got short changed,” Radulovich said.

But while the SFMTA has tried to focus more on transit and the creation of bike lanes over vehicle traffic, Radulovich feels those efforts are lackluster. He said another major reason the SFMTA was created was to free it from political influence; supervisors would sometimes stop transportation changes that would benefit thousands for the sake of one angry constituent.

But the politicians still throw monkey wrenches into modern-day SFMTA operations, Radulovich said.

The reforms just allow that to happen “behind the scenes,” Radulovich said.

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