Streetscast: An Interview with MTA Chair Tom Nolan

Tom_Nolan.jpgPhoto by Bryan Goebel.

Tom Nolan is a veteran of local government. A former San Mateo County supervisor, he’s served on the boards of numerous public agencies, including SamTrans, Caltrain and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. He views his current position as chair of the MTA Board of Directors as his "civic responsibility."

"I’m not campaigning for anything. This is not a stepping stone to anything. I’m doing this because I was asked to do it, that’s all.  I didn’t campaign for it," said Nolan, in a recent hour-long interview with Streetsblog at the Polk Street office of Project Open Hand, where he is the executive director.

Nolan doesn’t fudge at all around the issue of the MTA Board not being independent. All of its members are appointed by the Mayor, and they seem very reluctant to break from his wishes. "We’re just kidding ourselves if we think it’s a totally independent body, it just isn’t.  The only way that would be the case really would be if we were all elected by the people." 

In our interview, Nolan tackles questions about the accountability of the MTA Board, his role as chair, the budget process, the Bike Plan and parking. Nolan seems to get parking issues, and he’s a fan of Donald Shoup’s book, "The High Cost of Free Parking." So why isn’t he stronger on the issues?

"I would say watch over the next two or three months about what the real choices are going to be and I expect increasingly I’ll play a more active role." 

The interview was recorded on June 17th, 2009. Read highlights below the break.



  • On his role as MTA Board chair: "I’m very interested in the notion of governance.  The organization I now work for, Project Open Hand, did a thing that most organizations never do, they took time out years ago to try to figure out what a board should do.  And just because, like in our case here, you’re a very good peeler of vegetables or something, doesn’t mean you’re going to be a great member of the board.  It’s a distinct important function and boards almost never do that.  When you get appointed to this you get sworn in and you just start.  And since I’ve been on so many boards, non-profit boards as well as the transit boards, two years on the (MTC) commission, I have a good sense of that.  And so I think I’m trying to help my colleagues understand it’s an important role, but it’s limited.  And I think that the fact that I run pretty good meetings.  I think I give people enough chance to do what they want, but I don’t tend to just carry over things, let’s say."
  • On Supervisor Avalos’ proposed charter amendment to have half of the MTA Board appointed by supervisors, half by the Mayor and one elected: "I can’t imagine who would run for that one seat quite frankly.  Running a city wide election in San Francisco would be hugely expensive.  Maybe somebody could, I don’t know, it certainly wouldn’t be me, I’ll tell you that.  And the way I see Supervisor Avalos’ thing, it really gives the board pretty much all the power, because even the Mayor’s appointees have to be approved by the full board.  So the only one that’s truly independent presumably is the elected one.  If people want a truly independent body, election is the way to do it, but it has to come with a revenue stream that’s guaranteed somehow, like in San Mateo County, SamTrans has two half cent sales tax measures". 
  • On fixing Muni: "I think the big thing, we need a whole lot more money and the contribution I’m proudest of at Muni, being on the MTA board, is I have forced the agency to eventually say what would it take to achieve 85 percent on-time.  And the answer was $100 million to $150 million more a year.  And Prop A, as good as that was, gave us $26 million more a year, which was lost in work orders.  But even if we got all $26 million its nowhere near what we needed.  What I learned as a San Mateo County supervisor from observing things that worked and things that didn’t is a little formula.  And that is people have to appreciate and understand the value of the problem you’re trying to solve, number two you have to present a solution that makes sense to rational people, three you have to be candid about the cost both literally and figuratively.  And four you have to divide that cost as equitably as possible, both literally and figuratively and five you have to either develop, maintain or enhance confidence in the administering institution."
  • How is San Francisco doing as a Transit First city? "Oh C+, B- maybe.  I wish we could have in the budget done more in terms of the parking, that balance between drivers and buses and everything.  We’ve got a long way to go there.  I’m very excited about the bike plan, by the way.  I just see anecdotally way more bicycles on the streets than before, it’s growing.  And I think the number one problem that the bike coalition people tell us is that some people are not riding because they’re afraid, they’re scared out there, the dooring and all that stuff.  But if we can almost double the number of bike lanes and all these amenities for bicycles, I think that’ll help move us towards the transit first city.  And I know the argument is make Muni so dependable and reliable and cost effective that people want to ride it.  Well 700,000 people a day do already, so it’s a good start, considering the population is about 765,000."
  • On parking: "I think we’ll almost assuredly see weeknight parking extended to ten o’clock. If we aren’t able to do that, there are very few things that are really readily available to us without doing serious damage to the system.  And we had three options of service cuts and we only went to option two, option three is much more drastic.  And I say charging for parking during week day nights, as far as I’m concerned on Sunday as well, is a small price to pay for the overall good of the entire city.  So I’m very open to that, I appreciate the study and I know it’s already ongoing."
  • At least he admits the MTA board is a sham, serving the whims of a fake Green Gavin. It’s just too bad he’s apparently congenitally unable to show any leadership or vision to make the MTA functional.

  • marcos

    Here’s the dusty, decade-old ballot pamphlet section on Prop E from 1999:

    Read the claims that were made about political independence by the Board of Supervisors, SPUR, the SF Chamber of Commerce, the SFBC and the Republican Party.

    Ask yourself if you could serve on the MTA Board of Directors, read the text of Section 8A of the Charter, and come to the same conclusions as Director Nolan does.

    What language could be put into the charter which would express the will of the Board of Supervisors and proponents of Prop E and be legally binding on appointees?

    And kudos to the late Sue Bierman who got this one right. Don’t blame me, I voted against Prop E in 1999.


  • 700,000 people do not ride Muni every day. There are 686,000 “boardings” on Muni every weekday, which means that a lot of passengers ride Muni to and from their destination and don’t represent different passengers.

    “And I think the number one problem that the bike coalition people tell us is that some people are not riding because they’re afraid, they’re scared out there, the dooring and all that stuff. But if we can almost double the number of bike lanes and all these amenities for bicycles, I think that’ll help move us towards the transit first city.”

    People should be afraid to ride a bike in SF; it’s an inherently risky way to get around. The delusion is that, once the Bicycle Plan is completely implemented, riding a bike here will be safe. It will be interesting to then hear the SFBC’s explanation for the fact that people continue to be injured while cycling.

    It’s irresponsible for public officials and the SFBC to encourage the Safe Routes to School idea on streets that they admit are now dangerous for adult cyclists.

    And then you have Shahum’s vision of the future on city streets: she wants traffic to be safe and slow enough for seven-year-olds to ride bikes on city streets!

  • To say “People should be afraid to ride a bike in SF; it’s an inherently risky way to get around” amounts to intimidation. You can say the same thing to pedestrians or to mothers pushing a stroller. They should be afraid! They are putting themselves in harm’s way! The street is an inherently dangerous place. What a horrible vision you have.

  • patrick

    nobody is claiming that the Bike plan is going to stop any cyclists from being injured. The bike plan is to improve safety and make cycling easier for the average person. There’s nothing that will make it absolutely safe, the same way as there is nothing that will make driving absolutely safe.

    I have every confidence that the proposed projects will make biking safer and easier.

  • “To say ‘People should be afraid to ride a bike in SF; it’s an inherently risky way to get around’ amounts to intimidation. You can say the same thing to pedestrians or to mothers pushing a stroller.”

    Let’s be honest, the most unsafe way to get around is in a car. Unsafe for you, unsafe for your passengers, unsafe for your neighbors-turned-speedbumps.

    Riding a bike really really fast is inherently dangerous too, though less so than driving really really fast. So, I suppose, is running full tilt through a crowd. Those are all dangerous ways to get around.

    Riding a well-functioning bike calmly, walking, jogging, pushing baby strollers, etc. are among the most safe ways to get around that exist.

  • “Let’s be honest, the most unsafe way to get around is in a car. Unsafe for you, unsafe for your passengers, unsafe for your neighbors-turned-speedbumps.”

    Whenever someone introduces a riff with “Let’s be honest,” I know a crock is going to follow. Why is it that whenever anyone questions the safety of cycling, cyclists immediately change the subject to the dangers involved with cars. I’m 66 years old and have traveled many miles on cars and buses, and I have never even been involved in any kind of an accident either as a driver or a passenger. On the other hand, hardcore cyclists like Robert Hurst and John Forester tells us that if you ride a bike for any length of time, you’re going to have some spills and falls that have nothing to do with other vehicles—spin-outs, equipment failures, a pothole, etc.

    The city acknowledges in its bike documents that cycling accidents are under-reported by at least 20%. I suspect it’s more than that, since the city has no reliable system for reporting such accidents.

  • Anderson hasn’t submitted his promised appeal yet. I mean, he PROMISED he would appeal, one would think that if this appeal was important and he knew he was going to do it, it would be ready and submitted.

    Honestly, he will wait until the last minute to submit it, knowing he is beaten but that he can delay those bike lanes just a few more days by continuing to finesse process over results. America!

  • marcos

    This thread was about an interview with MTA board president Nolan on a variety of issues, the interview barely touched on the bike plan, yet Anderson hijacked us there. No questions about bike lane implementation, as a lack of resources for completion is more of a bottleneck than approval.

    Nolan said that the MTA Board played an important role, but a limited role.

    He went on to complain that directors were opposed to the budget, but few voiced their concerns.

    If the role of the directors is limited, then what is the proper forum to express their concerns so that the product before them reflects their concerns? And what’s the point of talking to the hand when you can just vote no and be out of the farce, home to your family sooner?

    Under such a scenario, doesn’t the fact that Nat Ford believes he works for Gavin Newsom really trump the fact that Newsom has never called Nolan, given that Nolan feels the board’s role is so limited?

    Nolan’s undisguised glee over the opportunity that the fiscal crisis presents to do what would take years of study smacks of the Naomi Klien’s Shock Doctrine, DIsaster Capitalism [1]. Whether reasons were offered up or not, 3 votes against declaring a state of emergency was remarkable.

    Government is supposed to be run with checks and balances. And old drunk Irish secretary for multiple commissions once told me that there are only two kinds of commissions in this town, those where the commission runs the staff and those where the staff runs the commission. Clearly the MTA is the latter even though the voters called for the former, Nolan expressed precisely as much.

    The only way to stop the Mayor from bleeding the MTA dry for his own political purposes is to distribute power over the MTA equally between the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor. If we’re going to have politics, then let’s at least have some balance.


  • Mr. Know-it-all Marc has the facts wrong again. Addressing Nolan’s ignorant remark on the number of Muni passengers and his remarks on the Bicycle Plan is hardly “hijacking” this thread.

  • Nesad

    As a committed believer in the theory that the Central Subway will solve Chinatown’s  traffic and transit problems, MTA Board President Nolan should be called upon to answer the following question:

    Why if this is true does the MTA’s November 2010 report to the federal government acknowledge that only 10.5% of  today’s daily riders of the 8x, 30 and 45 lines be using the Chinatown subway station by 2030?

  • JamesF

    Probably because, like many major transit developments, there will be many first-time users once it is up and running. Streetcars are far more popular than buses, which is why the world over cities are re-introducing them, having ripped them down decades ago.

  • Anonymous

    James – one need only look at the T-Third to see the folly of your conclusion.


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