What it does
Proposition P is an ordinance that would mandate a change in the size and composition of the Transportation Authority Board. Through this proposition, the voters also would urge (but not mandate) the TA to assign some of its current functions to other City departments and adopt the budget review, ethics and sunshine rules that apply to other City agencies.
The Transportation Authority Board is composed of the 11 members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It has three roles: It is the agency that administers San Francisco's sales tax revenues; it is our congestion-management agency, a body the state requires in each county the state defines as "congested"; and it distributes funds from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Because of these roles, the TA Board is required by state law to have a governing board of elected officials.
This proposition, if passed, would remove the 11-member Board of Supervisors as the governing board of the Transportation Authority and replace it with a new, five-member board. The new TA Board would consist of the mayor, the president of the Board of Supervisors, the city treasurer, an elected official of the City and County of San Francisco selected by the mayor, and an elected official of the City and County of San Francisco selected by the president of the Board of Supervisors. The changes to the TA Board would be implemented as of Feb. 1, 2009.
Proposition P also would delegate functions of the TA to other agencies. Currently, there is some overlap between the TA and other agencies, such as the Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees Muni. The new TA Board might decide to not have a distinct staff for the TA, instead relying on the MTA to staff it. By analogy, the Planning Department staff today supports both the Planning Commission and the Landmarks Preservation Board.
In addition, through Proposition P the voters would encourage the TA to adopt the same rules regarding "ethics" and "public records" as other City departments. The measure also would require that the TA's budget be subject to the City's budget review process.
Why it is on the ballot
The Transportation Authority's roles overlap with those of other agencies, most notably the city's Municipal Transportation Agency. These overlapping responsibilities have created a great deal of tension and inefficiencies in government, prompting occasional calls for a merger of the agencies. Prop. P, while not strictly a merger, would effectively merge many of the activities of the agencies.
The City's Municipal Transportation Agency is a relatively new agency. It was created by Proposition E in 1999 — SPUR's "Muni reform" measure that merged the Department of Parking and Traffic and Muni into one agency. The goal was to create a multimodal, comprehensive transportation agency. When Prop. E was drafted, proponents considered amalgamating the TA into the MTA. The idea of merging the two agencies was raised again in 2007 during the drafting of Prop. A, a measure that provided significant new powers to the MTA and that SPUR also played a role in developing. In both instances, transportation advocates, including SPUR, decided to maintain the TA as a separate entity rather than dissolving its functions into the MTA.
The reason to keep the TA independent of Muni and thus the MTA — is that the TA performs an essential oversight role in transportation spending. As the official congestion management agency for the City and County of San Francisco, it is charged with allocating funding among BART, Caltrain, ferries, bikes, pedestrians and every other conceivable transportation purpose. SPUR was an advocate for maintaining this independence because we believed that the TA would be more objective and more effective at allocating funds if it were independent of the MTA.
Currently, two other counties in California — Los Angeles and Santa Clara — have combined their transit operators and congestion management agencies into one entity. The new agencies in both of these counties experienced major crises just a few years after those mergers, in both cases because they overextended their efforts in capital projects and did not have proper internal controls to deal with the issues arising from having the dual role of authorizing and spending local transportation sales-tax funds. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority entered receivership. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority was the subject of a very damning civil grand jury report, which led to a change in management.
Despite the challenges of mergers in other counties, San Francisco's situation is specific. The relationship between the TA and the MTA does not appear to be healthy. We have observed ongoing conflicts, whether based on personalities or on conflicting agendas. The division of labor has become a bone of contention. The TA is the lead agency planning both of the city's bus rapid-transit projects, one on Van Ness Avenueand the other on Geary Street and Geary Boulevard. In both cases, memoranda of understanding between the two agencies detail roles and responsibilities, but concerns about this arrangement linger at the MTA. The risk exists that the TA will design capital projects that won't work as well as they should.
Further, by having multiple agencies, the City is not speaking with one voice as it lobbies for regional, state and federal transportation dollars.
Finally, because the Board of Supervisors governs the TA while the mayor appoints the MTA Board, these two agencies have been caught up in the broader fight between the executive and legislative branches of San Francisco government.
Arguments in favor of Prop. P:
- Prop. P would create a smaller governing board for the TA, reducing the number of members 11 to five and creating a more manageable body.
- The measure likely would create a greater clarity of purpose for the MTA and TA by eliminating areas in which the two agencies currently overlap.
- Prop. P would increase the involvement of the executive branch of government in transportation. By giving the mayor a role in the TA, it is likely that mayors would pay more attention to transportation issues.
- Our Board of Supervisors should focus on legislating, not administrating. Because they now have control of the TA and its funding stream, the supervisors effectively must attempt to manage a transportation system. San Francisco should not be modeled after other multi-jurisdictional counties.
Arguments against Prop. P:
- Prop. P effectively would make the TA a part of the MTA, meaning that one transit operator would largely control our county congestion management agency. This reduces the objective oversight of the current system. Although Muni is the most important transit operator in San Francisco, it is not the only one. BART, Caltrain, AC Transit, Golden Gate Transit, SamTrans and the ferries also need funding. In addition, the TA funds other projects, such as highway projects, road improvements, bike lanes, sidewalk widenings and a host of others, many of which are not under the purview of the MTA. San Francisco needs the TA to be independent to ensure the optimal allocation of resources among these competing needs.
- The TA staff is exempt from civil service rules. Its members have gained a reputation for competence. This measure could lead to the replacement of TA staff members with MTA staff members, who have not demonstrated the same levels of effectiveness.
- The MTA has not yet lived up to our hopes for a multimodal transportation agency. It has not taken its responsibilities for bicycles or pedestrians seriously, for example. It would not make sense to invest it with such broad powers to fund transportation when its culture still is so dominated by the old agencies of Muni and the Department of Parking and Traffic.
- This measure is written around the personalities of today's players — the TA, MTA, mayor and Board of Supervisors. Prop. P represents one more case in the ongoing conflict among individual politicians, rather than a structural change that would be embraced absent these political conflicts.
- If Prop. P were to pass, it is likely there would be less effective independent oversight and fewer controls on how the MTA uses billions of dollars in transportation sales tax funds. The MTA does not have a good track record of internal controls when it comes to spending on transportation projects, large or small.
Prop. P presents some changes to the governance structure that are appropriate. We believe it would benefit the City to have mayors more involved in transportation, for instance. But the potential to get rid of the TA staff is a big problem, both because of the high degrees of competence that the TA staff members have demonstrated and because of the importance of keeping transportation funding independent of a single transit operator.
We are also concerned about this measure because the MTA itself is still an experiment, still struggling to overcome the legacy of the cultures of Muni and the Department of Parking and Traffic. At the same time, we do not believe the current arrangement between the TA and MTA is perfect, and we believe there has been some unintended expansion of the TA's mission. On balance, Prop. P is not worth the risks.
SPUR recommends a "No" vote on Prop. P.