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.

“We understand the public’s concerns about how long these projects are taking, and share their frustrations,” Chang wrote in an email. “However, please know that the Authority and SFMTA are doing everything within our purview to speed up the design and construction process.”

Chang said Caltrans, which has jurisdiction over Van Ness because it’s part of Highway 101, had insisted that planners maintain 12-foot-wide traffic lanes by removing trees in the center median and car parking lanes, which provide a barrier between pedestrians and moving traffic. Eventually, the SFCTA convinced Caltrans to allow 10.5-foot-wide lanes on some stretches.

In an ongoing effort, the SFCTA is pushing Caltrans to reform its street standards to allow for safer designs in urban environments, said Chang.

The latest delay would have been even longer, she said, had the agency not sped up a funding grant for the SFMTA to begin its design process.

“The detailed design effort is now underway and the team continues to look for ways to pull in the schedule, while maintaining quality and public involvement,” she said. “SFMTA is studying alternative delivery processes such as Design-Build (where the same contractor performs final design as well as construction) – this is a very positive development as it can really save time and enable the most efficient use of resources between the public and private sectors.”

Chang said planners are also looking for ways to integrate the development of the Van Ness project with Geary BRT, another project that has been fraught with delays.

Henderson thinks BRT projects would move faster if they had political backing from members of the Board of Supervisors. “As it’s built, they’re going to have to shepherd this thing through and make sure that it doesn’t get whittled down,” he said.

  • mikesonn

    What a joke.

  • Another two years? What an insult.

  • gneiss

    For comparison, the lane widths on Fell and Oak Streets are only 9′ 6″. To mandate that they need such a wide street on Van Ness is hopelessly out of touch with the realities of how traffic moves on that street. The speed limit is only 25 mph. Traffic crawls between untimed stoplights. What a joke.

    The state engineers really need to get a grip and stop trying to turn our city into San Jose.

  • Jafafa Hots

    Wide lanes for cars are intended to speed up vehicular traffic. Not speed throughput, but simply speed it up. Totally inappropriate for any city street.
    Caltrans needs to stop thinking in 1950s Eisenhower freeways-through-the-city mode.

  • Josh Handel

    San Francisco: pass a resolution claiming sovereignty/jurisdiction/liability etc for all surface roads inside city limits. The fact that we even have to talk to Caltrans about this project is ridiculous…

  • Absolutely right. Can anyone explain why Caltrans is allowed to control this street? I mean, I understand that it was once considered a freeway, but why hasn’t that been corrected by now? West Hollywood reclaimed Santa Monica Blvd from Caltrans, why can’t SF reclaim Van Ness?

  • Mario Tanev

    Wow. I am dumbfounded at how easy it was for SFCTA to add the extra stop for the senior center. There was no public discussion about that and it was just announced in some back channels – and all of a sudden it is announced as fact, slowing down construction and slowing down eventual service. Somehow we have so many public meetings, yet such important changes fly under the radar.

  • Josh Handel

    I’d also like to ask the question – do seniors really need to get anywhere quickly? I mean, they’re retired. Also, seniors boarding with walkers/wheelchairs etc will slow service even more. I’m just being real here…

  • I’d assume it’s because Van Ness is part of the 101 route.

  • Mario Tanev

    Level boarding should make the wheelchair issue less of an issue. But I do think that perhaps we should think of providing a once-hourly service that stops at every corner for those who absolutely cannot walk. Clearly for them ANY service without walking is more important than fast service, so the tradeoffs are different.

  • Well, yes. So what would have to happen to remove Van Ness from the 101 route? Is that a thing that can be done?

  • I don’t think planners typically like giant gaps in their routes.

  • Santa Teresa Hills

    From a San Jose Department of Transportation newsletter:

    On December 28, 2011, after almost six years of negotiations with Caltrans, the City became the official owner of State Routes 82 and 130. Serving primarily as urban arterials within the City of San Jose, these state routes are commonly known as the Alameda and Monterrey Road (SR 82) and Alum Rock Avenue (SR 140).

  • Anonymous

    Does BRT imply that the 47/49 go away as is?

  • SFMTA already operates a paratransit service: http://www.sfparatransit.com

  • Joël Ramos

    The 12 foot lanes is a well-known, longstanding statewide requirement for any Caltrans right of way, that I believe is in place to keep the roadway wide enough to accommodate emergency vehicles (I assume very large fire trucks, mirrors and all). It was wishful thinking to expect Caltrans (a statewide agency) to be ok with making an exception to comply with a few folks from one neighborhood who would rather keep transit slow and expensive than to remove or relocate existing streetscaping.

    The Van Ness corridor seems like the most useful -and easiest- place to implement BRT. It’s all in one city and county. It’s all within one agency’s jurisdiction (the SFCTA). The demand is there. The funding is there. I can’t imagine how it could be any easier. And yet, here we are.

  • vcs

    The route is defined in state law. I suppose you could move it to 19th Avenue or somewhere else, but it wouldn’t make any difference in travel patterns.

  • vcs

    Also, the headline seems misleading. Caltrans agreed to narrower lanes. The hold-up must be something else.

  • Joël Ramos

    The senior center has a heavily transit dependent population, who currently have a bus stop directly in front of their center. With the original proposal, they were expected to have to walk for 2 blocks, up a very steep hill to get to the closest, new BRT station. A station was not originally proposed to be there not because it would have “slowed down service”, but because the intersection were a simple bus stop is now (by keeping parallel parking clear) needs to also accommodate two left-hand turn lanes to turn onto Broadway. There simply isn’t enough streetspace to accommodate north and southbound mixed traffic lanes, turn lanes, dedicated lanes, and a station. The next block up is too steep to allow for a level boarding platform (and re-grading the street would have dramatically increased the cost of the project). So this transit dependent population (who BRT is supposed to most serve) was being expected to walk two blocks up a hill to get to the closest BRT station. Totally not cool. The current solution is a good compromise. The real bummer here is the thinking that we’d get an exemption to the 12′ lane width requirement because a FEW people don’t want to see the trees removed to make space for more efficient transit service that would improve the lives of THOUSANDS of people every day.

  • Chris

    Wow Josh, that’s quite insensitive to imply that seniors don’t deserve the same level of transit service that non seniors deserve. Transit exists for everyone to use.

    I am in a wheelchair myself and an advocate for wide stop spacing, don’t get me wrong. BRT should not stop so frequently. But let’s drop the attitude that seniors and disabled slow down transit and should find their own way to get around. Universal design is the solution, not segregation.

  • Joël Ramos

    To try and maintain evenly an hourly service would require a sizable operations budget that would not be able to be divested from the operating budget of the BRT, meaning less frequent service. Perhaps more importantly, though, is that red curbs where bus stops are now and where parking will go once BRT stations are put in would have to stay red curbs for the local service, thus increasing the amount of parking removed for BRT, thereby increasing amount total parking loss for the project along the corridor.

  • Joël Ramos

    I don’t think it would “go away”, but it would be “replaced” with the BRT system. Some of the less used stops would likely be removed, whereas maintaing local service outside of the BRT would require operations funding that would come out of the BRT operations budget (it would be for the same corridor). More importantly, however (at least politically), more parking loss would have to occur whereas the red curbs where bus stops would be removed would be converted into street parking spaces.

  • Mark Dreger

    While we’re at it let’s reclaim Sloat Blvd (CA-35) too.

  • Joël Ramos

    It’s not for ALL city streets, it’s only for their state highway system, which is supposed to maintain a route for emergency (maybe military?) vehicles. It’s not a regulation meant to facilitate speed. That’s what our CITY determined 25MPH speed allowances on our CITY streets are for.

    I’m not justifying Caltrans’ regulation, but just sharing my understanding of the regulation.

  • Guest

    So what? Hardly a concern.

  • Joël Ramos

    Hardly a concern? Really? Are you from San Francisco? Have you ever tried to park a car here?

  • Eric Fischer

    What you’re thinking of is the state fire code that requires a 20-foot clear area on any road.

    Caltrans doesn’t care about emergency vehicles, they care about trucks. The lane width standard is right there at the start of http://www.dot.ca.gov/hq/oppd/hdm/pdf/english/chp0300.pdf and it says they’ll accept 11 feet on streets that have less than 250 trucks per lane per day. I don’t know what Van Ness’s truck count is, but it’s not like it has 12-foot lanes now anyway.

  • Anonymous

    That didn’t seem to be a concern for the Central Subway, which is smack dab in the most transit dependent population in San Francisco, n’est pas?

  • Joël Ramos

    What didn’t seem to be a concern?

  • Joël Ramos

    Thank you, Eric! I knew it had more to do with accommodating width as opposed to speed.

  • Joël Ramos

    Actually, Eric just corrected me. It’s not for emergency vehicles, but for the width of trucks. But maybe military trucks carrying tanks? I think the point is that it’s not for speed, but for accommodation of width.

  • Guest

    I grew up here thank you very much and for a public official you are quite ignorant of the Transit First Policy and the follies of over-accommodating auto use, especially on a new transit-centered Van Ness. If anything, I’d like to see the old bus stops be converted to parklets or bike parking like what they did on Valencia.

  • Mark Dreger

    The wider the lane, the faster people can/will drive. If we want people to go 25 mph, 10-11 foot lanes would be spot on. Engineering standards most certainly pair lane width with intended vehicle speed – this is in addition to accounting for larger vehicles.

  • El Jefe

    The wider lanes are not just for fire trucks.Since this is a major route between the peninsula and Marin county and also a state road the assumption Caltrans and others have to make is that this road will have to handle much larger vehicles than a normal city street, just try driving a cement truck, bus or dump truck down Van Ness as it is now (I have) it is a nerve racking experience (god forbid you have to drive a semi delivering your new Specialized bicycles to the local bike shop) especially with the selfish, boneheaded car drivers already on the road. Just watch how much more difficult it is for buses on Divisadero St since they made the lanes just 6 inches narrower, they can’t get by delivery trucks, those UCSF passenger vans etc. Just sayin’ Caltrans might have a point. They were certainly right about the problems with having Octavia Blvd. redesign terminate south of Market St.

  • Eric Fischer

    Let me be clear: I am not defending Caltrans’s lane width standards and I think they are absurd. The intent is to accomodate large vehicles comfortably, but, as Mark says, the effect is to make drivers of smaller vehicles, which are much more common, drive quickly.

    (It’s nothing about military trucks, either. Just regular trucks that deliver things. Look at the specs for the “California Legal Design Vehicle:” it’s an 8.5 foot-wide semi truck with a 38-foot trailer.)

    But talking about speed on Van Ness is kind of crazy anyway. It’s a two-way street with signals every 350 feet, which means that a progressive signal system has to operate at an effective speed of 8 mph, unless you trade capacity for speed by chunking adjacent signals together.

  • Joël Ramos

    Not for a moment do I support the idea of prioritizing cars over transit. I’m stating that it is a concern of many people to take away parking in this city. To suggest otherwise is naive at best, insensitive at worst, and altogether unhelpful.

  • Joël Ramos

    My point is that the width of the lanes are required to accomodate wide vehicles. It’s very clear that wider streets lead to higher speeds, and is the unfortunate consequence of those regulations on state operated streets.

  • Andy Chow

    Trucks are forbidden on certain blocks of Franklin and Gough, which are alternate route for automobiles. There needs to be some type of accommodation for trucks since it is a state highway and where through truck traffic do not belong to other SF streets.

  • Andy Chow

    Local service will still be available on Polk a block away. The distance between the two streets is shorter than the length of the BART platform.

  • gneiss

    It may be a ‘major route to Marin’ to you and truck drivers, but to the people who live in the city it is simply Van Ness Avenue. There is no reason why we need to punch a hole through the fabric our our community which conforms to rural highway standards just to satisfy the state transportation agency. The idea that the roadway is somehow “safer” if the lanes are wider is ridiculous. We have large buses plying much narrower streets in the city every day and they manage to not run over people. The only reason why you might want to have the wider lanes is if you expected the traffic to move more quickly that it does.

    I want the streets in our city to be nerve racking compared to suburban arteries. It means you’re paying attention and going slower.

  • Tiburon also got a bit of Highway 131 back from the state. The odds of a second Marin-SF bridge are rather low at this point, after all.

  • Anonymous

    Billion plus dollars are being put into new transit with only a single stop in Chinatown

  • Tim S

    Caltrans certainly wasn’t right in opposing having the Central Freeway terminate south of Market Street. Quite the opposite. Caltrans blocked having the freeway touch down much farther southeast, which would have allowed freeway and street-level traffic to integrate somewhere other than the intersection with Market Street. They were also not right to insist in wider lane widths for Octavia, and other modifications that have prevented it from fully achieving the traffic calming benefits of a proper boulevard (though it’s hard to argue the project hasn’t been a major success given the the overall state of Hayes Valley these days compared to, say, the area under the remaining Central Freeway overpass in the Mission).

    Also, 10.5 feet is still relatively generous for an urban arterial where speeds should not exceed 30 mph.

  • Tim

    Chris is right — Josh is being quite insensitive.

    Joël, thanks for weighing in here. While senior access to transit is a very important concern, this situation was handled all wrong. The process was not transparent, and the solution is not a very good one.

    BRT is like a subway: it needs wide stop spacing to really work. MTA shouldn’t compromise on that. Instead, Van Ness should function more like Market or Mission (in the Mission), with wide stop spacing on its rapid (subway or BRT) service, and complementary local service with much closer stop spacing for shorter trips. Moving the 19 Polk over to Van Ness would be one way to accomplish this and create a complete transit corridor on Van Ness.

  • Tim

    Chris is right — Josh is being quite insensitive.

    Joël, thanks for weighing in here. While senior access to transit is a very important concern, this situation was handled all wrong. The process was not transparent, and the solution is not a very good one.

    BRT is like a subway: it needs wide stop spacing to really work. MTA shouldn’t compromise on that. Instead, Van Ness should function more like Market or Mission (in the Mission), with wide stop spacing on its rapid (subway or BRT) service, and complementary local service with much closer stop spacing for shorter trips. Moving the 19 Polk over to Van Ness would be one way to accomplish this and create a complete transit corridor on Van Ness.

  • Tim

    Chris is right — Josh is being quite insensitive.

    Joël, thanks for weighing in here. While senior access to transit is a very important concern, this situation was handled all wrong. The process was not transparent, and the solution is not a very good one.

    BRT is like a subway: it needs wide stop spacing to really work. MTA shouldn’t compromise on that. Instead, Van Ness should function more like Market or Mission (in the Mission), with wide stop spacing on its rapid (subway or BRT) service, and complementary local service with much closer stop spacing for shorter trips. Moving the 19 Polk over to Van Ness would be one way to accomplish this and create a complete transit corridor on Van Ness.

  • Tim

    Chris is right — Josh is being quite insensitive.

    Joël, thanks for weighing in here. While senior access to transit is a very important concern, this situation was handled all wrong. The process was not transparent, and the solution is not a very good one.

    BRT is like a subway: it needs wide stop spacing to really work. MTA shouldn’t compromise on that. Instead, Van Ness should function more like Market or Mission (in the Mission), with wide stop spacing on its rapid (subway or BRT) service, and complementary local service with much closer stop spacing for shorter trips. Moving the 19 Polk over to Van Ness would be one way to accomplish this and create a complete transit corridor on Van Ness.

  • Tim

    If the 19 Polk were moved to Van Ness, the red curbs on Polk could be converted back to parking. No net parking loss, and a lot more frequent service than hourly. Not that a few parking spaces should come before seniors’ access to transit, right?

  • Anonymous

    More “no action” in SF. This town has to find a way to move forward on significant basic infrastructure upgrades—like minimally paving and maintaining key corridors for cars (like Pine all the way to Geary). Frankly, our public realm is horrific and unacceptable for a city our size.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    The dog ate SFCTA’s homework. Again. Bad, bad, bad dog!

    Another two years worth of staff and juicy juicy consultant time coming right up!

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