With Two MTA Directors Termed Out, Advocates Ponder Wish List

IMG_5960.jpgPhoto: Michael Rhodes

The City Attorney’s office has determined that the short first terms of MTA Board members Shirley Breyer
Black and James McCray do count towards the three-term
limit for directors, meaning both are termed out as of May 1. That answers an open question about the seats that Streetsblog first raised last month.

As a result, Mayor Newsom has two spots to fill, and with his recent announcement that he’s accepting resumes for positions on the MTA Board, transit advocates and community group leaders are starting to develop wish lists of traits for new Board members.

The top item on most of those lists, it seems, is that the new directors be regular Muni riders.

"The new MTA Board Member should be one from the community, an actual frequent Muni rider," said Wing Hoo Leung, Vice President of the Community Tenants Association. "He or she should be an experienced community leader that knows and understands the needs of the public."

Bradley Angel, Executive Director of the environmental justice group Greenaction, had the same request. "That’s the expertise they really need and agencies like the MTA don’t take into account," he said.

Marlene Tran, spokesperson for the Visitacion Valley Asian Alliance and herself a Muni rider for 40 years, said she’s been making suggestions to Muni for improvements for so long that a friend tried to nominate her for the position. She’s not interested, she said, though she’d also like to see a regular Muni rider nominated to the Board.

Given that Muni’s riders are as diverse as the city itself, Angel, Leung and Tran all feel the new Board appointments should continue to reflect that.

"Clearly, a lot of the proposed Muni cutbacks would definitely disproportionately harm lower-income residents and people of color," said Angel. "It would be very timely and long-overdue to have better representation of not only people sympathetic and aware of those impacts, but actually representative of the communities who use and need public transportation the most."

Fluency with multiple languages would be a plus as well, said Tran.

Jason Henderson, a geography professor at San Francisco State University, said his wish list includes someone who is a visionary about long-term transportation improvements and supporting the city’s Transit First policy, but who is also ready to face the immediate crisis.

On the long-term issues, said Henderson, that means thinking about the link between transportation and land use in the city. "We need someone who is aggressive on the issue of matching urban infill development with expanding transit capacity," he said. "We cannot add all the new condos the Mayor’s people are pursuing without expanded transit capacity."

He’d also prefer a new director who can take the lead on advocating for congestion pricing, parking reform, a tax assessment district, and a transition to system-wide proof-of-payment. "Some of this no doubt requires state legislative changes, but the board needs to actively push it," said Henderson.

The MTA is also in charge of the city’s bike infrastructure, and Henderson said new directors would need to be able to navigate the challenge of successfully expanding the bike lane network in a way that doesn’t slow down Muni.

Most of the director appointments in the MTA’s ten-year history have been people strongly loyal to the Mayor, with few exceptions. Tran said that shouldn’t be the case this time around. The new appointment "should not continue the trend to rubber-stamp Muni management’s proposals, but to challenge this public agency to be more fiscally responsible," she said. "So, related background experiences is a plus."

"Hopefully, this appointment is for the most suitable candidate and not simply as a payback political appointment," she added.

The Mayor has said he’s looking for someone who rides Muni regularly. He may also be looking for women, given that Shirley Breyer Black is the only woman on the seven-member Board. (Muni’s ridership is nearly 50 percent female, after all, according to a 2006 Metropolitan Transportation Commission survey.)

Whoever is appointed will not start until May 1, too late to be present for the Board’s key vote on the budget for the next two fiscal years — though perhaps in time to take heat in the aftermath. They’ll also face confirmation by the Board of Supervisors, and will then serve a four-year term.

With a three-term limit, that means a director nominated now who stays in the good graces of future mayors and supervisors just might be around until 2022.

Who would you nominate for the MTA Board? Let us know in the comments section below. And if you’re interested in applying, send a resume to the Mayor at gavin.newsom@sfgov.org.

  • Nick

    How about one of the members of the Transit Riders Union? Or someone from the SFBC? Or a Streetsblog reporter? Or someone from SPUR?

    From the newspapers, it would have us believe that the Mayor was peeking his head into MUNI busses to try and find a candidate. You can’t even walk a block downtown without spotting a transit activist of one stripe or another.

  • patrick

    I’d like to see somebody who regularly commutes by bike and somebody who doesn’t own a car.

  • JohnB

    I’ve got a great idea.

    Why not someone who knows something about running a viable transit system?

    Doesn’t have to be a woman, or a bike rider, or a non car owner or a transit activist.

    It has to be someone who actually can run a transport business.
    In other words, let’s de-politicize it and go for competence over ideology.

  • patrick

    JohnB, I’d be completely happy with that, but since the chances of that are near 0, I at least want some more balanced representation.

  • JohnB


    “Balanced representation” is a recipe for inaction and mediocrity.

    Why does every Board have to have a woman, a black, a cyclist, a gay and so on?

    What happened to expertise and relevance?

  • those dudes

    do mta directors get paid?

  • Erik

    I propose someone who has to rely on the fucking system daily for their transportation needs.

  • Andy Chow

    Pick someone from the Citizen Advisory Committee. Generally these members know more than enough about the system yet still pretty much a rider at heart.

  • patrick

    “What happened to expertise and relevance?”

    Why do you think a bicyclist or a person who doesn’t drive can’t have expertise or relevance? And why do you equate balance with a lack of qualification for the position? And exactly what does expertise mean?

    “Balanced representation” means that all interested parties have somebody who is at least considering their needs from a similar perspective. I think women may have different needs than men, I think poor may have different needs than wealthy, I think young may have different needs than old. That’s just a few of the many reasons balance is useful in a situation like this.

    I understand the benefits of expertise in a field, but I also understand that expertise in a subject is not the only aspect required for success in the real world.

  • patrick

    to clarify when I said “And exactly what does expertise mean?” I meant expertise in this situation. What would define somebody as expert to be on the MTA board?

  • JohnB


    Expertise would be knowing how to run a business (in particular) and a transport business, in particular.

    An older, gay cyclist may have “opinions” about transit. We all do. But we want someone who has knowledge, experience and a sense of reality about what is and is not viable economically.

    I’m happy for the Board to be “balanced” if that is a natural outcome of picking experienced, pragmatic people to serve on it. But you don’t start out by saying, “I want a black, an Asian, a Green Party activist, a disabled guy, a lesbian” and so on. None of those attributes imply any special ability or knowledge of transit.

  • Jake

    I think there’s a middle ground here. Expertise is important, absolutely. But there have too many times in the past where the experts in charge have had a limited perspective because they don’t know the on-the-ground details of how the transit system functions, because they never use it. That may be a question of fairness or justice, but it’s also a question of basic effectiveness (i.e. it’s a component of “competence”). For instance, an MTA top executive who actually used Muni Metro on a regular basis would never have allowed the laughably customer-unfriendly fare-paying situation in the Market Street underground stations to persist for as long as it has. Luckily, it’s 2010 and there many people with both expertise AND on-the-ground experience — and many, many of whom are not white straight males.

  • patrick

    JohnB, I’m not clear why knowing how to run a business in general would lead to the necessary expertise to be on the board of directors of the MTA, although I could see how it could bring some balance, although I think business interests have ample representation.

    Having transportation knowledge would be useful, but so would having the experience of a regular user of the system.

    Why would An older, gay cyclist not have the knowledge, experience and sense of reality about what is and is not viable economically?

    I value expertise, but expertise without experience leads to systems that look great on paper, then completely fail in real world usage. And of course the question remains what is expertise? I see a regular cyclist as an expert on getting around by bike, I see somebody who lives without a car as an expert on how to get around the city without having to own a car. Those are two forms of expertise that I think are sorely lacking on the board.

  • patrick, points well made. I’d also argue that whoever planned the Central Subway is probably floating in “expertise” but completely lacking in real world experience. We don’t need more of the book smart people on the board – all they know how to do is raise fares and cut service. We need someone who knows that the 30/45 gets packed at the top of Chinatown (not served by CS) and unloads at Market (served over a block away 90 ft underground by CS). Or someone that knows we need more then single car LRVs going through downtown at rush hour. Or better yet, we need to run alternating routes through downtown instead of 4 N’s then two 2 K’s then 1 N, etc.

  • How a pedestrian safety advocate? Those jackasses on the SFMTA Board have been incredibly negligent when it comes to pedestrian safety in most parts of San Francisco.

  • JohnB


    I argued for business expertise not because I wanted a “business POV” but because running transportation IS a business.

    I agree with you both that these “experts” should ride Muni from in much the same way as senior FedEx managers are mde to drive the trucks for 2 weeks a year.

    But picking someone who “takes the bus every day” or “walks to work” isn’t going to broaden the business acumen needed to run what is a very large enterprise. WalMart doesn’t appoint a frequent shopper to their Board although they may seek out customer opinions.

    That is what focus groups and public meetings are for. The flaws discussed relate not to who runs Muni but on how they perform their duties.

  • Erik

    If requiring the business experts (necessary to run things) to slum it on Muni is a non-starter then leavening the business experts with a handful of people who actually use the system seems like a good idea. It’s not like each member of the board has to be able to perform a bunch of specialized, operations-related duties or the entire thing falls apart.

  • JohnB, I knew you weren’t calling for “business POV”, I’m just arguing that Nat Ford has been in the business of transportation for many years and can’t seem to tell his ass from the hole in the ground.

  • Andy Chow

    Running Walmart is not a democracy, but running a publicly owned agency is. Companies like Walmart (and auto makers) spend a lot on marketing and market research. Business success depends on how well the staff executes those ideas.

    Muni and other agencies spend very little on marketing. Everything else that can provide better riding experience (maintenance, more comfortable seats, etc) often compete with actually providing service. You have the unions who not only be able to collective bargain, but also have direct political influences (which private company unions don’t have).

    If the board doesn’t have have rider representation, it is no different than schools where the students (direct customers of education) have no representation. We riders aren’t kids. Riders vote, pay taxes, and contribute to the economy. Since riders can’t collectively bargain like the unions, having representation on the board will be the next best thing.

  • tea

    Enrique Peñalosa.

  • JohnB


    I guess I’d at least partly disagree with the notion that Muni is purely an exercise in democracy. And indeed, if it were, SF voters would probably vote for it to be free while raising a wealth tax to subsidize it.

    Muni needs to be run by professional business managers who can temper the (sometimes extreme) views of transit activists and car haters with the harsh practical realities of running an enterprise. Who can negotiate with senior politicians and the unions, while retaining a firm grip on the bottom line.

    Maybe it’s not WalMart but it’s not a touchy-feely worker co-operative either. No disrespect to anyone here, but I wouldn’t trust the average Green Party activist to plant a garden let alone run a billion dollar business.

    And a token “bike activist” on the Board would simply get sidelined and out-voted. We need hardened business executives and not rabid ideologues.

  • Erik

    Don’t they hire actual full-time managers, accountants, and engineers to do the actual running of the system? I think the whole point of an appointed board was to add a democratic element to the general decision-making process. For that you want both people familiar with the nuts and bolts of the operation as well as people who actually have to deal with the consequences of the decisions every day.

  • david vartanoff

    @ JohnB Actually, Muni and ANY OTHER public venture as opposed to private sector ventures IS an exercise in democracy. My one vote is as real as a billionaire’s rather than our votes being counted based on shares purchased. That said, having actual users of the system on the Board is not very different from having a major customer represented on the BOD of any corporation. Finally, the Board is a policy setting organ not a techno wonk club needing to understand flange profiles, acceleration ## or braking distances. What they DO need to understand is how Board policies elaborated by staff effect the utility of the service for the riders. That is hard nosed reality for ANY outfit attempting to serve customers.

  • Andy Chow

    If SF voters wanted free Muni by taxing the rich, that would be an exercise in democracy. However, there are state laws that dictate how that would happen (and most likely require changes in state law if not the constitution).

    I honestly don’t think that SF voters are that liberal even if they were given a chance. Because it is a democracy, most transit agencies don’t do what they should do to appease the automobile interests, whether real of perceived. Do you think Walmart would be that profitable if its front line employees, suppliers, and customers get to make corporate decisions?

    For a transit system to be successful, it is important to have board members who have values and a vision and able to follow it. That’s where having riders on the board will be useful. There are lot of companies that have gone out of business because their bosses are not interested in long term stability of the company. Having a business background has no relevance if their vision is to destroy the company from within.

  • patrick

    JohnB, the biggest flaw in your argument is that the board does not run muni. Nat Ford is the CEO, and I agree a competent manager is needed for that position.

    Second, the board member would not be token, as any time a vote is close they would have a deciding position over what happens. They would also be able to raise issues at board meetings that would otherwise be left unaddressed.

  • JohnB


    I think a Muni rider on the board (for no other reason than that) might be OK if the Board aren’t going to be made to use Muni regularly.

    But I’d be happier with Joe the MuniRider rather than some rabid bike activist or Green Party officer.

    The Board needs to hear everyday experiences. They don’t need to hear any more from ideologues any more than they need to hear from the car industry or realtors.

    So it all comes back to how the Board is appointed, and how we ensure it isn’t too political.

  • tea

    “Muni needs to be run by professional business managers who can temper the (sometimes extreme) views of transit activists and car haters with the harsh practical realities of running an enterprise. Who can negotiate with senior politicians and the unions, while retaining a firm grip on the bottom line.”

    Congratulations! You have achieved Bullshit Bingo! I haven’t seen this many buzzwords and stereotype invocations in one single paragraph in a long time. You should do this for a living. Ever considered a career in speechwriting?

    Respect! Yeah, let’s inject some of that Wall Street spirit into the way we run our public transit system! I hear there are still some “professional business managers” from Lehman Brothers looking for a new job.

  • tea

    Oooh beware of the rabid bike activists!! They need to be put down so we all can be safe again!

    Anyhow… I’m just waiting to see how long our current troll lasts.

  • patrick

    JohnB, who said rabid bike activist or Green party member?

    I said “regularly commutes by bike and somebody who doesn’t own a car”

  • JohnB


    Yes, you’re right, you didn’t. But others did.


    I’m not trolling although I’m not sure you’re not. I’m outlining my vision for how to select a Board that is required to run an enterprise with a turnover of close to a billion dollars a year.

    It’s not clear to me how someone who is a highly partisan narrowly-focused activist is the best person to run a very difficult and complex business. And it’s not like those types don’t get heard plenty anyway.

  • Erik

    The people on the board aren’t expected to “run” the system; they hire (more or less) qualified people to make day-to-day operating decision. The board votes on overall policy decisions and not everyone voting needs to be an expert on running a transit agency to make an informed vote.

  • JohnB – are you just trying to get rid of the MUNI rider requirement because you don’t ride MUNI and want to be on the board?

    Nat Ford and Co. bring proposals to the board. The board approves them. Having someone like Greg DeWar for example, who has encyclopedic knowledge of the MUNI lines would be able to smell a screwup in the MUNI staff’s plans immediately – as in “If you re-route it like that, people will abandon that line completely and use blah other line because that one extra block walk is up a 24% grade.”

    For example – “A huge number of people who ride the 30/45 transfer at Powell to MUNI-metro or BART, and very few take it to Caltrain. Central Subway will not connect at Powell. FAIL”.

  • Joseph


    I agree with you that we don’t necessarily need people with experience running transportation systems on the MTA board. However, I do believe strongly that we need people on the board with operational experience running a successful company, organization, nonprofit…whatever. Muni faces serious problems right now and I want not only a transit-rider/pedestrian/bike commuter who feels similar to me, but someone who has shown excellent judgment, strategy and critical thinking skills in the context of whatever organization they have had leadership roles within.

  • JohnB


    I’m not sure we want the nerdy trainspotter type on the Board, any more than I’d want a planespotter running United Airlines.

    As Joseph eloquently states, we want someone with a strong business sense and a pragmatic leadership ability. People who are a little too fascinated with the Number 30/45 interchange might not be the best choice. They have operation staff to know that stuff.

  • @Joseph and JohnB, then what is Nat Ford?

  • The board has SEVEN members. Are you saying we need SEVEN people “with a strong business sense and a pragmatic leadership ability”, because with only SIX of those, we’re screwed?

  • Andy Chow

    I think it is imperative that people who are tasked to govern the agency to use its services on a regular basis. Board of Directors make policy decisions and provide continual feedback to the CEO. CEO is charged to provide fair and professional evaluation of the ideas requested.

    Too often transit agency directors have interest somewhere else, and are willing to dedicate limited transit resources on ribbon-cutting type projects. If you don’t ride 30 or the 45, how could you know that the Central Subway/Market Street connection sucks? If you don’t know it sucks, then you will never understand why there are many transit supporters advocate against that project.

    Some of the staff know about the operational constraints of various routes, but will not be able to push for effective change when the board members don’t get the issue and don’t care.

  • JohnB


    Are you saying we only need 6 sensible business types and so the 7th spot can go to a trainspotter because it doesn’t really matter anyway? Your point is lost on me.


    Yes, these folks should be made to ride Muni regularly.

  • Joseph

    Hey now.

    I just want a combination of pro-rider fervor and decision-making prowess at the top of the MTA organization. In all board members.

    I want smart, independent people untethered by politics.

    To know whether a potential board member will be like this, it is necessary to look at their judgement and critical thinking skills in times of crisis when they have had to make hard decisions.

    Nat Ford hasn’t exactly shown me excellent decision-making skills, judgement, or critical thinking. As far as I can tell he has little backbone when politics enters the game.

  • I am saying at least one spot should go to someone who uses the systems and can spot proposals that will be DOA ahead of time. Assuming this person worked with MTA staff, there would be huge benefits.

    The recent budget proposal included a $5 fare on the F line. The MTA staff seemed to think this was a pretty good idea otherwise it would not have landed in the budget proposal. It was universally decried by the public and was the primary topic in 3 hours of public comment at the MTA Board meeting. Why? Because it was a stupid idea.

    This idea was lambasted in public comment because it was publicized before the meeting. Someone who understands the system (and the sentiments of the public) could have nipped this one in the bud before it even got that far, this saving 1000’s of man hours of listening to people drone on about what a stupid idea that was. Apparently nobody on the current board had that capability.

    Any sensible business person would want to save those man hours. Even if you think “the public’s” man hours are worthless, there were at least 20 MTA board members and staffers at that meeting.

    Granted if that wasn’t on the proposal a lot of those people would have found something else to bitch about (insert conspiracy theory that the businessmen are so smart that they threw in a dead horse issue to distract joe public)

  • @Joseph, see my previous comment on Ford.

  • heh! Streetsblog automatically “deletes” the phrase !!! See, it’s not there!

  • how about

  • JohnB


    Sure, I get that.

    In fact, the Transit Board in Oakland came up with the great idea of extending meter hours there (everyone here loves that, right?) and there was a near riot by the people of Oakland whereupon the decision was immediately reversed.

    Clearly it would have been better if their Board has been more understanding of the mood of the people. I agree. I’m just not sure the average transit activist understands the mood of the average SF resident, if Oakland’s experience is anything to go by.

  • JohnB, that is a horrible example. SFMTA did a very extensive study and only wants to increase meter hrs in certain neighborhoods and mostly for the purpose of creating turn over and having 80% (could be 85%) occupancy rate which is optimal for getting people to come and find parking. Also, and most importantly, the SFMTA only wants to do this within limited commercial districts.

    Oakland on the other hand, did no such study and was increases parking meter hrs and rates CITY WIDE for the sole purpose of revenue.

    Oakland really did SF a disservice. If they wouldn’t have had that half-assed idea (especially a couple months before SFMTA’s study came out) then Newsom would have never freaked out nearly as much.

    Might want to look into the SFMTA’s study, it was really well done.

  • JohnB


    You may well be right about that.

    But my point goes to the idea that you want Board members who have their ears to the ground. And not just listening to their own constituency but also to the silent majority.

    And that takes a broad sensitivity to the people and not a narrow interest.

  • There you go with the “Silent Majority”. If they are the majority why don’t they speak up? Occams razor – if nobody hears them it’s probably because they don’t exist.

  • Or maybe the silent majority just needs to be educated.

  • Erik

    We prefer to think of them as unindoctrinated.

  • You are right Erik because the car kool-aid hasn’t been the drink of choice since the 1920s.


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