On Board With... Kate Breen

Transit California interviewed Kate Breen, who retired in December 2023 after her long and accomplished transit career at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) and as a leader at the Association.  

Transit California: You most recently served as SFMTA’s Director of Government Affairs, where you directed local, state, and federal-level governmental and regulatory responsibilities. Can you talk about some of the most memorable challenges and ways that you addressed them in that role that have set SFMTA on a course for future success? 

The government affairs role is all about taking on challenges, whether it be advancing new initiatives or protecting progress made in support of pro-transit funding and policy. Among the most memorable challenges for me has been the work to secure funding for transit to support operations as well as major capital projects.  Working in partnership with elected leaders, transit colleagues and project champions has been the key and will continue to be at the core of all future success. 

During the last several years, SFMTA has delivered generational transit projects including the Central Subway, a new subway extension of Muni’s T-Third line into the heart of downtown San Francisco and Chinatown and the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project, an amazing rapid bus project that provides high frequency service literally down the middle of State Route 1 running through San Francisco. 

Successfully advancing these type of projects takes time, strategy, funding, and champions. While there are always challenges along the way, we have been fortunate in San Francisco to have elected leaders who are all in on their support for transit. 

Another memorable challenge was the effort to secure authorization of automated enforcement for illegal parking in designated transit-only lanes. The fundamental purpose of designated transit-only lanes is to allow transit to move more quickly and reliably in crowded corridors; this goal is undermined when drivers park in those lanes. Starting in 2007, it took over 10 years and 5 separate pieces of legislation to establish and then renew the original San Francisco transit-only lane enforcement pilot program, expand the law to allow a few other agencies to use and finally achieve statewide authorization in 2021.  And believe it or not, while San Francisco’s authority is permanent, the statewide authorization for other agencies will need to be renewed again before it sunsets in 2027. This is an example of how long it can take to achieve change in the public policy arena.

No challenge, however, has been more difficult than enduring the pandemic and witnessing the devasting impact on transit ridership. It has revealed more starkly than ever that for transit to have a sustainable future, we must secure a permanent, ongoing stable funding source. Last year, the State Legislature acted to create a statewide Transit Transformation Task Force. One of the fundamental challenges for this group will be to develop “new options for revenue sources to fund transit operations and capital projects to meet necessary future growth of transit systems for the next ten years.” The nexus between this work and achieving the State’s climate goals is fundamental to both transit and California’s future.

Transit California: You served at SFMTA for over 20 years, beginning your tenure in 2001. What are some of the greatest changes or shifts in priorities that you noted over that time period – for riders, for operators, and for government affairs? What do you predict will continue to change?

One of the biggest changes in San Francisco over the last 20+ years was the consolidation of SF Muni—San Francisco’s 100+ year transit system—with the City’s Parking and Traffic Department, following voter approval in 1999 of Prop. E. This merger had the benefit of bringing the management of all transportation modes under one Agency, the SFMTA. This transition took quite a long time, but it has resulted in a truly unique Agency that manages mobility from a holistic rather than any single mode perspective. 

In practice, this evolution has been critical to how we develop complete streets that support transit including the use of transit signal priority and transit only lanes. At the same time, we have been able to advance hundreds of miles of complete street improvements that make San Francisco’s network as safe as possible for bicyclists, pedestrians and other users. I predict this more holistic model will continue to be used by cities throughout California as they look to invest in neighborhoods, cities and towns that are as livable as possible. This approach is also best suited to address the everchanging landscape of transportation technology such as the rise of autonomous vehicle services and whatever future mobility developments may be in store.

Government affairs is the work of continual education with elected officials on the basics of how transit works, how it is funded and why it matters to achieving our mutual goals of a sustainable and equitable future. Over time, elected officials leave office, staff move on and the institutional knowledge fades. Nothing should be taken for granted in terms of helping bring people along in understanding the fundamentals of the business we are in. 

Transit California: At SFMTA, one of your critical roles was to engage with the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), an association of 100 major North American cities and transit agencies whose goal is to exchange transit ideas and approach national transit goals cooperatively. In particular, you led the exchange of ideas on the Vision Zero initiative to reduce and ultimately put an end to traffic fatalities. How did you collaborate with NACTO to help SFMTA reach its goals in this area?

NACTO has been one of the most important organizations at the forefront of communicating and advocating how to better manage surface transportation in urban areas. It provides such a critical forum for learning and peer exchange and SFMTA has been a partner in this process for many years. In fact, the NACTO advocacy and peer learning model led to formation in 2022 of similar California collaboration—the California City Transportation Initiative (CACTI)—comprised of the seven largest city DOTs in the State. Under this model, CACTI has been able to bring a unified city voice to important legislative initiatives, including those related to Vision Zero such as authorization for lower speed limits. This work is critical to SFMTA achieving its goals and confirms that success relies on collaboration and partnership. 

Transit California: You were a longtime leader in the Association, initially joining the Executive Committee in 2012 and serving as Chair of that committee during the pandemic crisis from 2019-21. As Chair, you were instrumental in helping persuade the federal government to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency relief funds to transit agencies nationwide and helping California transit agencies weather the pandemic. What were the keys to your success in these endeavors?

The success that transit agencies had in securing pandemic relief funding was hard won and the California Transit Association was a leader of this effort. We were extremely fortunate to have key elected leaders as champions on our side at both the State and Federal, leaders who understood that transit was critical to ensuring that essential workers could get to their jobs and that transit was and is essential to achieving our climate, equity and mobility goals. Make no mistake—federal and State pandemic relief funding was the key to ensuring that transit could survive during the most difficult of times. Equally important was the engagement and support of transit advocates, as well as labor, environmental and social justice partners. This all-hands-on-deck advocacy that was key to this success will be important as the industry seeks to find a way forward in a new paradigm for transit.

Transit California: Also, as Chair of the Association’s Executive Committee, you authorized the creation of the Task Force for A More Inclusive, Diverse, and Equitable Association, which released a report that reviewed the Association’s core functions and identified opportunities to address racism and other forms of embedded in transportation decisionmaking. Why was it critical that the Association undertake this work? Of which key initiatives or focus efforts borne of this work are you most proud?

The creation and work of the IDEA Task Force was critical for the Association to undertake at a time when the Association, as well as our own organizations were having important conversations about racism. These discussions focused on how we would confront institutional racism and how the history of racism impacted transportation decisionmaking. For the Association, the focus was on how to ensure that it had an action-based approach to changing how engagement in our work is informed and how decisions are made.

Inclusive of near-term and medium-term tactics, the Task Force report aims to ensure that the Association is accountable for its commitments in advancing equity and inclusion in all aspects of its work.  Specifically, the Task Force was charged with identifying opportunities to center racial justice, inclusion, diversity, and equity with the Association’s policy positions, advocacy endeavors, educational offerings, and governance structure. While the Task Force completed its work, it will continue as the oversight body. Ultimately, the CTA Executive Committee owns this work and will continue to serve as its most important champions.

The recommendations included in the report align with the fundamental goals of the Association’s adopted Strategic Plan which is key to ensuring that these recommendations are not separate and unto themselves but rather embedded in all the Association’s work.

Transit California: You also served on the Association’s State Legislative Committee, beginning in 2004, and as chair from 2012-2016, making you an active participant in every major transit policy and funding discussion for two decades. Of which legislative and/or budget victories are you most proud?

SB 1 (enacted in 2017) was huge, representing the largest transportation investment in California history and the first increase in the gas tax in over 20 years to support transportation investments. The Association's team and the State Legislative Committee worked relentlessly to ensure transit was at the table. Honestly, there is so much work done by the Association State Legislative Committee that it’s hard to single out any one victory. It's important here to give a big shout out to Association staff who do such incredible work to enable us as members to be successful. And also, to acknowledge the many Association members who dedicated their time and expertise to the committees. Participation is essential and legislative committee members are a dedicated group!

Transit California: The Association and transit agencies statewide have benefitted significantly from your participation in our organization. Why do you believe involvement in the Association is important for transit professionals? Do you have any advice for the emerging class of transit professionals on how they can make the most of their membership in the Association?

There is so much opportunity to learn about transit across California and build relationships with peers through involvement in the Association. For new transit professionals, there are many ways to be involved, to learn about facets of the industry that may be new to you. If you are in the operations world, maybe you learn about the policymaking that supports operations funding. Or perhaps you learn more about vehicle manufacturing and design. Being part of the Association helps you understand the bigger picture of the industry beyond your own organization and that is critical for future professional growth and advancement, whether you currently work in the public or private sector.

Transit California: One final question: What’s next for Kate Breen? Any parting words for Transit California readers who want to get in touch?

In terms of what’s next, I’m taking time to relax and appreciate having the space to see what the day brings. That along with more swimming, dog walking plus my favorite hobby of planning the next trip. I love to travel—we will be going to the U.K. in June for our son’s college graduation! Being in the transportation world for over 30 years, one of the best parts of travel for me is seeing how other places navigate all things transport-related, there’s so much to discover. It’s the journey and the journey at the destination for me.

I would love to hear from folks, you can find me via LinkedIn.

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