An Open Letter to SFMTA Director

Dear Ed…

Thanks for attending and joining in at the September 29th Transportation Forum. Your participation was clearly appreciated. The outline below was what BATWG had expected to present at the Forum. The proposals reflect some of what’s needed to strengthen the SFMTA and improve the City’s response to its overall transportation problem. We hope they are of use:

A. The SFMTA Board

Granting the MTA immunity from day-to-day political influences (through SF Prop E adopted in 1999 and SF Prop A adopted in 2007) was probably a good idea. However 4-year terms for appointed local officials is too long. The elected Mayor and Supervisors should be able to intercede when necessary every two years. The terms of the MTA  Board members should be reduced from 4 years to 2. Being an MTA Board member is a difficult and demanding job. All seven members of the MTA Board must therefore be strong and committed individuals.

B. The SFMTA Executive Director

The MTA needs a management team comprised of at least a dozen qualified and committed managers. In my time with the SFPUC I learned about how difficult things could be when a subordinate didn’t perform. One of the past top City managers, anticipating this problem, brought in a whole team of strong and loyal lieutenants with him to help run his large agency. In addition he was quick to bypass anyone, no matter how high up, who he thought was in the way or failing to pull his or her own weight. These actions, while sometimes rude and disruptive, improved the morale of those at the working levels and gave this manager a better understanding of how the organization functioned. When he found strong performers he was quick to promote them. When he found managers who weren’t keeping up or were otherwise troublesome he removed them from their positions of influence, causing some of them to resign or retire. When there are deficiencies in the second and third tier management levels, the top executive gets spread too thin. A 6,000 person organization requires constant attention from a strong and well-organized management team.


Click SFMTA Organizational Chart to see larger image

C. CCSF/MTA Policy and Organizational Challenges

1. Today three separate City departments share responsibility for dealing with San Francisco’s citywide transportation condition. This is not working. Without much experience in transportation the Department of City Planning (DCP) often makes decisions and choices that undermine the City’s transportation systems. The SF County Transportation Authority’s (CTA’s) function used to be limited to administering and overseeing sales tax expenditures and acting as San Francisco’s Congestion Management Agency. However, over the years the CTA’s role has expanded to the point where it now duplicates many MTA functions. Instead of this loose confederation of agencies, the MTA, with the concurrence of SF’s elected officials, should form a group of highly experienced individuals able to analyze and respond to San Francisco’s overall transportation condition for a protracted period of time. The group’s membership could include three representatives from the MTA (with participation by MTA specialists available when necessary), one representative from the CTA, one from the DCP and at least 5 outside experts.

2. Having no central “think tank” committed to addressing San Francisco’s overall transportation condition in a coordinated manner, the MTA is perceived as being pulled in all directions by outside pressure groups. Whether or not this perception is accurate, the underlying need is develop a logical and well understood set of citywide objectives, and then the plan needed to implement them. The plan should include a clearly-stated set of Muni performance goals, including successfully increasing Muni ridership goals to be met by  2020, 2025 and 2030.

3. The large amount of suburban traffic entering San Francisco is a very big problem in need of attention.

  • The much heralded second rail tube is 40 to 60 years away and BART is running out of carrying capacity. For this reason AC Transit has to get better and the Dumbarton transbay rail shuttle has to get built. CCSF should use its political clout to pressure MTC and the other players to do whatever’s necessary to reduce regional congestion.
  • For a variety of reasons it’s time to bring the Caltrain trains downtown. The City and County of San Francisco (CCSF) should be pointedly reminding MTC that the Caltrain extension is an important regional project deserving of a high degree of regional leadership. As far as funding is concerned CCSF, the Peninsula JPB and MTC should together be asking the large hi-tech firms and benefiting West Bay moguls to kick in.

4. The MTA’s management of its capital project program is weak. In the case of the Central Subway there is an immediate need for a smart, vigorous outside construction management firm to take over and resolve the multitude of outstanding problems.

5. Too much is happening at the MTA all at once. This requires too many MTA planners and two many project managers. Moreover it often leads to serious conceptual and strategic mistakes. Forty years ago the streets almost never changed and yet the average 24-hour speed of a Muni transit vehicle was 15% higher than it is today.

6. Transit First. There’s been some recent progress, but the days when it was ok for busloads and trainloads of people to get bogged down in mixed-flow gridlock are over. Top priority should be given to increasing the carrying capacity of the underutilized Market Street Subway and getting all transit vehicles out of traffic congestion..

7. Control over city streets is a CCSF issue, not a State of California issue. San Francisco’s large Sacramento delegation should be working hard to get this point across to other Legislators.

8. Left to their own devices a small but troublesome minority of transit riders habitually evades fares and/or behaves obnoxiously in stations and on buses and trains. So they should not be left to their own devices!  To avoid driving many would-be riders away, the MTA and other transit operators should act vigorously and consistently actions to discourage fare evasion and make the transit experience better for everyone.

D. Management Audit

At least every two years the MTA should be subjected to a full scale management audit. This should be conducted by a large and highly-regarded national or international management auditing consultant.


Jerry Cauthen
President, BATWG

This article was featured in Newsletter Issue 6. Click here to go back to the newsletter.