Is the SFMTA too big and unwieldy to function properly? 

Is the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency a failed experiment?

Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, a local transportation planning organization, thinks so. Back in 1999, when more than 60 percent of San Francisco voters supported Proposition E, which created the SFMTA, Radulovich was a key advocate for the measure.

Now, he said San Francisco would be better served by creating two major transportation agencies — one that manages the infrastructure and upkeep of the streets, and one that oversees all transportation policies. The creation of the SFMTA in 1999 has not done enough to improve Muni’s reliability, and the transit system is chronically underfunded, said Radulovich, who is also a BART board member.

State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, was on the Board of Supervisors when the body unanimously supported Prop. E in 1999. After first supporting the measure, he now says the decision to form the SFMTA should be thoroughly re-evaluated.

“The basis to create the SFMTA was to improve the efficiency and flow of transit vehicles, and clearly that has not happened,” said Yee, who is running for mayor.

The SFMTA was formed through the merger of the Municipal Railway with the Department of Parking and Traffic. The proposal to combine the agency had several objectives such as streamlining the design and traffic flow of city streets to benefit transit.

Yet 12 years later, transit service is still below standards — Muni has never once reached the 85 percent on-time goal mandated by Prop. E, the measure’s main selling point to voters.

Another motivation for the merger was to depoliticize the day-to-day operations of transportation in San Francisco. Prior to Prop. E, the acting mayor made all appointments — regardless of qualifications — to the two commissions overseeing transit and traffic in The City, a setup that many believe led to cronyism and political interference.

Under Prop. E, SFMTA board members were appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Board of Supervisors. All members on the body were supposed to be qualified in some manner, and completely autonomous from City Hall politics.

But Bob Planthold, a local transit activist, said that the agency’s mayoral-appointed board of directors has never been truly independent, and frequently kowtows to the will of the mayors it serves under.

“The form and the structure of the SFMTA may be OK, but the agency has never really worked because the people haven’t been right,” Planthold said.

Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Center, a local think tank that lobbied for the passage of Prop. E, said it was too early to deem the SFMTA a failure.

“The full potential of a truly multi-modal transportation agency is yet to be realized,” Metcalf said. “But the network is now in place that will benefit The City’s transportation system as whole. For the people who were here before 1999, that’s a pretty amazing accomplishment.”

Transit tangle

1999: Year Proposition E was passed
11-0: Support among then-Board of Supervisors for Proposition E
61: Percent of San Francisco voters who supported Proposition E
85: Percent Muni on-time performance goal mandated by Proposition E; it’s never been met
$21.2 million: Current budget deficit of MTA

Source: SFMTA, Department of Elections

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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Will Reisman

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