Over the past 38 years, he has overseen complex negotiations for the purchase of a railway on the brink of disappearance, helped implement legislation of a countywide transportation tax, and, as a fresh-faced attorney, steered a newly created bus agency through its earliest days.
Just don’t ask him to bask in all these compliments so cheerfully.
After an unparalleled and distinguished career advising SamTrans, Caltrain and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, Miller is retiring, and perhaps the toughest task he’s had to face during his tenure is enduring the outpouring of praise directed his way in recent weeks.
“It’s overwhelming, but it’s also almost embarrassing in a sense,” said Miller. “It’s wonderful to know that over the years, you’ve made those kinds of impressions and those kinds of impacts. But it also detracts from the fact that I didn’t do all these things alone. If I led a team, it was a team effort and a lot of people deserve the credit, not just me.”
That humble approach has been a trademark of Miller’s time with the Transit District, which has grown from an untested bus operation in 1976 to a multi-agency entity serving over 100,000 public transportation passengers daily on the Peninsula.
Miller grew up in Long Island, New York, and graduated from the Syracuse University College of Law, before moving to the Bay Area in 1970 to take a position with Hanson Bridgett, a Northern California-based legal firm that specializes in serving public agencies. Miller initially fell in love with the Bay Area in 1968, while working for a summer at NASA as a law student.
“I found myself doing a lot of writing and attending jazz concerts in San Francisco that summer,” said Miller. “I thought to myself, ‘I could live here for a while.’”
While at Hanson Bridgett, Miller joined the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District as General Counsel in early 1976. Later that year, he was asked to take on the same role for SamTrans, the fledgling bus agency serving San Mateo County. Miller had the job of advising a new public agency that just absorbed and consolidated a series of disparate local bus routes in the aim of better serving riders in the area.
Over the next decade, SamTrans slowly started to grow and Miller led a series of crucial initiatives that have left an indelible impact on public transportation in the region.
In the late 1970s, Southern Pacific, the longtime owner and operator of passenger rail on the Peninsula, was set to abandon the service all together, citing suffering profits (the company actually proposed replacing the train with van pools—that’s how low ridership had fallen at the time.)
With Miller’s tactful negotiations, SamTrans helped oversee state ownership of the rail line, first through Caltrans, and then through the creation of the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board, a three-county agency that eventually took over operations. Miller helped purchase the right-of-way from Southern Pacific, saving the rail line and paving the way for the system that now serves more than 61,000 passengers per weekday and is set to electrify its system. Miller established the legal agreement for the governing structure of Caltrain, a partnership with the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, the City and County of San Francisco and SamTrans, with the latter taking on the role of managing the railroad.
“I have so many wonderful memories of my time here,” said Miller. “But thwarting SP’s attempts to abandon the railroad might be my most satisfying one.”
During the time of the railroad acquisition, Miller also helped implement Measure A, the legislation that created the San Mateo County Transportation Authority (TA). Measure A, which allocates funding from a half-cent sales tax to local transportation and infrastructure projects, was approved by over 60 percent of San Mateo County voters in 1988 and reauthorized by more than 75 percent of voters in 2004.
“He’s been a bedrock presence here,” said Mark Simon, the Transit District’s Executive Officer of Public Affairs. “A lot of times you don’t want to talk to your attorneys, because they’re just going to make things harder. But David is someone you go to if you want problems solved. He’s a practitioner of what used to be a highly-valued art in politics: to disagree without being disagreeable.”
Scores of Miller’s peers extolled his ability to conciliate between groups that often had little incentive to engage with each other. Miller said he always tries to put himself in the position of his opposing partner when involved in negotiations.
“Each of us should understand what our respective challenges are and what our limitations are, and then try and find a common ground,” said Miller, who will be replaced at the Transit District by Joan Cassman, his longtime colleague at Hanson Bridgett. “I want to have the reputation as someone who can get things done, but not also a person you can take advantage of.”
General Manager Michael Scanlon, who like Miller, will be stepping down from the Transit District soon after 48 years in the transit industry, said that his General Counsel was the ultimate coach.
“Your grandson Jackson calls you Coach, and I couldn’t think of a better title,” Scanlon said to Miller during their final executive team meeting this month. “You’re everybody’s coach. Best coach I’ve ever known. Working shoulder to shoulder with you has been the highlight of my career.”
Miller said he will continue to advise Caltrain part-time over the next year or so on negotiations with Union Pacific. But during retirement, he plans on playing some golf, travelling, and spending time with his family. He and his wife have two daughters and three grandchildren, all of who live in the Bay Area. Miller, a highly-acclaimed jazz pianist, also intends to spend more time recording music, which he does with his daughter Rebecca, an accomplished vocalist, who contributes to her dad’s group, the Dave Miller Trio.
“David is a seminal figure here, but he’s not an icon because he’s so humble,” said Simon. “He will be missed tremendously.”
In his trademark unassuming fashion, Miller said he was lucky to have survived 38 years at the Transit District.
“It’s both a challenge and an opportunity to have an enduring career,” said Miller. “I’m glad I spent mine here.”