Should the Mayor Sack Director Reiskin?

She'd need the SFMTA Board to actually do it, but Mayor Breed sets stage for Reiskin's ouster

SFMTA's Ed Reiskin, during happier times, getting a shoe shine at the new Salesforce Transit Center on Aug. 13., during lunch hour.  Shortly after that, the center was closed due to cracked beams. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
SFMTA's Ed Reiskin, during happier times, getting a shoe shine at the new Salesforce Transit Center on Aug. 13., during lunch hour. Shortly after that, the center was closed due to cracked beams. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

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Mayor London Breed has written a warning letter to SFMTA director Ed Reiskin, setting the stage for his potential dismissal, reports the San Francisco Examiner and the Chronicle.

From the letterposted online by the Examiner:

Dear Director Reiskin:

In the weeks since I took the mayoral oath of office, a number of challenges have come to light related to the SFMTA and Muni service. Perhaps most significant are service reductions that should have been anticipated and mitigated. But I am also seriously concerned about the lack of background checks performed on major construction contractors and an opaque process to select scooter pilot permit recipients.

Mayor Breed is talking about a lack of background checks because of Patrick Ricketts, a construction worker who was killed working in the Twin Peaks Tunnel. As reported in the ExaminerShimmick Construction, the contractor hired to work on the Twin Peaks tunnel retrofit, had a history of safety violations.

The agency has also come under criticism for ongoing delays in issuing scooter permits. The mayor goes on to write that “Without a dependable bus and rail system, people will choose private cars. This undermines our climate and sustainability goals and exacerbates our congestion issues. I have communicated to the SFMTA Board of Directors that I want to see significant improvements in Muni service, and in fact, in all facets of the SFMTA.”

“The SFMTA’s budget grew by $60 million last year, so I expect that conditions will improve in the very nearterm future,” she added in the letter. “To hold the SFMTA accountable, I will be tracking the Controller’s Transportation City Scorecards. The Controller monitors twelve metrics, from on-time performance to traffic congestion, and I expect to see improvement across the board.”

The advocacy community was pleased to see the mayor’s letter.

“It is encouraging to hear our mayor speaking up for the 350,000 people who rely on Muni every day,” wrote the San Francisco Transit Riders director, Rachel Hyden, in an email to Streetsblog. “She hit the nail on the head – when people can’t depend on Muni, they are forced to make less sustainable options to get around. Pulling runs and stranding riders is the perfect recipe for losing people’s trust.”

Bike advocates were also supportive of Breed’s tough stance. “We’re glad to read that Mayor Breed agrees with our members that protected bike lanes need to be delivered faster, and we will continue to hold the SFMTA accountable to ensure that happens,” wrote Rachel Dearborn, Interim Communications Director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, in an email to Streetsblog. Another bike and safety advocate close to the goings on in City Hall and the SFMTA emailed Streetsblog some more strongly worded comments (on condition of anonymity): “The SFMTA’s flip flops on projects from Upper Market, to Turk Street, to Townsend have revealed inept and spineless leadership.” Many advocates hold Reiskin personally responsible for delays because, they say, he failed to stand up to San Francisco fire department officials who attempted to block projects over access and response time concerns that were widely seen as unsupported and parochial.

Walk San Francisco declined to comment on the letter.

At today’s SFMTA Board of Directors meeting, Reiskin accepted responsibility for gaps in Muni service, which he attributed to the demands of providing replacement bus service for the summer Twin Peaks tunnel subway closure, getting the new light rail cars ready, and delays in training new drivers. But he conceded that all of these challenges were known in advance and that “we could have done a better job” at making sure impacts on bus services and staffing levels were minimized. “I fully accept responsibility.”

“We look forward to SFMTA finding real solutions to the seemingly chronic issue of operator shortages,” concluded Hyden. The advocate who commented anonymously added that past SF mayors haven’t pushed hard enough to bring bike, safety and transit improvements and that “Replacing Reiskin would be a real test for Mayor Breed that a lot of people will watch very closely.”

Reiskin started the job in the summer of 2011, after coming over from SF Department of Public Works. At the time, he was called by this publication a “bicyclist and Muni rider, widely respected by staff, supervisors and transit advocates.”

“I want to acknowledge there’s been a lot of frustration from the riders and the public,” added Reiskin at today’s Board meeting. “We will redouble our efforts… to be better serving the people of the city.”

What have you thought of Reiskin’s tenure? Where has he shown strength and where has he failed? And should he be shown to the door? Post your thoughts below.

  • helloandyhihi

    There is no vision to make Muni fast and reliable.

    Despite the Muni Forward program under Reskin’s leadership, Muni buses and trains continue to show up on-time only about half the time.

    Critical projects like Better Market Street and Geary & Van Ness Bus Rapid continue to languish under his leadership.

    And every time Muni’s own planners propose measures that would help improve transportation in the city, the agency cowers to every single supervisor who gets a few calls from cranky neighbors who never want anything to change. (Last week’s example: removing traffic circles that were already installed.)

    Even simple things haven’t gotten done, like incorporating an etiquette ad campaign, which was needed before people started blaring music and speakerphone conversations.

    That’s a pathetic record. Without a citywide vision, every improvement is an incremental stab in the dark at that everybody just kinda sorta hopes will help a little bit. As another prolific internet commenter would write: WEAK.

    PS: Remember SFTR’s long-faded 30×30 plan to push the city to make the entire city accessible within 30 minutes by 2030? Why doesn’t the mayor push that?

  • twinpeaks_sf

    In one direction, the electeds say “move faster”; in the other, they yell “go back and do moar outreach” . . .

  • Michael Smith

    It is unfortunate that while most of the road blocks to creating better transportation are due to city hall, yet the SFMTA gets blamed. Every good improvement is interfered with by either the supervisors or the mayor. Look at the transit lanes on Mission, which have been a huge success. But they were delayed and watered down because of city hall. Bike share has ground to a halt because of city hall. Sunday meters? Yup, killed because of city hall.

    And do folks really think that the mayor, who never ever rides transit nor rides a bike, except for photo opportunities, is doing this because she wants improvements to transit and biking?

  • david vartanoff

    Reiskin doesn’t push hard enough and the SFMTA board and the BOS don’t support REAL progress. The amount of effort Muni put into the fraud called double berthing is classic. Dumb idea, no point wasting time on it. The actual throughput in the tunnel is shameful yet Muni has done zip to actually fix the problems. Transit signal priority hardware was installed on the Embarcadero 20 years ago-NEVER activated.
    Fire Reiskin? Nah, he is as ineffectual as his bosses want him to be.

  • mx

    Forget Reskin for a second. John Haley needs to go. As SFMTA’s Director of Transit since 2010, he’s been utterly ineffectual at solving the agency’s problems and has presided over the same malaise that has prevented fixes for decades.

    As helloandyhihi so ably notes, plenty of Muni’s issues come down to leadership and political will, but my experience as a rider is that an awful lot comes down to basic operational competence. It takes political will to stand up for a vision and ensure that projects aren’t watered down, yes, but most of what I see trying to get around boils down to a failure to get the basics right:

    Muni needs to get its entire schedule on the streets every day and the staff to get that done. It needs reliable, well-maintained, and clean vehicles. It needs vehicles that aren’t overcrowded. It needs a subway that doesn’t routinely get stuck in “traffic” underground. It needs to address longstanding chokepoints, such as (for Metro) Embarcadero or Duboce. It needs transit signal priority and enforcement of bus-only lanes. It needs service frequencies and headway adherence that make using transit competitive instead of a gamble. It needs clear signage and directions. When things do go wrong, it needs clear communication.

    These are largely not political challenges. They don’t really require flashy new initiatives or billions of dollars in spending or big fights at City Hall. They require getting the basics done right.

    The agency’s failure to be honest with its customers about this summer’s service cuts are really the final straw. They knew this would happen, and they lied, telling riders the construction would only impact the subway. I can’t trust them. If I can’t trust that I’m not likely to be stuck in the subway for 20 minutes or left waiting for a transfer on a cold and foggy sidewalk for 45 minutes, I’m not inclined to choose transit. SFMTA needs to earn back trust, and getting the basics right is step one. The leaders who squandered with lies all the work Muni has done to try to improve need to go.

    Anyway, I’m glad Reiskin found one of the few places to sit at the Transit Center.

  • DrunkEngineer

    In Soviet times, this approach was known as Writing Two Letters:

    “Stalin left Khrushchev two letters. Do not open the first one until things are totally terrible, Krushchev was told, then open the second when you are really despairing. After a failed harvest, Krushchev opened the first letter, it said ‘Blame everything on me…Stalin.’ That’s what Khrushchev did in a major party speech. It worked, for awhile, but the honeymoon was brief and there was another lousy crop harvest. Krushchev opened the second letter, it read: ‘Write two letters….’.

  • David

    As someone who works with SFMTA administrative staff regularly, I have to say that the entire agency is a mess. Severing the head will not eliminate the rot on the body. I would be okay with Reiskin being let go if the useless paper pushers were let go too. For every one useful SFMTA employee I work with, there is one that is either completely ineffective or simply doesn’t do their job. I would be embarrassed to work for such an organization.

  • murphstahoe

    I think if Reiskin was doing what he really wanted, things would be better. I think he has a general idea of what a good transportation system should look like.

    But if feels like he backs down from City Hall, the public, whomever.

    If he wanted to be effective, he’d have to risk getting fired because Peskin was mad at him.

  • 94103er

    I think it’s imperative that this be public knowledge: How many SFMTA employees are actual San Francisco residents? Then we’d have a more realistic sense of how personally invested in getting around town this agency really is.

  • 94103er

    Yes. Re the ‘cranky neighbors’ killing the Fulton traffic circles, that’s the real elephant in the room, isn’t it? Standing up to Baby Boomer car owners to enforce Transit First. Unfortunately, use of our streets *is* a zero-sum proposition. Every concession to car drivers actively screws with transit riders, bike/scooter riders, and pedestrians. It’s the uncomfortable conversation no one in this agency is willing to have even though every single thing going wrong right now points to it.

  • mx

    The governance structure we’ve created makes this inevitable. We have a system where SFMTA is an independent agency, so when it fails, elected officials can say “it’s independent, not our problem” and point to the SFMTA Board (quick: how many members can virtually anyone in this city who doesn’t read this site name?). But when the agency wants anything, it bows down to elected officials who block its plans.

    Nobody is held accountable for the failures, yet everybody feels its their prerogative to block its successes. Works out great if you’re a Supe though.

  • Jim Smithson

    How about doing something totally out of the box? Since most missed shifts occur on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, which would require extra coverage and more overtime hours, why not change the definition of the work week to begin on Friday and end on Thursday? This would allow management to cover outages Friday through Sunday and reschedule operators on routes for Monday through Thursday without getting into overtime. Just a thought.

  • There is no point in showing Mr Reiskin the door unless the city is willing tackle Muni’s real problem of being stuck in traffic. I see no sign the city is willing to do that in a meaningful way. As long as we only pretend to be a transit first city, no Muni director can do more than touch the edges of Muni’s problems. On that, I think he has done better than most.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Would the agency really be able to select contractors based on past safety and accident rates? There are laws about selecting the low bid …

  • Roger R.

    Sounds like a great pitch for a Streetsblog op-ed. Email me if you’re interested.

  • Anita@SFO

    How could you not mention the installation of 3.2 miles of incorrect track for San Francisco’s Central Subway project? The project broke ground in 2010 and has since been riddled by delays. The cost has also exceeded its original $1.6 billion budget by tens of millions!!! And the Van Ness BRT delay and budget overrun?? Has SFMTA ever completed any project on time and within budget?? Private companies like Chariot seem more capable and qualified to run the transit agency.

  • Sean Hussey

    Sounds like it might be better to eliminate the entire agency and start from scratch with new technology, new managers, and new methods.

  • It bothers me to see the SFMTA (or the wrong people in general) get blamed because it’s not just unfair, it’s counter productive.

    The latest Van Ness delay was the result of old sewer infrastructure which has to be dealt with. SFMTA was not responsible for that specific probably, and yelling at them for it doesn’t help, just gets people riled up at the SFMTA, and will likely just translate to stonger opposition to future projects.

    I wish there was a better general understanding that something like Van Ness BRT is a complete rebuild of the street; the modernization of everything underneath that isn’t transit related with the busway being a relatively simple repaving with a slightly different median configuration.

    That way, we could focus our anger on the many, many legitimate problems SFMTA is at fault for and the demands be for things SFMTA could (hypothetically) fix.

  • sebra leaves

    The SFMTA is doing too many things at one time. Finish the ones that are ongoing before starting any new ones.

  • Jason

    Does Chariot provide access for people with disabilities?
    Does Chariot provide service to the Outer Sunset, Bayview or Excelsior?
    Does Chariot provide service during off-peak hours such on weekends or overnight?
    Has Chariot ever built transit infrastructure?

  • Jason

    Before you denigrate people like that, I suggest you take some effort to find out everything that is entailed to make a transportation system function. Have you never made a mistake in your career? Has everyone agreed with every decision you have made?
    You might learn that “useless paper pushers” have actual responsibilities such as budgeting, planning, complying with regulations, implementing complex technical systems, etc. Not to say the SFMTA is perfect, but what public or private organization is?

  • Jason

    I am sure many employees do. But realistically not everyone can afford to live in San Francisco.

  • Jason

    “Little has improved under Reiskin’s leadership.” What about:
    Service has increased 10%, while many other transit agencies have cut service.
    There are new buses and trains.
    SFpark became official policy.
    All-Door Boarding became official policy.
    Red lanes were implemented on Mission, Church, Geary/O’Farrell and Market.
    Portions of the N Judah were reconstructed.
    Bicycle lanes have expanded.

  • Jason

    Transportation projects have long lead times. Shorter projects tend to take at least a couple of years, while longer ones can take decades to plan and implement. Think about everything that is needed to complete a transportation project – community outreach, environmental clearance, land acquisition (if necessary), funding acquisition, procurement, mitigations, etc. That’s all before construction even occurs.

    If San Francisco waited until ongoing projects were completed before starting any new ones, the city would fall even further behind.

  • helloandyhihi

    Bottom line, ridership is declining.

    Few of those things (as executed) translate significant improvements to speed and reliability across the system.

    Too often, there’s an 18-minute wait or more for vehicles with 7-minutes headways.

    Riding Muni is still a crapshoot: You can’t count on it when you really need to get somewhere on-time.

  • Bay Area Dude

    First of all, ridership is not declining. Muni ridership is over 700K a day.

    Secondly, suppose you drove your car, or even rode your bike, everyday from your house to your workplace and you left at exactly the same time everyday. Do you think you would arrive at your destination every single day at exactly the same time?

    Now imagine you are driving a bus or rail vehicle – in a city that has grown by leaps and bounds. You have to pick up passengers. One one day, everyone gets on quickly and there are no big issues. On another day, there are two wheelchairs, a group of schoolkids on a field trip, and some seniors who take a little bit more time getting on and off the bus. Now there are a bunch of Ubers and Lyfts making U-turns ahead of you to pick up some people who just moved into new condos. And some driver has blocked the intersection so you miss a light cycle.

    It’s called variability. Yes, red lanes and priority help and that’s what we all want. And in an ideal world, everything would run perfectly. But even a system like BART which has its own trackway has delays.

  • mx

    Your defenses are getting ridiculous. Replacing rail and buses are not “improvements”; they’re necessary steps to preserve the status quo and keep things from literally falling apart. They’re good things that need to get done. Maintenance is a baseline part of the job, not a special accomplishment.

    We all know that Muni will never have perfect on-time performance. Of course. Things happen. But the issues riders see aren’t happening because some seniors needed an
    extra minute to get on the bus or someone made an illegal U-turn. We’re living with a situation where some lines have seen unannounced service cuts of up to 33% this summer. This agency’s leadership was dishonest. Not only did they fail to mitigate the problem, they failed to tell us it was happening so we could do our best to plan around it. Now you tell me it’s “unreasonable” to expect not to be treated this way?

    For transit, reliability isn’t just about sometimes having to wait longer. The feeling that I can’t rely on the service means that I’m not inclined to take transit even when the wait time turns out to be short, because I can’t plan around unreliable service. Once trust is lost (and leaving people standing on cold and damp street corners for 45 minutes is a pretty quick route to losing it), it’s hard to regain. I don’t see why cutting service and keeping it a secret shouldn’t be a firing offense.

  • Bay Area Dude

    Like you, I’ve also been frustrated – there are certainly things that could be done better. And I absolutely agree that no one wants to be put in a situation of having to wait an overly long time for a bus, which could result in lost ridership.

    You have a lot of great ideas and obviously care a lot about making transit better. With these ideas, undoubtedly you would be terrific at implementing them and fixing what’s ailing Muni – and with your approach to delivering constructive criticism and acknowledging the importance of baseline work, I am sure you would be exceptional at inspiring employees to do much better jobs.

    Why don’t you apply for a job at SFMTA?

  • crazyvag

    We need a formula that is approved city wide for protected bike lanes that is discussed and approved once and then applied equally everywhere. Do we do studies for every single wheelchair ramp at the curb? Have meetings whether one ramp shared between two crosswalks or have two separate ones? Nope. We have a cookbook and use it based on data and conditions.

    Same needs to be true for bike lanes.

  • uniblab_2.0

    The mayor has about a year to “solve” a Big Problem if she wants to get re-elected. Sacking Ed would be easy and in the City of Feelings, make people FEEL something is going to change.

    People who like transit will FEEL things will get better with Someone Else, people who HATE transit will FEEL things will get better because they won’t be putting in a bus lane somewhere. EVERYONE WILL FEEL GOOD YAY MAYOR GOOD FEELINGS BETTER!

    None of this means anything will ACTUALLY get better for those who want to see a functional city transit system, but in the City of Feelings, that’s irrelevant.

  • uniblab_2.0

    this concern about “feelings” overrides rational discussion of the agency’s shortcomings, which directly affect the lives of the people who pay for it.

  • Bay Area Dude

    We can absolutely have a rational discussion of the agency’s shortcomings without resorting to hyperbole and name-calling.

    But do you think that declaring the “entire agency is a mess” and trashing employees as “useless paper pushers” is a constructive way to start that discussion? Do you think it’s accurate to make such sweeping generalizations?

    Sure, there are many ways that SFMTA can improve, and I think there are many lessons that can be learned from what’s happened recently. But in any business, and especially in public-facing one like transit, it’s hard to see how denigrating all employees contributes to a better outcome. Do you think you would go the extra mile if if people called you and of all of your peers “useless”?


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