Red concrete lanes along Van Ness Avenue are part of a long-anticipated Bus Rapid Transit project intended to speed up travel times and increase reliability. <ins>(Jordi Molina/Special to S.F. Examiner)</ins>

Red concrete lanes along Van Ness Avenue are part of a long-anticipated Bus Rapid Transit project intended to speed up travel times and increase reliability. (Jordi Molina/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Van Ness Avenue BRT to finally begin service early next year

SFMTA say ‘the end is in sight’ on lengthy construction project

To an untrained eye, the scene on Van Ness Avenue looks like total mayhem.

Unfinished medians and sidewalks are littered with building materials, orange plastic barriers surround several blocks of newly laid red concrete that will one day become transit-only lanes and layers of underground utility work that will eventually undergird the busy road remain exposed.

But to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, these are signs that the end is near, the moment where the popular adage about it getting worse before it gets better really resonates.

SFMTA proclaimed on April 21 that “the end is in sight” on the long overdue Van Ness Avenue Improvement Project, confirming construction should wrap by the end of this year.

If that timeline holds, bus rapid transit service along Van Ness Avenue between Mission and Lombard streets would begin in early 2022, about two years later than planned.

Dubbed by some as “Van Mess,” the project has been riddled with delays, arguments over back payments with the contractor and general public fatigue at the constantly changing parameters for completion.

SFMTA says unexpected conditions encountered underground that slowed the process of replacing an intricate system of aging water and sewer lines. However the agency said it has transitioned to mostly surface work now, meaning it’s easier to craft a timeline and stick to it.

The transit agency’s board most recently expressed dismay to staff at the Dec. 3 meeting when directors were told, yet again, that the agency owed the contractor more money.

A $2.6 million line item, roughly 1 percent of the project’s total $309 million budget, quickly became a metaphor for pent up frustration at the project’s reputation as a black-box over much of the last decade.

“I think we should get better staff work so we can proceed through these items on a rapid basis,” Director Steve Heminger said at the meeting. “But with every question, we get more questions. … I certainly hope we can get better presentations in the future.”

The first of its kind in San Francisco, the project is expected to dramatically improve transit reliability and decrease Muni travel times on the Van Ness corridor using transit-only lanes, center medians and on-board technology that allows buses to communicate directly with traffic signals to avoid excessive stops.

When the SFMTA board approved the project in November 2014, staff estimated the bus rapid transit element in particular would improve transit travel times by up to 32 percent, improve reliability up to 50 percent, increase transit boardings up to 35 percent and save up to 30 percent of daily route operating costs, according to a staff presentation.

The project also includes the beautification of the corridor.

Hundreds of trees have already been planted in order to ensure that all removed during construction are replaced and more are added, according to the blog post.

Staff plans to conduct public outreach around testing protocols once the construction ends.

“We know it’s been a long wait and we appreciate your patience with this long-term construction project,” the blog post says. “San Francisco’s first BRT corridor is almost here and we’re excited to welcome you aboard soon.”

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