For many, Jim Hartnett, former Redwood City mayor and councilman was a surprise choice to replace Mike Scanlon who announced his retirement last August. Beginning next Monday, Hartnett will take over as general manager of SamTrans, executive director of Caltrain and executive director of the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, also known as the TA.
But after interviewing 200 applicants, members of the search committee which included representatives from San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, agreed it was more important to have political rather than operational skills in these challenging times. Also Hartnett is someone most officials in the three counties know, especially those in San Mateo. Hartnett served on the Redwood City Council for 15 years and most importantly on both the Caltrain Joint Powers Board, or JPB, and the SamTrans boards for 10 years. He also was a member of the High-Speed Rail Authority Board of Directors. A candidate who had operated transit districts but was new to the area and regional politics was perhaps a riskier choice than Hartnett. And perhaps many experienced transit officials weren’t interested in taking on this hot potato and moving to a very expensive area despite the very generous salary.
Most jurisdictions have separate administrators for each of their transit operations. San Mateo County has one chief executive to manage all three: SamTrans, the bus system; Caltrain, commuter rail between San Jose and San Francisco; and the TA which oversees allocations of the county’s transportation sales tax. However, Hartnett will have to deal with three boards of directors. The JPB is made up of San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo county elected officials and some directors of transit agencies. SamTrans and the TA are primarily made up of San Mateo County supervisors and city councilmembers (selected by the county’s mayors but also include some community members).
Funding is always a challenge but increasingly so with competition from other transit agencies such as BART which is the big gorilla in the region and accordingly takes up most of the available funding. San Francisco’s Muni (bus, trolley) runs a close second. Also, San Mateo County is small potatoes compared to the much larger counties of Santa Clara, Alameda, and Contra Costa. And San Francisco still has the political clout of being the major (if not the largest) city in the Bay Area. Recently, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which determines in large part what entities get federal, state and regional funding gave an extra seat on its board to Santa Clara and Alameda counties.
Hartnett will have to deal with a money-losing SamTrans which is trying to reinvent itself into a more popular bus system. Caltrain still does not have a stable source of funding and has to rely on the generosity of its member counties. More funds for Caltrain in a future sales tax is certainly on the table. But San Mateo County’s neighbors to the south and north have other priorities. Caltrain was able to rejuvenate with the popular baby bullet which offers express service between San Francisco and San Jose and stations in between. Now fare revenue is up and there is standing room only on most commuter runs. Expanded development along the Caltrain tracks means future riders and more dollars. Then there is HSR where Hartnett’s experience and connections will come in handy. Despite the lawsuits which keep popping up, HSR is bound to happen (Hartnett called it a generational thing, meaning it make take a while for the entire system to get rolling). Before it will come Caltrain electrification, a much-needed environmental improvement which will also speed up the trains and allow for more stops. Most of the Peninsula cities are resigned with sharing Caltrain tracks with HSR, an improvement over the feared four-track system originally proposed. None of this will be easy and Hartnett has his work cut out for him.
Yet he wanted this challenge at age 64 after 20 years as a litigation attorney in a small Redwood City firm. He feels his experience has prepared him for what’s ahead. He has already met with SamTrans and Caltrain staff and is on the phone making those important calls to the major players in the region. Those who have worked with Hartnett respect him for his know-how, his organizational skills and his ability to work with others. Meanwhile, his wife Rosanne Foust, currently on the Redwood City Council and CEO of SAMCEDA, the San Mateo County Economic Development Association, has resigned her post on the TA to avoid a conflict of interest. She and Jim Hartnett are certainly the most powerful power couple in the county.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.