The Long and Winding Road to Traffic Calming the Bernal Cut

like_a_freeway_small.jpgPhoto: Rick Mordesovich.

When a group of Bernal Heights and Glen Park neighbors began discussing the need for traffic calming last year on San Jose Avenue between Interstate 280 and Randall Street, a one mile segment known as the Bernal Cut, they had no idea it would take so long to get the attention of city and state traffic engineers. Many of the neighbors in the fledgling Bernal Glen Neighborhood Organization also didn't realize other residents on San Jose Avenue just to the north had been lobbying both the SFMTA and Caltrans for traffic calming along the length of the corridor from I-280 to Cesar Chavez since 1994, with mixed success.

The San Jose Guerrero Coalition to Save Our Neighborhoods, which is made up of neighbors living predominately on San Jose between Randall and Cesar Chavez, successfully fought a protracted battle and in 2005 compelled the city to narrow San Jose Avenue north of Randall from three lanes to two, and recently lobbied the city to close a segment of street where San Jose and Guerrero converge to construct a trial Pavement to Parks plaza, Guerrero Park.

While the two groups of neighbors have different baseline conditions and distinct traffic calming requests, they both agree the crux of the problem is the San Jose exit from I-280 northbound, which Caltrans widened from one lane to two lanes after Loma Prieta when portions of the freeway were badly damaged. Caltrans officials were looking to encourage alternate routes for commuters into San Francisco and as a result the agency re-striped the off ramp for two lanes, removing the shoulders, and promoted the already highway-like section of the Bernal Cut as an alternative to the 101.

Caltrans even sent brochures to Peninsula drivers encouraging the route, which essentially turned the stretch of San Jose Avenue into a surface freeway, according to Gillian Gillett of San Jose Guerrero Coalition.

Gillett and her neighbors have kept a meticulous record of correspondence with city and state traffic engineers since 1994, when Toby and Jerry Levine, who lived on Guerrero Street, sent a letter complaining that Caltrans was undermining San Francisco's Transit First Policy by encouraging freeway traffic to use a residential street as a pass-through. There are letters from neighbors like the Levines and there are a number of letters from Bond Yee, then with the Department of Parking and Traffic and now the Sustainable Streets Director for the SFMTA, and even one from then Assemblymember Mark Leno, all requesting Caltrans reduce the two lanes to one, as had been the case before the earthquake.

Caltrans has repeatedly denied requests to narrow the lane, citing traffic statistics and arguing the current peak volume of cars in the morning would overwhelm the off-ramp and lead to back-ups on I-280, potentially causing safety hazards. Despite making the policy decision to add capacity in the early nineties, Caltrans' has been using traffic data and capacity standards as the rationale for not changing it back. Gillett noted, however, that the capacity standards Caltrans has cited have repeatedly changed.

In a July 28, 1997 letter to Bond Yee, then Caltrans District 4 Director Harry Yahata wrote the single-lane off ramp before Loma Prieta had a capacity of 2100 vehicles per hour. In 2004, in a letter to Mark Leno, Caltrans District 4 Director Bijan Sartipi wrote that a single lane can only accommodate 2,000 vehicles per hour. In an email to the Bernal Glen Neighborhood Organization from August 11, 2010, Caltrans' Roland Au-Yeung said a single lane can only accommodate 1800 vehicles.

Gillett said the constantly changing numbers were a disappointment, but that was why she has kept such meticulous records. She also wasn't at all surprised they have resisted reducing lane capacity at the exit.

"It does seem to me it's not at all in their interest to reduce the capacity. Why would they give that up?" said Gillett. "There are congestion issues on the freeway. The freeways do back up. It's convenient for Caltrans to use city streets to store vehicles."

Caltrans District 4 spokesperson Brigetta Smith said she wasn't sure why the numbers varied at different times and that she would look into the issue. She also noted Caltrans had met with the Bernal Glen neighbors in March and with the SFMTA last week about the matter. "There is a plan to have a meeting with the neighborhood association in the next week or two to discuss what we can do with our resources and what the city can do with what they're requesting," said Smith.

Rick Mordesovich, a member of the Bernal Glen Neighborhood Organization, said the neighbors had felt "stonewalled" by the process, but he also noted they were more interested in change going forward and they hoped to work with the agencies.

"We expected them to respond much quicker, but we view this as a partnership with the city and Caltrans," said Mordesovich. "We've been trying to get Caltrans and MTA to the table at the same time and no one is responding to get to the table."

Mordesovich said the Bernal Glen neighbors wanted to work constructively with the agencies when those meetings are set up. "We don't want to be in an adversarial relationship. We're not anti-car. We're not a radical organization trying to slam something down the city's throat."

"You can expect that over time these issues will be resolved," SFMTA CEO Nat Ford told Streetsblog. "We have a robust program in terms of traffic calming, but in some of these cases it's a very complicated solution that involves multiple agencies. That's sometimes the challenge. We have good partnership with [Caltrans'] Bijan Sartipi, the regional director over there, so it's an opportunity for us to work together again to resolve these issues."

San_Jose_in_GP_Plan_small.jpgClick image to enlarge: a proposal in the Glen Park Community Plan to transform San Jose Avenue into a boulevard that slows traffic. This proposal is not in the current EIR for the plan due to construction costs. Image: Planning Department.

When or if the SFMTA and Caltrans will make changes is uncertain, but the Bernal Glen neighbors have asked for numerous other improvements they believe can happen in the short term, including restriping northbound San Jose from three lanes to two, adding speed boards to alert drivers of their speed, planting additional trees and improving the bike lane. Without the changes, the street will exist as an ugly, dangerous hybrid, said Mordesovich.

"MTA can't have it be both ways. It can't be a city street with cars pulling out into 60 miles per hour. If they want it to be a freeway, they should dead end the streets and give us the big walls to separate us from the freeway," he said.

According to Mordesovich, he and his neighbors were dismayed by the public reaction to coverage on Streetsblog and SF Gate, where commenters routinely said San Jose Avenue through the cut should continue to serve as a cut-through and the long segment without stops was a blessing for drivers to speed up to save time during the commute. The implication he saw in the reaction was resignation and resistance to change. Some commenters even chastised the neighbors for buying homes in the neighborhood if they knew they were going to reside next to a "freeway."

"That's the whole point of buying your house, you want to make it better," said Mordesovich. "Just because you bought a home in an area with an existing situation doesn't mean you can't band together as neighbors and improve the neighborhood for everyone's benefit. It doesn't have to be stuck in time."

Both community groups retain some optimism the situation will improve in the short term and inevitably over time as San Francisco seeks to develop underutilized land for housing and neighborhood centers. Gillett said before the aborted Mission Freeway preparation work deepened the Bernal Cut and removed housing, San Jose was a neighborhood street. She said she has a book with historic photos showing people walking their kids and doing other neighborhood activities that would be unsafe currently.

She saw the tremendous upshot of undeveloped land in the area as something that the market would eventually decide was better used as housing than excessive roadway. Though the Glen Park Plan EIR won't currently analyze turning San Jose into a boulevard, the Planning Department did complete those schematics and the assumption is when there is money, that option will be resurrected. With more people living in the area, said Gillett, it will increase the demand for transit and livability.

Mordesovich said the Glen Park Plan's promise was part of the reason he bought his house in 2003. "We all participated in [the plan] and we're very excited about reclaiming San Jose as a city street."

UPDATED: 8/25, 10:00 pm

Mission_Freeway_small.jpgClick image to enlarge an old schematic of the planned San Francisco freeways. This shows the path of the Mission Freeway, through the Bernal Cut. Full image here.