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Geary Bus Rapid Transit gets environmental ‘green light to advance’ from Feds

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A woman gets on the Muni Route 38 Rapid bus along Geary Boulevard at the intersection with Park Presidio Boulevard on June 19, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Transportation planners and Geary transit-boosters are ready to break out the bubbly, pop their corks and celebrate: The federal government has approved the Environmental Impact Statement for the Geary Bus Rapid Transit project, signaling a major step forward for the slow-moving project.

That U.S. Department of Transportation approval was dated June 1, but was announced by San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin publicly on Tuesday at an SFMTA Board of Directors meeting.

This “final thumbs up from the federal government … really gives us the green light to advance the project,” Reiskin said.

Now, a detailed design and additional outreach process notwithstanding, The City’s transit agencies are steering the project toward fast track construction.

It’s been a long road for Geary BRT, which was first proposed in this new form in 2002, though various ideas to speed up bus travel on Geary Boulevard have been floated as far back as the Nixon presidency. The $300 million project would see the installation of red transit-only lanes along Geary Boulevard, with some transit islands installed in the center medians for train-like bus boarding. The 38-Geary and 38Rapid bus lines are the busiest bus lines west of the Mississippi, and carry almost as many riders as Caltrain’s entire daily service.

Geary BRT is expected to speed up the Geary bus lines by up to 20 minutes per round trip, according to project data from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. Much of the time saving will come from private vehicles no longer turning and changing lanes ahead of the buses, and slow boarding times by passengers, which transit-only lanes and center medians — which would see passengers more quickly board — are meant to alleviate.

That federal OK came with environmental analysis: Geary BRT, as the project is known, would expand bus ridership along the Geary corridor from 50,000 person-trips per day (meaning people rode buses 50,000 times) to as many as 99,000 person-trips per day, a major environmental benefit. All of the designs currently under consideration would result in 25-55 percent less automobile traffic on Geary Boulevard, according to the federal government’s environmental statement.

However, the report is not entirely rosy — though traffic overall would drop should Geary BRT be built, between five and nine intersections would experience “adverse effects,” traffic-wise.

Though the project is meant to speed up buses, the approvals to get it built have moved at the pace of a horse-and-buggy. It has been in some form of planning for more than a decade, and in February last year the SFMTA and SFCTA were met with an environmental lawsuit by Geary neighbors, who dubbed themselves “San Franciscans for Sensible Transit.”

The has group alleged The City engaged in “plotting and political motivations” to rush environmental approvals for the project. ” The group also alleges SFMTA and SFCTA “stuck their heads in the sand and chose to ignore technological innovations and growth” such as ride-hails Uber and Lyft, in planning documents for the project.

The City Attorney’s Office filed its opposition brief last Friday, and a hearing for the lawsuit is slated for August 9. Despite the legal tussle, SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said the project will move forward.

“We aren’t anticipating any delays from the lawsuit,” Kato said, via email.

This story has been updated to clarify that a final design has been chosen for the project.

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