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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."

While most of SF's transportation projects are planned and implemented by the SF Municipal Transportation Agency, San Francisco's BRT projects (the other project being Van Ness, which has seen hold-ups of its own) have so far been managed by the SFCTA, which is generally focused on managing the city's transportation finances and long-term planning. Farr told the committee and staff from the SFCTA (a.k.a. the TA) that he wonders whether the project would have been delivered more efficiently under SFMTA management.

"It really makes me sad but I would like to say that I have lost my trust in the TA working on this project," said Farr. "I am concerned that the TA involvement is slowing this down compared to if the MTA had managed this project directly; and what I’m seeing is that this is actually happening now — because the MTA’s improvements to its operations are basically providing the improvements claimed to have been providing back in 2012."

David Parisi, a planning consultant for the SFCTA, defended the agency's progress, insisting that the project is now on schedule, with plans to release a draft environmental impact report later this year. According to the Richmond Review, he told Farr, "We're still on the same time schedule that we presented a year ago. It sounds like you have some fair alarms tonight but we've been transparent as ever."

"We're in environmental assessments right now," added Parisi. "The outreach was critical that we did last summer and fall, and it's given us some good answers to go forward with some alternatives in design. We're excited where we're at."

The SFMTA does play a part in planning Geary BRT, and Andrew Lee, the agency's lead planner on the project, argued that the original schedule had to be abandoned to allow time to win over more public support. "There's been delay. We recognize the frustration; we have it ourselves," Lee told the Richmond Review. "We definitely want something to happen. We think this is the best way to do it, frankly."

Planners are narrowing down the alternatives, and for the main stretch of Geary running between Van Ness and 25th Avenues, "a consolidated local and BRT bus option running in the median lanes and with right-side medians/platforms is being considered," according to an SFCTA report [PDF] to the CAC.

Planners are expected to present the refined design alternatives to the public in the coming months. The next Geary CAC meeting is scheduled for March 21.

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