What Should San Francisco Do to Make the MTA More Accountable?

3176419972_007a8b417f.jpgShould the MTA Board be appointed or elected?

In the lead up to the November 3, 1999 election, more than a year after a massive Muni meltdown and with ridership low, Proposition E was sold as a way to make Muni more accountable and set higher enforceable standards for service. It was also meant to improve street management and put more detailed transit-first language in the city charter. Voters agreed to create a new Municipal Transportation Agency, a "coordinated transportation system," merging the Department of Parking and Traffic and Muni into a single entity.

With the 10-year anniversary of Prop. E looming, some of the same electeds and advocates who championed the measure are now having misgivings about it.  Some are even beginning to toss around ideas on how to reform what what they believe is an agency failing to improve one of the slowest transit systems of its size in the United States and one that is woefully inefficient at managing streets. 

"I have to say I don’t see much evidence that things have changed at Parking and Traffic in a big way. They’ve changed some small ways," said Tom Radulovich, the executive director of Livable City. "They’re not managing the streets the way the city charter says they should be managing the streets. They’re all cars, all the time. So in that sense, I think the structure of the MTA is a real failure."

Indeed, MTA’s veteran traffic engineers continue to favor an archaic Level of Service metric over transit, bicyclists and pedestrians. Walk or ride a bike anywhere in the city and it’s apparent cars still rule.

"When I was pushing LOS reform in my first year in office do you know how long it took me to get any response?" said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. "The doors we had to knock down through the Planning Department to get them to understand what we were talking about for LOS reform and then to get MTA to figure it out, are you kidding?"

"It wasn’t like they were inviting this. You would think they would invite this because this is their cup of tea, this is their level of expertise. You would have expected that they would be willing, even if they disagree, to knuckle down on a conversation, to be willing players, instead of always legislating policy on an interpretation of California law that is 30 years old. It makes no sense whatsoever. San Francisco should be on the cutting edge of this. We’re not on the cutting edge at all."

Many advocates and some electeds say the MTA Board, appointed by the Mayor, lacks true accountability, generally follows its staff’s recommendations and allows a frustrating veil of secrecy at 1 South Van Ness that prevents any transparency. All media requests to speak to MTA staff must go through media relations manager Judson True. Some staffers are afraid to speak out, even about something minor, for fear of retribution from the top.

Proposition A


Like Prop. E, Proposition A was sold as a comprehensive Muni reform measure: increased funding from parking tax receipts (from 40 to 80 percent), a Climate Action Plan, a restructuring of the MTA and more power for the MTA Board so that transit decisions wouldn’t be as politicized. It was endorsed by SPUR, the Sierra Club and the SFBC, among other groups, and placed on the ballot by Supervisors Ammiano, Daly, Dufty, Elsbernd, Maxwell, Mirkarimi and Peskin.

Two years after Prop. A’s passage, some are questioning whether the change of power is really working. 

"That backstop of accountability which we held more of has now been reduced and I don’t think that was understood or felt until now," said Mirkarimi. "I feel like we’re now more subordinated to the decisions of the MTA and have less recourse in order to appeal decisions."

In an extensive interview in his City Hall office, Mirkarimi said he’s grown frustrated and hasn’t been getting as many answers from the MTA since Prop. A passed. He thinks requiring the MTA Board to be elected rather than appointed would help.

"Politics is the lever that may actually rescue the cause instead of being the very perpetrator that made the problem worse in the first place," said Mirkarimi.

The thinking about Prop. A from groups such as Rescue Muni was that more power for the MTA Board would move transit-first policies forward, instead of leaving it to the Board of Supervisors "who historically as a whole haven’t done a lot to either bring new revenue to MTA or really do things that would radically prioritize sustainable modes," said Radulovich. One of the exceptions was Prop. A.

When asked whether more power should be returned to the supervisors, Radulovich hesitated.

"I don’t know that that would fix anything. It might. I mean, we have more confidence in this Board of Supes but that could change in two years, right? Taking it from one agency to another may or may not fix it."

  • Prop E was initiated by Tom Ammiano but was hijacked successfully by Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom. Rescue Muni provided cover to Brown and Newsom’s project.and turned into Rescue Michael (Burns) in the process.

    One problem they were trying to solve was that Muni funds were regularly raided by the BofS in the early 1990s during a budget crisis, and that resulted in deferred maintenance on “later in useful lifespan” capital rolling stock which essentiall ran the vehicles into the ground and gave us horrendous service. The Muni set aside needs to be protected forcefully, as there are efforts afoot to crack all set asides and that was the one element of Prop E that has served us well.

    Another was part of Brown and Kaufman’s project to out flank upcoming district elected boards of supervisors by creating a mega strong mayor form of government and keep all of those contracts under control of mayoral appointed toadies.

    There were various efforts to reform Muni over the past five years, but since Jake McGoldrick was involved in them all, the predictable outcome ensued. Perhaps when the Chronicle dies, media support for barriers to Muni reform will die with it.

    Prop A was an abortion, literally rotten sausage that only made matters worse. There was more for everyone to hate in it than for everyone to love. I regret voting for it especially because Prop H failed and the billionaire’s parking dreams were rejected heartily.

    But Radulovich is correct, Ammiano and some community groups really wanted to see the integration of the various transportation modalities into a round table where all could be heard, but when they capitulated on an elected board, that hope evaporated. Even the idea of using the DPT to clear streets for Muni is not yet departmental policy that anyone can tell. Didn’t they try that as a pilot project at the TEP on the 1 California 7 years after Prop E and 5 after DPT and Muni integration in the MTA?

    The resolution we worked on at Mirkarimi’s office in early 2005 sat for a year until 2006, hit the Planning Commission and has stopped there awaiting the ATG metric being generated by the TA not the MTA.

    Progressives and enviros need to find 7 Supervisors who can lay down the law to the MTA come budget time. One silver lining in the turd bag of Prop A was lowering the threshold for rejection of the MTA budget by the BofS to 7 votes from 8. We go out and win supervisorial elections for what reason again?

    Integrating Muni and DPT under this governance structure was a bad idea.

    An agency over consumed with moving transit vehicles with a governance structure that has no time to deal with innovative street approaches has doomed efforts that otherwise have a majority political support.

    Management of the streetscape needs its own agency which can focus on integrating modalities and is not distracted by the enormity of Muni or appointed solely by the Mayor.


  • Unfortunately, since former Muni PR person: Maggie Lynch went on a tirade of poor publicity due to a KPIX interview with Anna Warner about leaky pipes due to metro trains, the SFMTA seems more tight lipped thanks to the takeover by Judson True.

    I even asked on my own blog about what happened to Maggie, and I received an anonymous comment that she got reassigned (maybe thanks to Judson):

  • Maggie Lynch as well as Roberta Boomer come from Billy Maher’s political camp. Maher, of course, was an eleven year serving supervisor who championed the call for a 2 term limit, for everyone but himself, of course. Not quite as bad as LA’s Pete Schabaurum, who served like 27 years on the LA Board of Supervisors before pushing term limits there.

    This is a pattern in California, when established white people see a change coming afoot politically where people not like them might participate, the draw bridge is raised and only those already in get to enjoy the fruits of privilege.

    Did I mention that Billy Maher as a youth was convicted of felony auto theft, rehabbed through Mimi Silbert’s Delancy Street Project, the same one that cured Gavin Newsom of his boozing and whoring, before Maher served on the Board of Supervisors? When I ran in D6 in 2000, one candidate who I’ll keep nameless had significant mental health issues to the extent that he embezzled $10,000 from Easter Seals when affiliated with that nonprofit.

    When Barbara Kaufman, the aforementioned former Board president who reengineered government to be mayoral and corporate friendly and wife of developer (intended Macromedia site that got turned into Whole Foods on 17th) who was always seeking entitlements during Brown’s go go era, got wind of this, she ignored the fact that her ally Maher on the Board was a convicted felon “compos mentis” and made sanctimonious efforts to pass a law prohibiting anyone who had a felony rap from being certified nominated to run for local office.

    Boomer, Lynch, Sunshine, Muni is all too often the repository for washed up political cronies to the detriment of its mission. Unfortunately, the culture of secrecy begins and ends at the top, the tone is set. Perhaps that works for projects that have academically correct answers, such as keeping the trains running on time, but it is not appropriate for more politically oriented problems, such as how do we arbitrate the division of scare street resources equitably amongst all users and in conformance with our stated policy goals?


  • Why don’t you folks come off it? All this talk of LOS “reform” and different transportation “modes” is nothing but more anti-car nonsense. The people at MTA understand that they have to deal with reality on the streets of the city. There are 465,905 motor vehicles registered in SF, more than 1,000 Muni vehicles on our streets with 686,000 boardings every work day, 35,400 people driving into SF from around the Bay Area every work day, and millons of tourists driving in the city every year.

    Since you folks seem unconcerned about moving Muni buses through our streets, could you specify which other “modes” are available for those of us who don’t own a car? Could it be the great planet-saving bicycle? According to SFCTA, only 2.3% of the city’s population commutes via bicycle. Please explain how making it more difficult for Muni to move on our streets—LOS “reform”—is going to make city traffic better?

  • Rob makes the reasoning error of assuming that because LOS reform would disadvantage autos by slowing down traffic and adding delays, that LOS reform also disadvantages Muni.

    In fact, Muni delays are deemed under CEQA to be a significant environmental impact independent from LOS analysis, if any.

    If there is evidence of a public transit delay from a project and they are not discussed in the EIR or there are no mitigations or statement overriding the significance of those impacts, then you can take the City to court.

    If a Livable Streets Commission were to be spun off of Muni and charged with balancing interests in street design, I’d assume that Muni would have a significant voice at that table because they are a significant constituency whose interests are consistent with existing city “Transit First” Charter language.


  • marc makes an interesting point here:

    “One problem they were trying to solve was that Muni funds were regularly raided by the BofS in the early 1990s during a budget crisis, and that resulted in deferred maintenance on “later in useful lifespan” capital rolling stock which essentiall ran the vehicles into the ground and gave us horrendous service. ”

    esp. since now Gavin is allowing every city department to stick it to MUNI with rather spurious claims. Typical, though – Green Gavin’s great on speechifying but…

  • Isn’t it a funny coincidence that all those work orders the MTA is getting from other departments come to just about the same amount as the MTA would have gotten from parking funds under Prop A, isn’t it?

  • “If there is evidence of a public transit delay from a project and they are not discussed in the EIR or there are no mitigations or statement overriding the significance of those impacts, then you can take the City to court”

    More know-it-all nonsense from Marcos. We already successfully took the city to court once on its dishonest, illegal attempt to rush the Bicycle Plan through the process without any environmental review. The fact is the EIR for the Bicycle Plan will eventually be on Judge Busch’s desk for his approval. We of course will call any objections we have to the DEIR to Judge Busch’s attention. As I’ve already pointed out on my blog, what the DEIR proposes for Masonic Ave., for example, will have “significant unavoidable impacts on both Muni’s #43 line and traffic in general.

  • Rob,

    If the EIR discloses delay impacts on the Muni and the Planning Commission, MTA and Board of Supervisors in various combinations sign off on a statement overriding the significance of those impacts AND then approves those projects are proposed, then Muni will be delayed and it will all be legal. I don’t anticipate the latter happening without a fight.

    It is one thing for the City to not perform an EIR based on the delusion that group think affords, and quite another for plaintiffs to be deluded over the high bar they must now scale once the City performs an EIR. Say good night, Rob.

    That said, once LOS is replaced with ATG, then impacts on the Muni will still need to be covered, but in all other cases, auto delay will no longer figure into the environmental review equation.

    And it will all be done nice and legal-like and you will not be able to do shit about it.


  • Yes, Marcos, thanks for more of your condescension, which is based on nothing that I can determine. I understand the legal status of the EIR process now unfolding in SF. Of course the Board of Supervisors can choose to do whatever it wants on the streets of the city, but they will do so at some political risk, since the bike nut community is not universally popular even here in Progressive Land. I was disappointed that the SFBC, after some huffing and puffing last year, didn’t put the Bicycle Plan on the ballot, even as an advisory measure. And why didn’t they put it on the ballot? Because even they understand that they could have lost, or, just as bad, won by a small margin. I’m looking forward to the next phase of the process, which should be very interesting.

  • You’ve switched your compalint from CEQA related whining to assertions that political support for bike projects is soft on the Board of Supervisors since we are not universally supported.

    If the SFBC were to run a campaign, it would probably fail. That does not mean that the campaign would not have been winnable.


  • Emil Lawrence

    I have been battling the Taxi Commission and the MTA since 2005, when Gavin Newsom, for the first time, bumped me from the Civil Service Registry, a pre approved Civil Service format in the City, where they check out your credentials and background and rate you, up to 1060 points, and appointed one of his innner circle of female attorneys. The job by the Civil Service guidelines did not call for an attorney, it called for an analyst with business, accounting and extensive taxi background. I have 12 year of taxi driving background in the City, plus, I am on this list and none of these attorneys were. To be on it, you need a min of an MA in business. In 2005, Newsom picked Heidi Machen, an attorney that hired a felon lover as her administrative assistant.

    I am the only taxi driver in San Francisco with an AA, BA & MBA in business, management & Corporate and World Finance. When Machen got replaced, due to my extensive help, I filed a 50 page doc with the DA, CA and Supervisor Board on Machen’s connection with this criminal lover of hers, it went back 16 years, Newsom then bumped me again, by hiring one of his campaign re-election attorneys, another female, Jordanna Thigpen. 99. 8 percent of all taxi drivers are male.

    Mayor Newsom has used the taxi commission and now the MTA as a job bank for his inner circle, in the biggest budget crisis in San Francisco’s history. Then, after bumping me a third time for this post, where I filled out extensive applications in this MTA group, then the Mayor hired Nathaniel Ford from Atlanta, Georgia as the MTA’s CEO/Director. Ford, who does not like anyone to look him in the eyes and make small talke, left Atlanta’s MARTI in a major bankruptcy and was also accused of embezzlement while there. Ford ran up charges of $150,000 for personal expenses, MARTI has claimed. And, this man has a BA from a school in NY, that gives one massive credit for bus driving. Nathanial Ford has no Academic background beyond this one unaccredited BA. At one time, he was a conductor in a subway car in New York City.

    I filed a Civil Service Complaint, but the Civil Service Commission washed it. With this: An elected official has the right to bump someone from the Civil Service List and appoint his friend.

    Emil Lawrence emilelawrence@yahoo.com

  • “You’ve switched your compalint from CEQA related whining to assertions that political support for bike projects is soft on the Board of Supervisors since we are not universally supported.”

    Our successful CEQA litigation against the city was mere “whining”? CEQA is the most important environmental law in California, but you bike nuts seem to think you are exempt from it, not to mention mere traffic laws. I don’t know how “soft” support for you bike nuts is on the BOS, but I guess we’ll find out, won’t we? Not “universally supported”? My impression is that you folks are very unpopular with a significant percentage of city voters due to your routinely arrogant behavior on city streets and of course Critical Mass. Hence, if the BOS votes to screw up traffic on, say, Masonic, Cesar Chavez, Second Street, Fifth Street, etc. they’ll do so at some political risk.

    “If the SFBC were to run a campaign, it would probably fail.That does not mean that the campaign would not have been winnable.”

    I understand that you think that you and a few other dissident cyclists think you can distance yourselves politically from the SFBC, but that seems doubtful. To that portion of the public that dislikes bike people, you’re all the same, which is why no one with any sense of poltical reality in the bike community wants to put anything on the ballot to test their political strength.

  • Rob,

    You have been whining about CEQA even as the EIR ripens which will effectively dismiss all of your claims.

    Then you turned your attention to diminishing the prospects for implementation due to a perceived softening of support at the Board of Supervisors.

    Now you’re back on CEQA.

    In any event, you’ve played your one trick pony, and only won because the people who were running our side were so clueless and full of themselves.

    I’m sure that the SFBC would be a major component to any ballot measure so long as we apply the lessons learned from Prop 8: keep the advocates out of any campaign meeting that requires strategic thinking and leave that to the people who know how to run and win campaigns.

    A properly run campaign for anything bike related would win in San Francisco.


  • “I was disappointed that the SFBC, after some huffing and puffing last year, didn’t put the Bicycle Plan on the ballot, even as an advisory measure”

    Rob – if you want it on the ballot – why don’t YOU put it on the ballot.

    Earth to Rob – the team in the lead doesn’t throw a hail mary, they take a knee…

  • Is the team in the lead the one that is getting the 1997 bicycle network passed in 2009?


  • The team is “all” the bike-nuts. If you would like, now that it’s going to be passes and I can at least get a damn bike rack near Dolores Park Cafe, we could always hold a special election. I prefer the bike rack thank you.

  • I prefer reality-based activism that performs in real time.

    Having not been able to implement any projects over the past five years that have been in the hopper for the past 12 is no sign of success.

    And, of course, there are the higher hanging fruits where the real danger of injury and death lie, which is not addressed by this plan or network.



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