SFMTA Chief Nat Ford Top Candidate To Head D.C. Airports Authority

Nat Ford in his office at 1 South Van Ness. Photo: Bryan Goebel

Rumors about whether SFMTA Chief Nat Ford plans to depart the agency have been circulating for years now.  In interviews with Streetsblog, Ford has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to leave the SFMTA, telling us in our most recent meeting last September that he is confident about the future the agency is charting “and I’d like to be here for that future.” The latest gossip about Ford, however, is more than just a rumor.

As the Chronicle’s Rachel Gordon first reported locally, Ford appears to be the top candidate to head up the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority (MWAA). Although he lacks a background in aviation, the new role would have him overseeing the Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport, among other top duties. There is some disagreement, though, among MWAA board members about whether Ford is the best candidate for the job.

SFMTA Board Chair Tom Nolan told Streetsblog that he met with the Mayor Ed Lee yesterday to talk about Ford’s possible departure. He said he’s been aware for “the last few months” that Ford was interested in the position. So why does he want to leave?

“I think it’s an extremely difficult job,” Nolan said. “But I think it’s really simpler than that. My understanding is that the average tenure of these CEOs in transit districts is about five years and it’s five years for him. I think that’s really basically it.”

He added: “The Mayor is very anxious, as am I, to let people know that we’ll be on top of things and that people won’t suffer because of any uncertainty or the possible departure of Mr. Ford.”

Sources told Streetsblog that the Mayor’s Office and some City Hall insiders began compiling a list of potential candidates to replace Ford when rumors about his impending departure began intensifying last year. It’s ultimately up to the SFMTA Board of Directors to name the agency’s CEO, but the Mayor is a major influence.

Ford, a veteran public transportation manager, marked his five-year anniversary with the SFMTA last month. He began his career as a train conductor nearly 30 years ago at New York’s MTA before moving on to a number of managerial positions. He was an assistant chief transportation officer at BART before being named to oversee Atlanta’s public transit system.

Transit advocates have sometimes criticized Ford for not taking more aggressive and bold action to make San Francisco a true Transit First city. In his recent State of the SFMTA report to the board of directors, Ford cited a long list of accomplishments achieved under his leadership.

  • triple0

    Let’s ask Jeannete Sadik-Khan to name her price, then we hold a joint fundraiser on Streetsblog.

    Dollar for dollar, one to Streetsblog, one to pay for JSK’s first year salary…

  • david vartanoff

    our gain, DC’s loss.
    and for fun how about a lower salary for the replacement?

  • Ciaran

    Can the SFMTA board help him with this decision by giving him the boot?

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Not much love for Ford on this blog, I see. The accomplishments of his tenure so far at the SFMTA amount to almost nothing.

  • icarus12

    I am no expert in transportation matters, but from my perspective Mr. Ford has for five years made excuses for a dysfunctional agency he inherited, rather than changing the SFMTA’s organizational culture. As its leader, that is Mr. Ford’s responsibility, and he has left it on the table alongside his excuses.

    What are my gripes with the SFMTA? Here’s a short list:

    1) Increasing absenteeism among employees and no penalties. Now at about 15% and the highest among transit agencies in the Bay Region.

    2) Employees not empowered from above to solve problems on the ground. Think: station agent unable to refund money to patron who mistakenly bought a ticket or was swindled by an automatic ticket dispenser.

    3) Employees who resort to racial epithets when challenged by patrons to do something helpful or courteous.

    4) A sham appeals process for wrongly assessed parking citations.

    5) A lack of will to oppose the raiding of his department’s budget by other departments (like the police or the DA) to fund their operations or the mayor’s other spending priorities.

    5) Increased reliance on parking fines rather than planned expenditures by drivers. Parking citations have skyrocketed to 25x or more the cost of an hour of metered parking, which itself has also gone up. Enforcement is up, but drivers, pursued like fish in a barrel, have somehow managed to avoid getting as many tickets, so citation revenue is down. The SFMTA’s “solution”? Patrolling more heavily where the money can be made easily (street-cleaning, meters), not where the need for parking turnover is greatest (neighborhood streets) or traffic obstruction worst (double-parked cars on major arteries like Bush and Pine).

    6) Lack of timely responses for persons seeking residential parking permits when living on commercial streets like Irving or Broadway;

    7) Lack of enforcement of standards and good practices for drivers, inspectors and others working for SFMTA, such that one sees an “Inspector On Duty” eating and working crossword puzzles in his parked-at-meter car for over 1 hour and still going when I left at 11:35 am today. He had no apparent work to do at Presidio and California, but he was, as so many DPT/Muni supervisors, getting over on it. (That was today’s outrage, but think of video of the meter maid parked on Geary in a Bus-only lane while she perused the clothing selection at Goodwill.)

    Where has Nat Ford been? Making excuses.

    Well, I hope he does go to Washington DC. And that we San Franciscans get a professional with some vision and courage to transform the SFMTA into an object of civic pride, not opprobrium.

  • Meter rates have gone up? Maybe for motorcycles, but I haven’t heard of any car spaces getting raised meter rates. Plus, the hours haven’t been touched for a long long time. And if 25x the meter rate for tickets still isn’t acting as a deterrent to breaking parking laws, what do you suggest will?

    I think SFPark will help the situation quite a bit. It will allow other methods of payment and allow someone to pay for more meter time remotely via cell phone. Also will help price parking to provide an open space per block to reduce circling for parking.

    But yes, Ford has sat on the sideline and moaned about what he was given instead of working to make it better during his tenure. Good riddance. Best of luck in DC.

  • icarus12

    Mike,

    Any fine of $30 or more is a deterrent for most to avoid overstaying one’s meter. But yes, a $300 fine would be an even greater deterrent. If the SFMTA were providing a public service, not raising revenue, it would set all rates and fines to create Shoup’s magic parking turnover/availability ratio. I would be 100% for such a system, even if it cost me a lot more in everyday parking fees.

    But since the SFMTA uses parking citations not mainly as a service to the citizenry, but rather as a cash cow, it has actually unleashed a somewhat interesting phenomenon for scholars of parking to study: at what fine level does an agency actually create less revenue for itself? I think the SFMTA has hit this unseemly apogee in fines and corresponding trough in revenues. As the economy recovers, we’ll see if this is true or just a temporary, recession-driven phenomenon.

    On a more important note, I think you are kind of missing my larger overall point: there needs to be a sea-change at SFMTA. And only the head of the agency can start that change. Currently, the employees are neither hard-working or empowered. The absentee rate is instructive, because to me it points to an unhappy workplace. People are not trusted to carry out their jobs and show initiative. Instead, employees labor within a demoralizing work culture in which performance is not rewarded or penalized, initiative is discouraged, innovation is discounted, and poor behavior is the only outlet for personal assertion.

  • I agree that a top-down organizational sea-change is greatly needed at the MTA. I also think this could begin with the board, but an energized CEO would a long way.

    And SFPark will hopefully address many of the issues you raise, save for the “cash cow” label. While I disagree, I do think the MTA has put too much emphasis on fines for revenue. It is not a good fiscal practice and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the citizens, right or wrong.

  • Katherine Roberts

    Mr Ford, 3 words: “Door. Butt. Out.”

  • triple0

    @Icarus: “at what fine level does an agency actually create less revenue for itself? I think the SFMTA has hit this unseemly apogee in fines and corresponding trough in revenues.”

    In the same breath, you say MTA has used parking fines as a ‘cash cow’ then say that the high rates are somehow reducing revenue.

    I think Mike has it right (and I’d love to hear mayoral-hopeful Phil Ting answer it…): “And if 25x the meter rate for tickets still isn’t acting as a deterrent to breaking parking laws, what do you suggest will?”

  • Nick

    Nat Ford kept the trains running. There’s no vision needed to make that happen. Now he gets to ride one one out of town. It must be a good feeling to have MUNI be somebody else’s problem.

  • icarus12

    triple0, I think you have misunderstood me.

    The fines have brought in $100 million annually, but this number is going down very recently, because the number of parking tickets has gone down, even when the citation fee per ticket has gone up.

    It’s unclear why revenue from citations is down — the recession might mean fewer people parking or the same number of people being more careful with their pocketbook expenses. Or more provocatively, the decrease in revenue from fines (even though each fine has gone up in price) might indicate that people will work very hard to avoid the fines when they are so, so high.

    This is, of course, a good thing if it means people drive less or follow the rules (not exactly laws) more and there’s more parking turnover. But it also means that raising the fines further does not bring in more revenue anymore. Since the MTA has been using parking citations quite heavily to fund itself, this poses a problem. Thus, a new mechanism will have to be devised to extract this money from citizens. That could be another car tax, higher hourly parking rates, higher fares, parcel taxes, sales taxes, or cutbacks, etc.

  • The number of PCOs has gone down. The board asked the remaining ones to work harder. I bet this has more to do with there being less tickets then the recession.

  • Alex

    Nick: Barely…

    mike: See also street cleaning.

    Salary aside, I rather like Ford. I don’t think he’s done a lot, but anyone expecting him to do a lot is probably greatly underestimating just how difficult it is to change the culture at the MTA. You can’t just snap your fingers and make things go away. For instance, as much as I despise the way in which the subway to nowhere is being designed and built, what can Ford do about that? That’s something being shoved down our throats by people we’re welcoming with open arms (Pak, Brown, Newsom, Lee, Chiu). The TEP was a bad start, but it’s a start towards reform. It’s /something/. The T-Fail was a bad idea, and /should/ be axed. But /how/?

    The telling thing for me was the apology he posted to the MTA’s web site around the time that the T was deployed. The then current PR flak (Maggie?) made sure it was taken down post haste. Despite his bloated salary, I wonder how much power Ford actually wields… and this is perhaps the biggest reason I’m so down on the idea of Lee, Chiu, Chu, Newsom, Brown, Pak, Kim, and the rest of that sorry lot.

    The MTA folks served at the whim of a rather anti-transit mayor (Newsom). The necessary change needs to come from higher up than the MTA.

  • Tony

    Any truth to this guy not paying his federal income taxes? If he is coming here to DC we need to know the back ground and facts.

  • Ciaran

    http://articles.sfgate.com/2011-02-21/bay-area/28615757_1_ford-plans-muni-chief-nathaniel-ford-airport-authority

    “The Washington Post, which first reported Ford’s candidacy, reported that federal and state tax authorities filed at least $75,000 in liens against Ford for unpaid taxes last year. Nolan said he was aware of this and that the problem stemmed from compensation Ford anticipated but that didn’t come through.”

    What compensation he expected beyond being the highest paid city employee is beyond me.

  • Joe

    Time for Ford to go, but don’t think so fast. There are already rumblings in DC, that Ford is yet another political hack, with no aviation experience, plus he had played his race card once to often, just to get a job. Congress members from Virginia are not going to let this pass, unlike SF, which is always so politicallly correct, to the point of dysfunction !

  • Abc132

    You can keep this jug-head. DC doesn’t need this clown.

    I live in Washington, but recently visited San Fran. We drove to the Ghiardelli square, paid the meter for 1 hour but stayed only 30 minutes. What do you know, there’s a $55 parking ticket for expired meter. WTF is going on? Sounds like corruption.

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