Avalos Ready to Champion Freeway Ramp Closures at Balboa Park Station

The 280 freeway on-ramp at Geneva Avenue next to Balboa Park Station would be removed under the recommendations of an SFCTA study. Photo: SFCTA

Balboa Park Station could become a safer transit hub by 2020 if the city moves forward with proposals to close one freeway ramp and re-align another, as recommended in a study recently completed by the SF County Transportation Authority. Although the proposal hasn’t received much public attention, it’s sure to face a tough political fight when it’s eventually implemented, said D11 Supervisor John Avalos, who chairs the SFCTA. Avalos said the project is worth implementing, and he’s eager to champion the plans as soon as they can move forward.

Supervisor John Avalos. Photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr

“It’s a political problem how to implement these changes around the station. People want things to be different, but they don’t want any change,” said Avalos. “The trade-offs, they see as really harmful to the neighborhoods.”

The SFCTA study proposes altering freeway ramps, changing traffic signals, and a new frontage road for loading — changes that were vetted by the Balboa Park Community Advisory Committee. The study notes, “With strong support, consensus, and high priority from the community, agencies, and elected officials, the initial pilot projects could begin in 2016, with full implementation by 2020.”

Avalos’s term in office will end in late 2016, but he said he hopes to help move the freeway ramp changes forward before he leaves. “I have two-and-a-half years of office left, and I want to be part of actually getting some implementation on these changes,” he said.

The goal of the SFCTA study was to find ways to make the streets safer around Balboa Park Station, which is surrounded by car traffic moving to and from six nearby freeway ramps. Even though 24,000 people use the station daily to ride Muni and BART — it’s BART’s busiest station outside of downtown SF — it seems to be designed as an afterthought to the 280 freeway. Many commuters exiting the station walk or bike to City College’s main campus.

“The neighborhood has long suffered from its cluster of poorly-designed freeway on- and off-ramps,” said Livable City Director Tom Radulovich, a member of the BART Board of Directors. “We finally have a definite and buildable proposal for the freeway ramps that will reduce the burden that they impose.”

Through the study, planners and CAC members explored several options for re-configuring the freeway ramps. The favored option would remove one of the two northbound on-ramps, at Geneva Avenue. A curved southbound off-ramp that slings cars onto westbound Ocean Avenue would also be removed and replaced by a new ramp that approaches the street at a head-on 90-degree angle. That new intersection would be signalized.

This proposal originally called for closing the second off-ramp that touches down at Geneva, but that idea was dropped.

The curved off-ramp that dumps speeding cars through a crosswalk on to Ocean Avenue would be replaced with a new ramp that faces the street head-on. Photo: SFCTA

In addition to creating calmer, safer streets for walking and biking and speeding up surface transit by streamlining traffic patterns, the plan “may even benefit drivers on I-280,” Radulovich pointed out.

“Research has shown that freeway exits and entrances as close together as those at Balboa Park cause freeway traffic conflicts and slowdowns, and can reduce the capacity of the mainline freeway,” he said.

The changes are a long time coming. Planning around the Balboa Park area began in the 1990s, and the “circulation study” of changes to freeway ramps began before Avalos took office in 2009.

But despite the SFCTA’s outreach efforts during the development of the study, Avalos predicts that political tensions around it won’t surface until word gets out about plans to implement it.

“I want to be able to push this through before I’m out of office,” said Avalos. “In 2016, when there’s a campaign in an open-seat election, this study is going to get very politicized. People who are opposed to the project are going to want things to stay the same, as they want things to be different at the same time.”

“We’ll be stuck in this gridlock we have around there. Time is of the essence to actually make things happen.”

An overview of the changes recommended in the Balboa Park study. Image: SFCTA
  • alberto rossi

    I’m really sorry to see Avalos embrace this plan. The only part of it I agree with is making the southbound offramp onto Ocean safer for pedestrians. Even here the cost of doing so seems ridiculously overstated.

    Everything else is the plan will make things worse for pedestrians and bicyclists. The most wasteful part of the plan is $100 million for the new kiss and ride area. There’s simply very little demand for this. Hardly anyone is dropped off at the station now; almost all walk or take the bus. Moving the northbound on ramp from Geneva to Ocean will add congestion to San Jose as well as Ocean. It will make the pedestrian crossing here even more difficult than it is now and will be very detrimental to bicyclists.

    The intent of the new study seems to have been to drive a stake through the heart of the Better Neighborhoods 2000 plan. It proposed decking the freeway between Ocean and Geneva and building new single point freeway interchanges. Rather than consider this option, the new study dismissed it out of hand by saying it would cost $2 billion. Where this comically inflated number came from they do not even bother to say.

  • Gezellig

    Agreed! The much-better Better Neighborhoods 2000 plan was also the first thing that popped in my mind. Look at what could be:

    http://www.sf-planning.org/ftp/general_plan/images/balboa/freeway_deck.jpg

    You’re totally right that $2 billion for that is incredibly unlikely. For comparison, Los Angeles is moving forward with the *much* larger project (a *mile* of freeway deck!) of capping the 101 freeway through central Hollywood at a cost of $725 million:

    http://la.curbed.com/archives/2013/10/plans_coming_next_month_for_hollywoods_101_freeway_cap_park.php

    Besides the fact that it wouldn’t be $2bil wouldn’t there be *lots* of money made by selling off plots of land for residential/commercial development à la the BN2000 plan?

    Balboa Park Station is one I use nearly every day and I agree–even in its current pedestrian/bike/transit-hostile setup I also don’t see much kiss-and-ride going on. Multiple heavily used bus lines and two Muni Metro lines are definitely the primary way people get there. Lots of bikes, too, despite the questionable “infrastructure” (laughable sharrows at best) all around.

    There’s always going to be some kiss-and-ride/taxis going on at a station but…$100 million to build a *new* kiss-and-ride area? That’s in the grain of the old car-centric paradigm of BART as a place you drive to as opposed to being a transit system that directly serves vibrant local neighborhoods.

    In an area already mostly lacking in true public spaces (adjacent Balboa Park itself is setup more as a suburban recreational facility), this is pretty sad.

  • alberto rossi

    Dallas capped a longer and wider section of freeway for its new arts district for $100 million. Maybe the ramps are $450 million extra each?

  • Gezellig

    Lol. Yeah, maybe they’re proposing to pave them in gold so as to “Restore Balance” in terms of cars always getting first-rate infra. 😉

  • helloandyhihi

    I’m not a huge fan of Avalos. But it’s discouraging to see comments here, where so many apparent pro-transit folks are willing to shit on a decent idea aiming to make a meaningful improvement.

    Too often, San Franciscans have such a strident view of the ideal that they reject the realistic. That prevents any real progress from happening… and that’s not ideal.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    A “decent” idea making some improvements does not necessarily rate the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars. Ask yourself if this is the best bang you could get for your millions.

  • Gezellig

    $100 million to build a totally new kiss-and-ride area is not pragmatic realism…that’s absurd.

    Anyway, the “ideal” being referred to here is not a theoretical forum pie-in-the-sky plan but the very plan SF Planning created:

    http://sf-planning.org/index.aspx?page=1748

    You’re giving SF too easy a pass on doing better.

  • Filamino

    I agree with you on this except for your claim of little demand for a kiss and ride area. I know people who use it almost everyday and I occasionally use it too. I have heard people complain that the kiss and ride area is not big enough because people keep parking there waiting for to pick up their passengers. I see this too when I go there, so I end up blocking the kiss and ride road to pick up my passenger. This may give the perception that it’s not being used.

    If there is no kiss and ride area, you can bet they will start using the Muni bus stops as the kiss and ride area. That would not be good.

  • Justin

    “People want things to be different, but they don’t want any change,” How can you expect things to be different if there is NO CHANGE to make that DIFFERENT vision, a reality for the better??? That’s not how you solve problems, that’s how you politicized them and kick the can down the road.

  • Justin

    I would have rather seen the I-280 southbound off ramp hitting Ocean Ave removed permanently not realigned, it would be better and safer for pedestrians, bicyclists, Muni and mainstream traffic. Hopefully in the realigned configuration that is expected to have a traffic signal hopefully they will add a new crosswalk as well. Secondly at the Balboa Park BART Station I would like to see an extension of the pedestrian ramp connecting the station to Ocean Ave extended to connect to the other side of the Balboa Park BART Station on Geneva and the Muni bus and Light Rail Stops which could and would improve the pedestrian safety and experience for those needing to get to and from those areas and transit riders

  • vcs

    I don’t see where the supposed “$100 million kiss-and-ride” figure is coming from. In the engineering report the “NB frontage road” is estimated to be about $10M.

    http://www.sfcta.org/sites/default/files/content/Planning/BalboaPark/Balboa%20Park%20Circulation%20Study%20Final%20Report%20Appendix%20C.pdf

  • Justin

    What the heck is a “Kiss and Ride???”

  • coolbabybookworm

    It’s an area near transit where car drivers can drop off/pick up passengers.

  • HMM burritos

    The real problem is Avalos. The worst district in SF. Cracked sidewalks. Vacant business’. Thousands of cars blocking sidewalks. Oil stained sidewalks. Graffiti that the city won’t paint over. Crime. Very dirty streets. Public transportation is poor. Sandoval was a better Supervisor and he was horrible. I have lived in the Excelsior my whole life and have never seen it so horrible. This is a poor decision to close an exit. It is misguided. Just enforce sidewalk parking and people will sell their cars and take public transportation. Drive down Geneva to Bayshore from Mission st and you will find at least 80-100 cars parked illegally as well as cracked oil stained sidewalks.

  • alberto rossi

    From the previous “Circulation Study”. It proposed about $200 million in changes, including $100 million for the kiss and ride and $70 million for the southbound offramp realignment. The remaining was for things like bus shelters, “wayfinding”, lighting, and the apparently now forgotten “eastside connector”.

    Apparently they’ve found a cheaper way to do the kiss and ride, but at the expense of the recently completeld westside connector.

  • alberto rossi

    Nice to hear I’m not the only one upset about this. There was a website featuring pnotos of sidewalk parking in the Excelsior that went viral a few years ago. A community meeting was held but then nothing ever happened.

    The ruptured tendons in my hands are testament to the poor sidewalk maintenance and the tripping hazard that creates.

  • p_chazz

    Not an apt comparison. California has higher labor and construction costs than Texas.

  • vcs

    Note that the selected option avoids rebuilding any of the freeway bridges, which may explain the massive difference.

    The kiss-and-ride is just a filled retaining wall.

  • HMM burritos

    http://www.sfdsp.org/

    Nothing has changed except that there is more cars and more congestion.

    Is it even remotely possible that there is a direct correlation to the parking problem and congestion to the above mentioned freeway entrance. Definitely so.

    Wonder what the block looks like where Avalos lives?

  • Justin

    Ummm, ok, what a term for it though, kiss and ride lol

  • Chris

    I’m not in love with the proposed new off-ramp from I-280 onto Ocean Ave. The proposed new traffic light, according to the SFCTA’s report, will add an average of one minute of delay to Muni routes in both directions. That’s an average, so it will often cause longer delays than that. Additional delays and variables are the last things that the painfully slow and unpredictable K-line needs. The city should instead add a stop sign to the existing off-ramp where it merges onto Ocean. That would address the hazards for pedestrians and bicyclists and would be vastly cheaper and quicker to implement than a new off-ramp.

  • alberto rossi

    40 times higher?

  • alberto rossi

    Too lazy to look it up, but my recollection is that the study showed that less than 1% of passengers arrived by car.

  • vcs

    The existing ramp is designed for autos to merge in at 10-20MPH. The question is whether they should prioritize street traffic (including Muni) over pedestrians and bicycles.

    Given there is a major ped destination (CCSF) right next to a major transit hub (BART), it makes sense to prioritize pedestrians through this intersection. Even at the expense of already miserable Muni times.

    In Walnut Creek, you might have a point. But the Geneva/Ocean freeway exits were way over-built originally and none of this complexity was ever needed in the first place. Lets get rid of some of it.

  • Gezellig

    The important question, though, is whether the funds for drop-off facilities are 1) proportionate to current usage and 2) proportionate to the kind of usage that should be incentivized going forward.

    As for the current usage metric, a 2012 BART study (http://www.sfmta.com/sites/default/files/agendaitems/11-6-12item11balboaparkphaseii-revisedpublicdraftreportoct2012accessibleforboard.pdf) found the following breakdown in terms of how people arrived at Balboa Park Station:

    46% Transit
    30% Walking
    15% Drop-off/carpool/taxi
    7% Driving alone
    2% Biking

    Notice the BART systemwide averages:

    35% Driving alone
    31% Walking
    15% Transit
    15% Drop-off/carpool/taxi
    4% Biking

    (all figures from page 15 of the report)

    With a systemwide average of 15% (which Balboa Park Station also happens to share), kiss-and-ride/drop-off/taxi arrivals are already not proportionately that great.

    And then the second question of the kind of arrivals BART should be encouraging going forward—especially in a #sloganfirstcity like SF we should be walking the walk (as it were) of actually living up to the supposed Transit First/Vision Zero/20% bike modeshare by 2020/etc. goals instead of spending limited funds disproportionately on yet more auto-centric development.

  • keenplanner

    Doubt it. I’d guess that they reported just a portion of the work, which is very complex.
    Dallas also doesn’t have the seismic issues that CA has.

  • MRR

    Kudos to SFCTA for taking another hard look at this messy interchange. The original Better Neighborhoods Plan had some inspirational ideas for knitting the neighborhood together by decking the freeway, but the topography and confluence of the 280 interchange, BART station and Muni yard put the pricetag of that vision on par with the Doyle Drive project. That might work in Downtown and other areas that fetch high real estate dollars, but it’s a tough sell in Balboa Park for now. The proposals on the table really aim to improve traffic safety without impacting Muni at a much more reasonable cost. We need champions for these ideas if we expect to see any change come to the neighborhood.

  • Filamino

    Even at 15%, there is still an obvious need; otherwise, they will just use the bus stop as I mentioned. The cost is a different factor. Maybe the next thing to do is to find some way to reduce the cost?

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