Is the SFMTA Up to the Task?

by Randy Shaw on February 3, 2014

On February 4, the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA) holds its annual retreat and budget workshop. Once primarily identified with MUNI service, the Board is now the lead agency for pedestrian safety, bicycle routes, street and traffic redesigns, BRT’s and the planned revival of Market Street as a car-free, world-class thoroughfare. But adding so many new programs to SFMTA’s to-do list has resulted in lengthy delays in implementation. Since delays are occurring despite SFMTA’s top notch leadership, it’s time to consider a new Department of Pedestrian Safety to lighten SFMTA’s load.

The Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which I head, has worked in San Francisco since 1980 but only in the last decade have we become deeply involved in transit, bicycling, pedestrian safety and other issues controlled by the SFMTA. Our increased interest is common throughout the city. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition now has 12,000 members, there is a multi-city website, Streetsblog, advocating for pedestrian and bike friendly streets, and only the city’s housing crisis triggers the level of civic engagement as transit and streetscape issues.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, activists only dealt with the city’s transit agency to battle fare increases and demand improved MUNI service. Today, thousands feel personally connected to SFMTA decisions on bus routes, bike paths, street redesigns, and a long list of pedestrian safety issues.

A single agency is responsible for not only deciding transit policy questions, but also for taking the lead in implementing them. And considering the nine years it will take for the Tenderloin-Little Saigon traffic calming plan to be implemented (2007-2016)—-the conversion of Ellis and Eddy streets to one-way streets in the 1950’s happened immediately but returning them to their historic two-way flow now takes nearly a decade—delays in implementing even the most popular transit plans are likely.

Overloading SFMTA?

Mayor Ed Lee is often described as the “administrator” mayor. Having spent two decades getting things done in San Francisco, his three strongest appointments have been administrative: Mohammed Nuru at DPW, Naomi Kelly as City Administrator, and Ed Reiskin at SFMTA.

Ed Reiskin is the highest regarded transit chief in modern San Francisco history. And while I have had differences with him over delays in implementation, if he can’t get SFMTA to expedite implementation, the problem is institutional.

The extent of SFMTA’s huge agenda will be on display at its February 4 Board meeting (9am at 2640 Geary Blvd. Training Rooms C, D and E). The Board will address critical issues impacting San Francisco’s future.

Will the SFMTA, which currently spends less than 3% on pedestrian and bicycling safety, dramatically raise these percentages? Based on the public turnouts and political support for Vision Zero, this decision should be obvious.

Equally obvious is the need to begin Market Street’s transformation into a bicycle and pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare. Board of Supervisors President David Chiu introduced a resolution on this last week, which reaffirms a prior Board resolution from 2011.

So let’s assume the SFMTA Board does the right thing and moves forward on both Vision Zero and a car-free Market Street. When these projects are added to new bike lanes in other neighborhoods, the Van Ness and Geary BRT’s, street redesigns for traffic calming, various parklets and bulb outs, new bus routes and smaller projects like removing bus shelters taken over by drug dealers, the challenge of one agency managing all these projects is unprecedented in the city’s history.

And given track record of delays, do we even need a single agency to control such diverse issues?

A Department of Pedestrian Safety

Given all the new tasks assigned to an agency that still must make sure MUNI runs on time, activists should consider a charter amendment for 2016 to create a new Department of Pedestrian Safety. SFMTA staff currently working in this area would be transferred to the new department, which would be overseen by a Commission.

While such a plan will strike some as simply adding a new government bureaucracy, it would instead shift existing personnel so that existing city services impacting pedestrian safety are far more effective.

In 1993, fed up with over a decade of inept housing code enforcement and permit processing at a Bureau of Building Inspection controlled by a then Chief Administrative Officer, I wrote a ballot measure for the November 1994 election creating a new Department of Building Inspection.

In its first year of operation in 1995, the city’s housing code enforcement process went from one of the worst in the nation to the best. Permit processing became much more consumer friendly. And for those who claimed that government costs would increase by creating a new city department, DBI has had a budget surplus for most of its history.

DBI, like any private or public entity run by fallible human beings, is not perfect and makes mistakes. A new Department of Pedestrian Safety will also make errors, but its scale, focus, and greater identification with the underlying problem would almost certainly expedite pedestrian safety projects.

Continuing to throw new responsibilities on an SFMTA only tangentially related to its core mission of improving bus service is a blueprint for further delays. And given the urgency for making Market Street more pedestrian and bike-friendly, and for taking action to eliminate pedestrian fatalities, it’s time for activists and our political leaders to start looking at institutional changes to address this problem.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.

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