A few days after learning that Mayor Breed had named her pick for SFMTA chief, we're hearing that a few people with more direct experience leading urban transit agencies may have scoffed at the job after seeing how Breed treated Ed Reiskin.
Breed's choice of local transportation planning consultant Jeffrey Tumlin was reportedly met with some cheers in the Bay Area transit planning scene. And Tumlin fit the bill for the job in the mayor's eyes because he's an outsider who can potentially wrangle the multiple city bureaucracies that he'll need to interact with on the job, in addition to running a complex and multi-pronged city agency.
But as the Chronicle's Phil Matier reports, "None of the top transit directors around the country who were approached about the job wanted it." The reasons for that, he surmises, include the complexity of transit in SF generally — as SFMTA vice chair Gwyneth Borden tells him, "Most of [our system] is above ground and runs along clogged streets, and the city has a unique topography."
But the other key reason seems to have been Breed's very public berating of Reiskin, which began last year and which culminated with his resignation following a particularly bad day for the Muni Metro in April. This is according to "several sources close to the selection process" who spoke to Matier but who didn't want to be quoted on the record. Reportedly, only one of the four finalists had upper-level transit agency experience, and that unnamed candidate had previously worked former Muni chief Nathaniel Ford — and Breed has said all along she wanted an outsider to arrive with a vision for change.
It may behoove all of us that we ended up with someone who was not a City Hall or SFMTA insider but who is nonetheless well versed in the machinations of SF politics. As Tumlin tells Matier, "I haven’t run a transit agency — that’s true — and I haven’t overseen major construction projects, but we are really fortunate that we already have excellent people like Julie Kirschbaum, who runs the [transit] operations, and Tom Maguire, who runs the streets operations." He says his job will be more "external," and he's of course prepared to be the face of the next inevitable Muni meltdown.
Of course Tumlin, like Reiskin did before him, is inheriting a light-rail system that comes with a few fatal design flaws that will be very costly to fix. When the Muni Metro system was being planned, back in the 1970s, design and construction of the key tunnels through the center of the city was being handled by BART, whose trains occupy the lower portions of those tunnels.
As local transit historian Rick Laubscher discussed at an SFMTA board meeting over the summer, "BART was flying blind" in the design phase because the SFMTA hadn't made up its mind what kind of trains it would be using, and it didn't make any special requests for alternate tracks — of the sort you need when you have a disabled train blocking a whole tunnel. Other cities like Berlin, Paris, and Washington, DC have systems in which there are "trunks" or "turnbacks" in the tunnels that allow for quicker clearing of disabled trains. In SF's Muni underground, as it stands, there are no such failsafes, and thus you have the entire system melting down when one thing goes wrong in one small part of the tunnel.
A task force that Mayor Breed assembled in June is looking to fix the broken system, and fixes may include constructing "pocket tracks" at several points in the underground tunnels that would allow disabled trains to "pull over" when issues arise. No estimates for that cost of that work has been given, but Kirschbaum said in July that it could take three to seven years to accomplish.
Tumlin tells Matier that he negotiated his own failsafe in case things go south under his tenure — he gets a full year's salary, or $342,483 — as severance if he's ever fired.
Image: Torbakhopper via Flickr