For what’s intended to be a relatively quick, cost-effective transportation solution, San Francisco’s first Bus Rapid Transit route on Van Ness Avenue has been a long time coming. Planners first conceived the project in 2004, and as late as two years ago, it was scheduled to open in 2012. Since then, construction has been pushed back to 2016.
The agonizing wait has left many frustrated transit advocates asking, “What’s the hold up?”
Tilly Chang, the deputy director for planning at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) leading the planning effort, says answering that question opens “a huge can of worms.”
“We understand the frustration,” she said, citing a slew of factors contributing to the delay of the massive project.
Van Ness BRT is in many ways the first of its kind in the United States, and its scope has grown to include a complete overhaul of the street. The project’s environmental impact report/statement, released last month in compliance with state and federal requirements, also included a burdensome level of analysis.
“Trust me, for those of us going through this process, we would love to have it move as fast as possible,” said Michael Schwartz, the SFCTA’s project manager.
“The fact that there really isn’t an example in the city, and in North America, of full-featured BRT in a dense urban environment like San Francisco is part of what makes the project really exciting, but also means there are significant policy decisions to work out,” he said. “I think there’s a trade-off where there’s a really good process that happens in California and San Francisco to involve stakeholders and do good coordination, but that does take time.”
One major impediment, said Chang, has been the extensive impact analysis required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) using the automobile-centric transportation metric known as Level of Service.
“It is not only time consuming and expensive, but in direct conflict with the city’s transit first policy,” she said, although she noted that efforts to reform LOS requirements in CEQA are “nearing completion.”
Staff also cited the technical complexity of the project’s area, which includes many busy intersections and runs along a state highway controlled by Caltrans. It also requires negotiations with agencies like the Federal Transit Authority, the SF Public Utilities Commission, the SF Planning Department, the Department of Public Works, and the SFMTA.
Since its conception, the project’s scope has grown into a major redesign of the two-mile stretch, including pedestrian safety improvements, landscaping, road resurfacing, and the replacement of all traffic signals. Much of that work was being planned independently of the BRT project, which was pushed back in part so that all the changes could be built concurrently.
Schwartz said coordination saves the city time and money in the long run. “It makes sense to go in while we’re doing the construction,” he said.
Chang said the timeline isn’t extremely long for major transportation projects in the United States. “The average federal highway project takes over ten years to get through these stages; subways take at least twice as long, and bus rapid transit projects should take far less time,” she said. “But there is a range of BRT definitions, and full-featured BRT is more like rail.”
While BRT should be faster to implement than rail, Schwartz said planners have “realized along the way that many of the same coordination issues of a much more intensive infrastructure project still need to be worked out.”
The release and expected certification of the project’s EIR is a major milestone, but up to four years of work still precede construction. “From 2012 to 2016, the plan is to undertake design, purchase and test vehicles, obtain needed permits, fill in funding gaps, and construct the facility,” said Chang. “There’s a desire to go faster but we need to pick a locally-preferred alternative and get more engineering done, including the condition of the sewers, before we can update the project schedule.”
Construction could come faster depending on which design alternative is chosen, said Schwartz. The center-median option would require less sewer work than the dual-median option, bringing the construction schedule up to 2015 with service beginning the year after.
“We and AC Transit hope and expect that these first projects will provide proof of concept to help pave the way for the skeptics in the public and at public agencies, so that future BRT projects can have a smoother path to implementation.”