Waiting for BRT

Pub date September 10, 2013

By Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez


You’re on Muni’s underground line, the train stalled just shy of your stop, just stuck there, the light at the end of the tunnel right in front of you. It’s a frustrating feeling, right?

With more than six years worth of delays in three major transit overhauls — the Van Ness, Geary and Geneva Bus Rapid Transit Projects — it’s beginning to feel just like that.

The projects are designed to speed up the most trafficked transit routes in the city by making the buses run like trains. For the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit, the 47 and 49 would drive in dedicated bus-only lanes shuttling riders north and south, reducing travel time by a third, according to project estimates.

Van Ness BRT was initially announced in 2004 with a planned unveiling of 2012. Eight years later, the new debut is set for 2018. The Geary Project is even worse, with a completion date slated for 2020.

The Van Ness BRT is finally getting its wheels turning this month, with the Environmental Impact Report set to be approved by a number of governmental bodies: the Van Ness BRT Citizen’s Advisory Committee, the Transit Authority board, and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority.

Why the hell has this bus project taken nearly a decade to start its engine? As is customary in politics, fingers are pointed at all sides.

At a citizen’s meeting for the Van Ness BRT on Sept. 4, two angry factions gathered in the Old First Church Fellowship Hall on Van Ness. The SFMTA’s spokesperson for the project, Lulu Feliciano, wrapped up her presentation to the crowd of about 100, and that’s when they pounced.

“Van Ness’ three lanes will be limited to two, but it’s a highway, isn’t it?” asked Carole Holt, owner of Russian Hill Upholstery. “Why do cars have no consideration?” She told the Guardian she worried her customers from Marin would have trouble getting to her store.

Another Polk Street activist, Kelly Gerber, walked right up to Feliciano’s face and gestured with his hand like an angry schoolteacher. “Why has no one ever heard of this?” he bellowed, telling us he opposes the loss of parking spaces.

Ironically, transit planners say car traffic would move faster, partially because of the elimination of all left turns along Van Ness except Broadway.

“They’re just angry and zooming in on every little detail,” Mario Tanez, spokesperson for the SF Transit Riders Union, said of BRT’s opponents.

The mostly younger crowd of transit activists showed up in equal force to counter the Polk Street merchants, hoping to stem the tide of NIMBYism.

“We’re the generation that will actually see these improvements,” Teo Wickland told us. He’s an urban planning student who hopes to see Muni running on time.

Feliciano said the project was complicated by having to coordinate multiple city agencies, all with their own goals.

Instead of digging up the same stretch of concrete a dozen times in a decade, San Francisco tries to include as many agencies as possible when cement is broken in any part of the city, she said. Since the Van Ness project is a two-mile stretch between Lombard and Mission streets, many are involved.

infographic showing different city agencies involved in the reconstruction of Van Ness

Graphic by Brooke Robertson

Peter Gabancho, the project manager for Van Ness BRT, said that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission will put in new water lines, institute a rainwater catch system, and do sewer work. The Department of Public Works plans to repave, and the SFMTA will replace overhead bus lines and light poles.

When asked how much the city would save by combining work, he couldn’t give an exact dollar amount but said it was in the tens of millions, at least.

He also said that the process requires community meetings at many steps in the process. City officials visited Mexico City to see how they planned and built its BRT in just three years, and Gabancho said it’s because that city didn’t really consult the community.

“We can’t do business like that in San Francisco and I don’t think we want to do that in San Francisco,” he said.

All of that governmental insanity had a member of the Geary BRT’s Citizen Advisory Council calling it quits in a fury — he even wrote about it in his blog.

“What I’ve seen in the past six years has been a severe disappointment during which I have lost trust in America’s regulatory framework to enact effective transit improvements,” Kieran Farr, the CEO and co-founder of VidCaster, wrote. He described the process as fraught with starts and restarts, slips and delays, mostly due to a lack of leadership. And that’s the rub: There is no point person on this project with strong political will, according the SFTRU. “The mayor is not saying this is high priority,” Tanez told us. “He’s at all the Central Subway events, but getting political clout behind this by writing to our supervisors is the only way to do this.” The Van Ness project runs through the districts of Sups. Mark Farrell and David Chiu, who were both unavailable at press time. The SFMTA is slated to approve the Van Ness BRT EIR on Tue/17 at 1pm in City Hall, Room 400.