SFMTA Confident in Bike/Ped Funds, Says Changing Streets “the Hard Part”

SFMTA officials are growing more confident in obtaining the funding needed to implement the street safety infrastructure called for in the agency’s Bicycle Strategy and Pedestrian Strategy. But no matter how much funding the agency has, the SFMTA needs to address the lack of follow-through and political will to implement street redesigns, which often leaves projects delayed and watered down to preserve traffic lanes and car parking spaces.

“It’s trying to get public acceptance of making that re-allocation,” agency chief Ed Reiskin told the SFMTA Board of Directors at a meeting yesterday on the agency’s Strategic Plan. ”It’s a pretty significant change we would need to be making in the public rights-of-way for transit and cycling and, to a lesser extent, to improve pedestrian safety — changes in the right-of-way that have been largely unchanged for the past 50, 60, 70 years. That, I think, is our biggest challenge.”

Cheryl Brinkman, vice chair of the SFMTA Board, said the agency and its board need to stand up to vocal groups who fight efforts to implement the city’s transit-first policy. “We need to be willing to step up and make those hard decisions, and understand that what we see as the needs for transportation in the city, may not jive with what we’re hearing loudly expressed in certain areas,” she said. ”We do need to step up say, ‘No, we need to re-allocate space, it has been mis-allocated for so long.’”

While no one at the hearing said Ed Lee’s name (many participants were appointed by him), it was hard to avoid thinking of the mayor’s failure to stand up for contentious street safety projects.

Reiskin told Streetsblog the SFMTA is “developing a new agency-wide approach to public outreach” as well as working with the City Controller’s Office to produce economic studies on the effects of street redesigns “to try to validate or disprove some of the concerns that are raised or the benefits that are estimated from these improvements.” The agency is also gathering research from other cities through the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the coalition of city DOTs currently led by Reiskin.

“We need to do a better job of articulating the transportation, safety, health, and economic benefits, not just based on theory, but based on empirical data from the city and elsewhere,” said Reiskin. “Some people are always gonna need to drive in San Francisco. The more people who are walking, on a bike, or on transit make space for those who really need to use a car for any given trip.”

Making a stronger case to the public is just one area where the city can improve its street planning processes, as laid out in a recent report from the SF County Transportation Authority [PDF], which listed ten chronic problems with the city’s project delivery:

1. City lacks strong and clear leadership implementing transportation policies.
2. City’s Complete Streets (CS) policy doesn’t include a modal hierarchy.
3. Final designs based on consensus can diminish ability to reach project goals.
4. Coordination within and among agencies is inadequate to deliver a multi-modal vision.
5. Agencies have different transportation priorities and cultures.
6. Funding and grant administration processes are burdensome and inefficient.
7. No funding available for pre-implementation or coordination.
8. City lacks a sufficient pool of experienced, proactive project managers.
9. Some city staff who interact with the public need public communication training.
10. CEQA empowers opponents of any project.

“These are long-known problems that the agencies have had in their power to fix for years, and still do,” the SF Bicycle Coalition wrote in a blog post yesterday.

Meanwhile, the SFMTA’s funding prospects for boosting bike and pedestrian improvements are far from a safe bet. The agency is relying heavily on the three ballot measures proposed by the Mayor’s Transportation 2030 Task Force, which combined would bring in $3.8 billion over the next 15 years, some of which would go toward bike and pedestrian improvements. The agency’s proposed two-year budget doesn’t appear to include major boosts from other funding sources, and Reiskin said the success of the ballot measures is “certainly not a slam dunk.” (Mayor Lee even wants to sacrifice Sunday parking meters in a bid to win voter support.)

“There would be a significant impact on our transportation agency” if the ballot measures don’t pass, said Sonali Bose, the SFMTA’s chief financial officer.

Bicycling gets about 1 percent of the capital budget, according to SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum, who would like to see a commitment to increase the amount to 8 percent. And Walk SF pointed out that the $17 million the city plans to spend on pedestrian safety upgrades over five years, or $3.4 million per year, falls short of the $5 million set aside for small equipment and supplies in the SFMTA’s 2014 operating budget.

“The SFMTA’s proposed budget dramatically lacks a commitment to bike and pedestrian comfort and safety,” said Shahum, who pointed out that even if all three of the transportation ballot measures pass, they couldn’t be used until two years from now. “There seems to be a lot of looking far off into the future.”

“Until we make this a priority, we’re not going to see results on the streets,” said Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Schneider, who lauded the city’s WalkFirst program, the latest iteration of its pedestrian safety plans, but said it’s a “plan based on a plan based on a plan.”

“If we want to really embrace Vision Zero,” which the SFMTA Board adopted yesterday, “we have to actually build these projects.”