Streetscast: An Interview with MTA Chair Tom Nolan

Tom_Nolan.jpgPhoto by Bryan Goebel.
Tom Nolan is a veteran of local government. A former San Mateo County supervisor, he's served on the boards of numerous public agencies, including SamTrans, Caltrain and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. He views his current position as chair of the MTA Board of Directors as his "civic responsibility."

"I’m not campaigning for anything. This is not a stepping stone to anything. I’m doing this because I was asked to do it, that’s all.  I didn’t campaign for it," said Nolan, in a recent hour-long interview with Streetsblog at the Polk Street office of Project Open Hand, where he is the executive director.

Nolan doesn't fudge at all around the issue of the MTA Board not being independent. All of its members are appointed by the Mayor, and they seem very reluctant to break from his wishes. "We’re just kidding ourselves if we think it's a totally independent body, it just isn’t.  The only way that would be the case really would be if we were all elected by the people." 

In our interview, Nolan tackles questions about the accountability of the MTA Board, his role as chair, the budget process, the Bike Plan and parking. Nolan seems to get parking issues, and he's a fan of Donald Shoup's book, "The High Cost of Free Parking." So why isn't he stronger on the issues?

"I would say watch over the next two or three months about what the real choices are going to be and I expect increasingly I’ll play a more active role." 

The interview was recorded on June 17th, 2009. Read highlights below the break.

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Highlights:

  • On his role as MTA Board chair: "I’m very interested in the notion of governance.  The organization I now work for, Project Open Hand, did a thing that most organizations never do, they took time out years ago to try to figure out what a board should do.  And just because, like in our case here, you're a very good peeler of vegetables or something, doesn’t mean you're going to be a great member of the board.  It's a distinct important function and boards almost never do that.  When you get appointed to this you get sworn in and you just start.  And since I’ve been on so many boards, non-profit boards as well as the transit boards, two years on the (MTC) commission, I have a good sense of that.  And so I think I’m trying to help my colleagues understand it's an important role, but it's limited.  And I think that the fact that I run pretty good meetings.  I think I give people enough chance to do what they want, but I don’t tend to just carry over things, let’s say."
  • On Supervisor Avalos' proposed charter amendment to have half of the MTA Board appointed by supervisors, half by the Mayor and one elected: "I can’t imagine who would run for that one seat quite frankly.  Running a city wide election in San Francisco would be hugely expensive.  Maybe somebody could, I don’t know, it certainly wouldn’t be me, I'll tell you that.  And the way I see Supervisor Avalos’ thing, it really gives the board pretty much all the power, because even the Mayor’s appointees have to be approved by the full board.  So the only one that’s truly independent presumably is the elected one.  If people want a truly independent body, election is the way to do it, but it has to come with a revenue stream that’s guaranteed somehow, like in San Mateo County, SamTrans has two half cent sales tax measures". 
  • On fixing Muni: "I think the big thing, we need a whole lot more money and the contribution I’m proudest of at Muni, being on the MTA board, is I have forced the agency to eventually say what would it take to achieve 85 percent on-time.  And the answer was $100 million to $150 million more a year.  And Prop A, as good as that was, gave us $26 million more a year, which was lost in work orders.  But even if we got all $26 million its nowhere near what we needed.  What I learned as a San Mateo County supervisor from observing things that worked and things that didn’t is a little formula.  And that is people have to appreciate and understand the value of the problem you’re trying to solve, number two you have to present a solution that makes sense to rational people, three you have to be candid about the cost both literally and figuratively.  And four you have to divide that cost as equitably as possible, both literally and figuratively and five you have to either develop, maintain or enhance confidence in the administering institution."
  • How is San Francisco doing as a Transit First city? "Oh C+, B- maybe.  I wish we could have in the budget done more in terms of the parking, that balance between drivers and buses and everything.  We’ve got a long way to go there.  I’m very excited about the bike plan, by the way.  I just see anecdotally way more bicycles on the streets than before, it's growing.  And I think the number one problem that the bike coalition people tell us is that some people are not riding because they're afraid, they're scared out there, the dooring and all that stuff.  But if we can almost double the number of bike lanes and all these amenities for bicycles, I think that’ll help move us towards the transit first city.  And I know the argument is make Muni so dependable and reliable and cost effective that people want to ride it.  Well 700,000 people a day do already, so it's a good start, considering the population is about 765,000."
  • On parking: "I think we’ll almost assuredly see weeknight parking extended to ten o’clock. If we aren’t able to do that, there are very few things that are really readily available to us without doing serious damage to the system.  And we had three options of service cuts and we only went to option two, option three is much more drastic.  And I say charging for parking during week day nights, as far as I’m concerned on Sunday as well, is a small price to pay for the overall good of the entire city.  So I’m very open to that, I appreciate the study and I know it's already ongoing."