Citizens discuss options for Geary Corridor Bus Rapid Transit project

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The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MUNI) held an open house and presentation at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California in San Francisco’s Japantown on the evening of June 26. The presentation allowed locals to discuss the future plans for the proposed express bus service with the Geary Corridor Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project team.

The Geary Corridor, currently served by MUNI’s 38 line from the Transbay Terminal to the ocean, also serves Japantown and the Fillmore District. According to the BRT’s project team, the bus service along the corridor suffers from chronic delays and congested buses.

Bus-only Traffic Lanes
“About 100,000 people use it (the Geary Boulevard) every day; half of them use buses,” said Chester Fung, project manager. “The buses are slow, they bunch up and lots of people are waiting at the stops so when a bus does come, it gets really crowded.”

The Geary BRT will replace the 38L Geary Limited bus and use a bus-dedicated lane of traffic to keep buses on time and running efficiently. Fung said the proposed BRT will reduce travel time and improve the reliability of service by using dedicated bus lanes, a prepaid fare system, and lower floors for faster boarding, as well as giving priority to buses at stop lights.

Fung said the improved service and reliability will alleviate congestion along Geary Boulevard by improving service to existing customers, and encouraging new customers to leave their cars at home and ride the bus instead.

The presentation offered four alternatives. “Alternative 1” is to have no project; this option does not allocate any bus-only traffic lanes. “Alternative 2” suggests having a side-lane BRT by creating dedicated bus lanes on the sides of the street, but it forces the dedicated lanes to share with other autos when making right turns. Team member Paul Bignardi said this option is the cheapest. Alternatives 3 and 4 place the BRT on the center lanes and bus stops on the medians. Alternative 3 uses two center medians surrounding two bus-dedicated lanes that isolate the buses from regular traffic, while Alternative 4 uses a larger single median with a bus-dedicated lane on each side. Alternative 3 isolates buses from traffic, but offers narrower medians while Alternative 4 offers wider medians but requires a bus that has boarding doors located on both the left and right sides of the vehicle. Fung said the plan is still in its environmental analysis stage and the final plan could use one or more of the concepts, depending on what makes sense for the project.

The core portion of the BRT runs from 25th Avenue to Gough Street. Two of the four “Special Study Areas” for the project are located close to Japantown in this section of the BRT. The Masonic Tunnel (where Geary Boulevard runs under Masonic Avenue to just west of Japantown) and the Fillmore underpass (between Webster Street and Steiner Street in Japantown) present a challenge to the BRT team.

The Masonic Tunnel can support any of the four alternatives presented by the project team, but will “require trade-offs in transit station design, pedestrian accessibility and/or traffic and transit operations” for Alternatives 3 and 4, according to the project’s information handout. The side-lane option would run the BRT up the slope and situate the stops on top of the hill, while the center-lane BRT would necessitate a bus stop to be built below ground on the underpass. The center-lane stops would need to construct both a set of stairs and an elevator to service them.
“The expenses will be expected for Masonic,” said Fung.

The Fillmore Underpass, however, is still up in the air. The six lanes of traffic running under Fillmore Street would have to be filled in for a center-lane BRT, but funding and planning for the fill-in is not yet guaranteed. Chris Subrizi, a project member, explained the potential changes to Geary Boulevard depending on how the BRT is built between Laguna and Steiner. The fill-in would necessitate the decommissioning of a water pump station located there, which requires further study and the consensus of a number of city departments. The construction would also affect Japantown’s landscape.

“The pedestrian bridge would have to be removed if we go with the center-lane BRT. The bridge’s supports would be in the way if we do that,” he said. “But if people say it’s imperative we keep the bridge, we could rebuild it too. … It’s important for people to let us know what they want.”

BRT Could Mean Improvements for Japantown
Subrizi said that, depending on how the BRT is set up, a number of improvements could be made. Possible suggestions include moving the Webster Street bus stop up to where Buchanan Street would cross on Geary to add a pedestrian crosswalk. Subrizi said many pedestrians jaywalk there already, and the crosswalk with a large center median would improve safety.

A center-lane BRT would also allow westbound buses to stay to the left side of the road when crossing Van Ness Avenue. “By keeping buses on the left side of the street, we can also avoid emergency vehicles entering and exiting the new hospital on the right side of the street,” he said.

The California Pacific Medical Center plans to open a new hospital on the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Geary Boulevard.

At the same time, a center-lane BRT would ultimately widen the crosswalks and move the eastbound left-turn lane on Fillmore Street to Steiner Street. Community member Bob Rusky shared his thoughts about the turn elimination for eastbound traffic with the project members. “There will be a left turn on Steiner it seems, but I wonder how that will affect people trying to get into the parking garage on Fillmore. You can take a left and two rights, I guess.”

Fung replied to Nichi Bei Weekly’s inquiries via e-mail. “We know the left turn is important in this general area, but that at Fillmore, we need to squeeze in a station, which takes up right-of-way, and adding the left turn pocket there would widen the street at a place where we want the street to be easy to cross. At Steiner, with no station, there’s enough room to place that left turn pocket, and there would be less issues with conflicts between turning vehicles and pedestrians crossing to the BRT station,” he said. “We have yet to complete the full analysis, so I don’t yet have details to report regarding the effect of the proposal on buses and vehicles. We’ll have that detail closer to the time we’re ready to release the draft environmental document.”

Concerns Remain
Community member Karen Kai also raised concerns over the possible removal of the Laguna Street Limited Bus Stop. She said she remembered how the community fought to have Laguna made into a limited bus stop for the sake of seniors. “The stop down at Fillmore was too far downhill for seniors walking to and from The Sequoias and Kimochi,” she said. The Sequoias is an assisted living complex located on Geary Boulevard at Laguna Street. Kimochi Inc. is a Japanese American nonprofit that offers a variety of senior services in Japantown.

Kai noted that late Japantown activist Sox Kitashima was instrumental in improving accessibility for seniors by advocating for the extension in the length of time for the crosswalks at Laguna and adding limited bus stops higher up the hill about a decade ago. “Sox … recognized it was difficult for seniors, especially those who lived east of Laguna, to use the Geary Limited Bus because the nearest Limited Stop was at Fillmore Street. She raised and pursued the issue and Limited stops were added at Laguna, and I believe also at Webster, although the Webster stop was later changed back to a regular stop,” she said.

Feng said it is ultimately up to the community to voice any and all concerns. “The Laguna and Geary stop consolidation was suggested due to the grade of the street and the stop’s boarding rates,” he said. “Please let people know: if there is any change you oppose, it should be brought to our attention.”

The environmental analysis is due to be finished in 2014, with design and construction running through 2019, when the BRT is set to start operation.

For more information regarding the BRT, including future meeting dates, visit www.GearyBRT.org. To contact the BRT project team, e-mail gearybrt@sfcta.org or call (415) 522-4800.

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