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Geary BRT is an expensive pledge to the past

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The San Francisco County Transportation Authority meets on Jan. 5 to vote on the Geary Bus Rapid Transit project. (Aleah Fajardo/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Transit planners have been at work for many years to come up with a plan to improve bus service for all of Geary Boulevard, but let’s just talk about the 2.2-mile western portion from Masonic Avenue to 27th Avenue. Planners envision the median there with more than 100 trees replaced by two, red-painted central bus-only lanes for 24 hours a day. Riders would board from narrow platforms in the middle of the roadway, between the bus lanes and other traffic.

Riders now are accustomed to two levels of service: the infrequently stopping Rapid, and the Local that makes stops every two blocks or so. With only one lane for buses, there will be just one quality of service: Local, as all buses will back up behind the slowest moving one. But Local service will have fewer stops, as statistically that will reduce rider times — even if you have to walk farther to find one.

That certainly won’t save you any rider time if you like the Rapid.

Planners, their consultants and a small number of appointed citizens have met over eight years on this plan. In that time, the world has changed, and the future is arriving in the form of driverless vehicles of all sizes. Ride-hail services are snatching riders away from buses, including the BART from downtown to the airport that is hemorrhaging fare money. It is a poor idea to invest $300 million in public money for hard infrastructure for buses alone, imagining they are the only future.

A public-spirited citizens group offered comment to Muni and officials with the San Francisco County Transportation Authority on this project and were summarily dismissed. They then founded San Franciscans for Sensible Transit to advocate for transit issues all over San Francisco. After much study, they support a number of improvements — more buses, better schedules, holding green lights for buses, street paving and others — at a cost of $50 million as a more sensible idea. See what you can get for these proven steps, they say. Their cost-benefit comparisons are on the website of both the Muni-favored version, called the Hybrid, and the Sensible Transit concept.

For many, the Rapid service at present is excellent. A rider embarking at 20th Avenue can, on average, get to Union Square in 21 minutes riding the 38R — as fast as cars. In a story in the San Francisco Examiner — “Transit officials offer tweaks to Geary BRT project” — a Muni planner claimed that rider times could be cut by 20 minutes by this project. Really? It’s time to look at this project more critically.

Planners have controlled the landscape here, and citizens at large have not had a part of the dialogue, which is perhaps the most egregious part of this process. It is, sadly, a transit agency behavior exhibited in big projects on Mission, Van Ness, Taraval and others. It is not honest, nor fair, to citizens who are being asked to live through four years of construction and traffic flow changes that will make their lives difficult.

Our Transit First Policy first requires that all transportation projects ensure the quality of life and economic health of the community. No studies of economic health were done for the planners, who dismiss concerns about quality of life as well. The potential loss of many small businesses and their jobs is also ignored.

A representative of Mayor Ed Lee told Sensible Transit that we already have too much retail at street level. If many of these valued shops fall to the huge interruption for their businesses, not many others will want to come into the chaos. That could easily become blight, and that, indeed, is very hard to correct.

Other vehicles on high-traffic volume Geary Boulevard would be reduced to two lanes. Except when delivery vehicles are double parking, as they do with impunity, then cars and trucks would have to merge to one lane, while the bus lane may be empty at that moment. Left turns would be greatly reduced, and parking will be cut back, too. So there would be swarms of drivers hoping to find a place to stop on the adjacent streets to Geary. Good luck. Parking there is already congested. Do you suppose people would just quit trying to come to Geary stores and shops?

The SFCTA meets to vote on the project on Jan. 5 at 2 p.m. at room 250 at City Hall. This is the time to find your feet and your voice or prepare to live with a very unfortunate outcome.

David Hirtz is president of San Franciscans for Sensible Transit and a resident of the Richmond neighborhood for 35 years.

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