In December 2009, during a routine news conference to announce the unveiling of some painted bike lanes, former Mayor Gavin Newsom somehow managed to create a morsel of news out of a ho-hum event.
Frustrated by the lack of progress in his cherished citywide bike-sharing network, Newsom told local reporters that Nathaniel Ford, then the director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, would be looking for a new job if the cycling project wasn’t completed.
The remark was typical of Newsom, a hyperkinetic manager who often immersed himself in matters related to The City’s transportation agency. From championing the failed Muni Culture Bus to reforming the agency’s work order program, Newsom loomed large over all transportation-related matters — an approach that made him very different from his chosen successor, Mayor Ed Lee.
While Lee did lobby officials in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the $1.6 billion Central Subway project, he has largely refrained from opining on the day-to-day operation of Muni, a contrast with both Newsom and Willie Brown, who each rarely passed up a chance to comment on The City’s transportation matters.
“He’s definitely involved, just in a different way,” said agency Chairman Tom Nolan. “It’s not that he’s disengaged, or hands-off; he just has a lot of faith in the leadership at the agency.”
In July 2011, with strong backing from Lee, the agency’s board chose Ed Reiskin as director of transportation. The former chief of the Department of Public Works is a widely respected manager who had a history of working with Lee.
“The biggest thing that Lee has done is to choose Ed Reiskin as the head of the department,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, an influential think-tank. “Ed has proven himself running DPW, and he really cares about the multi-modal mission of the SFMTA.”
Metcalf said his organization hasn’t engaged with Lee on any Muni-related matters yet, a departure from its involvement with Newsom, with whom it worked with on several issues.
One measure on which SPUR and Muni worked together — Proposition A in 2007 — was the biggest source of criticism of Newsom’s handling of the agency. And it’s an example for many observers of how Lee’s more remote approach is an improvement.
Prop. A gave the agency increased control over parking in San Francisco, and was supposed to generate an extra $26 million a year for the agency. However, Newsom used those additional funds to make intradepartmental payments to other agencies — bills known as work orders. As a result, the agency has never received all the extra revenue from Prop A.
“Gavin reigned over Muni like it was his fiefdom,” said Bob Planthold, a longtime local transit advocate. “Ed Lee does a much better job of giving the agency more autonomy, which is a requirement of the City Charter.”
With Lee leaving the agency to its own devices, SFMTA management has significantly improved its relationship with the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, the powerful operators union that often butted heads with mayors Newsom and Brown.
“Newsom’s style seemed to be all about the sound bite and to further his political career — we never noticed any positive interaction with him,” said Ron Austin, spokesman for Local 250-A. “His forte was blaring everything out before the issues were resolved. Ed Lee has been much less adversarial. We speak to him frequently, voice our opinion, and he gives us productive guidance on how to move forward together.”
Yet while the agency may be more harmonious with Lee as mayor, it still underperforms woefully. Muni suffers from an acute operator shortage and its vehicles and infrastructure are badly outdated and falling apart. Its on-time performance of 60 percent is well below the voter-mandated goal of 85 percent, and the system frequently suffers service disruptions and delays.
The reason is that Muni is chronically underfunded, said spokesman Ben Kaufman of the San Francisco Transit Riders Union. Transforming an urban transit agency to make it efficient, productive and attractive takes forceful mayoral advocacy, an approach Lee has never taken, Kaufman said.
“We’ve seen a lot of leadership from mayors like Michael Bloomberg, Antonio Villaraigosa and Rahm Emanuel, who really helped turn their transit systems around,” said Kaufman, who did praise Lee for his appointment of Reiskin and Joel Ramos to the SFMTA board of directors. “Mayors can use their bully pulpits to really stick up for their agency and make transit-first policies a priority. Mayor Lee has potential to lay out that big vision for Muni, but frankly, he’s never done it before. We’re still unclear about what he wants for the agency, and his leadership definitely leaves a little bit to be desired.”
Planthold said the mayor has had opportunities to push for transportation tax measures that could finally restore manageable funding levels to the agency. So far, Lee has declined to make such efforts.
“If people are reluctant to fund the SFMTA, you can’t just cave to their reluctance,” Planthold said. “Mayors sometimes need to be street preachers — they have to educate and persuade. Lee hasn’t done that.”
Mayoral spokeswoman Christine Falvey said Lee has been a longtime advocate for a robust transportation network in San Francisco, and his backing of the successful Proposition E — a tax reform measure — will help bring more predictable and sustainable funding streams to The City.
“The mayor is considering the entire transportation system collectively, has been very engaged in The City’s and the region’s transportation discussions and is actively engaged in how to fund the system locally, by the state and at the federal level to make sure we have a 21st-century transportation system,” Falvey said. “This has been and remains core to his agenda.”