Richmond District

Transportation Madness

Commentary

Paul Kozakiewicz

 

Lately, I have been wondering why the city’s transportation agency has been running

roughshod over merchants and local residents across town, and acting in total disregard

for the wishes of most San Francisco residents.

 

Whether it’s the Geary Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), or the L Taraval streetcar line, the public

and local merchants are ignored as being minor disruptions to the agency’s self-

proclaimed higher ideals.

 

The SF Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) has created a scorched-earth policy,

destroying or hurting businesses on Third, Mission, Taraval and Irving streets and

Van Ness Avenue. It refuses to conduct economic impact studies before closing and

tearing up streets just to shave a minute or two off bus and streetcar times. It ignores

the pleas of seniors, people trying to raise a family, and anyone else who stands

in its way.

 

And it is beyond the reach of voters and elected officials.

 

The SFMTA was granted special SF Charter status, and divorced from oversight by

elected public officials, in 1999. I bet most of the people reading this column have no idea

who is running one of the largest departments in the City, with almost 5,000 employees

and an annual budget of $1 billion.

 

The story of how we got to where we are today is ugly.

 

Mayor, supervisors abdicate transportation responsibilities

With SF Mayor Willie Brown’s support, the SF Board of Supervisors put Proposition E

on the ballot in 1999, a plan to consolidate the Public Transportation Commission, Taxi

Commission and Municipal Railway (Muni) to create a new SF Municipal Transportation

Agency (SFMTA).

 

The supervisors were trying to make the transportation system “free from political

interference,” according to the supervisors’ argument in the Voter Information

Pamphlet.

 

Voters approved the measure by a 61-39 percent margin, creating a brand new

organization that was removed from the supervision of the mayor and board of

supervisors. The mayor appoints the seven members of the SFMTA board to four-year

terms and the board of supervisors confirms them. The members can only be

removed from the post for “just cause” reasons.

 

The board hires an operations director to run the organization, which is a contract

position. The current operations director is Ed Reiskin, who worked his way

up through the local ranks.

 

Who is running the SFMTA?

Prop. E is seven pages long, with mostly additions and a lot of deletions of the old laws.

It is specific, however, on who should run this massive super-agency.

 

“At least four of the directors must be regular riders of the Municipal Railway,

and must continue to be regular riders during their terms. The directors must

possess significant knowledge of, or professional experience in, one or more of

the fields of government, finance or labor relations. At least two of the directors

must possess significant knowledge of, or professional experience in, the field of

transportation.”

 

Currently, it appears as if none of the seven members of the board of directors,

or the operations director, have much experience in transportation. They are mostly

political insiders whose experience is working within government in some limited

capacity.

 

The directors of the SFMTA are Cheryl Brinkman (chair), Malcolm Heinicke,

Gwyneth Bordon, Lee Hsu, Joel Ramos, Christina Rubke and Art Torres. Their

biographies are available at the SFMTA’s website at http://www.sfmta.org.

 

While the world is moving toward self-driving vehicles, Reiskin’s department

is putting up as many roadblocks as possible to the smooth and efficient flow

of vehicular traffic. It’s difficult for a human to negotiate around town, imagine

what a computer might encounter.

 

Reiskin might be a good manager and a nice guy, but I’d rather have someone

with transportation experience at the helm.

 

Considering Reiskin testified recently that he did not foresee the onslaught of

Uber and Lyft drivers invading the City, it does not surprise me that he doesn’t

want to admit he was culpable in a reduction of his transit service’s ridership. (The

SF Public Utilities Commission regulates Uber and Lyft vehicles. Go figure.)

 

I think running a large transportation conglomerate is above Reiskin’s pay

grade. And, the board of directors running this important show are political appointees,

mostly with expertise in subjects other than transportation. It boggles the mind.

 

And the city’s taxi industry has not fared well under the SFMTA’s oversight.

Many long-time drivers were sold “medallions” to operate a cab in the City for $250,000.

Those drivers, many of whom are still paying a mortgage for the medallions, are now

holding a near-worthless piece of tin. The medallions used to be free for drivers, but that

practice was changed so the SFMTA could make money. Now, many of the city’s

taxi drivers are on the hook for a loan they cannot afford to pay back. The SFMTA

ignores their pleas for relief or compensation.

 

The aftermath

Here we are, 17 years after the passage of Prop. E, and the SFMTA is a monster

of its own creation.

 

The development of the Geary BRT would be funny, except for it being real. I’ve

documented the Geary BRT story exhaustively since late 2006, when I spent

my Christmas vacation trying to figure out why the SFMTA was coming into the

neighborhood talking about a “voter mandate” to build a Geary BRT, which was

never wanted by most of the people who work and live in the district.

 

A quick recap of the story:

• The committee drafting Prop. K on behalf of the SF County Transportation

Authority for the November 2005 ballot added one sentence late in the drafting

process to a 10-page transportation bill that called for a Geary BRT plan to run

from the Outer Richmond to Gough Street, and be light-rail ready. The committee

recommended proponents avoid the Richmond lest they be asked about it;

 

• The SFMTA, which took over responsibility for constructing the Geary

BRT project, came up with three alternatives to be included in an Environmental

Impact Study (EIS). One plan would run along the curbside lanes of Geary (which

San Francisco streetcars currently do not do); one would have a single boarding island

in the middle of the boulevard, which would require buying a new fleet of

buses with left-side doors; and, the SFMTA’s “recommended” plan to put the buses

in the center of the boulevard so they would have dedicated lanes to improve

transit times;

 

• While the environmental study is in progress, SFMTA planners created a “hybrid”

plan, which slashes the commitment to dedicated center lanes for most of the

route by creating curb-side lanes painted red. The hybrid plan was created primarily

because of increasing costs and difficult planning to modify the tunnel at

Geary and Masonic and the low-lying roadway at Fillmore Street. Slashing

those expenses and going to painted lanes keeps the project price in the SFMTA’s

proposed $300 million range.

 

With the hybrid BRT plan, service will run in the curbside lanes on Geary between

36th and 27th avenues, where the buses would cross from the curbside lanes

into the middle of the boulevard to Arguello Boulevard, and then transition

again from the middle lanes to the curbside lanes between Palm Avenue and

Gough Street. When buses are in the curbside lanes, they will be in a traffic

lane painted red and reserved only for Muni vehicles and vehicles exiting Geary.

 

When buses are in the center traffic lanes, between 26th Avenue and Arguello, the

#38-Geary Rapid bus service will be suspended because rapid buses can’t pass local

buses in that stretch;

 

• After release of the Geary BRT environmental study, the SFMTA held a public

hearing at St. Mary’s Cathedral. The public could voice its comments and concerns

about the plan, but only to several “court reporters” sitting in the back of room quietly

transcribing comments. That is the SFMTA’s idea of a public hearing. Let only the SFMTA

be heard and don’t let that meddlesome public catch wind of each other’s concerns. They

turned protocol for the centuries-old public hearing into an assault on the First

Amendment of the U.S. Constitution;

 

• Representatives of the SFMTA refused the request of local merchants to include

an economic impact statement in the Geary BRT’s environmental report;

 

• The SFMTA is already, through its Transit Effectiveness Project, modernizing and

improving the #38-Geary bus line. It is giving buses traffic signal priority,

constructing bulb-outs to keep buses in their traffic lanes while stopped for passengers,

and reducing stops along the route. Most of the proposed time savings from the BRT plan

are coming from these measures, and the BRT plan should be reevaluated once all of

these improvements are instituted before giving the OK for “phase 2.”

 

The second phase would tear up Geary, hurt local businesses, remove left-hand turns,

remove parking spaces and increase traffic on all other Richmond streets.

 

Non-profit challenges SFMTA

The SFMTA is not a good public institution to deal with. That’s why a group of concerned

west side residents and merchants joined together to create the nonprofit organization

SF Sensible Transit.

 

Members of the organization tried for months to negotiate with representatives

of the SFMTA, but to no avail. Finally, in desperation, they filed a lawsuit to stop

implementation of “phase 2” of the Geary BRT.

 

Money has been raised, a law firm hired and a lawsuit is in progress. As a local

resident, I joined Sensible Transit and made a financial donation. But, here’s one thing

you have to deal with when fighting City Hall: Because the city attorney’s office handles

lawsuits for city agencies, it is representing the SFMTA.

 

Last month, the city attorney’s office sent a $50,000 bill to Sensible Transit for

the production of 200,000 documents. It is a common legal tactic, to try to delay

the case and bankrupt the opposition.

 

Lawyers for Sensible Transit are appealing to the judge in the case for a narrowing

of the document search. That many documents is probably a million or more

pages … I wonder what they cost to produce?

 

So, with the city attorney’s office putting a gun to our head, and needing more money for

the lawsuit, I’m asking for your support.

 

We all want to improve public transportation. But the Geary BRT plan is flawed beyond

repair.

 

Please join Sensible Transit or make a donation in care of:

San Franciscans for Sensible Transit,

P.O. Box 210119, SF, CA 94121.

Or, go to the website at www.sfsensibletransit.org.

 

It’s for all the right reasons.

 

Thank you.

 

Paul Kozakiewicz is the publisher of the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon

newspapers.

 

READ MORE: Political muscle and dealmaking got Prop. E passed

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