Transit or traffic - Page 5

There's a real chance to fix Muni -- but a simplistic downtown campaign for more parking and less government is trying to derail it
Illustration by Danny Hellman


"We are trying to make complex arguments, and our opponents are making simple arguments, which makes it hard for us to win in a sound-bite culture," Radulovich said.

"Prop. H preys on people's experience of trying to find a parking space," Metcalf said. "The problem is cities are complex, and this measure completely misunderstands what it takes to be a successful city."

When MTA director Nathaniel Ford arrived in San Francisco from Atlanta two years ago, he said, "it was clear as soon as I walked in the door that there was an underinvestment in the public transit system."

Prop. A would help that by directing more city funds to the MTA, starting with about $26 million per year. "I don't want to say the situation is dire, but it's certainly not going to get better without some infusion of cash to get us over the hump," Ford told the Guardian recently from his office above the intersection of Market and Van Ness.

The proposed extra money would barely get this long-underfunded agency up to modern standards, such as the use of a computer routing system. "We actually have circuit boards with a guy in a room with a soldering iron keeping it all together," Ford said with an incredulous smile.

The other thing that struck Ford when he arrived was the cumbersomeness of the MTA's bureaucracy, from stifling union work rules to Byzantine processes for seemingly simple actions like accepting a grant, which requires action by the Board of Supervisors.

"Coming from an independent authority, I realized there were a lot more steps and procedures to getting anything done [at the MTA]," he said. "Some of the things in Prop. A relax those steps and procedures."

If it passes, Ford would be able to set work rules to maximize the efficiency of his employees, update the outdated transit infrastructure, set fees and fines to encourage the right mix of transportation modes, and issue bonds for new capital projects when the system reaches its limits. These are all things the urban planners say have to happen. "It should be easy to provide great urban transit," Metcalf said. "We're not Tracy. We're not Fremont. We're San Francisco, and we should be able to do this."

Unfortunately, there are political barriers to such a reasonable approach to improving public transit. And the biggest hurdles for those who want better transit are getting Prop. A approved and defeating Prop. H.

"It's clear to people who have worked on environmental issues that this is a monumental election," said Leah Shahum, director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and an MTA board member. "San Francisco will choose one road or the other in terms of how our transportation system affects the environment. It will really be transit or traffic."

Shahum said the combination of denying the MTA the ability to improve transit and giving out huge new parking entitlements "will start a downward spiral for our transit system that nobody benefits from."

"We are already the slowest-operating system in the country," Ford said, later adding, "More cars on the streets of San Francisco will definitely have a negative impact on Muni."

But even those who believe in putting transit first know cars will still be a big part of the transportation mix.

"All of it needs to be properly managed. There are people who need to drive cars for legitimate reasons," Ford said. "If you do need to drive, you need to know there are costs to that driving. There is congestion. There are quality impacts, climate change, and it hurts transit."

"There are parking needs out there, and the city is starting to think of it in a more responsive way. We don't need this to create more parking," Shahum said.