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What Now/Who Now, SFMTA?

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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SFMTA's Director, Ed Reiskin, will be out this August.

"Today I sent a letter to the MTA Board of Directors asking for new leadership for the agency," said Mayor London Breed at a press conference yesterday afternoon. "I do think it's important that we demonstrate with action that we plan to make serious changes to make sure that we can regain the public's trust."

Rumblings of Reiskin's dismissal began almost a year ago, when the Mayor sent him a strongly-worded letter about bus service reductions during the retrofit of the Twin Peaks tunnel and the death of a construction worker. Mission Local did a great accounting of all the cock-ups that finally resulted in his ouster.

So what now? Seamless Bay Area's Beaudry Kock had this insight in an email to Streetsblog:

The SFMTA is effectively an agency in crisis, and an interesting model for restructuring the leadership of an agency in crisis comes from the MBTA in Boston, where I spent a bit of time a couple of years ago. In the wake of the agency’s total meltdown, Massachusetts created a temporary governing board that was leaner and meaner than its bloated and politicized predecessor, gave it limited time but also new resources, then stacked the top ranks of the agency with highly capable and passionate individuals from a diverse background

Kock also made the point in yesterday's post, even before knowing that Reiskin was on his way out, that sacking SFMTA leadership alone is pointless because politics will keep real reformers far away. “No Andy Byford-type is going to take Ed Reiskin’s job (no matter how much that might be needed) given the headwind the Muni leadership has to fight to get things done," he said.

At the MBTA, and instinct tells me at the SFTMA, there will be an important balance to be struck between doing things that look and feel good to the customer (hence the importance of actually having a customer technology team), and things that address structural problems within the agency (reforms to things like HR, procurement, maintenance, asset management, rail ops, etc). Achieving this balance cannot be done simply by hiring a new director and expecting them to carry the weight of reform. Andy Byford’s experience at the MTA in NYC is a sad example of what happens (or rather, what doesn’t) when even a once-in-a-generation transit leader is inserted into an agency without much else changing structurally or politically.

The San Francisco Transit Riders, in a prepared statement about his departure, agreed that his replacement will need the full, real support of lawmakers:

We are also clear that no one person is responsible for delivering excellent public transit in San Francisco. We are heartened by the initiative Mayor Breed has taken in pushing for a search for a visionary leader, and her steps to hold the agency to account for its failures. The MTA Board has its role in oversight, to ensure projects improve public transit, and to hold SFMTA staff to account when there are failures. The Board of Supervisors needs to be principled in its support of our transit first policy, which can mean compromises in their districts as we realize the benefits of a robust public transit system that serves all communities.

From Streetsblog's view, these comments kind of sum it up. It doesn't matter who gets hired, if lawmakers aren't committed to the fight, not much is likely to change. As New York's Janette Sadik-Khan has stated many times, she couldn't have accomplished New York's street changes without the full support of Mayor Bloomberg.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, of course, also has a huge stake in the pick for the next director. The SFBC's Brian Wiedenmeier had this to say:

San Francisco deserves a Director of Transportation who is both bold and pragmatic--they must champion sustainability and transform San Francisco into a truly transit-first city while cutting the red tape to bring needed improvements to our streets faster. We’ve waited too long for protected bike lanes and other street safety infrastructure under past leadership, and have paid the price in human life. Achieving Vision Zero must be a core focus for the next head of the SFMTA.

In other words, we also need someone who understand's the importance of robust, protected bike lanes and infrastructure. Readers will recall that in 2016, when two cyclists were killed in different parts of the city on the same night, Reiskin said to the Examiner that “the best bike infrastructure in the world would not have prevented these collisions.”

This comment was a clear tell: Reiskin never really got bike infrastructure. I've spoken with him on a few occasions, and I never forgot on one Bike to Work Day when he told me how he thought bike infrastructure was fine and he felt safe. I guess everything is relative, but I can't imagine anyone with substantial experience overseas saying something like that about San Francisco's streets.

One would hope, in fact, that whoever the SFMTA hires will either literally have a Dutch or Scandinavian accent, or will have spent a good deal of time overseas. That will be important for managing Muni too--since we need someone who will have high expectations of San Francisco's bus and rail system and hold them to a world-class standard. And it sure helps to have lived overseas in order to fully appreciate what that means.

San Francisco deserves an SFMTA leader who doesn't think paint and plastic straws are infrastructure. And someone who gets that when a wire falls down on one track, you still run trains on the other track.

Either way, it seems clear that hiring a local bureaucrat from another agency probably won't work; that's how we got Reiskin.

One the other hand, Muni has been so broken for so long, it's hard to imagine who's really going to be tough and savvy enough to make it work like it should.

A final thought from Walk San Francisco's Jodie Medeiros:

We need the next SFMTA Director to both ascend local politics and carry forth a bold vision within the agency to make this happen. We need someone who will put San Francisco’s Vision Zero commitment and Transit-First Policy at the heart of everything SFMTA does. And we need someone who sees that San Francisco’s future as a healthy, equitable, climate-friendly, and competitive city depends on a transportation system that puts people first.

What do you think? What qualities do you want to see in a new SFMTA leader? Post your thoughts below.

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