A 38-Geary bus drives in a red transit-only lane. (Kevin Kelleher/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Geary bus project nears major funding milestone

After years of spinning its wheels, the much anticipated Geary Bus Rapid Transit project is hitting a new milestone.

The draft environmental impact report of the project will be approved for public release by federal transit officials today, according to a local transportation agency.

While it may sound snooze-worthy, the upshot is the long delayed project will soon be eligible to receive federal funding, a major turning point which portend shovels digging into the ground of Geary Boulevard.

Geary BRT is jockeying for a $75 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts fund. The funding may be awarded after public input is taken on the draft EIR, and the Federal Transit Administration gives its final approval. Phase 2 of the project is estimated to be between $200 to 240 million, with Phase 1 clocking in between $60 to 100 million.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority, which authored the impact report, is practically popping open the champagne.

“I feel really good about this. We’ve got a lot of momentum going,” said Chester Fung, interim deputy director for planning at SFCTA.

Supervisor Eric Mar, whose district includes the Richmond neighborhood that the 38-Geary runs through, said, “This is a milestone.”

“We’ve been pushing for years for rapid service for the Geary corridor,” he said, calling it the “most traveled bus line west of Chicago.”

The 38-Geary and 38-Geary Rapid carry 55,000 passengers a day — about as many people who ride all of Caltrain daily (58,245 passengers). But soon Geary Bus Rapid Transit will transform its namesake street.

Essentially, BRT means to make the 38-Geary behave like a train.

Geary will soon gain side bus-only lanes, as well as some center bus-only lanes accompanied by center medians that resemble light rail stops (like along the T-line).

Less interaction with cars means the 38 will gain a shot of speed.

Total travel time from one end of the 38-Geary to another will be cut by 10 to 15 minutes, Fung said, and the buses may come as frequently as 3-5 minutes apart.

That may not sound like much, Chang said, but San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s usual bus line improvements usually reduce travel time by about 2 to 3 minutes.

“This is an order of magnitude a quantum leap in travel time,” she said.

Those benefits come with tradeoffs, according to SFCTA, including the reduction of some parking and the loss of lanes to cars. Listening to neighbor concerns and minimizing those impacts led to some of the delays of Geary BRT, Chang told the Examiner.

But she said, “the scope [of the project] has grown to be much more than it originally was.”

The project planning first started in 2007, Fung said, and only years later is the funding set to flow. Those delays allowed San Francisco departments to also plan pedestrian safety improvements, sewer pipe replacement and other improvements when they rip up the streets
for BRT.

And transit agencies didn’t wait around, Chang said. The SFCTA helped purchase new low-floor vehicles for the 38-Geary that will take advantage of BRT, and Geary Boulevard has already been partially reengineered.

Future phases of the project will see the SFMTA take the reins on Geary BRT, with construction set for 2019.

“We’re eager to get the project underway and in service to the benefit of Muni customers,” said Ed Reiskin, director of transportation for the SFMTA.

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