Public weighs-in on future of Geary Boulevard bus transit

by Thomas K. Pendergast

At a Town Hall Meeting held in the Richmond District on July 31, transportation planners unveiled a new design idea for the Geary #38 bus line, which is part of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, saying that it could be the solution for concerns about the loss of parking along Geary Boulevard.

"We have certainly heard about the concern of any loss of parking, particularly in the central Richmond area. We have some ideas to minimize (parking loss) and even potentially gain parking, believe it or not," said David Parisi, of the SF County Transportation Authority (SFCTA).

"We've also heard loud and clear: 'Minimize any construction impacts.' And that's the beauty of BRT compared to a (light rail system)," Parsi said. "With the BRT, you don't have to go too far down into the surface. If you're doing median work and you're doing it in the middle; you can minimize your impacts to adjacent businesses on the side. We are working at developing some more details about how to really minimize any impacts during construction."

The SFCTA is considering several options for the #38 Geary bus line.

The first is to do nothing and just let the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA), Muni, try to improve service through operating procedures.

The second option is to dedicate the right-hand lane in either direction as bus-only lanes, an option that could be enforced during commute times only.

The third and fourth options would create bus-only lanes down the center of Geary. One option would have dual medians on either side of those bus lanes where passengers can board and exit buses. Another option puts a single median straight down the middle of the boulevard, with bus-only lanes running in both directions on either side of it. New left-side-loading buses would be required for this option.

Except for just letting the #38 ride stay as it is, the other plans would reduce street parking on the boulevard and eliminate many, or perhaps all, left turn lanes between Gough Street and 33rd Avenue.

The newest variance of the bus-lanes-in-the-center-of-the-boulevard option would have BRT lanes going down the middle of the boulevard, with medians on either side, but unlike the others it would eliminate passing lanes and consolidate local bus service into the two BRT lanes.

"That passing lane gobbles up a lot of parking because it shifts everything over," said Parisi. "And that's the biggest reason for parking loss under Alternative 3. So, the idea of this new Alternative 3 variant, consolidated, is actually not to have a passing lane.

"What we do is we consolidate the bus services, meaning the BRT and the local would be one. … The big benefit for parking is there would actually be no loss of parking.

"What that does mean is that we would change the spacing of buses. The number of bus stops would decrease from about 18-21 per direction to 15 per direction overall. So there would be an average of an extra block distance between bus stops."

Parisi said a recent survey showed 49 percent of people who travel along Geary do it by walking or bicycle, with 28 percent using mass transit and 22 percent using cars.

Supervisor Eric Mar said the Geary #38 averages about 55,000 passengers per day along its 6.5-mile corridor.

"I, like others, have been really impatient with the lack of progress at times," said Mar. "For me, speeding up the progress of the Geary Bus Rapid Transit is critical."

Tilly Chang, the SFCTA's deputy director, said the project has been part of the City's transportation plan since 2003, when voters approved a new transportation plan with Proposition K.

"We're now looking at a larger rapid network that MTA has created, so we're trying to put it together quarter by quarter," Chang said. "It really has been a long time coming. We've been trying really hard to go faster.

"Now is the time to really think about specifically what the design should be in each part of the corridor. We're at the stage where we're hoping to make some decisions."

But the focus on parking concerns and BRT construction left a big elephant in the room; BRT lanes constructed to use the center of the boulevard would make it easier to install a light rail system, something Prop. K called for.

This has been a big concern with merchants along the boulevard between Arguello Boulevard and 33rd Avenue, because it would make far more construction necessary than just a bus route, and many small- and medium-size merchants are concerned that their businesses might not be able to survive that period because their customers might go elsewhere to avoid construction.

During one of the meeting's breakout sessions, a transit advocate brought this up to perhaps a dozen people who were in the room.

"I'm just here trying to get BRT and hopefully light rail off the ground," said Henry Pan of the San Francisco Transit Riders Union. "Our organization recently had this policy statement that light rail has to be on Geary by 2032."

Pan said he was involved with creating the survey that Parisi had referenced.

"We were sick and tired of seeing the delays that have marred Geary BRT since the day the B-line was discontinued," Pan said. "(In 2003) you have the sales tax, which finally sets aside funding for Geary BRT and light rail. Unfortun­ately, there's not enough funding so we have to do BRT, then light rail. Because of a population increase that's going to happen in the future, from what I've heard MTA's #38 is going to swell to 70,000 riders a day by 2040."

An aide to Supervisor Mar, Peter Lauterborn, responded that the BRT design cannot preclude eventually building a light rail system.

"But that does not mean you're designing it to be light rail," Lauterborn explained. "It only means that your design cannot prevent it from happening one day. Light rail is a $2 billion project. That is not even on anyone's radar at this point."