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Supes Stand Up to Transbay Developers, Approve Original Rail Funding Deal

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The Board of Supervisors yesterday unanimously approved the original agreement to fund Transbay District transportation upgrades, like the downtown rail extension to the Transbay Transit Center, through development charges. Although supervisors had announced a compromise agreement two weeks ago, some developers apparently backed out of it. City Hall officials decided to move forward with the original agreement, since those developers threatened to file a lawsuit either way.

A rendering of the Transbay Transit Center and surrounding high-rise development to come, via TransbayCenter.org

The disagreement arose after Transbay developers began to fight the establishment of a special property tax, called a Mello-Roos tax district, which they had agreed to in 2012 to help fund local infrastructure projects, like the extension of Caltrain and California high-speed rail to the Transbay Center. The developers, who still must approve the Mello-Roos agreement in a vote, hired former Mayor Willie Brown to lobby for a lower tax rate, since property values (and thus projected taxes) have skyrocketed in recent years.

“Kudos to the Supervisors for supporting the original Mello-Roos agreement, rather than delaying the vote again or agreeing to further concessions,” said Livable City Director Tom Radulovich. “Any project of this size is going to be subject to lawsuits and threats of lawsuits. Shame on these developers for seeking to reap all the benefits of the Transbay project, their beneficial re-zoning, and San Francisco’s booming land values, without any portion of this enormous windfall going towards the public good.”

Under the compromise agreement announced two weeks ago, the developers would have paid the same maximum of $1.4 billion in taxes, but spread over 37 years instead of 30. Supervisor Scott Wiener said this would have retained “every penny” of the original deal, but some said the economics would’ve worked out in the developers’ favor. The SF Chronicle penned an editorial on Sunday blasting the “unwarranted tax break to developers” and “huge giveaway”:

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Governor Brown Signs Bill Allowing 3-Bike Racks on Some Buses in CA

Under a new law California law, transit agencies are now allowed greater use of racks that carry three bikes, like this one on L.A. Metro’s Orange Line BRT. Photo by Ensie via Flickr

California transit agencies are now allowed greater use of bus-mounted bike racks that hold three bicycles. Governor Jerry Brown signed A.B. 2707 Tuesday, a bill authored Ed Chau (D-Monterey Park) to allow 40-foot-long buses to be equipped with folding bike racks that can carry up to three bikes.

It was the first bill signed by the governor this year that’s on Streetsblog’s unofficial watch list of bills related to sustainable transportation.

Current law restricts the length of vehicles on California roads to a maximum length of 40 feet. An exception was created for AC Transit in the Bay Area, after legislation was passed several years ago to allow the agency to exceed the length limit when it added three-bike racks to the front of its buses.

Another bill in the most recent legislative session was aimed at creating a similar exception for Santa Cruz, but it was dropped when L.A. Metro came forward with A.B. 2707 to change the law throughout the state. Metro will soon receive a large order of 40-foot buses, and thanks to the new law, will be able to expand its bike-carrying capacity on the majority of its fleet.

“It’s a major, major gain. I’m terrifically happy this made it through the system,” said Bart Reed of the Transit Coalition, which had been pushing local legislators to address the issue since 2012“If a bus only comes by every half hour, then there’s only space for four bikes every hour. People were being left stranded. This bill will enhance capacity by another half.”

A sticking point in 2012 was pushback from operator unions, who wanted a say in when and how the longer bike racks are used. Until now, exceptions to the 40-foot rule have allowed three-bike racks on buses up to 60 feet long, but only after approval from a Route Review Committee that must include representatives of the transit agency, the driver’s union, and an engineer.

“The Route Review Committee is required to convene and unanimously approve every route for triple bike racks,” said Michael Turner of Metro. “Our concern is that we have over 100 bus routes, with over 2,000 buses in service. We want to work with our operators, but it’s not good policy to give them veto authority; it’s also not practical, given the size of our operations.”

Since Metro the Route Review Committee requirement has only been applied to 45- and 60-foot buses, the agency decided to focus its legislation on allowing three-bike racks on the 40-foot buses that will make up about half of their fleet once the new buses are delivered.

“Bike use has been growing, and we’ve seen more demand, especially on our rail system,” said Turner.

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Developers Don’t Want to Pay for Caltrain/HSR Extension to Transbay Center

Developers who are building towers around the Transbay Transit Center in SoMa are fighting to reduce a special property tax that will be levied on developments in the area. The biggest loser could be the downtown rail extension to bring Caltrain and California high-speed rail into the terminal, as more of the funds for the regional rail hub and other long-term projects would have to come from taxpayers.

A rendering of the Transbay Transit Center and surrounding high-rise development to come, via TransbayCenter.org

The group of developers is backed by former mayor Willie Brown, who registered as an official lobbyist to work for them in July (he also recently lobbied “pro bono” for AnsoldoBreda, the manufacturer of Muni’s current train fleet). Brown previously helped create the Transbay Joint Powers Authority to oversee the massive package of projects centered around what’s been called the “Grand Central of the West,” expected to open in 2017.

SF Chronicle columnists Phil Matier and Andrew Ross reported in July:

Brown confirmed for us that he is representing Boston Properties — builder of the 61-story Salesforce Tower — and more than a half dozen other property owners.

In exchange for the city allowing them to increase the height and density of their projects, the property owners agreed two years ago to be assessed up to $400 million to help pay for a Transbay Transit Center rooftop park and other public improvements to the area.

Only now, thanks to skyrocketing property values and changes in the city’s methodology for calculating the assessments, the developers — paying into what’s known as a Mello-Roos special district — could face up to $1.4 billion in charges.

The Board of Supervisors was expected to approve the agreement creating the Mello-Roos district on Tuesday, but D6 Supervisor Jane Kim postponed the item one week. “We wanted additional time to be able to brief all of the offices on this issue, but also talk to the multiple parties involved,” Kim said at the meeting.

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Commentary: Why This Senior and Transit Advocate Blocked a Google Bus

Editor’s note: This is a guest op-ed that does not represent the views of Streetsblog.

Buses good, cars bad. I get it.

Corporate shuttles replace thousands of cars – so why would someone who’s spent hours pounding the podium at Muni hearings, and campaigning for cyclists and pedestrians, join a blockade of seniors and disabled people protesting tech buses? Over time, I’ve gone from considering the buses positive, to understanding their destructive role in San Francisco’s displacement crisis.

Housing-war history, generational conflicts, and the consequences of growing inequality all churn the current debate over who can live in San Francisco. Getting stuck in a simplistic “buses good, cars bad” formula can keep sustainable transportation advocates from appreciating all this context. I’ve been dismayed at some comments on Streetsblog about “those idiot Google bus blockaders.” One commenter even claimed that the backers of the pro-car “Restore Transportation Balance” ballot measure must be the same as those blocking the buses.

This defies belief! Tenant advocates have been the driving force behind recent antidisplacement actions, including the bus blockades, and as someone who’s worked with the San Francisco Tenants Union for decades, I can testify that it’s always a struggle to find someone with a car to haul campaign literature or conduct a carpool. The Restore Transportation Balance backers, in contrast, are largely Republicans and homeowners. The same right-wingers who wail, “The bike coalition runs this town” also say “The tenants union runs this town.”

My thinking on the corporate shuttles changed when I began making connections between transportation justice and economic equity. Streetsblog readers understand automobile domination, the bullying assumption that cars have the right of way, and pedestrians and cyclists should flutter aside like pigeons. Similarly, corporate domination runs right over vulnerable populations. The two issues often converge, as when our puppet mayor takes orders from his venture capital bosses and, like a vending machine, spits out the repeal of Sunday parking meter enforcement, a bait and switch on vehicle license fee increases, and tepid lip service on Vision Zero.

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The Secrets of Successful Transit Projects — Revealed!

The Trax light rail system in Salt Lake City has the hallmarks of high-ridership transit. Photo: CountyLemonade/Flickr

All across America, cities are investing in new transit lines. Which of these routes will make the biggest impact by attracting large numbers of new riders? A landmark report from a team of researchers with the University of California at Berkeley identifies the factors that set successful transit investments apart from the rest.

The secret sauce is fairly simple, when you get down to it: Place a transit line where it will connect a lot of people to a lot of jobs and give it as much grade-separated right-of-way as possible, and it will attract a lot of riders.

What makes the work of the Berkeley researchers, led by Daniel G. Chatman, remarkable is that it compiles decades of real-world data to predict how many people will ride a given transit route. Their conclusions should bolster efforts to maximize the effectiveness of new transit investments.

The report authors examined 140-plus factors to build these ridership models, based on data collected from 55 “fixed guideway” transit projects, including rail and bus rapid transit routes, built in 18 metropolitan areas between 1974 and 2008.

They found the success of a transit project is almost synonymous with whether it serves areas that are dense in both jobs and population and have expensive parking — in short, lively urban neighborhoods. In the report’s model, the combination of these factors explains fully 62 percent of the ridership difference between transit projects.

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Are SFMTA’s Proposed Shuttle Stops Enough to End Muni Conflicts?

A snapshot of the SFMTA's proposed Muni stops to be shared with private shuttles. See the full map in this PDF

A snapshot of the SFMTA’s proposed Muni stops to be shared with private shuttles. See the full map in this PDF

The SFMTA has released a proposed map of Muni stops where commuter shuttles would be permitted to load passengers, part of the agency’s 18-month pilot program to test private-bus regulation. Shuttles currently use many of these stops, and the resulting conflicts between shuttles and Muni buses has led to transit delays. SFMTA says it hopes to reduce bus conflicts by replacing car parking with new loading zones, marked with white curbs, where shuttles can load passengers out of Muni’s way.

With the vast majority of SF’s curb space devoted to storing private automobiles, hiving off a sliver of that space to make room for both public and private transit to co-exist shouldn’t make a huge difference. But, of the roughly 80 shared stops proposed on the map, just nine have white zones. Four of those would ban parking during morning peak hours, and five would during both morning and evening peak hours. A handful of bus stop zones would also be extended.

Are nine new white zones enough to minimize conflicts between Muni and shuttles? Transit advocates are still assessing that answer — but it’s not a simple one, since there isn’t hard data on how much shuttles delay Muni, or where it happens most often.

For many of the stops, it could be that there aren’t enough conflicts to warrant a white zone. As shown in a three-hour time lapse video of the shared stop outside the home of transportation planner Paul Supawanich, most of the 36 shuttle buses that arrived within that period didn’t block a Muni bus.

“I hope that it was based on metrics, and wasn’t a politically arrived-at figure,” said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City. While shuttles take cars off the road by providing convenient alternatives to driving, “The benefit of that is diminished if they’re also delaying Muni. If we’re going to have the shuttles using [bus] stops, it’s gotta be in such away that they’re creating no delay for public transit. And that’s not what’s happening now. I think we could get there, but little has been asked of the shuttle operators.”

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Muni’s Absymal Breakdown Rate: One Reason SF Needs a Vehicle License Fee

Revenue Miles Between Total Vehicle Failures. Compared with nine other transit agencies, Muni’s light-rail breakdown rate was an abysmal outlier. Image: City Controller’s Office

Muni vehicles break down far more frequently than in other cities, after years of the system being starved of the necessary funding to adequately maintain its fleet of trains and buses.

Muni’s heavily-used light rail vehicles, which serve 50 million riders every year, have a failure rate that’s off the charts. According to a City Controller audit [PDF] of Muni’s performance compared to that of nine similar transit agencies, Muni metro LRVs broke down every 617 miles on average. At the other end of the spectrum, light rail vehicles in San Jose go 47,630 miles between breakdowns, which means that Muni vehicles break down 77 times as often. The second worst-ranked city after SF was Pittsburgh, at 3,923 miles.

Crowds seen at West Portal Station during this week’s Muni “sickout.” Photo: SFMTA

“Our light-rail seems eggshell-fragile compared to everyone else’s,” said Malcolm Henicke, a member of the SFMTA Board of Directors, who seemed surprised by the data and asked Muni management for answers at a board meeting on Tuesday.

SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin said that many of the LRV component systems haven’t undergone overdue mid-life overhauls, which “we would be able to do with the vehicle license fee revenues.” The VLF increase is one ballot measure proposed by the Mayor’s 2030 Transportation Task Force, along with a $500 million general obligation bond. These measures would fund upgrades for the transportation network, including Muni rehabs and vehicle replacements.

But Mayor Ed Lee announced this week that he would abandon his support for the measure to restore the VLF to historic levels on this November’s ballot — even though the measure would raise $1 billion over 15 years. The SF Transit Riders Union called the mayor’s announcement yet another “refusal to prioritize Muni at every turn” and a “complete failure of leadership.”

In a separate audit presented by the City Controller a year ago, Muni delays were estimated to cost the economy at least $50 million a year.

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Standing Up to the Naysayers: Tales of Livable Streets Leadership From NYC

Re-shaping city streets almost always runs up against some level of opposition — it’s part and parcel of physically changing what people often see as their territory. Whether residents get to have safer streets, however, often comes down to the elected leaders who stand up to the naysayers.

When merchants fought a conversion of their block into a car-free plaza, New York City Council Member Danny Dromm won them over. Photo: Times Ledger

When merchants fought a conversion of their block into a car-free plaza, New York City Council Member Danny Dromm won them over. Photo: Times Ledger

In San Francisco lately, we’ve seen a lot of smart transportation projects get watered down or stopped without a supervisor or mayor willing to take a stand. In the absence of political leadership, city officials and agencies too often cave to the loudest complainers, who fight tooth and nail to preserve every parking space and traffic lane, dismissing the empirical lessons from other redesigns that worked out fine when all was said and done.

It’s not unusual for elected officials to be risk averse, but mustering the political courage to support safe streets and effective transit can and does pay off. Just look to the political leadership in New York City, where Streetsblog has covered several major stories involving City Council members (the equivalent of SF’s supervisors) who faced down the fearmongering and shepherded plazas and protected bike lanes to fruition.

These leaders suffered no ill effects as a result of their boldness. They were “easily re-elected” last year, said Ben Fried, Streetsblog’s NYC-based editor-in-chief. If anything, Fried says these politicians gained more support — not less — “because they had won over this very engaged constituency of livable streets supporters.”

In the battle over NYC’s Prospect Park West redesign, a group of very well-connected neighbors filed a lawsuit against the city for converting a traffic lane on the street into a two-way protected bikeway. City Council Member Brad Lander defended the project, which is now held up as one of NYC’s flagship street transformations.

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Warriors Arena Moving to Mission Bay: A Win for Transit Accessibility?

Third and 16th Street, the new proposed site for the Warriors arena. Image: CBS-KPIX

The Warriors announced this week that the site for the basketball team’s proposed arena would be moved from Piers 30-32 on the Embarcadero to Mission Bay, quelling opposition from waterfront development foes. Whether or not the new site will work out for better or worse in terms of accessibility to regional transit, however, is still up for debate.

The Mission Bay site at 16th Street and Third Street is nearly two miles from the nearest BART Station, out of normal walking distance for most visitors. Instead, fans taking BART will be expected to transfer on Muni lines such as the T-Third on the Central Subway corridor, which will stop right out front, and possibly the 22-Fillmore, if extension plans for that line are constructed in time. The distance from BART may be a loss in the eyes of some transit advocates, but it does have its upsides, argues Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and a BART Board member.

Ultimately, Radulovich thinks the Warriors are best off staying at the existing Oakland Coliseum, which is close to BART and the Amtrak Capitol Corridor, making it a more transit-accessible location than either of the proposed San Francisco sites. But the Mission Bay site does leave open more opportunities for nearby transit access than the Embarcadero piers, given all the transportation plans in the works for Mission Bay.

At the proposed Pier 30-32 site, the 0.7-mile walk from Embarcadero BART “was far enough from BART to dissuade many folks from walking,” said Radulovich. He pointed out that once the Central Subway opens in 2019, riders reaching BART via rail would rely on the N-Judah (which Giants Ballpark visitors already cram on to) and the future E-Embarcadero historic streetcar line, as the T-Third will no longer run on the Embarcadero. “Historic streetcars are expensive to operate, low capacity, and have accessibility challenges,” said Radulovich. Additionally, he said, “It would have added to the capacity problems at Embarcadero Station, which is currently the most crowded BART station.”

Furthermore, arena parking would be especially problematic by the Embarcadero. “The auto traffic that would have been generated by the hundreds of planned arena parking spaces would crowd streets like The Embarcadero and Second,” said Radulovich, “where we’d like to see the city reduce the roadway width to improve sidewalks and create protected cycle paths.”

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Eyes on the Street: Geary’s Bus Lane, Wiggle’s Curbs Get Red Paint

Geary at Powell Street. Photo: Cheryl Brinkman

Updated 4/23 2:45 p.m. with corrected project timelines for the painted bus lanes.

The SFMTA started adding the red carpet treatment to Geary Street’s bus-only lane, and started painting curbs red to daylight, or improve visibility at, corners along the Wiggle.

The Geary/O’Farrell Street couplet, between Powell and Gough Streets, is the second of three bus-only lane segments to get red paint; the first was Third Street in SoMa. The red paint is intended to warn drivers to stay out of the bus lanes, though reports from folks on the street say results have been mixed so far. The third stretch set to get red transit lanes is Market Street, inbound between 5th and 12th Streets, and outbound between 8th Street and Van Ness Avenue. The SFMTA said the Geary/O’Farrell project would be completed by mid-June, and the Market lanes by September.

On the Wiggle, street corners are finally getting daylighting — the practice of removing parked cars to open up sightlines between street users. It’s unclear what took so long to paint the short red segments of curb paint, which the SFMTA promised as early as 2012. Nonetheless, these simple measures to reduce the “peek-a-boo” effect at intersections are very welcome.

Steiner and Waller Streets on the Wiggle. Photo: Mark Dreger