Some people are concerned that University of California, San Francisco’s expansion at its Parnassus campus could cause an undesirable increase in the number of riders on Muni’s N-Judah bus. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Some people are concerned that University of California, San Francisco’s expansion at its Parnassus campus could cause an undesirable increase in the number of riders on Muni’s N-Judah bus. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Will UCSF’s $20 million pledge to SFMTA offset traffic woes?

An even more crowded N-Judah plus increased congestion ahead cause concern

Some supervisors are questioning whether the $20 million University of California, San Francisco committed to investing in local transit as part of its proposed Parnassus campus expansion will be enough to counteract the project’s impact on traffic in nearby neighborhoods.

The payment to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is part of a larger community benefits package that Mayor London Breed hailed as “significant” when she announced the tentative agreement earlier this month.

But supervisors Dean Preston and Myrna Melgar, who represent the surrounding areas, are concerned the funding might not adequately address traffic impacts, with the project expected to bring nearly 7,900 new daily visitors and workers to the area over next 30 years.

“While it sounds like a big number, and in one sense it is, in terms of what that actually funds at the MTA and given the long-term impact on Muni, it really doesn’t mitigate the impact of so many thousands of more people and workers there,” said Preston.

Melgar said she trusts the SFMTA to use the money thoughtfully, but shared Preston’s concerns that the final sum would miss the mark.

UCSF’s proposal would transform the Inner Sunset with roughly 2 million square feet of housing, research space and a new hospital. It would also put pressure on the already crowded N-Judah line and could increase congestion on surrounding residential streets.

This expansion is expected to increase the number of Muni riders who use the N-Judah to access the Parnassus campus from 6 percent pre-pandemic to 9.3 percent when the project is completed, according to transit officials.

The Board of Supervisors has asked the UC Board of Regents for more time to strengthen the agreement between UCSF and The City, citing a number of concerns including housing, enforceability and transit. The regents are expected to vote on the next phase of the project later this month.

A platform for the N-Judah stands near UCSF Parnassus on Irving Street on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Among the concerns is how to mitigate the impact on nearby public transportation, namely the N-Judah.

Both SFMTA and and UCSF have expressed interested in expanding the train’s capacity, possibly through the addition of three-car trains.

“Although we’ll need to use a variety of strategies to support access to UCSF from everywhere in San Francisco, increasing the capacity of the N through more and/or bigger trains is both a logical approach and a significant effort,” SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said.

But the transit agency has also been clear it plans to keep its options open.

“Given the 30-year time frame of the plan, the incremental nature of receiving the funds, and the uncertainty of both SFMTA and UCSF’s planning efforts and timing, SFMTA wants to maintain maximum flexibility to apply the funds to the most effective projects at the time funds come in,” Kato said.

UCSF is making the investment as a voluntary concession to The City. The university isn’t subject to the usual local land-use laws or oversight as a public entity, and is also freed from the fines, fees and taxes that a private developer would have to pay in order to build a project of this scale.

“It’s important to remember that this figure is similar to what a private developer would pay The City, but that UCSF is a nonprofit public university and hospital serving the residents of San Francisco and California,” UCSF spokesperson Nick Weiler said.

The funding will come from a transportation contribution fee of $10.58 per every square foot of expansion. It will be paid directly to SFMTA in increments as permits are issued for each building under construction.

While private developers would be required to regularly contribute to The City through taxes and other fees, UCSF’s payments will come in lump sums.

“These are not checks that are tied to operational improvements or service improvements to things that directly serve that area,” Preston said. “If you’re in 2030 or 2040 and the N-Judah is overrun with people and you can barely use it, it’s not as if you can go to the MTA and say we have money from UC for this. That money will have been spent.”

Congestion plans

The project has also come under scrutiny from neighbors and officials alike who have forcecasted increased traffic throughout the Inner Sunset and southwestern areas of District Seven, clogged intersections near the hospital and a Parnassus Avenue crowded with delivery and service vehicles.

But UCSF and The City have plans to mitigate such fears under the agreement.

The agreement calls for modifying curbs and streets surrounding the hospital, creating new loading zones, relocating the ambulance entrance, improving navigation and possibly constructing a bridge or tunnel across Parnassus Avenue.

“One of the central goals of the plan is to improve public accessibility to Parnassus Heights and proactively address potential impacts of growth and planned construction, including practical improvements such as creating a service corridor behind the campus so that delivery and service vehicles are taken off of Parnassus Avenue,” Weiler said.

UCSF will also incentivize transit by providing patient transit passes by June 30, 2025 and Muni passes for visitors.

Before the pandemic, the university already had one of the lowest rates of private car usage among workers compared to other major employers in The City, with 24 percent commuting by private car.

It’s also responsible for managing its own parking supply.

Kato said SFMTA supports efforts to limit parking supply as the “availability of parking means more people driving, and garage entrances and exits cause difficulties for transit operations and for non-drivers.”

The agreement additionally includes broad-stroke plans for a bike- and pedestrian-friendly pathway from Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve to Golden Gate Park and a makeover for Parnassus Avenue with enhanced lighting and more integrated planning between transit, curb use and pedestrians.

Those measures helped to spur the support of street advocacy organizations like the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Additionally, UCSF has expressed interest in remodeling the entrance on Irving Street to make it a more usable entry point for those traveling by transit, foot or bike.

Can it be enforced?

As written, the agreement isn’t currently enforceable by The City.

Rather, it’s a good faith deal between UCSF and San Francisco, largely represented by the mayor’s office throughout the stakeholder engagement process, which leaves some supervisors worried that if UCSF doesn’t make good on its deal, nothing can be done to hold them accountable to the terms of the agreement.

But SFMTA says it takes solace in having been involved in the community outreach and negotiations for over two years, and officials are confident they can manage the transit priorities effectively alongside the university.

Under the agreement, UCSF would also be required to provide an annual report to The City and allow SFMTA to track transit impacts.

“While it might not sound like much or perhaps even mind-numbing and bureaucratic, it’s actually extremely helpful and important to have this accountability and this forum to work together,” Kato said.

But the Board of Supervisors remains wary of its lack of oversight.

The board passed a resolution 10-1 on Jan. 12 requesting the UCSF Board of Regents delay its next vote on the project’s environmental impact review, scheduled for Jan. 20-21.

The extra time, according to Preston, would be used to craft “stronger and clearer requirements on transportation, housing and workforce” as well as language to make the agreement enforceable to ensure all parties hold up their end of the deal.

For its part, UCSF has told The City it considers the agreement binding, even without specific verbiage declaring it as such.

“This commitment is backed by the strength of the other commitments UCSF makes good on every day in our service to San Francisco — from our doctors’ service at Zuckerburg San Francisco General Hospital to our many community health and dental programs that address care needs of San Francisco’s underserved and homeless populations,” Weiler said.

The university doesn’t support the delay of the environmental impact review vote.

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