Restructuring the SFMTA: Results of a Save Muni Survey

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Article by: Bob Feinbaum, President of Save Muni

Save Muni recently surveyed 32 San Francisco transit experts and activists with regard to re-structuring the SFMTA. Responses were received from over 40 % of the panel. Although the results should not be interpreted as statistically significant, they do provide a lens with which to view changes to the MTA.

Question # 1 – Should Muni be split off from the SFMTA as a separate city department ?

Three times as many respondents thought that Muni should not become a separate city department. Their reasoning is instructive.

One respondent argued that San Francisco needs an even more comprehensive agency than the current MTA. “If anything move the DPW (Department of Public Works) over to the SFMTA.” Another pointed out that “cities with the best transportation have integrating functions” such as a unified department dealing with all aspects of transportation. Several other respondents echoed a comment from one that said that “SFMTA must keep control of streets in order to keep Muni moving”.

But that is not to say that respondents were satisfied with the SFMTA’s current way of operating. Several pointed to the need for a “stronger and more accountable management structure.” One called for “better internal coordination”, while another recommended that “the top person should be a generalist with strong managers below him”.

As a long-time transit consultant said, “it is a lot more important than how you arrange the boxes is what you put in the boxes”. Summing it up, another respondent alluded to the solution as better leadership. “The issue is what can be done to make MTA more efficient and accountable not whether it is a separate department.”

Those who felt that Muni should be its own department within city government saw the virtues of separation from the MTA. One respondent felt that transit needed “its own board, own financial, auditing and investment and community relations” instead of being subsumed in a larger department. “It should be an independent department like Planning and should only handle Muni operations”said another. Furthermore, a separate department would allow Muni to “incorporate operational knowledge into the management structure.”

However as one respondent pointed out, the SFMTA was created by initiative, and a ballot measure to “reverse creation of the SFMTA would be difficult.”

Question # 2 – Should the Directors of the agency be elected by the voters or appointed by elected officials ?

No respondents favored electing the entire MTA Board. As one indicated, “voters cannot understand the problems” of providing transportation for a city as complex as San Francisco.

One respondent favored the current method of having the Mayor select all the Directors of the SFMTA governing Board although he acknowledged that it is the “best of not so good methods” But another thought that the way that directors are now chosen is probably as good as it can be because, “the Mayor is directly responsible and answers to the voters.”

Most respondents favored split appointments. Several suggested that the Mayor, the Board of Supervisors and the voters should all have a role in selecting MTA Directors. Others favored the Board of Supervisors, the Mayor, and one respondent suggested, the Controller, have appointments. Another respondent thought it necessary for the Board to “have specified qualifications.”

Conclusion

Respondents to the Save Muni survey predominantly favored keeping Muni within the SFMTA rather than creating a separate city department for public transit. However they stressed the need for better and more accountable management. To achieve that end one respondent suggested that the city conduct “an independent management audit” to determine the changes in the SFMTAs structure necessary for better decision making at the agency

None of the respondents favored direct election of the entire SFMTA Board. Several pointed to the failure of other elected Boards to “guide operations, financial planning and engineering.” Although two respondents thought the current system of Mayoral appointments was the best of the options, most favored splitting appointments between the Mayor, the Board of Supervisors, and perhaps the Controller. That, they thought, would broaden the base for decision making and lead to more effective oversight of the MTA..

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