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
The supervisors were trying to make the transportation system “free from political
interference,” according to the supervisors’ argument in the Voter Information
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
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
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.
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
• 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
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.
Paul Kozakiewicz is the publisher of the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon