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

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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."

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