Many of the SFMTA’s projects, including the Geary Boulevard Bus Rapid Transit project, have drawn criticism from merchants who say construction work hurts local businesses. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Many of the SFMTA’s projects, including the Geary Boulevard Bus Rapid Transit project, have drawn criticism from merchants who say construction work hurts local businesses. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Merchant concerns only half of Muni battle

On the surface, a meeting in the Mission District on Monday night was meant for the community to weigh in on new “red carpet” bus-only lanes on Mission Street. The lanes rolled out in February and stretch from 14th to 30th streets.

But the meeting exploded.

“A woman got hit by a car on Cesar Chavez!” shouted Roberto Hernandez, a community advocate often called the “Mayor of the Mission.”

Hernandez decried transit officials for allowing the new red lanes to cause traffic mayhem, not reaching out enough to residents and for hurting small businesses in his life-long home.

Half of the meeting’s 200 attendees cheered in support. The other half howled for Hernandez to stop.

In the crowd, two men stood within a few inches of each other’s faces, pointing and shouting.

This same scene has played out at recent Geary Boulevard and Taraval Street transportation meetings and may soon play out at West Portal, too.

Merchants from those neighborhoods were present for the Mission meeting as well.

A tide of merchant and neighborhood resentment is rising against the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency — and they’re now banding together for support.

“I think it’s real clear a citywide coalition is in the formation and building to really address how we need to put a stop to the way [the SFMTA] is planning,” Hernandez told the San Francisco Examiner on Wednesday.

And in small ways, those merchants are winning.

Transit expansion

“I think what’s happening now is we have a lot of things we’re trying to move forward,” said Ed Reiskin, SFMTA’s director of transportation.

Perhaps the largest of these projects is Muni Forward, a push to boost bus service on many Muni lines across The City. This includes installing “red carpet” bus-only lanes like the one on Mission Street.

The Van Ness Avenue, Geary Boulevard and Geneva Avenue Bus Rapid Transit projects also involve a lot of construction. The massive Central Subway project is also underway.

“It’s all at the same time,” Reiskin said.

And that has led to loose alliances forming across San Francisco’s neighborhoods.

United concerns

Some merchant complaints are universal.

Muni projects have been blamed for reducing parking, hurting local businesses’ bottom lines and for only saving “a few minutes of time” for each bus or train line.

David Heller of the Geary Boulevard Merchants Association, said construction for the Geary BRT line may put merchants out of business.

Larger businesses “can afford two three years of hemorrhaging,” he said, but “what about the little guy?”

Reiskin said even if a line “only” gains two minutes each run, in the Mission, for instance, “You can add that up across a year, and that’s hours.”

Multiply that by thousands of riders, he said, “and that’s huge.”

On Taraval Street, Albert Chow, proprietor of Great Wall Hardware and a member of People of Parkside and Sunset, is wary of proposed concrete boarding islands along the L-Taraval train.

The SFMTA argues it would protect riders from cars as they disembark. But local merchants want the SFMTA to test changes to the L-Taraval before they’re made permanent, Chow said.

“There’s valid arguments on all sides,” Chow said. “It’s just a matter of getting a good compromise.”

So far, merchants have seen success.

After the Mission meeting, Reiskin said he may propose changes to turn restrictions on Mission within a month. The SFMTA also tempered some of its proposals on Taraval Street, opting to make them pilot programs instead of immediately permanent.

Missing voices

Long-time San Franciscans who rely on Muni have been largely silent.

From Taraval Street to Geary Boulevard, from Mission Street to Van Ness Avenue, local transit riders are absent, and drivers’ voices are loudest.

Ratna Amin, transportation policy director at the urban planning advocacy organization SPUR, said, “We know that people who show up to community meetings like this don’t represent the population as a whole, and don’t represent transit users as a whole.”

Reiskin said the SFMTA is trying to improve its outreach to riders.

“It’s frustrating that the voices of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people, are missing from the conversation,” he said.

Self-styled “urbanists” often try to argue this with neighborhood activists by citing hard numbers, to no avail.

At one meeting about changes to the L-Taraval at Dianne Feinstein Elementary School in February, planners argued Muni riders responded favorably to changes in a survey.

“I don’t believe those responses!” one neighbor shouted.

“Not everybody responds to data and data driven arguments,” Amin said. “We who want to improve transit citywide have to get better at storytelling” and include “more kinds of people in the conversation.”

More outreach within neighborhoods can help, said Thea Selby, president of the San Francisco Transit Riders. She said neighbors and merchants, long-time San Franciscans and newcomers, should not be pitted against each other.

After a round of fundraising, she said the group will reach out to communities and bring more voices of long-time transit riders into the public conversation.

“You need to find local people to talk about issues they have,” Selby said.

That work may be far from done. At the Mission meeting Monday night, self-described newcomers and urbanists made data-driven arguments that there are 65,000 daily Mission Muni trips and 8,000 daily Mission daily car trips — and therefore transit riders should drive policy change.

They were booed.

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