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Transit officials approve key milestone for Geary bus project

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Transit planners with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency say the Geary Bus Rapid Transit Project could allow riders to save up to 20 minutes per round trip. (Aleah Fajardo/Special to S.F. Examiner)

It’s takes a 38-Geary bus more than 30 minutes to cross from the avenues to downtown.

But that’s small potatoes, considering it’s taken almost 13 years for the 38-Geary to reach the milestone it achieved Thursday.

SEE RELATED: Transit officials offer tweaks to Geary BRT project

Late Thursday, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority Board approved the final environmental review of the Geary Bus Rapid Transit project, clearing a key hurdle for the project to move forward.

The project will now move into further planning stages under the auspices of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, requiring approvals from that agency’s board.

The project would transform Geary Boulevard to make the 38-Geary bus faster, and behave more like a train. A red bus-only lane would run along the sides of Geary Boulevard from 34th to 26th avenues, and the center of Geary Boulevard from 26th Avenue to just past Arguello Boulevard, and then again on the sides of Geary Boulevard the rest of the way to Market Street.

Buses would truly be “rapid,” with the potential for riders to save “20 minutes per round-trip,” according to transit planners.

That time saving would be enjoyed by the 38-Geary line’s 55,000 daily riders, which makes it one of the busiest bus lines in the western U.S., and roughly the same size as Caltrain’s daily ridership, according to transit planners.

Though the project has been hotly debated for 13 years, many Geary Boulevard neighborhood groups and merchants associations implored SFCTA commissioners, who are also sitting members of the Board of Supervisors, to delay the vote on the environmental review for 30 days.

Public comment stretched for more than two hours. “This is clearly, and this is not lost on any members of this body, that this is a controversial issue,” said SFCTA board chair Aaron Peskin.

The next meeting of the SFCTA would have entirely new directors, many public commenters argued, and they especially clamored for incoming District 1 Supervisor Sandra Fewer to vote on this project.

Fewer told the San Francisco Examiner she was concerned about the project’s impacts to traffic and small business, and the feasibility of future subways.

“Also,” she said, “what are the plans to guard against gentrification and displacement which frequently accompanies transit upgrades?”

Public commenters echoes those concerns, and asked for more time to read the final environmental review.

“I cannot understand what the hell do you guys have to lose by waiting 30 days,” said David Heller, head of the Geary Merchants Association, in public comment. Heller is a frequent critic of Geary BRT, who started a website called “Save Geary Blvd” to oppose the project.

“It’s about survival,” he said, citing transit construction as a business killer.

But countering Heller was former District 1 Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, also in attendance, who told the public and the SFCTA that this project has waited long enough.

“This has been going on for a decade,” McGoldrick said, of the Geary BRT planning process.

“The devil’s in the details,” he said. “The angel is in the details as well. The details have been attended to.”

Indeed, even up to this vote of the SFCTA, compromises were being made on the smallest detail of the Geary BRT project. Most notably, a 38-Geary Rapid stop slated to be removed from Geary Boulevard and Laguna Street was changed to be retained, despite SFCTA staff assurances that the stop had low ridership.

Fire Commissioner Stephen Nakajo, who is also executive director of Kimochi Inc., which serves Japanese seniors, decried the proposed removal of the stop as “racist” against Japanese people who depend on the bus stop.

Data shows the Geary Boulevard and Laguna Street stop sees 2,900 daily 38-Rapid boardings and disembarkings, compared to 4,100 at Geary Boulevard and Park Presidio, 5,800 at Geary Boulevard and Sixth Avenue, and 8,200 at O’Farrell and Powell streets.

But the SFCTA restored the bus stop into plans before the meeting, after much last-minute lobbying by Japantown advocates and others. Nakajo thanked Board of Supervisors President London Breed and supervisors Eric Mar and Mark Farrell for talking to the community about restoring the bus stop.

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