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.
  • Mario Tanev

    This was probably not intentional, but some of the renderings show a bus in the red bus-only lane, and cars immediately behind it.

  • mikesonn

    Private autos will still be allowed in bus-only lanes for right turns, correct?

  • lancette

    I will never ride in the middle of the street with cars moving on each side. I, and most riders, ride in the bus lane on Post. It is too dangerous to be riding in a middle lane.

  • Andrew

    Personally, I don’t mind this solution with the side lanes for most of the Geary run considering the issues with center lanes, but I do hope the transition is smooth. However, I am still a bit annoyed by completely losing the limited, especially considering the close proximity likely to happen with all of the stops. Indeed, many (if not most) of the riders on the 38 in the Richmond district are going to and from downtown.

    As such, I would love to see them take a page from the Fulton 5/5L experiment. Let them run a normal 38 that stops at all stops to Arguello or so, and then the 38L can make all stops beyond Arguello. Then, you can have the 38L be a true express downtown making stops only at Masonic/Divisadero/Fillmore/Van Ness before reaching union square. Assuming a couple of stops are more consolidated, a rider from 33rd Ave to downtown would only face 3 more stops going all the way downtown.

    And, best of all (for the merchants) it keeps a ‘consolidated’ plan that preserves street parking for all of the Richmond west of Arguello. And the area that would require more lanes is sometimes wider and does not have as many businesses that would lose street parking.

  • The Overhead Wire

    Wait, $40M per mile? What the hell costs so much? Are they completely reconstructing the street?

  • phoca2004

    Is half-baked pseudo BRT what we are after here? It is nearly painful to watch how pathetic we are at implementation in this town. The long term goal for this corridor should be subway/lightrail. Will filling in the blight that is the Fillmore and Masonic interchanges be less expensive in the future? We should be shooting for the whole megillah here, sooner, rather than later.

  • markballew

    The voters spoke for light rail on Geary with Prop K, and have been paying extra sales tax to get a “light rail ready” system for a decade. This isn’t really even BRT, this is new buses, painted lanes, and a few blocks of bus ROW. The curb lanes will end up as double parking lanes if there aren’t raised curbs. Take a look at the unseparated green bike lanes on Folsom; they are for trucks to park in and a hazard for bike/car interactions (but with plans for raised curbs).

    This project is a failure. We don’t need merchants to stop the project, we need riders to. Go back to the drawing board for the third time, bring some rail engineers, and get it done. After 10 years of work, how can the project sponsors suddenly realize there is this problem with the bridge and tunnel?

    To put in prospect just how badly the riders and tax payers are getting screwed here, the original A-Geary only took 3 years to build in 1909, and since rail service ended in 1952 it has been nearly 11,000 days of late, jerky and crowded bus service.

    Reference: http://www.spur.org/publications/voter-guide/2003-11-01/proposition-k-transportation-sales-tax

  • gneiss

    Is this a joke? Currently it takes 50 minutes to traverse the 6.5 miles from the Richmond to downtown and they say that it would cost up to $260 million to bring that down to 37.5 minutes? That’s still 10 minutes slower than by car – you are simply not going to get anyone to switch mode share if that’s the best that the SFCTA can do.

    And how can this plan cost so much if there’s no roadway realignment and it’s mostly just putting paint down on the street? Does this mean that the plan is to dig up the street, replace and redo utilities and repave the whole thing for primarily the benefit of motorists? I mean there are still 2-3 lanes of car traffic and we have to call that part of the project scope as well? What a colossal waste of SFCTA tax money.

  • re: city agencies should plan on a relatively quick upgrade to light rail

    I gotta say, if there’s *any* corridor in SF that merits another BART line, it’s Geary.

  • phoca2004

    Do you, are anyone else, know where there is any comparative data on BRT implementation costs from places that have implemented it for real? (Mexico City, Bogotá?)

  • gneiss

    I’ve never heard those kinds of numbers used for roadway construction projects on a per miles basis unless they are planning on relocating the underground utilities. This is absolutely insane. I mean even the MUNI track replacement project didn’t cost this kind of money.

    I think what this means is that the entire roadway gets a complete makeover (lights, utility upgrades, complete street repaving) which, by the way, is primarily to the benefit of motorists since there will still be two to three lanes of car traffic. This is a joke. Monies to pay for the other parts of the street not covered by BRT should be covered by some other budget than this one.

  • Andy Chow

    It’s not impossible. An advantage of side running lanes is that buses can pass each other using regular lanes.

  • RemyMarathe

    I’m sure all of that red paint on the ground will make drivers respect the bus’ rights-of-way. Definitely.

  • The Overhead Wire

    This is a good point. I really hope that we aren’t using transit capital funding just to justify reconstructing the street without using other funds.

  • The Overhead Wire

    Well Mexico City or Bogota wouldn’t be comparative because of the lower construction costs due to lower labor costs and other things.

    But Nashville is building an 80% dedicated lane BRT line and its only costing $24M a mile – http://www.nashvillemta-amp.org/amp/pdf/progress1.pdf

  • The Overhead Wire

    Which by the way, still seems really expensive. Cleveland’s line was about $17M per mile. But Hartford is building a completely new road on a railroad right of way at $55M a mile. But that’s a new road!

  • Michael Smith

    Just to be perfectly clear: this proposal is not BRT. It is simply an astounding amount of money for coloring the transit lanes and providing a BRT-lite system past Arguello. It’s the Central Subway all over again.Why oh why can’t San Francisco implement a significant transit improvement right?

    Plus keep in mind that touted 25% reduction in travel time is not true. It will only be a bit quicker than the 38L.

  • SFnative74

    I agree. BART under/along Geary with 4-5 stops would be fast and fantastic. Have it continue straight past Market so that it travels close to the Transbay Center under construction. To add cross bay capacity without adding a second tube, have a second set of tracks enter the tube so that the current bottleneck at the Embarcadero is bypassed and more trains can travel between SF and the East Bay. Let’s get BRT or BRT-lite in now and then plan for more BART in SF, which we will need regionally in the next 10-20 years anyway. Skip the at-grade lightrail.

  • Peter M

    Decades of planning and hundreds of millions of dollars, and 70% of the project is going to be bus lanes painted on the side of the street. Is there ANY reason why the city couldn’t immediately send out paint crews to get it done quickly and cheaply? (Wait, it removes parking, guess we’ll have to wait years for an EIR/CEQA to get anything done)

    Meanwhile, the T Third only cost something like three times as much for 5 miles of light rail, including sections on two drawbridges and a freeway overpass. Even with all of the T’s problems, that seems like a much better deal than this.

  • gb52

    Definitely agree that more can and should be done in the near-term with implementation of a pilot similar to the 5/5L. I think there are plenty of areas with room for improvement of the current system, and there is only so much a BRT project can do if people are unwilling to start closing off intersections, removing parking, and reducing lanes of traffic. Geary for the most part has enough space to be a grand boulevard if we removed a lane of traffic or nixed parking for a sidewalk expansion or bike lane! But indeed what we are paying for are complete streets along with overdue utility upgrades. Unfortunately all these projects tend to be funded by Prop K TRANSIT funds!

    As a side note, I agree a tunnel is NOT an ideal location for a BUS stop, but in the future, could it be a bus/rail station if we removed the speeding vehicular traffic?? Think sunset tunnel with a stop in the middle. Think of the most recent plans to realign the M-oceanview, but through a tunnel that is already there. I think there are some opportunities for reuse.

    As for side running “BRT” in the downtown area, there is little reason why this cant be done sooner. At least the red-pavement would give other drivers less of an excuse to say “i didn’t know”. There is no real way to remove traffic signal delays unless we are able to implement some really great bus priority technology [Can you guys do an article about Bus Signal Preemption, how it works and why we aren’t using it on Geary, 19th Ave, Market St, etc?!]

  • Prop B 1989 was sold as a way to get light rail, and that’s what voters believed they were approving, but the “fixed guideway” wording was vague enough for it to be downgraded to BRT. At first it was “rail-ready” BRT, but then they said even that was too expensive — for a street that was originally established as a rail corridor.

  • david vartanoff

    This is beyond disgusting. B(og)us Rapid Transit was the wrong idea in the first place but now we are getting lipstick on a pig for megamillions which will not be any better than what we have now after wasting a decade trying to placate NIMBYS. How can paint and a few safety islands possibly cost $40 – $50 million per mile?

  • Jamison Wieser

    A first step to rail is a good way to look at this. Where the busses will be running in the center lanes, the right-of-way is being claimed for future conversion.

    I never hear any talk of rail service take into account the line couldn’t open until the subway is complete.

    If the N-Judah had not been extended along the Embarcadero to the 4th & King, the T-line would dead end at Caltrain and riders would have to transfer to get anywhere other than Caltrain.

    Geary doesn’t have the benefit of an existing Metro line the surface segment could tie into while subway construction is underway.

    In the meantime, BRT will be in place to improve service during any future subway construction.

  • Sean

    Its so expensive to get anything started in SF, I would rather hold out for a real rail ready BRT, like SPUR’s old plan. You could phase in the tunnel fills. http://www.rescuemuni.org/geary-spur-051205.ppt

    That report is already 8 years old. If they are going to redo the street, lay rails now.

  • timsmith

    I wonder what a transit-only lane (Church Street style) with all-day 38L would achieve in travel time savings versus this. It would certainly cost far less and could be done much faster. I’m about ready to stop supporting this project in its current form.

  • jonobate

    The Rescue Muni plan is very sensible, but I would quibble with the need for extended grade separations west of Gough. Those would decrease travel time but would be expensive and degrade the pedestrian environment. Better to either dig a new full subway (i.e. BART) or fill in the existing grade separations and run at grade west of Gough with center lanes and signal priority (i.e. Muni Metro). The Fillmore and Masonic grade separations are a mistake from the past we don’t want to repeat.

  • Bruce Halperin

    I can understand not filling in the Masonic tunnel, since it is much larger than the Fillmore tunnel and has a relatively constrained right-of-way on either side. I’m ok with saving Masonic for later, if rail ever comes, but there’s really no excuse for not filling in the Fillmore tunnel, which is short and symmetrical.

  • omaryak

    Instead of filling in the underpasses, what about modifying them so that only transit stations exist on the surface? The street area could be converted to parkland. Recycling is much better than just destroying old infrastructure.

  • teo5

    I think that’s a great idea but unfortunately despite the City’s supposed “Transit-First Policy” that prioritizes buses, walkers and bikes over cars, the policy decisions are still dictated by “accommodating” automobiles. In other words we can’t make the surface nice for buses, walkers and bikes because it would be too inconvenient for the cars.

  • teo5

    I share your frustration but you cannot really say this is not better than we have now. With travel time reduced by 25% and reliability improved by 20% there are real significant benefits that will make life better for people who ride the bus and encourage others to ride the bus as well.

  • teo5

    Thank you for citing the timeline of constructing the original rail on Geary. It is total shenanigans that *everything* costs zillions of dollars and takes forever to do … unless of course it’s an auto-centric project in which case it gets approved right away and magically the money appears. I think it all comes back to our ridiculous capitalist system; only things that obviously make money for the people who already have money, in the very short term, are facilitated; and everything else gets the shaft.

  • omaryak

    My idea involves capping the tunnels to create extra space, rather than taking any away. You would need one lane from the center to access the top level, but that’s being taken away anyway.

    There is precedent for building up over underpasses rather than filling them in. The city should look at that.

  • teo5

    that is correct, cars are allowed into the side-running bus lane for right turns (intersections and driveways) and to enter or exit parking spaces. so there is still lots of wiggle room for people to violate the lane and claim they were going to turn right and they got confused or whatever (if they actually get pulled over which seems unlikely since ped/bike/transit seems to be the SFPD’s lowest priority)

  • teo5

    There are currently mixed-traffic lanes (i.e. open to cars, trucks, etc) that run along the surface. Those would have to be removed to make the surface transit-only.

  • omaryak

    I’m talking about adding to the surface by capping the tunnels instead of filling them in. This means there would be more space on the surface available. The lane for cars would still be there, as well as park space and the center lanes for buses.

  • Jamison Wieser

    Drivers are already being inconvenienced by busses pulling in and out of stops every other block. Limited and Express busses trying to navigate around only complicates matters.

    Drivers are less inconvenienced by removing those busses from the auto lanes entirely. In an earlier evolution of the plan, center running BRT created 15% more parking from the area no longer needed for bus stops. Side-running BRT will need that space precluding additional parking.

    Drivers vocally taking that simplistic view are in truth demanding to be inconvenienced.

  • Upright Biker

    To build on @omaryak’s idea, what about just keeping BRT in the center, construct a bridge to keep it at street grade, and let the traffic continue through the tunnel as is?

  • Bluehale

    If this is what we’re getting as BRT for Geary might as well cancel the entire project and reprogram the money for something far more useful and not half baked such as extending the Caltrain line to the new Transbay Terminal or a subway station at North Beach.

  • Jamison Wieser

    With regard to Masonic,

    In an earlier version of the plan one of the conceptual designs ran center-running side platform BRT through the tunnel with single station in the middle with the elevators, escalators and stairways exiting conveniently beside the Masonic bus stops.

    Does anyone know why that option (or a variation on it) was let go of?

    My feeling was that forgetting any cost of feasibility concerns: Masonic was the one solid opportunity for San Francisco to create a truly rail-quality subway station that would demonstrate the potential of BRT.

    Seattle’s downtown transit tunnel has already proven that. Because Seattle went ahead with bus service instead of holding out for rail, Seattle enjoyed 15 years of high-quality rapid (at least in the tunnel) bus service up until it had to be closed for the upgrade to rail. The subway stations are now served by both rail and bus service. That upgrade took two years, but was much more complicated and required extending the tunnel so trains had somewhere to turn back.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    What a colossal waste of SFCTA tax money.

    You misunderstand.

    Colossal wastage of money is The SFCTA’s only goal.

    Look at the uniform historical evidence.

    Category error! They don’t serve you, the public. You, the public, are here to keep them fat and happy for life. Uniform, unrelieved, abject failure is its own highly profitable reward.

  • Alex

    I feel that a muni owned subway would be better than BART. It gets irritating having to transfer between BART and MUNI, especially downtown since you can’t just walk from one platform to another like New York or Los Angeles. It also saves us money, instead of having to pay for BART and MUNI, we would just pay for MUNI.

  • Alex

    I would much rather prefer a subway run underneath Geary over BRT or a LRV. I don’t mean another BART line, but an actual MUNI subway line. Why MUNI? It saves us time and money. It gets annoying having to transfer between MUNI and BART trains, especially downtown, where one has to walk all the way back up to the ticketing lobby and back down. Having a subway managed by MUNI would make transfers faster, since one could walk from one platform to another like in NYC or LA, and it would be cost effective, since we won’t have to pay for two separate services. A subway will also cut a significant time off our commute, more than BRT or LRV. Subways are also capable of holding more people and can be flexible by adding more cars or removing some. Yes it will be expensive, but I feel like the benefits are there.

  • jonobate

    The transfer issue you talk about could be easily fixed if the powers that be cared enough about it – just take an acetylene torch to the bars at the top of the stairs leading from the BART platform to the Muni platform at Civic Centre, and integrate the fare systems.

    A BART fare should give you a free transfer to Muni, and the minimum BART fare should be upped to $2 to match the Muni fare. A $2 ticket would then get you anywhere in SF whether it’s by BART or by Muni. Think of BART as being like the Paris RER, and Muni being like the Paris Metro. San Francisco would be ‘Zone 1’ of the Bay Area.

    The area where a BART subway vs. Muni subway does matter is branching to other lines (not just transferring). If we wanted to through-route a Geary line with the Central Subway, we would go for Muni. If we wanted to route it into a new Transbay Tube, we would go for BART.

    As for cost… we’ll have to pay for the subway whether it’s run by BART or by Muni. Making it part of the existing system doesn’t make it free.

  • jonobate

    I really hope that the BART Metro analysis comes back with a Geary subway as a recommendation. I can’t imagine how any other corridor would rank higher under a quantitative cost/benefit analysis.

    FWIW, here’s how I’d build a future BART line: https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=znVcKN4FwerA.k5Pfrm2WGfEU

  • mikesonn

    I don’t know, the OAC seemed like a great way to spend $500 million.

  • Andy Chow

    For a subway/rapid transit technology, BART or Muni could operate them. For BART, it should and is going to the direction of multiple rail mode (BART, people mover, DMU) yet still provide a common experience as possible.

    For the Geary corridor, there’s no realistic way to operate it as an extension of either BART or Muni, since there’s no nice way to have track connections under Market. If you connect to whatever South of Market, then you won’t serve downtown as well. If it were to operate as an independent line, then you can consider alternative rail mode options (even people mover) and look at things like operator-less trains to cut cost and provide more consistent service.

  • hp2ena

    The Central Subway is supposed to have a direct (“non-revenue”) connection to any proposed Geary subway. I think.

  • jonobate

    “If you connect to whatever South of Market, then you won’t serve downtown as well”

    Yes you can. Take Geary east to downtown, then south on 3rd St, then east on Townsend to get to a new tube. You’d then be able to serve Geary, Downtown and South Beach on one line.

  • Peter M

    Any provisions to connect to or even accommodate a Geary subway were dropped a long time ago.

  • murphstahoe

    If you look at overall ridership – regionally – you’ll get more riders on Geary headed across the bay than transfering to the JKLMN out to the south of town.