Checking In On Geary's Major Bus Rapid Transit Project, Kicking Off In 2017

San Francisco’s public transit agencies are hoping to release the final environmental analysis of the Geary Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project next week, and construction is slated to start next summer, after more than a decade of planning and negotiations.

The Environmental Impact Report (EIR) details analysis done by San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency for a number of alternatives to implement the BRT project. The agencies have spent the last ten years gathering information from bus riders, local businesses, neighborhood associations and other community stakeholders to develop a plan to reduce congestion and travel time along the highly trafficked 38-Geary bus route. The EIR is currently under review by the Federal Transit Administration, but the agencies still hope to release the finalized document to the public next week, said Eric Young, Senior Communications Officer for the SFCTA.

Nearly 300 public comments were filed on the draft proposal when it was released last fall, all of which must be addressed in the final analysis. While all of the public concerns will be addressed somehow, only a few major changes are expected to be adopted in the final EIR, such as a decision not to remove the Webster Street pedestrian bridge in Japantown. The Steiner pedestrian bridge will still be removed and replaced with an improved ground-level crosswalk. Neither bridge complies with the Americans for Disabilities Act, but after a strong showing of community concern about pedestrian safety, the agencies determined the Webster Street bridge could be maintained without compromising the rest of the BRT project.

The agencies are hoping their response to comments in the EIR will help garner public support for their staff-recommended alternative (SRA), a plan that would put BRT lanes along the center of Geary for only about two miles, from Palm Street to 26th Avenue. For the majority of the route, buses will still have to dodge turning and parked vehicles causing congestion in the side lanes of the road.

An explanatory video outlines how the BRT system could work on Geary.

This is the main concern about the SRA; it does not represent a true BRT system for the majority of the route. It is not clear that the side transit-only lanes, similar to those already installed on some sections of the route, will be an improvement. There are some sections that have been bus-only since the early 1980s that were painted red in April 2014, said Paul Rose, spokesman for the SFMTA. He said the addition of red color to the transit-only lanes encourages more drivers to respect the restriction, and eases some of the congestion Muni buses face downtown. On Geary the red-painted lanes were shown to reduce bus travel times by between 4-8 percent between 2013 and 2015, while auto speeds in the remaining lanes of those sections slowed by between 16-32 percent, Rose said.

Early plans considered filling in the tunnels along Geary to install more center bus-only lanes on a longer portion of the route, but that proved cost-prohibitive and the agencies worried it would further delay the implementation of the project. The SRA is a compromise that should still reduce travelers’ times by as much as 10 minutes, make bus timing more reliable and reduce overall congestion along Geary, according to the agencies.

Representation of center BRT lanes as proposed in the SRA. | Photo: SFCTA

Compromise, as usual, means no one gets exactly what they want. Despite the BRT’s alleged benefits, the agencies concede the project under their SRA will increase traffic wait times at many intersections and could increase riders’ required walking distances by as much as 120 feet due to increased distances between bus stops.

While the SRA includes new crosswalk features, such as median islands and bulb-outs, to better protect pedestrians, it does little to provide bikers safer passage along the route. It would add 15 protected left turns and remove permission to turn left at 29 intersections in an effort to improve pedestrian and vehicle safety, but would not improve bicycling conditions on Geary Boulevard itself, according to staff analysis. There are nearby alternative bike routes that are arguably more pleasant than busy Geary Boulevard, but there are still some safety accommodations bikers would like to see adopted, especially at critical intersections.

And although the agencies did extensive studies to ensure the project does not drastically reduce parking availability along the route, many small business owners along Geary are protesting the loss of upfront parking the side bus-only lanes will cause. CTA says the total decrease in parking spaces will be less than 5 percent from between 34th Avenue and Gough Street. But traveling on the 38-Geary today, we still see big signs protesting the BRT plan, particularly in the Inner Richmond.

The FTA’s review is still ongoing but the CTA hopes to release the final EIR next week, Young said. The remaining phases of the project are not expected to be affected by any delays in finalizing the environmental review at this point, he added. The final design and engineering studies are expected to move forward next year as scheduled. After the FTA releases its record of decision on the final EIR, both the CTA and MTA boards will have to vote to certify the document and select their preferred alternative, Young said. Those votes haven’t been scheduled yet, but will likely occur before the end of January, he said.

The CTA and MTA have been collaborating with a Citizens Advisory Committee dedicated to the Geary BRT environmental planning made up of members representing businesses along the bus route as well as riders and stakeholders. It has been meeting regularly with agency staff to discuss all of the alternatives being considered. Once the final EIR has been released, the agencies will schedule another CAC meeting to discuss its preferred alternative, Young said. Members of the public are welcome to attend the CAC meetings to learn more about the project and express their own thoughts and concerns. We will keep you posted about the next meeting’s timing, or you can sign up for email updates through the CTA’s Geary BRT webpage

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