San Francisco Muni's Potrero Division bus yard, seen during a 2014 'sickout' staged by drivers during a contract dispute.  Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
San Francisco Muni's Potrero Division bus yard, seen during a 2014 'sickout' staged by drivers during a contract dispute.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Missteps, Mishaps and Messes: What's Next for S.F. Muni After Ed Reiskin?

Missteps, Mishaps and Messes: What's Next for S.F. Muni After Ed Reiskin?

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an Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency chief Ed Reiskin is on his way out. Mayor London Breed wants to launch a national search for a "visionary" new leader for an agency that's been beset by missteps, mishaps and an occasional tragedy, especially when it comes to running its Muni transit service.

The only question now is: Where will the city find someone to tackle the problems at the SFMTA?

Even agency critics concede the organization faces a dauntingly complex series of challenges. The agency manages the Bay Area's busiest transit system while at the same time overseeing operations and design of the street network in a city with a quickly expanding population and rapidly changing modes of transportation.

"Look, he's a good, smart, competent man with an impossible job," Supervisor Aaron Peskin said after Reiskin announced Monday he'd be departing the SFMTA this summer.

Peskin, a frequent Muni critic who chairs a Board of Supervisors committee on transportation and also heads the San Francisco County Transportation Authority board, said the SFMTA is "larger than any human being, no matter how smart or hard-working they may be."

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Advocates for cyclists, pedestrians and transit riders said Reiskin deserves credit for improving conditions for those who use San Francisco streets, but that much more remains to be done.

Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said while the city became a safer place for cyclists during Reiskin's tenure, "We are not the city we need to be when it comes to safely moving around folks on foot, on bike and on transit."

"Ed was someone who had his eyes on what needs to happen on our streets for pedestrian safety," said Jodie Medeiros, executive director of Walk San Francisco. She added that Reiskin was instrumental in the city's adoption of Vision Zero, its program to eliminate traffic fatalities -- a goal the city is still far from achieving.

San Francisco Transit Riders spokeswoman Cat Carter said Reiskin was responsible for improvements in bus service that has driven sharp ridership increases on two of Muni's busiest lines, the 14-Mission and 5-Fulton. But she said that with increasing congestion in the city, the agency has reached a point "where we need more transparency, more honesty about what the agency can and cannot do" to address the problem.

'The Right Time for a Change'

Reiskin announced the impending end of his eight-year tenure in a brief message to SFMTA employees that came on the heels of the agency's most recent mini-disaster: Friday's daylong shutdown of Muni's downtown subway service.

Reiskin, often described as an unassuming leader who actually uses the trains, buses and bike lanes his agency is responsible for, noted his current contract is up in August "and it’s become clear that this is the right time for a change."

What made it clearest was a letter from Mayor Breed to the SFMTA board of directors chastising the agency for its response to the Friday incident and a series of episodes that have hampered Muni service over the past year.

Breed faulted agency leadership for failing to plan for emergencies like the Friday shutdown and for stumbling in its responsibility to inform the public adequately about service disruptions.

"It's important to make sure that we have contingency plans," Breed said at a City Hall media briefing after her letter was released. "It's important to make sure that every step of the way, we're communicating with the public so that they know exactly what they can expect to do as a result. And it's important to make sure that they know that we are prepared to deal with any challenge that comes our way."

Reiskin's departure was foreshadowed last summer by a public rebuke from the mayor, which came after Muni experienced major service problems during and after a project to refurbish the light-rail system's Twin Peaks Tunnel.

The $40 million project required the tunnel between the east and west sides of the city to be shut down for two months, but Muni assured riders it would make up for missed train runs with a substitute bus service. But Muni didn't have enough drivers or vehicles to operate the replacement service and the system's citywide performance suffered as a result.

Many other problems followed, including the death of a worker on the Twin Peaks Tunnel project; damage to trackside equipment in the tunnel, which Muni blamed on the project contractor, that compromised service after it reopened; continuing delays on the agency's $1.6 billion Central Subway that could postpone its opening until next year; and charges of sexual harassment and racial discrimination in the agency that forces out two senior managers and prompted Breed to appoint an ombudsperson to investigate.

A Shocking Video and a Subway Mess

All of that was just a prelude for last week when, leading up to Friday's subway mess, Muni was forced to confront video of an elderly patron being dragged down a downtown Muni Metro platform by a malfunctioning door on one of its brand-new light-rail vehicles.

The incident -- along with other questions about the cars' mechanical performance -- prompted the Board of Supervisors, sitting as the San Francisco County Transportation Authority Board, to hold off on approving $63 million earmarked for buying more of the light-rail vehicles.

To top it off, Muni was forced to cancel hundreds of runs last Monday and Tuesday because drivers were turning down overtime to put pressure on the city during contract negotiations.

Peskin called the situation "a perfect storm" for Reiskin and said he felt bad for the Muni chief "as someone I know and respect."

But like Mayor Breed, Peskin questioned the SFMTA's competence both in handling the recent black eyes and explaining them to people outside the agency.

Peskin said that as the furor built over the malfunctioning doors on the new light-rail vehicles, he told Reiskin and Muni operations chief Julie Kirschbaum that "they really needed to get ahead of the story and be honest with the riders and elected officials."

Instead, Peskin said, "They were just kind of, as the mayor said in her letter, paralyzed. ... When they kind of obfuscated and danced around things, it just compounded the problem and increased the level of frustration" with the agency.

Peskin said that as city officials begin the search for the next SFMTA boss, they should also consider the agency's current governance structure. Peskin, who was an author of a 2007 ballot measure that gave the SFMTA a high degree of independence from direct Board of Supervisors' and mayoral oversight — and meddling — has been talking about changing that structure for the past year and a half.

"There is a growing sentiment at the Board of Supervisors that the board should take back some of its powers and oversight authorities," Peskin said.

Carter, of the San Francisco Transit Riders, said worsening conditions on the city streets will require the next SFMTA chief to focus on improving Muni and to do it quickly.

"We see record traffic congestion in the city, just choking the city and choking people's access to jobs and families and cultural experiences," Carter said. "So we do need some visionary leadership to say we do need to put transit first, that transit needs to be efficient and reliable so it can compete with private vehicles."

Wiedenmeier, of the bicycle coalition, said he thinks Breed and the SFMTA need to broaden their search for a new director beyond U.S. borders.

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"I think there are people who lead transportation policy and manage transportation agencies across the globe that would find this job in San Francisco attractive," Wiedenmeier said. "And they would have ideas and experience to bring to bear that could help us really evolve into the city that San Franciscans deserve when it comes to our transportation system and the safety of our streets."