Cheryl Brinkman, a member of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors, has called for stronger support for pedestrian and bicycle safety projects from the Board of Supervisors. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SFMTA official says SF supervisors ‘water down’ safety projects

In the 1976 film “Network,” fictional news anchor Howard Beale commands millions of television viewers watching at home to fling open their windows and shout to the world a now iconic phrase, voicing a generation’s frustration:

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

San Francisco transportation official Cheryl Brinkman is having her “mad as hell” moment right now.

Brinkman, a member of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors, is tired of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors “watering down” safety projects aimed at saving lives, she argued in impassioned speeches in both March and April board meetings.

Normally known for her diplomacy, Brinkman’s messaging changed in the wake of recent traffic deaths, including Tess Rothstein, 30, a cyclist who was struck and killed by a truck driver last month, and pedestrian deaths including seniors and even a 14-year-old in the last week.

She’s outraged.

“We have been too nice,” Brinkman told her colleagues in a March meeting of the SFMTA Board.

“We have supervisors who stand on the steps of City Hall and affirm their support of Vision Zero, but when push comes to shove, not only might they not support a project in their district, but they won’t speak up in support of a project in another supervisor’s district,” she said.

“There’s a few projects that come to mind that are watered down or canceled due to lack of supervisor support in that district,” Brinkman added. Those projects include safety treatments to calm traffic, add bike lanes, or make walking safer on Sixth Street, Polk Street, Mission Street, and more, Brinkman said.

The City adopted a Vision Zero policy, which mandates San Francisco reduce traffic deaths to zero by 2024. But Brinkman alleges its mandate is fought at every turn.

The Polk Streetscape Project was allegedly weakened after the late Mayor Ed Lee fielded a complaint from his optometrist, who works on Polk Street. The project was set to bring protected bike lanes with physical barriers between cyclists and automobiles, but ultimately provided protection for only a portion of the route, according to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

In a public letter to city leaders, bike coalition Executive Director Brian Wiedenmeier wrote, “unfortunately, from a bicycle safety and Vision Zero perspective, this project is not complete.” There are only “a few blocks” of “real protected bike lane” and many blocks “with no bike infrastructure at all,” he wrote.

Speaking to the San Francisco Examiner, Brinkman said former supervisors didn’t raise their voices to defend Polk Street safety changes when she asked them to.

Other examples include a recently proposed red transit-only lane that would have extended down Mission Street past 30th Street, where it now terminates, and through the Excelsior neighborhood. In the SFMTA Board of Directors April meeting, she called out Supervisor Ahsha Safai by name for telling the SFMTA to halt plans on the Excelsior District red lane.

Safai did not respond to requests for comment.

While the Board of Supervisors has no legal authority over SFMTA, Brinkman told the Examiner they do have “soft power,” because SFMTA relies on supervisors to galvanize neighbors to support projects.

While SFMTA is supposed to make decisions that weigh the transit needs of the entire city, Brinkman argued, the supervisors may respond to the concerns of one corner of The City. However, that opposition has consequences across the entire city.

Essentially, she said, supervisors see the trees, while SFMTA is responsible for the forest.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who also chairs the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, said Brinkman brings up “food for thought.” But he argued her concerns didn’t take into account the widespread change San Francisco has seen, from bike share to countless new Vision Zero projects.

“Could we be doing it faster? Sure. But it’s been a profound cultural shift in the last twenty years,” he said.

Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee has also had his “mad as hell” moment over street safety recently, and called for legislation to reduce the speed limit citywide.

However, Yee thought supervisors in some cases have good reason to intervene with the SFMTA. “Sometimes the suggestions from SFMTA don’t make any sense,” he said, citing plans to remove an L-Taraval stop at a Safeway at 17th Avenue as one example.

But Brinkman does have a point that supervisors need more “unity on safety projects,” he said. Regarding his recent legislation to remove parking citywide near crosswalks, a practice called “daylighting” to make crossing pedestrians more visible to drivers, Yee said he anticipates pushback from his colleagues.

“I’m going to tell every one of them, ‘Sorry if you think it’s better to save a parking space than a life,’” he said.

Perhaps supervisors are not as aware of the global view of streetscape projects, instead only seeing the effects on the neighborhoods they represent, Yee said. As chair of the Vision Zero committee at the Transportation Authority, Yee said he could “easily ask” for updates on key citywide street projects aimed at saving lives.

Then, he said he could “write a resolution saying these are the projects we could all be supporting for Vision Zero.”

Yee’s solution could help reverse the supervisor’s so-called “soft power” — making them just as responsible for citywide improvements as the SFMTA.

Correction: The red lane on Mission Street extends to 30th Street, not Cesar Chavez.

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