(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Rethinking the SFMTA at 20

Before choosing a new director, officials should restructure The City’s transportation agency

With the impending resignation of SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin amidst yet another collapse in confidence of the troubled transit system, it is time for San Franciscans to pause for a moment to consider whether the SFMTA as currently structured is the right tool to solve our transportation problems.

This SFMTA structure has been in place for almost 20 years now, since voters passed Proposition E in 1999 when Muni and the Department of Parking and Traffic (DPT) were combined into the SFMTA at the behest of Willie Brown.

The thinking at the time was that if one agency, independent of political interference by the Mayor and Board of Supervisors, had dominion over both transit and streets, that transit would run faster and draw mode shift from private autos. As with so much in the Brown era, the agency was repurposed to serve other interests with an occasional optional provision of transit services to San Francisco residents.

Needless to say, this SFMTA has not been able to rise to the challenge. Transit speeds have plummeted. Auto congestion on surface streets has contributed to snarling transit. The death toll on the streets has remained alarmingly high. And the mayor runs the agency like a contracting fiefdom.

So before the SFMTA Board picks a new leader for the agency, before the Board of Supervisors confirms any new board appointments, policy makers should take a step back and consider the following:Has the SFMTA really been an independent agency, as the board of directors sees itself as an adjunct of the Mayor’s office?

Has the unification of the DPT with Muni led to traffic being controlled in favor of Transit First?

Has the SFMTA been able to effectively plan for ongoing population and job growth as well as handling intensified land use?

Has the SFMTA been able to sustain mobility for existing residents who are not incorporated into the new San Francisco being engineered around us or are living with mobility or poverty challenges?

Has the MTA been able to proactively engineer city streets for pedestrian and bicycle safety or people living with disabilities or does it just react to tragedy after the fact?

Does the SFMTA Board as structured lend itself towards potentially adversarial independent oversight of the agency?

Has the SFMTA been up front and honest in its communications with San Franciscans about projects before the fact?

Does the SFMTA transportation planning group play well with Planning Department transportation planning and Transportation Authority transportation planning?

Is there ever any accountability for SFMTA directors or senior staffers for errors, failures and omissions or are seat warmers rewarded?

Is this SFMTA structure capable of managing capital projects safely and on time?

The answer to most of these questions is some form of NO. Policymakers should take this opportunity to dig deeper into the SFMTA’s structural problems before seeking a new outside leader. Michael Burns and Nat Ford were outside transit experts on whose watches the MTA did little more than mark time.

First, let’s figure out the best governance structure into which Muni should fit that will deliver rapid, reliable and honest transit services. Then let’s change the SFMTA to reflect that. And once a new structure is in place, let’s then do a leadership search to find the best candidate to match the new structure.

Mayor London Breed’s “Nothing to see here, move on,” as we see with her appointment of Steve Heminger to the SFMTA board, only kicks the can down the road. Heminger, of course, was the MTC chief during the disastrous Bay Bridge rebuild scandals, ran the MTC like a fiefdom and oversaw a marked deterioration in regional mobility. It is challenging to envision how Heminger would make matters better at the SFMTA.

The Board of Supervisors should pull the emergency brake on SFMTA governance, rejecting any appointments, so that it can expose and examine the structural and policy problems and figure out the best fix for the SFMTA and Prop E.

Marc Salomon served on the MTA and Transportation Effectiveness Project and Bicycle Advisory Committees.

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