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Transit Chief Under Fire for Absences and Muni's Many Woes

 
Nat Ford, whose future in San Francisco hangs in the balance, was away 53 days last year

Nat FordLast week, Nathaniel Ford, the chief executive of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, was in a familiar place: not San Francisco.

Ford, who has headed the troubled transit agency for five years, was in Washington, D.C., for a conference — and to find out if he had landed the top spot at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

He had not.

Meanwhile, local leaders are questioning more loudly than ever his commitment to the city and its fleet of aging buses and trolleys.

Last year, Ford was out of the office a lot: 53 workdays, or almost 11 weeks. According to a schedule provided by the agency, Ford took 31 vacation days; he attended conferences for the American Public Transportation Association during 11 workdays; he also went to China in November with a California delegation.

“That thing about people saying I’m not here — I’m always here,” Ford said in a recent interview. “This job is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

Ford is away more than some other top government officials. When George Gascón was the San Francisco police chief, for example, he took seven days of vacation in 2010, according to his schedule, and attended conferences for 24 working days.

“I’m sure that Nat puts in more than eight hours when he is there,” said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, a transit advocacy organization in San Francisco. “But I think when your agency’s hurting, it doesn’t help to be absent that much.”

Muni, which carries 700,000 passengers a day, has been ailing. The state is investigating the agency over safety violations relating to track repairs. The system’s on-time performance dropped last quarter after peaking early last year at 75 percent, which was still short of the voter-mandated 85 percent. David Chiu, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, has called for a wide-ranging hearing into Muni’s troubles.

Transit advocates say Ford, whose $308,000 salary makes him one of the city’s highest-paid executives, is not to blame for all of Muni’s ills. The agency is struggling financially; last year it lost $80 million in state financing. And Ford is buffeted by the fleeting and conflicting wishes of the Muni board, the Board of Supervisors and, most of all, the mayor.

“He doesn’t have the political support,” Radulovich said. “So what you end up having is these short-term tactics to try to keep the agency afloat” without making anyone angry.

Ford has been credited with devising a comprehensive transit plan for the city, opening new Muni lines and adopting an innovative system for parking charges that reduces congestion.

Now the Muni board is meeting behind closed doors to discuss whether to keep Ford or buy out his contract.

If the Washington position were to become an option again (his name could still be considered in a new search), Ford said he had not decided what he would do.

In his office overlooking busy Van Ness Avenue on Monday, he reeled off Muni’s accomplishments. But the normally polished Ford was more distracted than normal, at times trailing off as he stared at the traffic below.

“Where am I?” Ford said, as he paced around his office. “I’m here, focused on the MTA.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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