One man’s plan: Stockton bus-only lanes

Each day, thousands of people swarm the sidewalks of Stockton Street for its live markets and produce. Crowded 30-Stockton buses lurch along the Chinatown corridor, and drivers are left to weave among the obstacles.

A plan to move some of the thoroughfare’s heavy traffic underground to the $1.4 billion Central Subway has long been in the works. However, one San Francisco transit veteran is proposing an alternative to the subway setup — Stockton bus rapid transit.

Howard Strassner, a founding member of the riders’ organization Rescue Muni, said a bus rapid transit system similar to The City’s projects for Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue would cost less, carry as many riders and move almost as fast as the Central Subway.

Strassner admitted that his plan has few supporters. Jose Luis Moscovich, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, said the time for alternatives to the Central Subway has “come and gone.” Strassner, however, remains undeterred in his one-man crusade for a design that has already caused controversy across The City.

“This is unconventional thinking,” Strassner said. “The fact is everyone is locked into a political subway. Someone needs to step out and think about this.”

While the current estimate for The City’s Central Subway is $1.4 billion, Strassner said a BRT on Stockton would cost less than $200 million. He also said a system would carry about 90,000 daily riders — the same number projected for the Central Subway.

Operating at a fast speed, a Central Subway is expected to carry passengers from downtown to Columbus Avenue at the north end of Chinatown in about 11 minutes. Strassner said a BRT would take about 15 minutes.

Strassner is convinced that Stockton Street could easily support a BRT system, which typically features bus-only lanes closed to vehicles, with buses making fewer stops and having priority at traffic signals.

Strassner envisions two dedicated transit lanes for buses operating down the center of Stockton Street through Chinatown, possibly guarded by safety fences on both sides. Sidewalks would be removed, and there would be a boarding island every two or three blocks.

Moscovich, however, said it’s far too late to put the brakes on the subway, which is in line to receive about $800 million from the federal government and was recently allocated another $100 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees the nine-county Bay Area.

“It’s gotten to the point where the project is very close to being fully funded,” Moscovich said. “There isn’t a bigger supporter of BRT in this town than myself, but we have to be careful about what we propose.”

Rapid transit projects moving ahead despite criticisms

Although city transit officials continue to field complaints about the proposed bus rapid transit systems on Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue, both projects are moving forward as planned.

The environmental-review process for the Van Ness Avenue project is in the beginning stages. A draft report on how the system would impact traffic, business and noise levels along the corridor is expected next spring, said Project Director Rachel Hiatt, of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. A similar report is due for the Geary Boulevard project in early 2009.

Along with Muni, the authority has been researching whether to introduce bus rapid transit systems on both thoroughfares for years. BRT systems typically feature bus-only lanes closed to vehicles, with buses making fewer stops and having priority at traffic signals.

The idea has been controversial in San Francisco, as some business owners along both streets have said they would lose customers if normal traffic lanes were converted to bus-only lanes and parking spaces were reduced.

While some options for Van Ness Avenue would eliminate about three dozen parking spaces, other options would add as many as two dozen. On Geary Boulevard, between 25 and 285 parking spaces would be eliminated if BRT is implemented.

Neighborhood residents are also concerned that traffic would be diverted onto nearby residential streets if traffic lanes were decreased on the major corridors. About one-third of vehicle traffic is expected to divert off Geary Boulevard at Fourth Avenue in the Inner Richmond and at Fillmore Street in Japantown. The impact on side streets near Van Ness Avenue is less clear.

Most public outcry has been centered on the Geary Boulevard project, with a handful of merchants launching a formal opposition to the project. There has been less of a fervor regarding Van Ness Avenue.

“The Van Ness corridor is different. It’s denser,” Hiatt said. “There are more people using transit on Van Ness.”

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