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Advocates, Angered by Townsend Project Cancellation, Dominate SFMTA Board Meeting

Tom Maguire, Ed Reiskin, Lee Hsu, Cheryl Brinkman, Gwyneth Borden, and Art Torres at today’s SFMTA board meeting. All pics Streetsblog/Rudick unless indicated

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Some sixty advocates from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, and more from other street safety groups, came to today's SFMTA board meeting to demand the agency reinstate the Townsend Corridor Improvement Project. The SFMTA announced in late June that it was canceling the project, but, after a flurry of phone calls and emails from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, plus a large People Protected Bike Lane protest, it quickly started backpedaling.

"We want to make it clear," said Tom Maguire, Director of SFMTA's Sustainable Streets division, during the agency's board meeting this Tuesday afternoon, "We don’t think we need to wait until the construction of the DTX takes place." The DTX, the long-delayed downtown extension of Caltrain from its current terminus at 4th and King to the Transbay Transit Center, would require ripping up Townsend again and was the stated reason for canceling the Townsend safety project.

The Townsend safety project would add bus boarding islands, protected bike lanes, and other safety features, although it's still unclear how much of that would be included in the new, short-term plan the agency is currently exploring for the notoriously dangerous part of the street next to the Caltrain station.

Board Chair Cheryl Brinkman asked SFMTA director Ed Reiskin for more detail as to why his agency announced the project would be canceled in the first place. He said the plan would have required them to tear up the street for a long time and then almost as soon as it was done "the DTX would render all of those improvements useless."

Director Ed Reiskin responding to questions. Image: SF GOV TV
Director Ed Reiskin was lightly grilled today about delays to Townsend and Embarcadero. Image: SF GOV TV
Director Ed Reiskin responding to questions. Image: SF GOV TV

But the latest incarnation of the DTX isn't even supposed to start construction--if it's on time--for another five years, and the SFMTA, if properly motivated, has put in improvements such as parking-protected bike lanes in a matter of months. One of the audience speakers was supervisor Jane Kim, whose district encompasses Townsend. "Even if our best assumptions move forward and the DTX comes into the ground in the next five years, think not of the number of years, but think about the number of users."

Supervisor Jane Kim waiting to speak to the SFMTA Board. That's her aide Noelle Duong to her right.
Supervisor Jane Kim waiting to speak to the SFMTA Board. That's her aide Noelle Duong to her right.
Supervisor Jane Kim waiting to speak to the SFMTA Board. That's her aide Noelle Duong to her right.

Kim pointed out that with the thousands of vulnerable road users who travel Townsend either to use Caltrain or to get from SoMa to downtown, the probability of saving a life by implementing short-term improvements is high. Even if it costs $6 million more, "...if we save one life, two lives, three lives because of these improvements, we will consider it a success," she said.

Many in the audience urged the SFMTA to install simple, quick improvements on Townsend without delay, using construction barriers, cones, safe-hit posts, or whatever is available.  Indeed, many other cities, including Baltimore, have installed protected bike lanes much faster than San Francisco.

"I am frustrated that it would be taken off," said Miles Cooper, another speaker. His young daughter, fearful of the mayhem of cars, buses, bikes, and pedestrians on the street, asked him not to ride his bike on Townsend, he said. "If a four-and-a-half-year-old girl recognizes this needs to be changed--not taken off or watered down--why can't you?"

The cancellation of the Townsend plan, as previously reported, was announced unceremoniously on the SFMTA website (the agency has since removed the post). Staff thought that even some temporary improvements would require an expensive relocation of overhead Muni lines, which would then have to be reworked again for the DTX. "We thought the Muni wires would be a fatal flaw, which is the reason we told the public" it was canceled, said Maguire. However, he added, "we think we found a way around it... and it includes a good level of protection between 4th and 7th."

Advocates also came to the meeting to demand the city work faster to bring safety improvements to the Embarcadero, where another project has languished. Many attributed the recent death of pedicab operator Kevin Manning to the lack of protected bike lanes on the Embarcadero.

An audience full of some sixty advocates, many in yellow shirts. More attendees watched from an overflow room.

Brinkman, meanwhile, asked Reiskin for a timeline for when Townsend improvements will go in, now that the project, or at least some form of it, is being reinstated.

"We think in a month we can get a revised design that we will start sharing–and I think with an expeditious process we could start seeing improvements in the ground by the end of the calendar year," said Reiskin.

But advocates were not satisfied. Quite a few said it seems as if whenever they turn their backs or get complacent, SFMTA slows down or cancels projects.

"I'm not hearing a sense of urgency here. Don’t start investigating and getting a preferred design by the fall... do it now!" said Walk San Francisco's Cathy DeLuca at the meeting. "Say: 'We are going to make the streets safer because we will not let anyone else die.' That’s the leadership we want to see."

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