Nat Ford's Legacy

Categories: Public Transit
Oily bus.jpg
Jim Herd
Did you know that missed runs don't count in Muni's on-time rate? Nat Ford did.
Muni transports 700,000 riders a day, and every one of them's a critic.

Local passengers -- and journalists -- come to bury Muni, not praise it. But it warrants mentioning that the journeys locals see fit to complain about to their friends and coworkers would have been inconceivable to undertake in much of the nation. Muni will get you there. It ain't rapid, but it is transit.

Assessing departing Muni CEO Nat Ford's legacy, then, is difficult. Few people without the initials BHO have a more difficult job -- and a more demanding public. And throughout Ford's five-and-a-half year tenure atop Muni he dealt with shrinking budgets, meddlesome politicians, and out-and-out theft from the state.

"He was there when Muni went through its biggest series of cuts in my 20-year memory," says transit expert Michael Kiesling. "Whether those cuts were done well or poorly is up to debate."

When asked his own opinion, Kiesling replied, "I have a scooter now."

Ford did keep the buses rolling, despite awful economic and political conditions. So he's got that going for him. But Ford's "achievements" are a decidedly mixed bag. Even several of the things he ludicrously boasted about to the Chronicle are far from positive.

Take, for example, the completion of the T-Third line. Ford was only around for the tail end of that. But the larger point is, years into the T's existence, it's hard to argue that it's better serving the community than the No.15 bus line that it supplanted. It was, however, a big, shiny capital project of the sort that makes politicians happy. And Ford, no fool, knew that keeping politicians happy was a major component of his job.

This is why he kvelled about the "progress" the city has made on the Central Subway. If ever you were searching for an amalgamation of all the worst elements of misbegotten capital projects rolled into one, look no further. The Central Subway is a politically juiced, longtime promise from Willie Brown to Rose Pak after the destruction of the Embarcadero Freeway; it's a decidedly ludicrous project that has become politically unstoppable because of the vast amounts of federal money directed its way; it's the textbook example of a bad project a city will push because it's "shovel ready" and other people's money would otherwise go to another locale. What's more, it will almost certainly not relieve the transit congestion it was supposedly designed to ease and it will create a costly drain on a system that is already billions behind in capital upkeep.

Other than that: Great idea!

Thumbnail image for rsz_avalos_march_021.jpg
Joe Eskenazi
Ford and Supervisor John Avalos eloquently talk past one another in 2009
Ford trumpeting the completion of the Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP), however, is a laugh-out-loud moment. Yes, for several million dollars, Muni now has an instruction manual on how to become the service it supposedly wants to become. But, here's the rub. Now you have to, you know, actually do the stuff you're supposed to do.

Ford's tubthumping that TEP was completed on his watch would be akin to Gavin Newsom claiming the Transbay Terminal has been constructed because the blueprints are now complete. Worst of all, the myriad steps suggested by TEP will, almost certainly, become tied up in years of environmental review. So far, the only thing TEP has been good for is more efficiently instituting Muni's rounds of service cuts. That's nice, but it's an upgrade akin to being efficiently guillotined instead of having some drunken lout hack your head off with an axe.

The unspoken devil in every Muni detail, however, is that the person who really had the final say wasn't Ford, but Newsom. Several Muni insiders revealed to SF Weekly for our 2010 cover story that the mayor's office dictates Muni's budgets down to the line item, even instructing the agency to present misleading -- but "politically palatable" -- deficits that have little correlation with reality. Ford acquiesced when Newsom allowed Muni to be pillaged via "work orders" by both the mayor's office and various city departments, eviscerating the service's finances and making a mockery out of voter-mandated Prop. A -- which was intended to give Muni more money and autonomy.

So, even if Ford was an absolute genius, a master tactician -- and, let the record show, these are not terms people are queuing up to apply -- he'd have still ended up doing just about as well (or poorly). He wasn't going to move Muni forward without support from the mayor. And, to paraphrase Kanye West, Gavin Newsom doesn't care about Muni. In addition to turning the Municipal Transportation Agency into the city's slush fund, Newsom shot down every last revenue-generating idea Muni ever came up with: Sunday meters, evening meters, residential parking permit fees, development assessments, you name it.

"Is Nat the fall guy for an administration that never really supported what the MTA was doing? Yeah," says Tom Radulovich, a BART board member and longtime transit advocate. "It's unrealistic to expect much more of Nat's successor until the political calculus changes."

Ford, then, may become the George H.W. Bush of San Francisco. No one will remember him well -- but the odiousness of his future successors may inspire nostalgia we never thought we'd have.

Or, maybe not. Ford's constant search for jobs elsewhere, his bloated salary, and his prickly personality -- Muni workers were instructed, via a directive, to not speak to Ford unless spoken to -- may weigh more heavily upon the mind than whatever he did or didn't do here.

Fittingly, however, Ford apparently left Muni on his own volition. Thus he has done what countless thousands of Muni riders command hapless tourists to do daily: Step down!

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4 comments
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jamesoboston
jamesoboston

What a pussy.I'll do the job for free for two years, and I won't kowtow to the temporary mayor or the temporarily permanent mayor who succeeds him. Promise.

MrEricSir
MrEricSir

Let's also not forget that Ford didn't make any effort to find new funding sources for Muni.  While it's not his fault that the budgets were cut, it's very clearly his fault that riders are now paying double what they were when he started.

njudah
njudah

Excellent summary of the dual failure of Newsom and Ford. Glad both of 'em are leaving San Francisco.

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