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Halted By Noise Complaints, N-Judah Tunnel Upgrades Expected to Resume

Photo: SFMTA

The SFMTA is expected to resume work to upgrade the Sunset Tunnel for the N-Judah after construction was halted by a permit appeal from neighbors who complained about noise. Crews have skipped four weekends of work, adding unknown costs and at least a month of delay to the project.

The N-Judah boarding island on Duboce Avenue at the Sunset Tunnel East Portal, seen here after upgrades in 2012. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The appellants complained that the noise, particularly from backup alarms used on construction vehicles, deprived them of sleep during overnight work. The SFMTA says the work can only be done on weekends, including nights, so as to keep trains moving on weekdays, when ridership on Muni’s busiest line is at its highest.

The issue is expected to be officially resolved at a Board of Appeals hearing today, after which “there will be a ten-day waiting period,” said SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose. “During that time we will be able to develop a schedule to move forward with the work.”

Bud Offermann, who filed the appeal, said neighbors near the Sunset Tunnel’s East Portal at Duboce Park have agreed to the use of a new “broadband” backup alarm, which is quieter for neighbors but still satisfies the safety requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“I think we’re 100 percent,” said Offermann, though he still wants some “work practice changes” to be approved. He said he would have already withdrawn the appeal and cancelled the hearing, but the SFMTA “pissed off so many people, there are a few individuals who want to have their say.”

Originally, the appellants wanted much more than a different alarm sound, including paid-for hotel accommodations or the use of a signal person to substitute for the alarms. The contractor, ProVen, said a signal person would add $25,000 in costs per weekend, according to appeal documents [PDF].

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Muni Expects to End Operator Shortage for the First Time This Century

Muni officials expect to have a full staff of bus and train operators this spring, finally ending a shortage that has led to canceled runs and excessive overtime spending since at least the 1990s.

Photo: SFMTA

Muni Operations Director John Haley said Muni has ramped up its operator training to fill the backlog by April or May, though he’s more confident on fully staffing bus operators than streetcar operators by that point.

“We have two training classes in the pipeline, so we should be in good shape on the rubber tire side,” Haley told Streetsblog in an email.

Currently, Muni is short 40 rail operators — 30 for Muni metro lines and 10 for the F-line streetcars, Haley said. For buses, Muni needs 75 additional drivers to make currently scheduled runs, and will need an 30 more operators for a planned service increase in April.

Muni canceled between 55 and 73 runs each day over a three-day sample period in mid-May, the SF Examiner reported last June. Haley said the rate of missed runs has recently run as high as 6 percent.

It’s not clear when the last time Muni had all the operators it needs to make its scheduled runs, but according to a 2008 SPUR articlethe shortage has lasted since at least 1998. The numbers have fluctuated over the years, often running as high as several hundred missing operators as attrition outpaced hiring.

If the backlog is filled this spring, the question then becomes how long Muni can hold the line. An end to the shortage has been predicted before. In May 2011, an SFMTA spokesperson told CBS the rail operator backlog would be filled by July of that year.

Back in June, Transport Workers Union Local 250-A President Eric Williams told KQED he estimated the shortage at 200 full-time and 251 part-time operators.

Muni wasn’t allowed to hire part-time operators until voters passed Proposition G in 2010, though the agency has since struggled to maintain its part-time staffing. In 2012, Muni management converted most of its 95 part-time operators to full-time to make up for a drop in full-time operators. Without the flexibility that part-time operators provide, Muni must pay full-time workers expensive overtime to make up for gaps in service.

Muni’s on-time performance has worsened over the past year, dropping from 60 percent to 54 percent, though Haley says Muni officials aren’t sure why. The operator shortage is just one of the chronic problems plaguing Muni service, along with vehicle breakdowns and delays caused by car traffic. The City Controller’s Office has estimated that Muni delays cost the economy at least $50 million each year.

Haley said the operator shortages lead to a downward spiral as drivers who pick up the slack work overtime more often and get burned out from the stress of the job. When bus runs are canceled, the buses that do show up get more crowded, riders get more frustrated, and drivers become more worried about staying on schedule.

“You’re digging a huge hole for yourself,” said Haley. “There’s nothing good that can happen from it.”

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New Data Shows Most Trips in SF Are Made Without a Private Automobile

Based on a new, more accurate travel survey, the SFMTA found that driving has made up the minority of trips for at least three years. Image: SFMTA

San Franciscans don’t drive nearly as much as previously thought, according to new SFMTA survey data. But the needle hasn’t moved much in recent years either.

More than 50 percent of trips in San Francisco are made without a private automobile — and it’s been that way for at least three years, according to travel survey results presented at an SFMTA Board meeting today [PDF, page 18]. Last year, 52 percent of trips in the city were made by transit, walking, biking, car-share, taxi, or ride hailing services like Lyft and Uber.

Solo driving accounted for only 27 percent of trips in 2014, the SFMTA found, with carpooling accounting for another 21 percent. Those two types of trips are what the agency counts as “private auto” trips.

The findings are a significant departure from previously released data on city travel patterns, which had estimated that 62 percent of trips in the city are made with private autos. But those numbers were based on a less accurate survey methodology, SFMTA Sustainable Streets Director Tom Maguire told the Board.

The old data “probably didn’t tell us the whole picture,” said Maguire, who explained that the old numbers were based mostly on traffic planning forecasts and U.S. Census data that are at least five years old. The new data is based on a local, annual “Travel Decision Survey” conducted by the SFMTA which asked residents and commuters detailed questions about their travel behavior.

How San Franciscans traveled in 2014. Image: SFMTA

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How SF’s Residential Parking Permit Prices Favor Car Owners

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Residential parking permits in San Francisco are a steal. At just $110 a year, or about 30 cents a day, the costs come nowhere near the market value for use of prime SF real estate. The fee is especially favorable compared to the single-day permit rate, which is 40 times higher. That means people who only occasionally need to park a car in their neighborhood pay a lot more per hour than people who take up street space every day for personal car storage.

Photo: Aaron Bialick

Parking permits may be a small step toward regulating the free-for-all parking situation that reigns on 90 percent of SF’s streets. But even under the current permit fee system, year-round car storage remains severely underpriced, amounting to a vast subsidy that leads car owners to fill up every inch of available curb space. More traffic, double-parking, and slower transit are the inevitable results.

The discrepancy between short-term permits and annual permits was recently noted by Michael Smithwick, who lives in the proposed RPP Area Q, expected to be approved by the SFMTA soon.

Smithwick said the price hike for short-term parking permits “unfairly discriminates against non-car-owning residents,” which is “at least half of the households in the proposed area.”

The discrepancy “is in conflict with SFMTA’s own policies to reduce car trips in favor of other sustainable transit modes,” Smithwick said, noting that non-car-owners can occasionally find permits useful when they rent a car or have visitors.

Even the lowest available rate of $8/day for a book of 20 parking permits is 27 times higher than the annual rate, and a maximum of 20 permits per year can be purchased at that rate.

“Because the market prices for parking in San Francisco are so high, free and cheap parking in the city’s 475,000 on-street spaces (which amount to a total length greater than California’s coastline) are probably the biggest subsidy the city provides for its citizens,” said UCLA professor and parking policy guru Donald Shoup. “A city’s budget should reflect its policies, and free parking on so much city land suggests a car-first policy.”

Under current law, meters are the only way the city can put a better price on curb parking. State law limits the price of residential parking permits to the cost of administering the program, preventing rates from reflecting the true market value.

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Eyes on the Street: New Bike/Ped Safety Tweaks on Upper Market, Valencia

The Market Street bike lane was widened and painted green between Octavia Boulevard and the Wiggle, among other tweaks in the neighborhood. Photos: Aaron Bialick

The SFMTA recently made some upgrades to bike lanes and pedestrian crossings around Valencia Street and Market Street.

Near Octavia Boulevard, the Market bike lanes were widened and painted green, and a buffer zone was added, making it a bit more comfortable for commuters pedaling up the hill from lower to upper Market towards the Wiggle. The traffic lanes, formerly 12 feet wide (which encourages drivers to speed and is unusual in SF) were narrowed to 10 feet to make room for the bike lanes, said SFMTA Livable Streets spokesperson Ben Jose. Continuing east toward downtown, the Market bike lanes got a fresh coat of green paint and some new plastic posts at Tenth Street.

Cheryl Brinkman, a member of the SFMTA Board of Directors, was spotted in a platoon of bike commuters climbing the hill in the newly widened Market bike lane.

“I think it feels more welcoming for cyclists, and it helps drivers realize that that’s a different kind of space,” said Brinkman. “I think for San Francisco, the green has really come to symbolize that that’s a space where there’s going to be a bicycle. And extra buffer zone is really nice because you can really ride out of the door zone.”

A couple of relatively new treatments (for SF) were also implemented on northern Valencia, at the intersections of Duboce Avenue and McCoppin Streets.

Duboce, which Jose noted sees “the fifth highest number of injury collisions citywide” (fourth highest for bicycle injuries), received a number of safety tweaks. Jose said these are the first of two phases for “Vision Zero improvements” planned for the intersection.

At Valencia and Duboce, a “mixing zone” was created by widening the bike lane approach.

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SFMTA to Push for Speed Camera Enforcement Through State Legislation

Speed cameras could reduce speed-related crashes like the one at Pine and Gough Streets that killed a teen and put his mother in a coma in 2013. Image: NBC

The SFMTA wants to legalize life-saving speed enforcement cameras, and plans to campaign for a state law that would enable San Francisco to install them, the agency’s director of government affairs, Kate Breen, said today.

California currently has no law to allow and regulate the use of speed enforcement cameras, though red-light enforcement cameras are allowed. Speed cameras have been proven to reduce driver speeding, traffic crashes, and fatalities in cities around the U.S. and in other countries. Notably, since France adopted them about a dozen years ago, speed cameras are credited with saving more than 15,000 lives throughout the country.

The SFMTA, however, plans to take a tepid approach in its requests from the governor and the state legislature. Breen told the SFMTA Board of Directors that the agency will be seeking to authorize speed camera use only in areas around schools and senior centers, and that the legislation would also “de-criminalize citations” and set a “$100 flat fine.” The bill would have to be authored by a state legislator such as SF’s recently-inaugurated Assemblymember David Chiu, a former supervisor.

The limitations, Breen said, are mainly aimed at making the legislation palatable for Governor Jerry Brown, who is generally wary of raising fines. In September, Brown vetoed a bill that would have increased fines for dangerous driving in school zones and given the revenue to safe street improvements.

The SFMTA, said Breen, hopes to craft a proposal that “we can build a coalition around, that doesn’t necessarily engender out of the gate what we’ve seen, as practiced by the governor, his propensity to want to veto those things that really raise fines so significantly that the average motorist or person who is receiving one of these citations is unduly burdened.”

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SFMTA’s Tom Maguire Promises Reforms to Streamline Safe Street Fixes

Tom Maguire, the SFMTA’s new Sustainable Streets Director, said he’s working on reforms that will fast-track implementation of numerous street safety fixes that will help SF accomplish Vision Zero.

Tom Maguire. Photo: SFGovTV

Maguire, who started at the SFMTA two months ago after serving in an executive role in New York City’s Department of Transportation, told the supervisors’ Vision Zero Committee last week that he’s taking on the 10 “primary challenges” [PDF] that delay small infrastructure projects. The primary challenges were identified in last year’s SF 2040 Transportation Plan.

Street safety advocates have long pushed for the SFMTA, and other agencies, to cut the red tape and lack of coordination that result in the painstakingly slow roll-out of pedestrian and bike safety measures.

“I certainly walked into a situation here where project delivery was the primary challenge,” Maguire told the committee. As a veteran of NYC DOT, where safety projects seemingly appeared overnight under former DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, Maguire is expected to both bring a fresh perspective and improve the SFMTA’s tempo.

While SFMTA officials haven’t set specific targets that would measure progress on bureaucratic reforms, their current goal is to implement safety fixes on at least 13 miles in each of next two years. Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Schneider pointed out that that falls well short of the 18 mile goal (targeted to “high-injury” streets) requested by the Vision Zero Coalition of advocates at a recent rally. However, it does best the SF Pedestrian Strategy adopted last year, which calls for fixes on five high-injury miles per year.

Tim Papandreou, SFMTA’s director of strategic planning and policy, said a goal of 13 miles annually — not necessarily along high-injury corridors — seems to be a realistic expectation. “At least there’s one bar that we can cross, and say ‘we did that,’ ” said Papandreou. “Anything above that would be great.”

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Are Mayor Lee, SFPD, and SFMTA Serious About Ending Hazardous Parking?

Image: KRON 4

Mayor Ed Lee, along with the heads of the SFPD and SFMTA, vowed yesterday to crack down on double parking and “box blocking” as part of broader “Congestion Management Strategy to improve traffic flow and safety.”

It’s a big promise, upending SF’s history of lax enforcement towards parking violations that routinely make streets more dangerous and snarl transit. So it remains to be seen: Are city leaders really committed to a sustained crackdown on motorists who illegally disrupt streets for their personal convenience? Or will SF merely witness another short-lived gimmick that will falter once police and parking control officers return to their blind-eyed ways?

Targeted enforcement against drivers who block chronically-plagued SoMa intersections was among an array of enforcement and bureaucratic reform efforts that Lee announced. For some reason, drivers haven’t been regularly ticketed for this in decades. But now, “There will be no tolerance of blocking the box,” Lee told reporters. “Those that do will face the hefty fines already on the books.”

At the press event, held to inaugurate the SFMTA’s new Transportation Management Center, Lee also warned double parkers: SF is “a city where some actors and actresses in their vehicles, or in their delivery trucks, seem to think that double parking is helpful to themselves — yet [don’t] understand the impact.”

But double parking with impunity is “part of San Francisco’s history.” That was actually declared at a supervisors hearing last year by Lea Millitello, then the SFMTA’s director of security, investigations, and enforcement, and previously an SFPD lieutenant. Specifically, she was referring to double parking at churches on Sundays, but everyday experience shows that the exemption extends to everywhere and every day.

So it’s clear that the mayor, SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin, and SFPD Chief Greg Suhr will have to do more than just flip a switch to overhaul the prevailing culture among drivers and enforcement officers, who typically just shrug at each other when a car stops cold in a bike lane, transit lane, intersection, or sidewalk.

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Muni “Double Berthing” Set to Test This Saturday, Launch a Week Later

Muni could launch “double berthing,” or boarding two trains simultaneously in its Metro stations, as early as next weekend — if all goes well in a live test this Saturday, SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin told an agency board meeting today.

Reiskin said Muni officials will demonstrate the feature on Saturday morning for officials at the CA Public Utilities Commission, who must sign off before Muni finally allows two trains at once to board passengers within its underground stations.

“We’re hoping — if we get their approval — to start this in revenue service a week later, on December 13,” Reiskin said, adding that SFMTA will launch a campaign to inform riders of the change using “ambassadors,” flyers, signs, and social media.

The launch date seems more firm than ever, after more than two years of delays from SFMTA officials. Delays were attributed to difficulties in upgrading the software for train controls and platform announcements, and most recently construction on the Sunset tunnel. The original launch date was in October 2012.

The new practice will be “a small but significant change for those who are sometimes frustratingly looking at the platform, but we don’t let them disembark on to it,” said Reiskin.

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Muni’s Sluggish 30-Stockton Finally Set to Get Greater Priority on the Streets

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Muni’s 30 buses should get some relief on Stockton Street. Photo: geekstinkbreath/Flickr

Muni’s notoriously sluggish 30-Stockton line is finally set to get some upgrades that will give buses higher priority on streets through the dense neighborhoods of Union Square, Chinatown, North Beach, and near Fisherman’s Wharf.

The plans, part of the SFMTA’s “Muni Forward” program, include transit-only lanes, bus bulb-outs and boarding islands, transit signal priority, and stop consolidation on Stockton, Kearny, and North Point Streets, as well as Columbus Avenue. On two street segments where traffic lanes are too narrow to fit buses, car parking and traffic lanes would be removed to provide more maneuvering space.

The 30, one of Muni’s slowest lines, averages a mere 3.6 mph between Market and Sutter Streets, according to a 2007 SF Chronicle article. Before leaving his position as a transportation reporter at the SF Examiner, Will Reisman raced the 30 at walking pace from Chinatown to Market — and won.

The 30-Stockton takes 11 minutes to travel the mile-and-a-half segment north of Market, according to Muni Forward manager Sean Kennedy. The SFMTA estimates that upgrades could speed up the ride through that segment by about 27 percent, and result in a more reliable ride for roughly 70,000 daily riders that use the 30, 45-Union, and 8x-Bayshore Express through there.

A smoother, faster ride would especially benefit transit-dependent residents of Chinatown, which has the city’s lowest rate of car ownership.

“It’s such an oversubscribed route,” said Cindy Wu, a community planner at the Chinatown Community Development Center. (Wu is rumored to be a top candidate for the mayoral appointment for the District 3 Supervisor seat vacated by David Chiu.) “Seniors and residents depend on it for everyday errands, whether it’s grocery shopping or going to the doctor.”

CCDC is “encouraged” by Muni’s proposals to improve surface transit, said Wu, and those are still necessary “even though the Central subway is coming in” to connect Chinatown, Union Square, and SoMa. The 30 and 45 lines have been on a one-block detour near Union Square for four years to accommodate subway construction.

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