Muni CEO Nat Ford out; what does he leave behind?

Flickr photo by SFBC Operations. http://www.flickr.com/photos/sfbike/2299178212/

Last week, Muni CEO Nathaniel Ford announced that he would be leaving the transit agency at the end of this month. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency said that the decision was mutual.

During his tenure of five and a half years, Ford oversaw the agency during one of its most trying times. Muni saw cuts of $220 million handed down by the state, which led to service reductions and rate hikes. MUNI is the eighth largest transit system in the country and is under constant public scrutiny. You add oversight of taxis, parking, traffic, bike and pedestrian programs, and you can get a sense of how difficult Nat Ford’s job might have been.

But Ford’s legacy is a mixed bag, and there’s controversy over his severance package of $384,000 dollars. KALW’s transportation reporter Casey Miner went to speak with Nathaniel Ford and asked him why he decided to leave.

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CASEY MINER: Can you tell me anything about what prompted your decision to move on?

NAT FORD: We had discussions, my board and I, about three months or so ago, looking at what would be the optimum time, in terms of a transition for the agency. We were in the midst of contract negotiations, we’d just launched SFPark, the Central Subway project is moving well and we’re going towards a full funding grant agreement that we expect to receive for about a billion dollars this fall. So in talking with them, we wanted to look at the optimum time in terms of a change and transition of leadership, that was beneficial to the riders and our citizens and at the same time was fair to me.

MINER: Do you feel like you were able to achieve that?

FORD: Yes, definitely. We had great discussions regarding transition, where the agency is today, and also some of the challenges facing it in the future. So I think the board is in a great place in terms of determining who the next MTA executive director is going to be, and I think they’ll have a good road map going forward.

MINER: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the MTA?

FORD: Clearly we have to continue to focus on our financial situation. We’re far from being out of the woods. We have significant capital infrastructure needs in terms of replacing buses and trains and our infrastructure, that’s one thing. More immediately, on the people side of the house, we just got this new contract that was awarded to us, largely in favor of MTA management. And we have to be very prudent and judicious in how that new contract is implemented. Recognizing that our operators are a great asset to this agency, and while we’ve got a great deal of concessions and work rule changes, they have to be administered properly and fairly. Those are some of the immediate challenges for the agency. And obviously, Central Subway. Continuing the momentum to build a $1.6 billion subway system is something the agency needs to focus on.

MINER: I was going to ask you about that FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff was recently talking about how the feds are in negotiation with Muni over more money for capital projects like the Central Subway versus filling the needs in Muni’s ongoing budget, already existing capital operating needs. Could you talk about that a bit?

FORD: Exactly. Earlier this year I had a meeting, along with my chairman, with Administrator Rogoff, and clearly, the State of Good Repair program for all transit agencies is critical. The idea is, why are you building more and expanding your system when you don’t have the proper funding to maintain what you currently have? We believe our State of Good Repair plan, that we’ve worked with the federal government on, meets that test. We’ve worked with them very diligently over the past few years to one, identify what our needs are from a capital standpoint, and then, over the next 20 years, what is a reasonable assumption as it relates to our finances to cover that gap. Are we 100% there? No. But I think they were acceptable of our immediate plans in terms of financing capital projects.

We started our State of Good Repair program years ago, with our LRV program, I think you’re familiar with a lot of the track replacement work we’ve been doing periodically for the system, and the a bus replacement program. So while we don’t have all the money that we need, we do have a well thought out plan. We do have an idea of what we need, and we have a well-thought out plan on how to get there.

MINER: And how do you feel about the Central Subway project, where it’s headed now and the progress it made under your tenure?

FORD: I feel great. In fact, when we walked in the door, this team walked in the door back in January of 2006, we had the T-Third line floundering in terms of its construction, behind schedule, not doing well in terms of its budget, and not up and running. So we really immediately wanted to focus on getting the T-Third street lineup and running. And once we got that up and running and got it stabilized in terms of its service, we turned our full attention to Central Subway: re-engaging the Chinese community who were really big champions of it, re-engaging and hiring the right engineering and project management team to oversee it, and also re-engaging the FTA and building confidence with them – the local office here and in DC – building confidence with them that we knew what we were doing, to get us to the point of every year getting medium-high ratings, some of the highest ratings in the country in terms of project readiness. To be on the verge right now, for a full funding grant agreement, I feel it was a successful effort.

MINER: I couldn’t ask you about things you’re proud of without asking you about things you’re less proud of, or if you have any regrets about your time at the agency.

FORD:  One thing that concerned me, obviously, we turned it around, but it was a major concern about safety a couple of years ago, in terms of the West Portal accident and some of the incidents with bus collisions and accidents and that type of thing. I feel that the work we’ve done in terms of re-initiating our efforts with the rail rule book – we re-did the rule book, we separated the rule book from the bus rule book and some of these other practices that were kind of archaic. We put the new drive-cam system on the buses so we have better, we can preemptively deal with problem drivers in a positive way – that has borne fruit. Our accidents have gone down double digits in the past year. And also, obviously, on-time performance. I would say number one in terms of the 85% goal, I’m happy that we during this tenure hit 75%, which was the highest on-time performance for this agency in recorded history, but we weren’t able to break that hurdle, largely due to the fact that our system operates in mixed traffic. What we try to promote is a very walkable, a very bikeable city, and with that is a shared roadway. I’d rather have the safety than have the 85% on-time performance. But there’s room with the TEP, in the work we did with the Transit Effectiveness Project, to build upon the infrastructure improvements we’re making, the capital investment, to make this system much more reliable in the future. While we didn’t hit that, we put the cornerstones there, we put the foundation for that to happen in the future.

MINER: You’d mentioned pedestrian and bicycle friendless in the city. A report came out recently talking about the high level of pedestrian collisions in particular in San Francisco. Bike safety’s been a big issue as well, we’ve seen a lot of accidents. I wonder what you think about that.

FORD: In terms of pedestrian and bike safety, one thing I am happy with, the lifting of the injunction as it relates to the bike plan has allowed us to move very quickly ahead and install a great deal of bike infrastructure which will make it safer for bicyclists. We did the safe posts on Market Street, the green bike lanes on Market Street, to really delineate for automobile users, and for bicyclists, where you belong. That is going to have some benefits in the future. The pedestrian safety side, we’re not happy with that. But similar to what we’ve done in terms of transit safety, we’re making a focused effort, along with the mayor’s office, and the director from the mayor’s office, to really improve in terms of pedestrian safety. We’re working with the Department of Health, there’s a committee that is working very hard to resolve those issues. I think we’ll be fine with it. We’re not where we need to be, but the right effort and attention is there.

MINER: Where are you headed in July?

FORD: I don’t know. I do know one thing: I’m headed for some time with my family and friends. I know on July 1, that’ll be my focus for the next few months, and during that time frame I’ll take a look at some opportunities as they present themselves.

MINER: Anything in particular you’d love to do – your dream job?

FORD: Not yet, I haven’t determined that dream job. For 30 years I’ve been in public service and public transportation, and moreover, with MTA, all facets of transportation. So it might be time to look at something totally new.

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