Hampered by Tunnels, Center BRT Lanes on Geary Limited to the Richmond

A rendering of the recommended plan for Geary BRT at 17th Avenue in the Richmond. Images: SFCTA

Correction 12/17: The next community meeting on Geary BRT is tonight, Tuesday, at 5:30 p.m. at the Main Public Library.

The latest iteration of the plan for bus rapid transit on Geary Boulevard includes center-running bus lanes only on the Richmond District segment between Arguello Boulevard and 27th Avenue — about a quarter of the street’s length. East of Arguello, where Geary’s center traffic lanes run through two tunnels designed to whisk cars past Masonic Avenue and Fillmore Street, planners say center-running transit lanes are too problematic and expensive to engineer. Instead, they propose side-running colored transit lanes all the way to downtown.

Planners from the SF County Transportation Authority maintain that their recommended plan [PDF] for Geary’s Richmond segment, previously called Alternative 3-Consolidated, will still produce significant gains for riders on Muni’s busiest bus line. Along that segment, the project is expected to cut travel times by a quarter, make the line 20 percent more reliable, and increase ridership by up to 20 percent. The current estimated cost for the project is between $225 million and $260 million.

That comes out to $35-40 million per mile, and with more than 50,000 riders every weekday already, planners say Geary BRT is worth it. “It’s a really cost-effective investment to make because people are going to start using it if we make this set of improvements,” said SFCTA planner Chester Fung.

Filling in the Fillmore underpass to raise Geary’s center lanes back to street level would cost an estimated $50 million and could add years to a project that has already been delayed extensively, planners said. Geary BRT was originally supposed to open in 2012, and the SFCTA says its current proposal could be implemented by 2018, the same year as Van Ness BRT — an improvement over the previous 2020 timeline.

“It’s not what I’d like it to be,” said Winston Parsons, a member of the Geary BRT Citizens Advisory Committee, though he said the SFCTA’s reasons for limiting the center-running lanes are “understandable.”

“I initially advocated that both tunnels be filled, but it’s simply not in this project’s budget and would drastically increase our timeline,” he said.

East of Arguello, Geary buses would use side-running, colored transit-only lanes, with bus bulb-outs added at stops. This rendering shows O’Farrell and Powell.
Where improvements would be installed along the length of Geary.

Parsons and other transit advocates say they see Geary BRT as a worthwhile interim boost for reliable transit and pedestrian safety, but that city agencies should plan on a relatively quick upgrade to light rail.

Thea Selby, a spokesperson for the SF Transit Riders Union, said city agencies should shoot for light rail by 2030, when the BRT buses’ useful life is expected to end. SFTRU could not yet comment on the proposed BRT design, “but would like to see a long-term strategy that takes us from the initial plan, through a more sophisticated BRT treatment (probably including fill-ins),” she said.

Indeed, it seems the only way to build a high-quality BRT system and repair the car-dominated urban fabric at the Masonic and Fillmore crossings is to fill in the underpasses, which tore apart neighborhoods when they were built by freeway-happy planners in the mid-20th century.

The Masonic tunnel (top) and Fillmore underpass (bottom).

Parsons said he and other CAC members opposed an initial SFCTA proposal to run BRT through the Masonic tunnel, with BRT stations placed at either entrance, arguing that the platforms would feel dangerous and unpleasant to wait on. Requiring people to take stairs, an escalator, or elevator to reach Masonic would also make it difficult to transfer to the 43 line, he said.

Even if Geary buses were to run underneath the Fillmore underpass, they would be forced to quickly jostle back to the side lanes on either side. At Gough Street to the east, Geary splits into a one-way street pair with O’Farrell Street, and a fill-in for the much more massive Masonic tunnel, which passes underneath two intersections, hasn’t even been seriously considered.

At a community meeting in the Richmond last week, there was no sign of the opposition seen from merchants in past years who complained about the loss of car parking and construction impacts. The latest iteration of the plan removes basically no parking in the Richmond, and construction on any one block would last no longer than five months, according to the SFCTA.

Roger Gula, an architect who lives at 19th Avenue and Geary, said he was excited for the arrival of BRT, and that he could wait patiently for a light-rail upgrade.

“The existing conditions on Geary are circa 1952 — very car-oriented. Not a lot of transportation choices except for a very crowded bus,” said Gula. “This brings us into the 21st century.”

“I like riding the bus so much better [than driving] with my son,” he added. “I can hold him, I can talk with him, as opposed to a small rear-view mirror where I can only see the top of his head.”

The SFCTA will host another community meeting on Geary BRT at the Main Public Library, 100 Larkin Street, on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.

Over the Masonic tunnel, a side-running colored transit lane would be installed along with a bike lane connecting future bike routes on Anza and Post Streets via Presidio and Masonic Avenues.
The proposed plan for a side-running bus lane at Fillmore.
  • @jonobate:disqus – During the last election, BART Director James Fang made an 11th-hour campaign promise to extend BART down Geary. I wonder how that’s going?

  • jonobate

    Oh, I know that was clear opportunism. There is no current effort underway to extend BART down Geary. I’m just hoping they commit to it in their ‘Future BART/BART Metro’ planning.

  • Andy Chow

    Then you will miss the financial district and not able to have a convenient transfer to transit on Market (3rd Street is right between Powell and Montgomery).

  • Andy Chow

    Should we have appreciated the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, and BART because they seemed like such a great deal.

    Well there’s inflation, and the fact that we believe everyone should get paid really well so that the rest of us can compete with the Googlers and Facebookers on escalating rent.

    Construction workers aren’t Googlers, but aren’t minimum wage workers either.

  • Andy Chow

    If you’re expecting passengers to go up and down and use a subway-style station, there should be significant faster service in return. Since this project isn’t going to do that I don’t think it is worth the effort. Plus converting the tunnel won’t work as well as if the tunnel were built from scratch just for transit use.

  • jonobate

    Union Square is close enough to the Financial District to serve as a station for people working there, and provides a transfer to Powell (granted with a bit of a walk). It’s not perfect but I think it’s the best option available.

    The other strong candidate is Geary to Mission, which gets you closer to FiDi and Transbay and could connect to a new Transbay Tube under Pier 2. But that may not even be constructible due to the need to tunnel under some tall buildings between Geary & Market and Mission & 2nd, and it doesn’t serve South of Market.

  • SFnative74

    Or, if there’s also a station near the new Transit Center, transferring to Caltrain or high speed rail (assuming that gets built).

  • jonobate

    FYI – I just had a chat with the Geary BRT planners at the open house. They cited cost as the primary reason for not including a Masonic fill, as well as concerns about how bikes would handle the jog from Masonic to Presidio with increased motor traffic on the surface, and increased congestion at the intersection. A station in the tunnel was ruled out due to opposition from local residents and the CAC.

    The Fillmore fill is being taken forward as a separate process largely because the community in that area is pushing for it, whereas the community around Masonic have not been pushing for a Masonic fill. Also, the Fillmore grade seperation is nearing the end of it’s useful life and will have to be replaced or filled soon anyway; the Masonic tunnel has longer left before it needs to be dealt with. They have not ruled out a Masonic fill in the future, but as with Fillmore it would be a separate project.

  • murphstahoe

    Construction workers aren’t Googlers, but aren’t minimum wage workers either.

    They also aren’t getting most of the money.

  • The current proposal should not even be called BRT. The only element of BRT present is off-board far collection.

    “To be considered BRT, buses should operate for a significant part of their journey within a fully dedicated right of way (busway), in order to avoid traffic congestion. In addition, a true BRT system will have most of the following elements:

    alignment in the center of the road (to avoid typical curb-side delays)

    Stations with off-board fare collection (to reduce boarding and alighting delay related to paying the driver)

    Station platforms level with the bus floor (to reduce boarding and alighting delay caused by steps)

    Bus priority at intersections (to avoid intersection signal delay)”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bus_rapid_transit

  • Jamison Wieser

    You are being very dismissive of there being any benefits without taking a moment to consider those benefits.

    Passengers would have to go up and down in both the case of a single station or separate stations at either end of the tunnel. Under that single subway station option the elevators would have come up immediately adjacent to the 43-Masonic stops. Any case of running busses through the tunnel will include about the same amount of vertical travel, two separate stations would need separate 43-line stops to provide the same level of access as the consolidated center station option.

  • Eric5434

    This political gridlock is the kind of thing that makes people into Republicans. How many miles of rail has the Bay Area constructed in the last decade? How many have cities in rail-hostile red states, like Dallas or Salt Lake City?

  • Kevin Crabtree

    And bus lanes that car drivers will just ignore anyway.

  • Sll

    A bit disappointing, but I can live with it because a BRT in the Richmond will still be a huge improvement, and it’s still one of the better places to have one with long E-W arterials and short N-S streets. That and any and all improvements to the 38/38L to shorten travel time and address passenger crowding is welcome.

    In the future I hope to see the tunnels filled in and some nice sexy low-floor LRVs like the Siemens Avenio run down Geary.

  • sugarntasty

    Subway is best option place ballots numerous times if mind Ed Lee plea just.
    Increase taxes on cartels not difficult if not REITS golbal firms increase road
    usage eventually. Subway Geary Blvd accurate also on Mosaic street to
    Fisherman’s Wharf conntation of global business inadequate transit San Franciso. BART 6 tunnels are necassary for future informed in 90’s London Breed or Scott any suggestion new transit options? Okay pass gentrifed policies effecting residents rentals Geary Blvd plan is inept subway save time and money!

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