Transit Advocate Clears First Hurdle to SFMTA Board Appointment

Cheryl_2.jpgSupervisors Michaela Alioto-Pier and David Campos questioning SFMTA Board nominee Cheryl Brinkman at the Rules Committee meeting today. Photo: Matthew Roth.

A noted transit advocate and a key organizer of Sunday Streets in San Francisco has cleared the most significant hurdle to her appointment as the newest member of the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which runs Muni and manages every street in the city. Cheryl Brinkman, a product manager in generic pharmaceuticals at McKesson Corporation and the chair of the board of the transit non-profit Livable City, received unanimous support from the Board of Supervisors' Rules Committee, which has recommended the full board approve her nomination at its meeting next week.

Advocates had cheered when Mayor Gavin Newsom nominated Brinkman to replace one of the two MTA Directors who had been termed out at the end of April, given her transit and bicycle bona fides. In testimony today, nearly everyone acknowledged her significant work at Livable City over the past three years to bring San Francisco's Sunday Streets ciclovias from a few controversial pilots to a permanent fixture now supported by many in the business community that initially resisted the events.

Supervisors on the Rules Committee hoped that experience and her understanding of transit issues would improve a board many described as beholden to Mayor Newsom, and at direct odds with the mandate of the independent SFMTA as defined by a voter initiative in 1999.

"Without casting any aspersions against the members of the MTA, some of us believe the MTA Board of Directors has not demonstrated the kind of independence that is really needed to have meaningful oversight of an agency with an $800 million budget," said Supervisor David Campos, Chair of the Rules Committee.

Campos lauded the public process that Mayor Newsom followed and said, given the impact Muni and streets have on mobility and livability, this was a significant appointment to consider. While he wished the ballot measure he drafted with Supervisors Mar and Chiu to split appointments to the MTA Board had not been withdrawn during the course of budget negotiations, Campos assented that Brinkman was the best nominee he could hope for.

"The current structure does not provide for the level of accountability and independence that is needed. Until that structure changes, we're going to continue to have a lack of representation of some communities, we're going to continue to have a lack of transparency on some issues," said Campos.

But, he added, "I think the experience she brings will be very useful to the board. I think the nomination is as solid a nomination we could have."

For Brinkman, the learning curve will be admittedly difficult, as the SFMTA's long-term budget concerns could spell difficult decisions, particularly if the economy doesn't significantly rebound and the state resumes transit funding raids next budget cycle. 

Cheryl_1.jpgBrinkman leaving City Hall after the vote to recommend her nomination to the full Board of Supervisors at their meeting next week.

"I know that I have a lot to learn about how the MTA is run," said Brinkman, though she vowed an "absolute openness to listen to all sides and to look at the full clear facts and to make decisions based on that."

"I think I have a lot of knowledge of the nuts and bolts of transportation and the nuts and bolts of urban living and I really hope to bring that to the board and ask the questions and ask staff to take maybe another look at things," said Brinkman. "I know going forward I think there's a lot of things staff wants to do and if we give them the encouragement they can actually run with it and they can actually start working on things when they know we're looking for answers on how to solve a problem."

The two most important issues she identified for the agency were finding sustainable revenue streams for long-term financial viability and improving safety, both on buses and trains and for all users of the streets. She applauded the effort to restore service following the recommendations of the Transit Effectiveness Project and said the agency must strive to realized efficiencies and service improvements to regain the trust of the riding public.

"I know it can be hard to continue to ask the public for more revenue without showing that you're actually saving money in certain areas and adding operating positions."

When asked whether she could maintain her independence even when her views were at odds with the Mayor, Brinkman said she understood the concerns raised by the supervisors and other critics about the board's decisions. "I understand that people have those concerns. I know speaking for myself I'm a pretty strong person, so I don't think that's personally a problem for me," she said.

The most glowing words of the day were given by Supervisor Eric Mar, who initially asked Brinkman to defend herself from the criticism that she is a "bike person."

After defending her multi-modality and her love of transit, Mar said Brinkman's nomination was refreshing. "I'm strongly supportive of her nomination and think she would be a tremendous progressive visionary on the MTA board," he said. "I think it's one of Mayor Newsom's best appointments and I hope to see many more like it."

Supervisor Alioto-Pier offered advice to Brinkman rather than questioning her motivations. Alioto-Pier asked her to please put the needs of Muni's disabled passengers first and foremost, noting serious problems with wheelchair lifts that malfunction and make mobility that much more difficult for the disabled. She urged SFMTA staff and directors to try using a wheelchair for a day and see how those challenges manifest throughout the system.

Alioto-Pier also said that the SFMTA Board of Directors needed to do a better job of customer relations, particularly as it related to neighborhood concerns about stop signs and traffic calming. Before the SFMTA was created in 1999, said Alioto-Pier, the public could address concerns about their streets to the supervisors, but now those lines are not as clear and accountability is not as good.

"I just want to be sure you realize that your job is very community service oriented. I want you to embrace that, it's a lot of work," she said.

In questions after the hearing, Brinkman acknowledged she supported Supervisor Sean Elsbernd's ballot measure to reform labor work rules and compel the Transit Workers Union 250-A, which represents Muni operators, to set wages through collective bargaining. Brinkman said she met with nearly every supervisor, including Elsbernd, and she was excited by the prospect of working with them to improve Muni. She also noted that Elsbernd had offered interesting insights into the debate around Sunday meters and that he had been working with his merchant constituents to explain the value of meters for business.