Bus rapid transit project on San Francisco's Van Ness Avenue gains key approval

After a decade of going back and forth, the Van Ness Avenue bus rapid transit project can finally start rolling.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority on Tuesday unanimously approved the environmental impact report for a project that officials consider the nation's first fully featured BRT system in a dense urban setting. The TA comprises the entire 11-member Board of Supervisors.

The project calls for two dedicated lanes down the center of the congested corridor for heavy-duty buses, with traffic lights timed to speed up service and high-quality boarding platforms.

While the system will eliminate all left turns on Van Ness Avenue, except at Broadway, north-south bus trips will be 7 minutes shorter.

Commissioners and presenters lauded the projected 32 percent decrease in travel time, 30 percent reduction in cost, and 37 percent increase in ridership of the 47-Van Ness and 49-Mission/Van Ness Muni lines.

“This is a paradigm shift in the way we run transit systems,” said Joel Ramos, a member of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's board of directors.

Disagreements around the plan — delayed since 2003, when San Francisco voters passed Proposition K with the Van Ness Avenue BRT as the signature project — narrowed down to one final feature: adding a northbound station at Vallejo Street.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu made a motion to add the northbound stop, noting that seniors would have to walk the steepest grade of Van Ness to reach the stop two blocks north or three blocks to the next stop south.

The stop at Vallejo Street, supported by at least half a dozen Cantonese-speaking senior residents at Notre Dame Apartments on Broadway a block away, passed with a lone dissenting vote from Supervisor Scott Wiener.

“I am concerned that this is the first BRT out of the gate and concerned of the precedent it will set,” said Wiener, pointing out that The City has senior housing in many hilly areas. “This will increase the cost by half a million, which is not insignificant.”

Of the $126 million total cost, $21 million has been secured through Proposition K funds and $75 million from the Federal Transit Administration. After other funding sources, there remains an $18 million gap.

Construction is scheduled to begin in early 2016, and the system could be up and running by 2018 — six years later than originally planned.

The environmental document still must be approved by the transit agency, which is expected to take it up Tuesday, and the Federal Transit Administration, which is expected to take it up by the end of the month.

With the first major approval hurdle cleared for Van Ness Avenue, though, transit officials have shifted focus to a draft environmental impact document for BRT on the 38-Geary line that runs from downtown through the Richmond district. A feasibility study also is underway for Geneva Avenue and supervisors are hoping 19th Avenue, Mission Street and Lombard Street will follow.

“We can't stop with Van Ness,” Wiener said. “This absolutely revolutionizes Muni.”

Bus stops

The following intersections on Van Ness Avenue will be included in the bus rapid transit project:

• Market Street

• McAllister Street

• Eddy Street

• Geary Boulevard

• Sutter Street

• Sacramento Street

• Jackson Street

• Vallejo Street

• Union Street

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