Is the Geary Bus Rapid Transit Project in Jeopardy?

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If the Geary Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project doesn't get some love from advocates and the general public, the project could be in trouble, according to several people closely following the process.

"I look to the left, I look to the right, all I see is opposition and criticism," says Joel Ramos, a member of the Geary BRT Citizens Advisory Committee and a staffer for Transform who has experience in the battle for Berkeley BRT.

Richmond Supervisor Eric Mar, who is in favor of BRT on Geary, said he expected more support from transit advocates.  The project gets little but tough love from its allies in the transportation reform movement, who complain alternately that the plan should be for rail instead of buses and that it ignores the needs of bicycle users in the corridor. From the anti-transit side, there are still dozens of Richmond residents who reliably show up to complain about the minor impediments to car traffic and parking that Geary BRT will impose. Indeed, without the enthusiastic support of transit advocates, Geary BRT public meetings get overrun by opponents.

Geary BRT would create a new exclusive busway in the center of the street from just east of Gough Street to 33rd Avenue in the outer Richmond. With pre-paid and three-door boarding, bypass lanes for express buses, and car-free lanes, the Transportation Authority expects to shave from five to nine minutes off the typical trip, as much as 30% of the travel time between those points. With stations instead of stops and low-floor buses with multiple doors operating in straight lines with no swerving for traffic, Geary BRT will feel like a train on rubber wheels. The dimensions of the center lane are planned to be able to accommodate trains if desirable in the future. The agency is currently completing its environmental impact report, which is expected to be ready for certification within the next few months. The project will cost approximately $200 million. 

Ramos, a resident of the Richmond and a staffer beneficiary of the project, is worried enough that he and Sarah Karlinsky of SPUR recently called a meeting to discuss what it will take to bring more support to the project.

Pages_from_Geary_BRT_final_study_Page_1_Image_0002.jpgOne of the two full-fledged BRT alternatives under consideration. Neither adds bike lanes.

Another explanation for limited public support is that there is no effective transit advocacy organization in San Francisco. Rescue Muni counts a handful of people among its hardcore reliable membership. Neither Livable City nor SPUR emphasize grassroots organizing as a political tactic. Only the SFBC does good grassroots organizing, and, naturally, they're focused on bicycling.

If the project improved bicycle safety, it might get more interest, but as it stands there is no intention to make significant improvements for bicycle travel. It could arguably be worse, with more intense car traffic in the rightmost lane. Bicycle parking will probably improve with the construction of new transit stations. Leah Shahum, SFBC Executive Director, said in an email that the current plan poses "big problems for bikes."

The Transportation Authority's project leader Zabe Bent has agreed to look more closely at bicycle access, especially along the section between Arguello and Presidio where there is no good adjacent route. An initial analysis shows that adding bike lanes would remove parking in some locations and increase the crossing distance for pedestrians. Bent has made no commitment to design bike lanes into the project as an option for policy makers to consider or reject. "We need to push harder on this," Shahum said.

If the project were a light rail extension, it would get more transit advocates' support. Geary light rail is the project most transit experts preferred over the Third Street/Chinatown light rail and subway project. However, while that project had the ardent support of community leaders, Geary light rail never did. BRT is a kind of compromise that, in the eyes of its main proponents at the Transportation Authority, represents the middle ground between the expensive rail project that faces neighborhood opposition and comes with a prohibitively expensive price tag, and the status quo of minor changes that won't help to transform Muni service.

This compromise is important to Supervisor Mar, who says that the city planners have apparently learned from the mistakes of Third Street light-rail construction that so severely hurt businesses. He is confident they won't repeat the mistake with BRT construction on Geary.

Without a group that can bring even a significant fraction of the grassroots support for transit that the SFBC brings for bikes, projects like these are never going to get the support they need to experience smooth sailing.

"Every transit project could of course be better," said Sarah Karlinsky of SPUR, but "Geary BRT is a good project and it should be supported." She, along with Supervisor Eric Mar and Joel Ramos of Transform, are hoping that transit advocates will start showing up at Geary BRT citizen advisory committee meetings, and that proponents of the project will outnumber the opponents when the Environmental Impact Report is completed.