Merchants near Stockton Street downtown are getting ready to uncork the champagne.
That’s because Stockton itself is set to be uncorked when The City ends Central Subway construction there this winter. Auto and bus traffic will flow freely between Geary and Market Streets — now a major traffic bottleneck requiring a reroute — for the first time in at least six years, according to a timeline revealed in a city engineering committee hearing set for Friday.
“We will breathe a collective sigh of relief,” said Karin Flood, executive director of the Union Square Business Improvement District, which represents merchants in and around Union Square.
The Central Subway is set to ferry riders from the 4th Street Caltrain station to Chinatown when it opens in December 2019. The project has hit delays, which businesses in both Chinatown and on lower Stockton Street said has caused them to lose customers.
“It certainly has a ripple effect” throughout the neighborhood’s businesses, Flood said, since construction saw auto traffic, including buses, rerouted widely throughout downtown from the Stockton tunnel and elsewhere.
Reopening the street will mean “being able to operate the businesses along Stockton without day to day disruption,” she said. “The noise, the dirt, the dust. The access to our buildings.”
John Konstin, owner and operator of John’s Grill at 63 Ellis, right by Stockton Street, said he was relieved to hear the news.
“Oh yeah, this will be great,” he said, noting his business was choked by construction, previously. Though construction equipment has cleared near his business in particular, traffic is still tough to handle. “It’s so hard to turn around the corner,” he said.
Yet the end of construction also means “Winter Walk” celebrations may end when the street is reopened, Flood said. For years during construction, astroturf was laid down on Stockton between Geary and Market, with pop-up eateries and games for kids to entice winter shoppers. Though SFMTA and Union Square BID will continue talks on future Winter Walks, Flood said, it will be a “challenge.”
There’s a silver lining for Chinatown transit riders, however. When Stockton Street reopens it’s set to get an upgrade: A red carpet transit-only lane.
A San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency engineering committee will hold a hearing on initial approvals for a red carpet lane on Stockton between Geary and Market streets at City Hall on Friday.
Though Stockton had a transit-only lane before, red lanes have become the norm as drivers, especially tourist drivers, have been found to notice signage on a colored lane better, said Queena Chen, an organizer with Chinatown TRIP, a transportation advocacy group. That’ll help riders of the 30-Stockton and 45-Union traveling down Stockton Street from Chinatown, she said.
“We want buses to smoothly run down Stockton street because it’s a vital line,” she said.
And clearing construction from Stockton Street will help drivers too, including Chen herself, she said. Chen often drives her mother up from the Excelsior neighborhood to Chinatown to buy groceries but sometimes rolling the relatively short distance from Market Street up to Clay Street can take an agonizing twenty minutes, she said. That’s the same pain delivery trucks going to Chinatown feel too, she added.
“It’s been hell,” Chen said bluntly.
Recently SFMTA has said some private transit operators, like the bus service Chariot or tech company commuter shuttles, will be allowed to use some transit-only lanes. Chen disagreed with this personally, citing a need for equity. “Not everyone uses tech buses,” she said, “It’s not for the public.”