Streetscast: An Interview with MTA Chief Nat Ford, Part II

IMG_2831.jpgPhoto by Bryan Goebel
MTA Executive Director Nat Ford sat down with Streetsblog San Francisco last week for an hour-long interview. In today's segment, he addresses the funding crisis facing California transit agencies, the long-awaited implementation of the Bike Plan and the internal MTA battle over how to balance the different modes.

I also asked him about criticism from some advocates and officials in other agencies that the Mayor has hamstrung the MTA in some areas, preventing bold action to make San Francisco a true Transit First city.  

"I think, from my meetings with the mayor, there’s some situations where he wishes we were moving a whole lot faster," said Ford. "There are situations where we are very aggressive, and then there’s some situations where we need to be a little bit more deliberate in what we’re doing."

Part II of the interview with me and reporter Matthew Roth was recorded on April 8th:

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On the funding crisis facing transit agencies:  "All of us are working very hard to develop a strategy to talk about the relevance of the funding, and it is very interesting to me at a time where we are seeing ridership increases over the last year or two that now is the time we’re going to have a difficult time trying to increase our service capacity.  So this couldn’t come at a worse time.  We are working hard to educate our local legislators; we’ve sent letters to them.  Two weeks ago, there was a state lobbying day for all of the transit systems.  We participated in that.  But we have a lot of work ahead of us, because I think the voters, this was a mandate from the voters; they wanted this state transit assistance program to be part of the state budget, and now for it to be raided and divvied up at a time that the citizens probably need transit more than they ever needed it for their transportation needs, it’s unfortunate.  So we will be working closely with our colleagues across the state."

On criticism the Mayor is preventing bold action at the MTA: "From my meetings with the mayor, I think there’s some situations where he wishes we were moving a whole lot faster, but for resource constraints and things of that nature, we want to be very deliberate in what we’re doing.  We are testing out some things with the pavements, the parks strategy in terms of projects that make the city more walkable and enjoyable, and there are situations where we are very aggressive, and then there’s some situations where we need to be a little bit more deliberate in what we’re doing.  I think we’re fortunate between the mayor and the Board of Supervisors, we have passionate people about transit.  They may have different opinions about how we go about it.  Passionate about transit, but passionate about pedestrians, passionate about bicyclists.  So we’re not short for any passion and advocacy on any of those fronts. We get an adequate amount of pressure to move things along, but I mean for example, with the bike plan, what is it, shoot and then aim?  And I think in this case we shot and then ended up with an injunction that slowed us down significantly, because we wanted to be very aggressive in terms of expanding the bike network.  I think that should be a lesson to all of us that while we all feel we have the greatest idea and the timing is right to move forward rapidly, not everyone agrees with us and there’s ways...legally, through the courts...to make sure that we adequately review what we’re doing before we implement it. "

On moving the Bike Plan forward:  "As soon as we get from under the injunction, we’re moving rapidly forward with the projects that are listed out in the plan.  We do have to bring this back to the MTA Board to get their approval before we go forward, and full disclosure, one of the challenges that we’re seeing for I’d say a small percentage of the projects, is there are trade offs and some controversial trade offs as it relates to its impact on Muni versus impact to automobiles versus impact to pedestrians, and I think that’s a difficult challenge the staff will have to try and balance out.  We have a transit first mantra, and that’s the city’s charter policy in terms of transportation decisions, but we do recognize that there is a shared use of our rider ways and our conveyances, and we need to balance that out.  So I think the vast majority of the project is pretty straightforward; it’s striping, it’s building and getting some infrastructure in place, and we’re excited about that.  And then we do have the more difficult trade off type situations that we just need to think through and make sure we’re trying to make the right decision." 

How do you balance the different modes? "I’ll tell you, I think that’s the type of stuff that keeps me awake at night and keeps a lot of our staff challenged and we’ll go in my conference room and we’ll lock the doors and we’ll come out hopefully with something that the vast majority of our citizens would prefer.  The challenge that we do have is we live in a dynamic environment, and there’s no kind of cookie-cutter policy on these things. I guess some would say it’s cut and dry, transit first, bikes, pedestrians.  We have to be very careful in that, and we want to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people in the city.  I think it’s very clear, there’s a large majority of individuals that feel that automobiles should be last on the list, and automobile or parking infrastructure, parking availability should be last on the list, and we take that very seriously.  We are transit first.  We want everyone to ride Muni, and if they’re not on Muni, either walking or riding a bike, and we’ll put those filters into place when we make those decisions."

What are the MTA's goals for reducing the amount of auto trips? "Well one, our goal, initially I think our primary goal, is to get them on a reliable transit system, and then if people do choose and need to use an automobile, that when we provide our parking resources, that they’re adequately priced, so they help out the transit system. If there is a parking need, that availability is readily available so people don’t have to circle around to find a parking spot, thereby creating more greenhouse emissions, thereby creating more congestion.  Our SF Go and SF Park projects are kind of build around that, primarily the SF Park project, which is real time information on parking availability, but also pricing that parking based on the availability at that moment.  So it’s not going to be easier to park, but if you need to park, we’re going to make it readily available for you to quickly get in your parking spot, and then we’re going to charge you what the appropriate rate is to discourage you from doing it, but also to support the transit system and the bike infrastructure and the pedestrian infrastructure in the city.  So that’s our global strategy in trying to deal with that.  There are some people that definitely need to use an automobile, but we’re going to make sure all the other conveyances are first rate, and then if they choose to, that they’re doing it in a very orderly fashion."

Next in Part III: Pedestrian safety and infrastructure in the city.

Listen to Part I.