So far my cover stories in 2008 have developed an interesting pattern. When I traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with WMATA’s John Catoe, there was a Hannah Montana concert in town snarling traffic, and my trip to Austin to meet with Capital Metro’s Fred Gilliam coincided with a Barack Obama rally. So it’s kind of fitting that my first day in San Francisco meeting with Municipal Transportation Agency (Muni) executive director, Nat Ford, would be spent watching Ford and his team handle the Olympic Torch as it passed through their town. If you ask Ford, though, he’ll say it’s just another day in San Francisco, a city that has events that disrupt the natural transit flow almost daily.
It wasn’t more evident than when the torch relay radically changed route unbeknownst to the throngs of demonstrators gathered to see it and nearly everyone else in the city. As we watched those demonstrators, Ford didn’t miss a beat, getting on the phone with his staff and rerouting buses to clear the way for the mobile event.
And due to the Municipal Transportation Agency’s (Muni) makeup, that’s not an easy task. Not only does Muni have the largest trolley bus fleet in the country, it also has subways, historic streetcars, cable cars and parking under its purview — wait parking?! Yes, Muni oversees parking in San Francisco along with transit, and it also has to deal with a large number of pedestrians and bicyclists as well. All of that helps to add to that uniqueness that is San Francisco.
Ford has been asked to make quick decisions like deciding to pull all of the cable cars out of service the day of the Olympic Torch relay since he came onboard in June of 2006.
“I came in June of 2006 and our budget had to be to the board in March of 2006,” Ford remembers.
“So I mean the first thing I walk in the door and I’m trying to understand city budgeting and how Muni is budgeted and a whole host of different things.”
The budget that was three months overdue when Ford walked in the door had a large problem — a growing deficit which meant a $50 million shortfall this year and a $66 million one next year.
When I asked him about this, Ford replied with a single word and a slap of his hand on the table, “Balanced!”
Have you ever seen the movie, Dave? The one where Kevin Kline replaces a president who has slipped into a coma and balances the budget by using a pencil and a calculator? That’s kind of what Nat Ford did.
Before he could make a new budget, Ford had to look at the previous one and see where he could make some changes, starting with revenue streams.
“Revenues from the garages, revenues coming from parking meters, revenues coming from farebox. What are we doing about fare evasion, cash handling and collecting and things of that nature,” Ford says.
“We started looking at garage revenues. Garage revenues under terms of our agreement are supposed to be remitted every night. Started looking into that particular situation and found that the garage revenues in some cases weren’t being remitted every night and in some cases may be going as long as four weeks. When you start looking at the flow in terms of interest with that situation it came into the millions of dollars for the agency.”
Coming in and trimming the fat instead of asking for more money right off the bat earned Ford some instant credibility.
“We very quickly displayed I think a financial discipline, acumen and creative that really got everybody’s attention and kind of garnered their support,” Ford says.
In San Francisco transit isn’t just a choice for most voters, it’s the first choice. With that in mind they mandated an 85 percent on-time performance (OTP) from Muni. When I asked Ford about the agency’s OTP and why it had fallen nearly 15 percent below the mandated level, he quickly corrected my assumption.
“We’ve never been anywhere near 85 percent,” Ford says emphatically.