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Geary BRT Plan Watered Down to Appease Parking-Obsessed Merchants

A new proposal for Geary BRT would eliminate bus passing lanes to preserve car parking. Images: SFCTA

Update: This plan may not be “watered down” after all. See our follow-up report here.

Planners are touting a new proposed configuration for Geary Bus Rapid Transit that would forgo bus passing lanes in order to preserve car parking to appease merchants. Separated, center-median bus lanes would be retained, and project backers hope the changes will clear the way for implementation, but the loss of the passing lanes means buses won’t be able to operate as quickly.

The proposal comes despite a recent survey from the SF County Transportation Authority showing that Geary merchants vastly overestimate how many of their customers drive, and that their priorities on transportation are out of line with those of their customers.

The new proposal [PDF], called “Alternative 3 Consolidated,” would run buses in two center lanes between dual medians. But unlike the original Alternative 3, it wouldn’t include passing lanes at stops that allow express BRT buses to pass local buses. Instead, the proposal would include only one “medium” bus service in which stops would be closer together than typical BRT, “but more spaced out compared to the local,” said David Parisi, a consultant working on the project for the SFCTA.

Under the new proposal, the BRT line would make 15 stops between Van Ness Avenue and 33rd Avenue rather than nine on the originally proposed express line. Parisi said the SFCTA doesn’t have any data yet to show how transit speeds would fare in comparison, but that a preliminary analysis showed that it would “still be pretty darn fast, reliable service.”

Eliminating the passing lanes would free up space to preserve car parking on Geary, in a bid to appease local merchants. By converting parallel parking spaces on side streets to angled parking, Parisi said all of the parking that would be removed for BRT improvements could be replaced.

The proposal is being championed by D1 Supervisor Eric Mar as a way to expedite the project, which he said has “been dragging” since its conception at least a decade ago. Mar, along with Supervisors Scott Wiener, David Chiu, and David Campos, grilled SFCTA staffers on the snail’s pace of the city’s BRT projects on Geary and Van Ness at a board meeting last week.

“I think the Transportation Authority staff have gotten the message from us and others that the 38-Geary line really needs improvements now,” Mar told Streetsblog. “Many of us wish that rail was funded and that was available, but BRTs have shown that they achieve many of the improvements that a rail system will at a fraction of the cost.”

Mar joined San Francisco officials and transportation advocates on a trip to Mexico City in May to tour the city’s BRT system, which was built at a far faster clip than San Francisco’s projects. “I saw how BRTs connect the transit system with underserved areas that rail or subways don’t reach,” said Mar.

Peter Lauterborn, an aide to Mar, said the new “consolidated” proposal would simplify transit service and the street geometry on Geary, as well as help the SFCTA meet its launch target of 2018. “This helps us get over the hurdle of negotiating parking loss in the district, which has been a major sticking point in the past.”

Under the original Alternative 3 proposal with passing lanes, 15 to 20 percent of parking would be removed on Geary between Palm and 25th Avenues. The consolidated Alternative 3 plan, without passing lanes, could result in “net zero” parking loss on or near the street, according to Parisi. In fact, he told an audience at a town hall meeting yesterday that a “net gain” in parking is possible, though when Streetsblog later asked him how that would further the city’s policy goals of increasing the use of walking, transit, and bicycling, he denied that it was under consideration.

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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.

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Track Transportation Projects With the SFCTA’s New “MyStreetSF” Map

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The SF County Transportation Authority recently launched an interactive Google map that shows ongoing transportation projects throughout San Francisco all in one place.

MyStreetSF.com lets users search for traffic calming projects, pedestrian safety upgrades, bike lanes, transit lanes, traffic signal upgrades, and even BART/Muni escalator rehabs. Users can search with a number of filters, including by neighborhood, supervisor district, project type, funding source, and timeline.

Maria Lombardo, interim executive director of the SFCTA, said the map is aimed at helping the public become familiar with smaller transportation projects, which tend not to get as much exposure in the media as major ones. “Most people are familiar with the very large capital projects like the Central Subway or the Transbay Terminal,” she said. “But half of our programs are things happening in the neighborhood that can happen very quickly.”

Not all of the city’s transportation programs can be mapped — for example, bike education classes, commuter benefits programs, and rideshare matching services. Information on those programs is listed below the map.

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Advocates: Next SFCTA Chief Needs to Collaborate for a Sustainable Future

Some time this month, a new executive director is expected to be chosen to head the SF County Transportation Authority, filling the shoes of José Luis Moscovich, who resigned from the position late last year citing health reasons. In selecting a new leader, sustainable transportation advocates say, the Board of Supervisors should seek a candidate who can improve the agency’s collaboration with other city and regional planning agencies.

The SFCTA plays a key role in determining whether the city moves towards a future that’s more livable, or continues the car-dependent status quo. The agency manages San Francisco’s transportation finances, including revenue from the Prop K local transportation sales tax, and it oversees long-range transportation plans and major projects like the bus rapid transit lines on Van Ness Avenue and Geary Boulevard. The SFCTA would also administer any potential congestion pricing scheme.

You may have seen this logo on the side of Muni buses and signs for projects funded through the SFCTA.

“It’s really critical that the TA director can get the city agencies to cost-effectively change people’s travel behavior, and encourage walking, cycling, and transit with new development so we don’t go backwards in terms of pedestrian safety, congestion, and pollution,” said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City.

Radulovich says a lack of coordination between agencies like the SFCTA, the SF Municipal Transportation Agency, the Planning Department, and the Department of Public Works often stymies the city’s progress on livability and transit improvements. He pointed out, for example, that when re-paving streets, DPW often doesn’t implement pedestrian safety improvements that are called for in the city’s street design standards, meaning money doled out by the SFCTA for street rehabs goes wasted.

“They’re rebuilding dangerous, ugly, deadly traffic sewer streets as traffic sewers,” said Radulovich. “As we’re spending these hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild streets, to see them rebuilt better, safer, and re-balancing the modes towards walking, cycling, and transit is really important. The TA could be doing a better job of coordination, funding, and making sure that standards are understood and adhered to.”

Supervisor John Avalos, who chairs the SFCTA Board, said the need for the next leader to collaborate better is “a really good point.”

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SFCTA Board Approves Funding For Masonic, Second Street, and More

The Masonic re-design will now be fully funded. Image: SF Planning Department

Federal funding for street redesigns on Masonic Avenue, Second Street, and other improvements was unanimously approved yesterday by the Board of Supervisors, acting as the board of the SF County Transportation Authority.

The projects selected to receive a chunk of the regional One Bay Area grant also include a bike/ped path on Mansell Street in McLaren Park, pedestrian safety improvements on Broadway in Chinatown, and bike and pedestrian upgrades on streets around the Transbay Transit Center. Altogether, $35 million in OBAG funds will go toward projects in SF.

A crash between a car and a fire department truck seen last week, after the car driver reportedly ran a red light. Photo: Michael Helquist

The most anticipated project in the package — and the most contentious – was the overhaul of Masonic, a deadly street which is slated to get raised bike lanes, reduced traffic lanes, a tree-lined median, bus bulb-outs, and other pedestrian safety upgrades. Of the estimated $18 million needed for the project, OBAG will provide $10 million, while the SFMTA is expected to provide the remaining $8 million.

SF Bicycle Coalition Communications Director Kristin Smith wrote in a blog post yesterday:

This is a huge win for safer, more complete San Francisco streets — especially on Masonic Avenue, one of San Francisco’s most deadly streets. In the last five years, 122 people have been injured and two people killed, just on 2/3 of a mile of Masonic. Thanks to today’s funding decision, this deadly corridor will be transformed into a safer place for all road users.

Even though the Masonic project was approved last September after several years of planning and extensive outreach, a few dozen residents at the hearing told the board to reject funding for the plan because it would remove all on-street car parking on Masonic. They claimed that the safety upgrades were actually dangerous, would add congestion, and that they weren’t notified about the planning process. Almost as many speakers who backed the project attested to the long-overdue need to save lives and make the street more accessible to bicycling.

Supervisors — including Eric Mar, Mark Farrell, and London Breed, who penned a joint letter in February urging funding for the project — gave a sympathetic nod to the complainers, but didn’t budge on their commitment to safer streets.

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Support Streetsblog, Your Translator of Transpo Planner Jargon

Even SF transportation planners know: they can be pretty hard to understand. Listening in on a discussion about safer streets encrypted in countless acronyms and technical terms can often leave the layperson feeling pretty lost.

See, in planner-speak, it’s not “getting run over” — it’s “a multi-modal right-of-way conflict.”

In San Francisco, this language barrier is perhaps most likely to be found in a staff meeting at the SF County Transportation Authority, which manages San Francisco’s transportation financing and long-term planning. You know, the dry stuff.

The SFCTA candidly admits this — the agency produced the tongue-in-cheek video above, in which one character explains that transportation planners are “trained to talk about our shared urban experiences in a way that is nearly unrecognizable to the general public.”

Not to worry, though — that’s one reason Streetsblog is here. Before we post many of our articles, we decode zoning terms, planning documents, presentations and interviews — and turn them into legible stories about what’s happening to our city’s streets. And it’s contributions from our readers that allow us to continue that work.

If you value the work we do to translate cryptic concepts into a cohesive narrative about re-shaping San Francisco’s streets for people — not cars — please make a donation to Streetsblog. And don’t forget: All donors who contribute $50 or more will get a chance to win a new Dahon folding bike.

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Bikeway on Mission Street Would Cost More Than One on Market

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Constructing raised, protected bike lanes on downtown Mission Street would cost more than building them on Market, according to SF Municipal Transportation Agency Director Ed Reiskin.

A possible vision for Market Street with a raised, protected bikeway.

The Mission bikeway proposal, which recently surfaced as an option to be studied in the repeatedly-delayed Better Market Street project, would entail abandoning long-sought bike safety improvements on Market, which is where bicycle riders naturally tend to travel. The Department of Public Works and the SFMTA have said the Mission option, which would also re-route Muni’s 14-Mission buses on to Market, would be simpler to engineer, allow the 14 to use Market’s wider bus lanes, and could include a “green wave” for bikes on Mission.

The proposal for protected bike lanes on Mission instead of Market. Images: Better Market Street

But even factoring in the cost of reconstructing Market Street’s granite curbs to build raised bike lanes, the Mission option is projected to be more expensive, Reiskin told the SF County Transportation Authority Board (comprised of the Board of Supervisors) at a hearing yesterday. Though the cost estimates for each option aren’t immediately available, Reiskin said that even if protected bikeways weren’t included at all, construction costs on Market Street would only be cut by an estimated 10 percent. The total cost of the project is estimated to be as high as $450 million, up from the $250 million figure provided last year.

Supervisor Scott Wiener, who, along with Supervisor John Avalos, called for hearings to scrutinize the Mission bikeway proposal and project delays, noted that “ten percent is not a dramatic increase,” and that debates about whether or not to build a protected bikeway on Market should focus on policy outcomes, not cost.

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Supes Urge Regional Funding for Complete Street Redesign of Masonic

Supervisors Eric Mar, Mark Farrell, and London Breed.

The plan to overhaul deadly Masonic Avenue with pedestrian safety upgrades and raised, protected bike lanes could get much of its funding from a regional grant program. The Masonic project has received a strong endorsement from three members of the Board of Supervisors, who sent a letter last week to the head of the SF County Transportation Authority, urging the agency to make Masonic a priority as it decides which projects it will recommend to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for funding.

Image: SF Planning Department's City Design Group

Chances that the $20 million project will get a substantial chunk from the MTC’s “One Bay Area Grant” are promising. When the SFCTA presented [PDF] its initial list of ten potential OBAG projects in December, Masonic was in the “upper tier.” It remains to be seen how much funding will go to Masonic, which along with other projects, such as the redesign of Second Street, is in the running for a limited pool of funds. The SF Municipal Transportation Agency applied for $16 million in OBAG funds for Masonic, but the SFCTA says only $35 million will be available for $54 million in funding requests citywide.

In their letter to SFCTA Acting Executive Director Maria Lombardo [PDF], Supervisors Eric Mar, Mark Farrell, and London Breed pointed to “a number of high-profile collisions and fatalities on this route in recent years,” asserting that “we must act fast to improve this corridor.”

We recognize there are multiple candidate projects with needs exceeding the total available funds, but we ask you to prioritize Masonic Avenue. We consider it a matter of public safety. The project will rectify what is now a fundamentally unsafe street design. It will also improve transit on a major north-south corridor, reduce environmental impact, and increase livability, thus meeting all the criteria established in the Transportation Plan.

Masonic is the only north-south bike route in the area, but is currently very unsafe and unappealing for most riders. The sidewalk bulb-outs, grade-separated bikeways, and tree-lined median are desperately needed on Masonic Avenue.

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Subway Station at SFSU? SFCTA Looks to Realign Muni’s M-Line on 19th Ave

With an influx of residents and students anticipated in the coming years, the city is looking at ways to improve rail service along the southern stretch of 19th Avenue by the Stonestown Mall and SF State University. A new study underway will consider putting Muni’s M-Ocean View on a trackway running above or below the highway to separate it from traffic crossings and route the line into Parkmerced.

Under approved redevelopment plans, Parkmerced’s population is expected to triple in the years ahead, and SFSU aspires to increase enrollment from 20,000 to 25,000 full-time students. To improve transit service in the neighborhood, the M-line will need to be re-aligned to the west side of 19th and separated from traffic crossings, said Liz Brisson, a planner at the SF County Transportation Authority, which is leading the year-long study.

“We know that those people who live there and go to school there are going to be making more trips, and we can think about whether we would want those trips to be by driving, by walking, biking, or transit,” said Brisson at a community outreach meeting at SFSU on Wednesday. “Knowing how congested 19th Avenue already is, we want to make sure those trips are accommodated sustainably.”

Bringing the M closer to Parkmerced residents would make it easier to access, though it would add some extra distance to the route and potentially increase travel times. But eliminating crossings with car traffic could make up for it by providing a sorely needed boost to the line’s speed and reliability. As the Bay Citizen reported last May, the line has the second-lowest on-time performance of Muni’s metro lines (leading only the L-Taraval). One major source of delay is at 19th and Eucalypus Drive, where drivers stopped at a light often illegally encroach on the intersection and block trains crossing in and out of the center-running tracks along 19th.

Under the preliminary concepts being studied [PDF], the M could run on a combination of underground, elevated, and street-level tracks, with the goal being to remove the trains from traffic crossings that cause delays at streets like 19th, Ocean Avenue, Eucalyptus, and Junipero Serra Boulevard. The SFCTA is also looking at consolidating and moving stops in the area, possibly in the form of elevated or underground subway stations with pedestrian bridges or tunnels. Brisson said the study will also explore ways to improve connections to the Daly City BART Station.

There are few pedestrian crossings on the southern stretch of 19th, and there’s a ton of work to be done to improve safety for people walking and biking on the six-lane state highway. It’s unclear whether safety improvements for 19th are on the table, but the SFCTA says the key goals of the study include “supporting strong and safe nonmotorized connectivity” and enhancing “the corridor’s sense of place.” Since state highways are controlled by Caltrans and its hidebound design requirements, pedestrian and bike improvements could be limited.

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Geary BRT Advisor Resigns in Frustration at Snail’s Pace of SFCTA

Bus Rapid Transit on Geary Boulevard was originally slated to open last year. But today, planners are looking at a launch in 2020 — an eight-year setback for a project that was supposed to take advantage of low costs to get off the ground quickly.

For Kieran Farr, the cycle of delays, studies, and outreach campaigns by the SF County Transportation Authority was frustrating enough that he resigned from the Geary BRT Citizens Advisory Committee last month.

“I’m highly concerned that we’re doing this over and over again,” Farr told committee members and SFCTA staff at the most recent CAC meeting. “In the parlance of start-ups, which is the world where I come from, what this seems like is we’re having developers re-do the same product five different times without ever launching it to the public, and that’s really concerning.”

Farr said when he applied to join the CAC in 2008, he met with the project’s planners “to express my excitement about this project launching in 2012 which was the original planned start date because that [anniversary] coincides with when Muni was started in 1912 as a rail line, and that was the first municipalized line ever.”

Instead, Farr wrote on his blog, ”What I’ve seen in the past 6 years has been a severe disappointment during which I have lost trust in America’s regulatory framework to enact effective transit improvements.”

BRT on Geary has been discussed for at least a decade. The SFCTA completed the first step, a feasibility study, in 2007. Since then, planners have repeatedly revised the project and pushed the launch date back for reasons that baffle the public.

Merchants have opposed removing car parking for the project, and residents have complained about the project’s perceived potential to push car traffic on to parallel streets, putting pressure on planners to assuage the skeptics with more revisions and outreach. Many transit advocates have also urged the SFCTA to build a “rail-ready” project in hopes of someday replacing the 38-Geary, Muni’s busiest bus line (and one of the slowest), with light-rail service.

But as Farr noted, the whole idea of BRT is to provide quality bus service that rivals that of rail, using infrastructure that’s less expensive and easier to engineer, “with quick return on investment for the residents of San Francisco.”

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