San Francisco Muni chief Nathaniel Ford would leave legacy of mixed results 

Today is a big day for Nathaniel Ford. The chief of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency will sit down with the board of directors in a closed-door meeting about his future. Across the country, the Washington, D.C., airport transit authority that nearly hired him last week will reopen its search.

If either meeting results in Ford leaving the SFMTA, his legacy will be remembered as one where solid planning gains were offset by major operating changes — albeit many of them beyond his control.

During even the best of times, Ford holds one of the country’s most difficult transportation jobs. No other municipal agency boasts so many responsibilities, including transit, traffic, cabs, pedestrians and bicyclists. Combined with the huge budgetary and political challenges, the job can be trying.

“Considering his responsibilities and what he’s had to deal with, Nat has done about as good a job as anyone could expect by simply keeping Muni afloat,” said Tom Radulovich, the executive director of Livable City, a nonprofit transportation organization.

During Ford’s five-year tenure, Sacramento politicians have poached $220 million from his agency. Consequently, the SFMTA has cut service once and raised fares twice, with a third increase scheduled for July.

But even as the SFMTA implemented Muni service cuts, it received public praise for how smoothly the process went. The cuts were informed by the agency’s Transit Effectiveness Project, a long-overdue operational review that took two years and $3 million to finish.

Gabriel Metcalf, the executive director of the local think tank San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, said that project is Ford’s greatest accomplishment.

Yet due to budget shortfalls, the project’s recommendations aren’t fully implemented. Transit advocate and blogger Greg Dewar, who writes the N-Judah Chronicles, cited that as Ford’s biggest failure. Still, he acknowledged that many of Muni’s problems are not Ford’s fault.

But Ford’s large salary — at $308,000, he’s The City’s highest-paid employee — and his repeated pursuit of other jobs leaves observers wondering whether he’s committed to the agency.

When he arrived in 2006 with a strong transit pedigree, there was optimism that he could turn around the habitually dysfunctional agency. He has never met such expectations. And if he left now, he would be departing just as Muni is set to embark on historic negotiations with the powerful operators union.

Proposition G, passed by 65 percent of voters in November, gives Ford unprecedented leverage with the Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, which represents 2,200 Muni operators. Negotiations to reform work rules, scheduling and pay scales will be on the table, but Ford could be gone before talks begin.

“All that effort for people to get Proposition G on the ballot and passed could be nothing,” Dewar said.

Metcalf said that until there are wholesale changes at the SFMTA, it will suffer regardless of who runs the show.

“It’s going to take a long time to make the cultural changes at Muni that need to be made,” Metcalf said. “Until that happens, this job is going to be extremely difficult for anyone.”

Seesaw career in San Francisco

For each of Nathaniel Ford’s achievements, there is a corresponding failure or disappointment.

Completed Transit Effectiveness Project, an extensive operational review that recommended which lines to cut, reduce or expand
Minus: Recommendations never fully implemented; on-time reliability never approached 85 percent mandate set by voters; union says workplace morale among operators at all-time low

Established nationally lauded parking meter program that will charge motorists extra to stay at high-demand spots; program will provide new information about parking availability and let motorists use array of payment methods
Minus: Cost of citations increased significantly; Ford riled motorists by redeploying parking officers to increase citation revenue

Oversaw implementation of bike plan, which will add 34 miles of cycling lanes to city streets
Minus: Ex-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s bike-sharing program has never come to fruition

With Newsom, set goal of reducing pedestrian injuries and fatalities
Minus: Three pedestrians have already died this year, and advocates say more leadership is necessary

Embarked on program allowing agency and some drivers to sell operating permits for $250,000; so far, it has raised $6.6 million
Minus: Program is unpopular among drivers, who are angry that meter rates have barely risen since 2003

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Will Reisman

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