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Major L-Taraval changes up for vote Tuesday

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A rendering shows pedestrian clear zones and new signage to warn cars to stop as passengers disembark the Muni train, on Taraval Street. These zones will be in place of some concrete boarding islands the community protested. (Courtesy SFMTA)

Taraval Street is about to transform in the name of transit.

The proposed changes are contentious. As transit officials have proposed to make the L-Taraval line safer, neighbors in the sleepy Sunset district have booed and hissed at transit officials in community meetings.

Meanwhile, smaller meetings, proposed by Supervisor Katy Tang, have brought the community together to make Muni’s L-Taraval line safer while preserving parking for businesses.

Now, a hard-won compromise was reached between those who want the L-Taraval line to be safer, and those fearful businesses will be harmed.

Most sides still have gripes with the project.

Taraval Street’s transit future may be decided Tuesday at what neighbors are saying may be a contentious meeting of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Board of Directors.

The board is set to vote on the L-Taraval Rapid Project, which will see the painting of transit-only lanes between 15th and 46th avenues on Taraval Street, the installation of controversial boarding islands, the removal of train stops, and the addition of new traffic signals on Taraval.

Albert Chow, from the group People of Parkside Sunset and who owns Great Wall Hardware on Taraval, said business owners and neighbors want the entire L-Taraval plan to be a pilot — but that’s not how it’s being presented to the board.

“When you overlay all these bells and whistles, it’s going to make us look like Market Street, and we’re not Market Street,” he said.

Compromise solution

Along the way, many parts of the SFMTA’s plan to make the L-Taraval faster have changed.

In the beginning, 14 out of 40 L-Taraval stops initially were going to be eliminated to speed up the train. Now, that number is down to nine. A transit-only lane — similar to the contentious Mission “red lane” — was proposed for 2020, but now it will be implemented right away and studied for one year. And only five new traffic signals will be installed at intersections, instead of the originally proposed 11.

But perhaps the most hotly debated change to Taraval is the installation of 15 concrete boarding islands.

At meetings throughout this year, Taraval street neighbors, many led by the business group POPS, said moving parking spaces from Taraval to the side streets to make room for boarding islands would hurt businesses.

“We’re not saying we want no islands, we’re saying we got to this point and let’s test it out,” Chow said. “Because every implementation [the SFMTA has] done so far has upset every community they’ve been in.”

Pedestrian advocacy group Walk SF argued in public meetings that the concrete boarding islands were necessary because the L-line, quite simply, drops passengers off right into traffic.

There are only four concrete boarding islands on Taraval now.

In the past five years, 45 pedestrians have been struck by cars along the stretch of Taraval the L travels down — 22 of those hit were people getting off the train at stops without islands.

Some L-Taraval riders in SFMTA surveys said the plan doesn’t go far enough.

“Make Taraval a car-free street, so we can board and exit the L without risking being run over by cars,” wrote one person. Another person, asking for boarding islands, said disembarking the L with a young child is “very dangerous.”

As a compromise, the SFMTA plan up for vote on Tuesday would paint stripes that would ban cars from being in part of a lane, instead of creating boarding islands at four of the proposed locations closest to businesses.

Lighting the way

Though a few L-Taraval safety meetings were rancorous, others were smaller and reportedly more productive. In particular, one group asked the SFMTA if it was possible to install school bus-style stop signs that would descend from L-Taraval trains to make them safer.

SFMTA Director of Transit John Haley said that wouldn’t work because those arms wouldn’t have enough room in Muni’s tunnels. But that idea sparked a lightbulb with SFMTA engineers.

Lights were the solution, Haley said.

On a recent tour of Muni Metro East, a light-rail vehicle repair yard, the San Francisco Examiner was shown L-Taraval train No. 1428.

Train 1428 is a guinea pig for new ultra-bright LED lights running along the door and on the front and back of the train. It will likely be a “modest” cost, Haley said, to help car drivers better see trains and pedestrians in the foggy stretch of Taraval.

“You’re going to support saving people’s lives,” he said. “It’s a really good investment.”

Lee Summerlott, deputy director of the rail division, said engineers are still working out the right voltage and other technical details to best install the lights. Though the Examiner saw bright white lights, Summerlott said the final color may be amber. They’ll also blink with the train’s turn signal.

Ultimately, the lighting system may be installed on all 149 Muni light-rail vehicles. Haley credited the potential changes to the community input received at past meanings.

Though the L-Taraval meetings were largely characterized as contentious, the community-driven process eventually bore out compromises and out-of-the-box solutions for safety.

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