Van Ness BRT Delayed 2 More Years After Caltrans Pushes Wider Car Lanes

Image: SFCTA

Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit is now scheduled to open in 2018, two years later than the previous target of 2016. It’s the latest setback for a project that was originally set to open in 2012.

In fleshing out the conceptual design approved in June 2012, the SF County Transportation Authority “encountered greater than expected challenges in reaching agreement with Caltrans,” said Tilly Chang, the SFCTA’s deputy director of planning. Caltrans said the traffic lanes in the plan were too narrow for the department’s highway design standards, according to Chang.

The SFCTA also ran into opposition to the removal of bus stops near a senior center, leading the agency to add an extra stop in each direction between Broadway and Vallejo Street, which is expected to slow the BRT line down. The obstacles are just the latest in a slew of factors that planners have cited for repeated delays.

“Bus rapid transit was proposed at the beginning of the century and it was billed as an alternative to rail because it could be built faster and more cheaply,” said Jason Henderson, a member of the Van Ness BRT Citizens Advisory Committee and author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco.

“This is a true, signature project, and we should be doing this all over the city,” he said. “If it takes this long to do a two-mile stretch, what lessons can we learn to go faster?”

The project’s latest milestone came this week with the release the final environmental impact report. The SFCTA will also begin transferring management of the project to the SF Municipal Transportation Agency, which will oversee its construction and operation.

“We understand the public’s concerns about how long these projects are taking, and share their frustrations,” Chang wrote in an email. “However, please know that the Authority and SFMTA are doing everything within our purview to speed up the design and construction process.”

Chang said Caltrans, which has jurisdiction over Van Ness because it’s part of Highway 101, had insisted that planners maintain 12-foot-wide traffic lanes by removing trees in the center median and car parking lanes, which provide a barrier between pedestrians and moving traffic. Eventually, the SFCTA convinced Caltrans to allow 10.5-foot-wide lanes on some stretches.

In an ongoing effort, the SFCTA is pushing Caltrans to reform its street standards to allow for safer designs in urban environments, said Chang.

The latest delay would have been even longer, she said, had the agency not sped up a funding grant for the SFMTA to begin its design process.

“The detailed design effort is now underway and the team continues to look for ways to pull in the schedule, while maintaining quality and public involvement,” she said. “SFMTA is studying alternative delivery processes such as Design-Build (where the same contractor performs final design as well as construction) – this is a very positive development as it can really save time and enable the most efficient use of resources between the public and private sectors.”

Chang said planners are also looking for ways to integrate the development of the Van Ness project with Geary BRT, another project that has been fraught with delays.

Henderson thinks BRT projects would move faster if they had political backing from members of the Board of Supervisors. “As it’s built, they’re going to have to shepherd this thing through and make sure that it doesn’t get whittled down,” he said.

  • Andy Chow

    The problem with running local on Van Ness is that you need to decide whether the local bus will use the BRT stops or not. If it will use the BRT stops at shared location, the local bus will have to travel on and off the busway. If it will not use the BRT stops, then it will have to have separate stops near the BRT platforms. Riders will have to decide where to wait instead of waiting at a single location and board whichever arrives first.

    I know at this point Golden Gate Transit buses will use the busway and the BRT platforms, especially since they make limited stops today already.

  • Joël Ramos

    Sounds juicy, Tim. If we can keep local service (the way we’re proposing to do with Geary BRT, that’s a whole different project, and one that WOULD meet the needs of the seniors. Would be quite a lift to “shift” the 19….but it’s worth looking into.

  • Joël Ramos

    ….AND laying the foundation to continue north AND straightening out the connection between downtown and the Eastern neighborhoods, AND dramatically improving service for the poor souls dependent upon the 30 Stockton, AND improving service system-wide by pulling the T-Third out of the subway at the Embarcadero switch AND below Market St. Plus, with the BULK of funding coming from the FTA, and considering what we are putting in for the return, it’ll be worth it. Perhaps for you It’s “only a single stop in Chinatown”. Looking at the project from a system-wide perspective, the new transit will be much more than that.

  • Joël Ramos

    ….AND laying the foundation to continue north AND straightening out the connection between downtown and the Eastern neighborhoods, AND dramatically improving service for the poor souls dependent upon the 30 Stockton, AND improving service system-wide by pulling the T-Third out of the subway at the Embarcadero switch AND below Market St. Plus, with the BULK of funding coming from the FTA, and considering what we are putting in for the return, it’ll be worth it. Perhaps for you It’s “only a single stop in Chinatown”. Looking at the project from a system-wide perspective, the new transit will be much more than that.

  • Joël Ramos

    ….AND laying the foundation to continue north AND straightening out the connection between downtown and the Eastern neighborhoods, AND dramatically improving service for the poor souls dependent upon the 30 Stockton, AND improving service system-wide by pulling the T-Third out of the subway at the Embarcadero switch AND below Market St. Plus, with the BULK of funding coming from the FTA, and considering what we are putting in for the return, it’ll be worth it. Perhaps for you It’s “only a single stop in Chinatown”. Looking at the project from a system-wide perspective, the new transit will be much more than that.

  • Joël Ramos

    Andy, what’s your thinking as to why couldn’t move the 19 to Van Ness, including a bit of red-curb elimination on Polk to further off-set the parking loss required to accomodate both BRT and standard local, curb-side stop service on Van Ness?

  • Tim

    Shifting buses is always heavy lifting, but luckily the 19 isn’t an electric trolleybus, so moving it to Van Ness is nothing a good service planner couldn’t figure out in short order. One important question that remains is where exactly it would shift over to Van Ness. At present, it doesn’t finish jogging over in the northbound direction until Geary, about 8 blocks above Market.

  • Tim

    A good point. In an ideal world, local and limited buses pick up at the same stop so riders have the option of easily boarding either — whichever comes first. However, in practice, many rapid/limited bus lines use a separate boarding platform from local service, such as the Select Bus Service in New York. Market Street is another example. Local bus service on Van Ness (whether the 19 Polk or a new line) will serve a very different trip type than the BRT, so it’s no fatal flaw to have them pick up at different platforms.

  • Michael Smith

    I remember working with the MTA/DPT years ago when trying to reduce lane widths. The MTA would push back stating that they couldn’t do so because of design standards. After it became painfully obvious that 1) existing wide lanes were not safe; 2) narrow lanes are possible; and 3) SF was lagging the rest of the world in street design, then things became possible. This allowed us to significantly reduce speed on Fell St for example by putting in the old bike lane.

    I’ve worked with Caltrans on such issues as well. Unfortunately they still live in the past. The lane width requirements have been all about making streets “safer” by providing more clearance. It is not that trucks need 12′ lanes. It Is not that Van Ness needs both lanes to accommodate trucks. It is simply that Caltrans has obsolete standards the provide excessive clearance for 8 1/2′ vehicles which result in more high speed and dangerous streets, completely going against their “safety” standards.

    Just as the MTA changed and allowed safer streets, so will Caltrans.
    But not if we continue to let them insist on poorly designed streets.

  • Andy Chow

    I don’t think it is necessary because there are not too many bus stops being eliminated by the BRT. The stops that are being eliminated are within a few hundred feet to the nearest BRT stop. The furthest distance between two BRT stops is about 1/4 mile. We are not talking about a suburban system with BRT stops every 1/2 mile to every mile.

    The additional benefit of a local service is to serve 4 stops (out of 13 currently) that won’t be served by the BRT. I don’t think such service would be productive (especially if it were to stay completely curbside). Because of street reconfiguration, it would be hard to find curbside space for bus stops that won’t block traffic.

    Considering that relocating 19 away from Polk will impact existing 19 riders (I believe that some prefer the 19 because they can avoid Van Ness), it is not worth the hassle to move the 19.

  • Nathanael

    “Bus rapid transit was proposed at the beginning of the century and
    it was billed as an alternative to rail because it could be built faster
    and more cheaply,” said Jason Henderson, a member of the Van Ness BRT
    Citizens Advisory Committee and author of “Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco.”

    “This is a true, signature project, and we should be doing this all
    over the city,” he said. “If it takes this long to do a two-mile
    stretch, what lessons can we learn to go faster?””

    Build rail instead. It’ll go faster.

  • Nathanael

    So forbid trucks on Van Ness, specify an alternate truck route, and be done with it.

    Oh, right, it’s a state highway. Get that revoked.

  • Nathanael

    San Jose does something sane. Wow.

  • Nathanael

    Move the US101 signage onto I-580 and I-80.

  • Nathanael

    9 foot lanes are fine for 25 mph speeds, actually.

  • Anonymous

    opportunity to underground it, then.

  • Anonymous

    Until Muni implements grade-level boarding, it is a plain fact that wheel chair passengers are a humongous drain on the system. Unfortunately, Reiskan, Wiener and the BOS have no interest in implementing what has proven to work well in other cities.

  • Anonymous

    You are correct n that Van Ness should be a SUBWAY. Underground roadway from Market to Lombard.

  • Anonymous

    If they built it subterranean with a center BRT passing lane, this would not be a proglem.

  • FL

    No, 10.5 feet is not generous. It’s actually close to being tight. 10 feet is the city norm. 6 inches is NOT relatively generous.

    Octavia Blvd has 11 foot lanes. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a cross town route with a number of trucks too. Lane widths should be wide enough so that most vehicles should be able to stay in their lanes while moving. Buses and trucks need wider lanes to do this.

    And, yes, I know Fell/Oak has 9.5 foot lanes and they are stupid. I know the street is already tight, but making 10 foot lanes by having a 4 foot buffer will not create less comfort for bicyclists, but will help bus and truck drivers avoid side swipes.

  • FL

    What was that 30 years ago? Pfft. Different time and place. Ten foot lanes have always been acceptable when I worked on City of SF/DPT/MTA projects.

  • FL

    It’s probably because there are alternative routes or they are not major connecting routes. Highway 130 deadends at the Hamilton Observatory. Highway 131 ends in the Tiburon peninsula. Highway 82 is paralled with 280, 101 freeways.

    Cutting of Highways 1 and 101 would be a disaster to the Bay Area REGION. That’s REGION people. It’s fine for the narrow-minded narcissistic anti-car progressives here, but not for the REGION.

  • Transportation Queen

    I think the money being spent on extending the T Third St to Chinatown should have been used to put (at least partially) an underground below Geary

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