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wished the ballot measure he drafted with Supervisors Mar and Chiu to split appointments to the MTA Board had not been withdrawn during the course of budget negotiations, Campos assented that Brinkman was the best nominee he could hope for.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.

  • Matt Stewart

    The whole “independent” thing is fine and dandy, but where does she stand on cutting fairs, eliminating work orders, and finding new sources of revenue and the supervisors’ ballot measure that David Chiu unilaterally sabotaged?

  • Nick

    Why should someone have to defend themselves of being a bike person in a transit-first city?

  • Always-Absent Alioto-Pier is hardly one to lecture about work ethic. In any case, I wish Brinkman the best and hope that she moves MUNI in a positive direction. She has all the makings of a real civic leader on transit issues. I just hope the bureaucracy and the temptation to trade favors for appointments and job security doesn’t get the better of her.

  • Jym

    =v= I’m opposed to cutting fairs.

  • Katherine Roberts

    I hope Cheryl’s openness also extends to considering surface-rail alternatives to so-called “Bus Rapid Transit” on Van Ness and Geary (which will involve almost as much capital outlay and infrastructure improvements as a rail line would, and be much more costly to operate). She seems to have wholeheartedly endorsed buses on both these routes without really weighing the downside of buses, and the possible upsides of rail. It would be great to have someone on the MTA who was really open to listening to the facts about this issue, without letting prior prejudices influence their decisions.

  • Nick

    Katherine makes a good point. For some reason, people view rail as an acceptable means of public transportation. BRT may be less costly to build but what’s the point if people continue to drive?

  • mcas

    Katherine: Not saying you are incorrect (I haven’t waded too deeply into the Geary/Van Ness BRT issue myself) but I’ve never heard of a BRT costing anywhere *near* a light rail line.

    What information are you basing your claim on that these BRT lines will be ‘almost as much capital outlay’– let alone ‘much more costly to operate’ than surface rail?

  • david vartanoff

    for operational costs, first LR would be electricity from Hetch Hetchy not free but cheap. Electric trains can use regen braking to cut energy use. second, the single highest cost is the driver. A three unit light rail train with one driver outhauls four articulated buses. Even the shoddy Boeings outlasted the average buses by 5 years.

  • Alex

    And how much effort was required to keep the Boeings running? Current MTA data shows, what, a 50-200% premium for rail (LRV, historic, or cable car) over even diesel buses?

    Speaking of labor costs, what happens if there’s a labor shortage for a light rail line? All MTA drivers are required to be certified on 40ft buses, not all of them are required to be certified on LRVs (or whatever different variant may get placed into service along Geary). As it stands now, bus substitutes for rail service are very rarely put into service (and almost never put into service for one or two missing runs). A dedicated RoW for buses means you could easily substitute vehicles and drivers if needed. A dedicated rail RoW means putting buses back into traffic, killing any service benefits.

    ‘Sides, what’s to say that three car trains would ever be used? Out in the avenues there are certainly blocks where even two car trains block pedestrian / auto traffic. Let’s not forget that brand spanking new rail line the K (errr… T…. errrr KT… errr TK… errr) was designed with one car ‘trains’ in mind. Its subterranean extension too.

    Rail is sexy, but sexy is not a good transit policy. In San Francisco rail is far more expensive to operate (per passenger trip, per passenger mile, and per hour of service), and nobody at the MTA has demonstrated any ability to properly design rail service in the past quarter century (or perhaps a longer period of time).

    As it stands, the 38 is faster and more reliable than the LRV service provided. BRT provides the single biggest benefit of a dedicated right of way, ain’t nothing wrong with it.

  • Alex

    Let’s also think about rolling stock for a moment.

    Does the MTA:

    a.) Go with low floor trams that can’t be used anywhere else on the system (except perhaps the surface of Market street). Pro: bus shelters would suffice, higher potential of finding something ‘off the shelf’ Con: can’t use existing fleet of LRVs to fill in service gaps, less interior room), new equipment type to be trained on (driver + maintenance tech).

    b.) Go with high floor trams that couldn’t be used anywhere else in the system. Pro: more interior room, higher potential of finding something ‘off the shelf’, could be used in the metro Con: high floor platforms needed, lack of interchangeability, new equipment type to be trained on (driver + maintenance tech).

    c.) Order more of the Bredas. Pros: interchange with existing fleet Cons: high platforms needed, expensive, unreliable, etc

    d.) Order buses. Pros: interchange, cost, no platforms needed Cons: Not sexy.

    As for longevity, the Boeings were mothballed beginning in 1995, right? Which would make them… 15? 18? Years old at the time. Right? The oldest trolley coaches that the MTA has are about that age.

  • Alex

    So the entire subway is out of service right now. Trains entering at the Embarcadero portal are being turned around, and nothing can pass between Castro and Church. Been that way for an hour now, and as per usual 311 and the MTA are mute on the subject. Sometimes I wonder if people who push for light rail down Geary (or for any additional subway) really just want to drive people back to their cars.

    An exercise for the reader: think back to the last time the 38 was shut down completely for an extended period of time. Yeah. That’s pretty hard, isn’t it?

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