‘Fares Should Be Lower’: A Q&A with District 7 Citizen Transit Representative Neil Ballard

Neil Ballard is in his second term representing District 7 on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Citizens' Advisory Council.

Neil Ballard, a regular contributor to The Ingleside Light, represents District 7’s interests on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s 15-member advisory board called the Citizens’ Advisory Council. Given Muni’s outsize impact on Ingleside, The Light interviewed him about what he is doing and observing about the city’s transportation system.

What is the SFMTA Citizens’ Advisory Council and what does it do for transit riders?

It’s a group of citizens from all over San Francisco who meet monthly to listen to presentations from SFMTA staff on transportation matters, from parking regulations to transit changes, and make recommendations to the agency’s board of directors. We are appointed by the Board of Supervisors and by the Mayor’s Office. I was appointed by District 7 Supervisor Norman Yee to represent District 7. The council also has three committees that discuss matters in finer detail, and I am the chair of the Finance and Administration Committee where we discuss the SFMTA’s budget every two years among other related topics.

What recommendations have you made about District 7?

At our most recent meeting, I recommended that the agency conduct outreach to the Ingleside business community as they plan a project to lengthen the Ocean Avenue boarding islands to accommodate two-car K Ingleside trains.

There are many transit issues in District 7, from the configuration of boarding islands to sidewalk parking to traffic speeds which make areas unsafe for bicycles and pedestrians, and I would like to request more specific presentations where I can advocate for the district and make meaningful recommendations. I am planning on holding a listening session soon at a cafe to gather feedback from residents about their top transportation concerns.

What recommendations have the council made in general to improve Muni?

In the past two years, the council has — in reverse chronological order — recommended that the agency improve subway line management, implement the Fourth Street transit improvement project, accelerate procurement of new light-rail vehicles with better seating designs, post the agency’s service animal policy on vehicles, improve anti-harassment training, tighten rules regarding the location of bikeshare stations, plant trees and enforce traffic laws on Geary Boulevard, acquire data from e-scooter companies, preserve historic streetcars and implement the Agency’s Strategic Plan, metered parking on Sundays and the agency’s current two-year budget.

A large segment of Ingleside is identified as a “Community of Concern.” What does that mean and how do you gauge that?

Communities of Concern are identified by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission as “communities that could be considered disadvantaged or vulnerable now and in the future,” and the identified areas are considered as transportation agencies make funding decisions, such as SFMTA’s Vision Zero pedestrian safety improvement projects. Ingleside’s concentration of multigenerational households, high percentage of renters and ethnic diversity all make it a Community of Concern. This means that there is an opportunity to advocate for the neighborhood because the MTC has already said “this area needs help.” There is no reason that resources should be prioritized to areas that are already well-served when we have poor streetcar service and streets that are deadly to pedestrians and bicyclists.

What hope do you have for the new Director of Transportation Jeffrey Tumlin? Can he reform the toxic culture while filling 1,000 vacancies?

I have great hope for Jeff Tumlin. He has a lot of experience in transportation planning and seems unafraid to speak his mind and stand up for what he believes in. He faces an enormous challenge, of course, in trying to change a workplace culture that isn’t working for so many employees. Satisfaction surveys from the last two years show that front-line employees — drivers and parking control officers — have significantly less job satisfaction than managers, planners and administrative office staff. They do not have faith in the leadership of the agency. Tumlin spoke briefly at our February meeting to introduce himself, and he mentioned that he will be empowering the agency’s head of Human Resources with all the resources they need. Muni is such a vital service, and the employees who run the system deserve to have good jobs where they are safe and respected.

Increased fares and free Muni are issues of the day. Where do you stand?

I think fares should be lower. Transit ridership is down nationally and stagnant in San Francisco, in large part due to the rise of Uber and Lyft. Muni is now in the unenviable position where it must compete on price with those companies, which I think are a bad consumer choice because of their impact on the environment and their exploitative labor practices. But if you need to get from point A to point B — especially to get to work — you can’t necessarily afford to make a moral choice. Since the state regulatory agency continues to allow ride-hail companies to operate with carte blanche, it is incumbent upon SFMTA to offer a more affordable alternative and urge effective regulation of ride-hail companies.

Did I forget to ask anything?

Council meetings are held every first Thursday of the month at 1 South Van Ness Ave. All are welcome to come and make public comment.

For more information about the council, visit https://www.sfmta.com/committees/citizens-advisory-council-cac.