Geary 'bus rapid transit' gets green light

A controversial plan to speed the travel time and boost reliability for the sluggish 38 Geary Muni line earned official support from a key agency on Tuesday. Advocates of “bus rapid transit” — a system featuring bus-only lanes closed to other vehicles, allowing buses to make fewer stops and take the right-of-way at oft-clogged traffic signals — say that the improvements would ease commuter woes on Geary Boulevard.

Meanwhile, critics, namely a number of merchants, say the plans to remove parking spaces would push drivers away from their shops and hurt business dramatically.

The Municipal Transportation Agency executive board nonetheless unanimously commissioned an environmental report delineating the impacts of a bus rapid transit system on the heavily trafficked street. Should the San Francisco County Transportation Authority board also OK the environmental impact reportlater this month, the report is expected to start this fall and be completed in 2009.

BRT, which has been in research phase for Geary Boulevard since 2004, functions much like a light-rail system, but with a smaller price tag. Construction costs for BRT range from $172 million to $212 million, with an additional $130 million put on the tab if the system was designed for use by light-rail cars. Van Ness Avenue is slated to be the next street to have the system.

If the environmental impact report is approved in 2009, construction on the project could start in 2010 and service could begin in 2012, according to a Transportation Authority feasibility report, also approved on Tuesday.

“We all know that there are too many people who drive from the west part of the city to downtown,” director Peter Mezey said, noting that Geary often sees the brunt of this traffic.

David Heller, president of the Greater Geary Boulevard Merchants and Property Owners Association, which has led the charge against BRT, said based on an unofficial survey he and his fellow merchants took recently, an overwhelming number of Geary patrons said they drive to the stores. Anywhere between 25 and 285 parking spaces would be eliminated if BRT is implemented, a change Heller fears was not properly considered in the study.

“We’re not against fixing Muni, but let’s just work together,” Heller said.

Muni spokeswoman Maggie Lynch said the approved recommendations will head to the Transportation Authority board on May 22.

Pending approval with that board, an environmental study would begin sometime this fall, Lynch said. There are no cost estimates for the environmental study, Lynch said.

tramroop@examiner.com

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