Paul Kozakiewicz: Transit Plan Could Alter Geary Landscape - for Better or Worse

The SF County Transportation Authority (TA), working with Muni and other city agencies, will give their visions for an improved Geary Boulevard Dec. 10. The public should pay attention - a full court press is being put on to implement a plan that would alter the landscape of the Richmond District, for better or worse.

When city voters passed Proposition K in 2003, a measure that extended the city's 1/2 cent sales tax with a 30 year plan, they set in motion a series of events that has the TA set to break ground on Geary in the next 3 to 5 years. The question is not "if" the project will happen, but "when" it will happen.

The plan being considered includes one option that would put dedicated bus lanes in the outside lanes on Geary, meaning passengers would be picked up on the outside of the roadway as they currently are; and two options to put the dedicated bus or rail line down the center of the boulevard. To do that, a traffic lane in each direction would likely be lost and parking would have to be eliminated or converted from diagonal to parallel.

Because the text of Prop. K said the chosen route must be "rail ready," a plan in the center of the boulevard is likely to be the chosen route. (More on that later.) There are many flaws, and a little folly, in the process that got us where we are today.

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round
The whole process started because of one paragraph, buried on page 6 of the 10-page Proposition K, mentioning Geary Boulevard as a priority for funding with the sales tax money. (There is also a one-line item on page 5 of a proposed budget allocating $55 million to install a light rail system on Geary.)

Prop. K is expected to generate about $3 billion, which will be leveraged for state and federal funds - the total funds expected to be available over the next 30 years is in the $11 billion range.

District 1 Supervisor Jake McGoldrick said he fought to insert the language into the proposition because of his frustration trying to keep a campaign promise to improve service on the Muni #38 bus line. He said he was going nowhere in his efforts to improve the #38 Geary with Muni at the helm so he sent the item to the Transportation Authority for action.

When the TA moved to extend the city's sales tax with Prop. K, McGoldrick took the opportunity to include the provision for a Geary Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or light rail system in the proposition. The action, which calls for the new system to have dedicated transit lanes and be rail ready, bypassed normal legislative processes. Prop. K had no paid arguments against the measure.

With the support of organized labor, which stood to benefit with lots of high-paying jobs, and the Chamber of Commerce, which paid for mass mailings and many of the paid arguments in the voter handbook, the measure passed with 75 percent of the vote.

But, if you ask the thousands of Richmond District residents that voted for the measure if they knew they were voting for the implementation of a plan to drastically transform the character of Geary, they would say "no." If you asked them if they knew about the Geary transit plan, they would also say "no" because it was never discussed or mentioned. To this day, there has never been a discussion as to whether or not the plan is desirable.

Because one paragraph was slipped into Prop. K, McGoldrick bypassed the public process and the need for any public debate or hearings. He also accomplished by fiat what probably couldn't have been done by legislative process. Better to squelch potential opposition and shut down honest debate as to the merits of the proposal rather than have it debated within the community and at the meetings sponsored by neighborhood groups.

Regarding Prop. K and the subsequent actions taken by the TA to include the Geary BRT/rail project in the city's 30-year plan and make it a funding priority, there have been no neighborhood meetings, no hearings at the Board of Supervisors or in any of its committees, no press releases or bulletins, and no news coverage, because its been flying under the radar with the press, including the SF Chronicle, SF Examiner and, I admit, the Richmond Review.

Part of the reason for that is because there has been little to no information concerning this vital issue coming forth from McGoldrick's office. In his monthly columns in the Richmond Review, he mentioned in July 2002 that $600,000 had been allocated to investigate increasing capacity on the Muni #38 Geary bus line and in October 2003, a month before the Prop. K election, McGoldrick's column was about the reopening of the Conservatory of Flowers, but there was a 2-paragraph mention of a citizens' advisory committee being created to look at Geary corridor transit improvements. That was it.

Other columns running up to the election were also silent concerning the plan to transform Geary, including November 2003, when McGoldrick's column said nothing about the upcoming ballot item with such important considerations for the Richmond District. One would have thought that McGoldrick would have been touting the measure he birthed.

Additionally, there is no mention of Geary Boulevard in the voters booklet until page 13 of the Prop. K section. The text concerning Geary is buried, deep within the text of the proposition's code-changing language, with no mention at all in the official arguments or paid arguments, including those signed by McGoldrick.

McGoldrick said any lack of information about the plan was an oversight and not an intentional effort to deceive the public.

McGoldrick's first reference to the BRT plan was in February 2005, a couple of months after being re-elected, when he reports that the project is moving forward and urges the public to attend committee meetings. That was well after the plan was passed by voters and moved through the proper channels to get the project made a top city priority, funding was institutionalized, and the full resources of the TA were turned loose to develop and implement a plan. It was just two months before the first workshops sponsored by the TA commenced. (McGoldrick probably didn't do anything illegal, but one could argue that his actions were unethical and well outside of the open and transparent behavior critical for our democratic form of government.)

Because there has been little information forthcoming about the plan to transform Geary, the public in the Richmond is still largely uninformed. The lack of information available to the public is exacerbated by the TA's inadequate outreach campaign. The first set of workshops conducted by the TA earlier this year had little notification and no mass-mailing effort was undertaken.

Now, the TA is back for a second set of workshops with more specific proposals and the public is still in the dark.

In his column on page 6, Jose Luis Moscovich, the executive director of the TA, calls Geary BRT and/or light rail a "voter approved project." But I'd bet a dollar that most people in the District still don't know they voted for Geary BRT or light rail, much less that they voted to implement it.

Government Aparachiks
Currently, the TA, Muni and mass transit advocates are working overtime to get a BRT and/or light rail system in place. All of the governmental apparatus are working to get the plan funded and under construction as soon as possible. The problem is, the TA is so colored in its approach to implementing its plan, the agency is being biased and selective with information in its ongoing study of the Geary plan.

Negative implications of the Geary plan are generally dismissed or nonexistent, including the potential loss of traffic lanes, which handle the 65,000 vehicles the boulevard carries daily, the loss of left-hand turns on Geary, the loss of parking along Geary Boulevard, and the effects of years of construction along Geary on traffic patterns.

Another missing element to the story is the lack of attention being paid to the heart of our community, the business community. In a 200-page preliminary report on the Geary BRT project, there is no mention of the merchants or any of the complex problems they have coming their way if the TA and Muni get their way and plow dedicated bus lanes with transit village stops down the center of Geary.

Moscovich, the head of the Transportation Authority, and Tilly Chang, the citywide project director for the TA, both unabashedly admit to working to implement the BRT program, including Geary.

"We're meant to deliver those projects," Chang said.

Moscovich said the effects of the plan on merchants would be considered during the preparation of an Environmental Impact Report for the project, after the TA has chosen its preferred alternative. But how can the supervisors make an informed decision if they do not have all of the information concerning the probable affects at their fingertips?

The TA has to choose between three options or a no-build option - how can that be done without considering the effects on our local merchants? As well, how can a "no option" for the project be objectively considered when the city agency pushing the plan refuses to supply complete and unbiased information on the project?

The TA is not only pushing forward with a plan to build a project, it is aggressively attacking the "no build" option. For the TA, there is not a "no-build"option and whatever plan it chooses, it claims, will improve the neighborhood.

For example, this is the description in the TA's preliminary assessment for the outer Geary commercial corridor: "Visually, the streetscape does not enhance the neighborhood nor does it build a positive image for the community. Because it contains no distinctive elements or a strong theme, it does not contribute to the community identity."

The TA is making a case for change on Geary by attacking the status quo, making a change more palatable for the six votes on the TA that would make the change a reality. But, choosing one of the options should not be the choice - choosing whether or not to proceed with the project should be the choice.

Potential Problems with BRT Some of the problems or considerations being glossed over or neglected concerning the Geary BRT to this point include: the economic effects on local business and the potential changes that could be facilitated with their demise, including a loss of support for local schools. For some reason, the TA doesn't consider merchants stakeholders in the community; the effects on traffic and the 65,000 vehicles that use Geary Boulevard every day and what would happen to that traffic with less lanes to move it - would California, Balboa and Fulton streets get an increase? Does anyone really believe traffic in the Richmond will decrease in the next 20 years?; the effects of restricting left-hand turns on Geary. What would happen if everyone traveling westbound on Geary traveled over to Clement Street to make a left hand turn. That's what happens on Park Presidio Boulevard and 19th Avenue, which have no left-hand turns, increasing traffic on ancillary roads; public safety - The TA has been touting a safer plan but I have yet to hear a credible argument that says youth and seniors using boarding platforms in the middle of a busy thoroughfare is safer than not entering the street at all; the effects the loss of parking spaces in the Richmond would have on businesses and residents; there is no measure of the potential loss of City revenue; the impact on merchants located in the blocks between transit stations, where business sometimes drops off; the effects of years of construction and neighborhood disruption; the possibility for increased housing density, without provisions for parking spaces, as part of the city's effort to increase housing in transit corridors.

These are some of the questions that are not being asked because normal planning and legislative oversight process are not in play.

According to Chang, the negative effects identified so far can be mitigated and are not a "deal killer."

What's Being Neglected
The original money allocated for the project was earmarked for increasing capacity. That plan has been dropped, although Chang says some increased runs can be made by Muni drivers during their shift because they will be saving time making their runs. Good luck getting the union for Muni workers to agree to more work for their members without more compensation.

As well, the committee recommending options to TA staff doesn't represent a broad cross section of the community.

David Heller, president of the Greater Geary Boulevard Merchants and Property Owners Association, said he was the only merchant on the committee and his request for additional merchants fell on deaf ears. And there is the definition of "rail ready." Prop. K says any plan for Geary be light rail or light-rail ready.

Because all of the city's light rail systems are located in the middle of city streets, some members of the committee say a center route is the only viable plan for Geary.

But Moscovich and Chang both say the light rail provisions can be met in the outside lanes, although with different reasoning. Moscovich says light rail is a possibility for the outside lanes on Geary because it is done in some other cities. Chang says "there's no way" light rail would be located on the outside lanes of Geary, but by dedicating the outside lanes to transit, those lane restrictions can be transferred to the center lanes at a future time for light rail.

The forces pushing for BRT and/or light rail will do whatever needs to be done to achieve their aims, including usurping the public process to keep the public in the dark and limiting the debate to only the positive aspects of BRT or light rail. BRT may be the greatest thing since sliced bread and the public may want to implement it. But to do so, all of the facts need to be on the table, including those not favorable to the implementation of BRT.

When the public and the Board of Supervisors have all of the information necessary to make an informed decision for the 80,000 people who live in the District, then, and only then, will the best possible plan emerge for all of the stakeholders in the Richmond. That means having the TA look at the warts as well as the benefits, and not acting like a high school cheerleader. It also means more transparency from government officials and government agencies, and a good intention to debate the merits of the Geary BRT/light rail program on the facts, not slick public relations and selective fact finding.

It's unbelievable that a program like the Geary BRT/light rail option is moving forward toward implementation without any public hearings or press coverage. As for the stench of the process emanating so far, I don't think sacrificing democracy and stifling debate while trying to take actions potentially detrimental to the neighborhood is the right thing to do. We need to get all of the facts on the table before a decision is made, and we need to get the public involved in real, meaningful hearings (not TA-sponsored workshops).

We need to create an economic impact report so we know the financial consequences of our merchants and we need to take a good look at the real consequences of the runaway train coming down the tracks.

Paul Kozakiewicz is publisher of the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon newspapers.