SF Japantown members respond to $240 million transit proposal

For the first time since the summer of 2012, the San Francisco County Transit Authority and the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency presented an update on the Geary Corridor Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), as a public meeting was held at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California on Jan. 30. Several dozen local residents in and around San Francisco’s Japantown attended the meeting to provide feedback to city staff regarding the BRT.

According to the SFCTA, 50,000 people ride the 38 bus line each day, which travels the 6.5-mile-long corridor along Geary Boulevard. While buses should arrive every six minutes during peak hours, service along the corridor is congested and unreliable, according to the transit agency.

Colin Dentel-Post, SFCTA transportation planner, presented the staff-recommended alternative to the public. The recommendations, Dentel-Post said, address both community feedback and data the transit authority analyzed to improve bus efficiency and pedestrian safety.

BRT at a Glance
Key recommendations for the BRT include painted “bus-only” lanes, improved low-floor buses for easier boarding, increased landscaping and improvements to pedestrian crosswalks and better bus stop designs to accommodate increased ridership. The SFCTA said the estimated $240 million project would improve travel times and reliability along the bus route and would implement improvements to pedestrian safety.

The updated recommendations propose a mixture of side-lane and center-lane configurations for buses. The center-lane configuration runs bus lanes on the center of Geary Boulevard and is insulated by medians that keep regular automobiles out and also serve as bus stops for pedestrians. According to the staff-recommended plan, the center-lane configuration was made in response to concerns regarding the loss of parking in the Richmond District and the center-lane configuration’s overall efficiency. The center-lane portion is proposed to run from 26th Avenue to Palm Street.

Dentel-Post said the project has two “key bottlenecks,” both located near Japantown. One area of concern is the tunnel under Masonic Avenue. The tunnel is proposed to be a side-lane configuration running up the hill to alleviate security concerns, according to Dentel-Post. The side-lane configuration continues East through Japantown and into San Francisco’s downtown.

Filling in Fillmore
The other major area of concern is the Fillmore Street underpass. During the 2012 presentation, the SFCTA staff said the underpass’ grade was unsuitable for a bus stop to be built into it, and would have to be filled in to support a center-lane configuration.

Dentel-Post acknowledged that the community wanted to see a fill-in project, but said the project’s scale was too big. “We understand there is a lot of community interest in filling that in and replacing that with a surface street to return Geary to sort of how it was before,” he said. “We understand that it’s both a transit project, but it’s actually more a community project.” While the SFCTA explored potential alternatives, they decided that the project would be a major undertaking that would require more time, community input and money. He said the side-lane BRT would not preclude a potential fill-in project and would not hold up the rest of BRT while the fill-in project is considered.

Dentel-Post described some of the improvements the BRT project could provide to the Fillmore area. He said the side-lane bus corridor would have larger bus stops and better lighting. He also mentioned bus only lanes to enhance service quality and potential pedestrian and streetscape improvements.

The staff recommended the removal of the pedestrian footbridges at Webster and Steiner streets. Opinions on the potential removal of the bridge at Webster Street have been mixed, while prior comments advocated removing the Steiner Street bridge, according to the SFCTA. Dentel-Post said he hoped the reduction of traffic lanes and the implementation of a new crosswalk on Steiner, Webster and Buchanan streets would allay crossing concerns and allow for the removal of the bridges.

Dentel-Post also said the bridge’s removal would accommodate the side-lane BRT and a traffic lane splitting off from the main boulevard to the frontage roads above the underpass. The pillars that currently support the pedestrian bridges at Steiner and Webster streets complicate the lane configuration.

Dentel-Post said the transit authority is open to feedback and would preserve the pedestrian bridge in its final design if it is strongly desired by the community.

As part of making Geary safer to cross at street level, the recommended plan aims to reduce the number of traffic lanes on Geary Boulevard from Gough to Divisidero streets. Geary Boulevard currently supports four lanes of traffic going either way — the underpass has a total of six lanes with a frontage road on either side above. Dentel-Post said the SFCTA’s traffic analysis shows the Boulevard does not need eight lanes of traffic and that the staff recommends reducing the number of traffic lanes to six total and run four lanes in the underpass. The reduced number of traffic lanes would allow for better pedestrian refuges for at-grade crosswalks and potentially allay concerns over the loss of the pedestrian bridges.

“We would be able to implement two or three (pedestrian refuge areas) across the crossing,” he said. “You would have fewer lanes to cross and you would have these refuges in the middle of the street if you want to cross the street in more than one go.”

Dentel-Post said a two-section crosswalk is also proposed for where Buchanan Street would be on Geary Boulevard. He added the new crossings would extend the sidewalk into the street to shorten the distance pedestrians must cross. It would also lengthen the crosswalk signals’ time.

The question, however, remained how the fill-in project would be done. San Francisco Planning Commissioner Bill Sugaya attended the presentation and asked the SFCTA to provide the Planning Department with an update on the BRT project. “It’s been years since the last update,” he said. He said it was the first time he had heard the proposal for a fill-in project to be a separate project.

Richard Hashimoto, who was recently elected as a citizens representative for the SFCTA’s Geary Citizens Advisory Committee, shared several community concerns to the Nichi Bei Weekly. He said “most” of the community members he has spoken with have favored removing the pedestrian bridge at Webster Street, and creating “a safe, surface cross walk,” he wrote in an e-mail. “However, this would only work if the underpass is filled. There are a lot of red light runners that come up from the underpass at high rates of speed that would be dangerous to pedestrians.”

He also said the side-lane project would mostly be ineffective for Japantown. According to Hashimoto, buses are often delayed by double-parked vehicles and cars merging into the bus lane in order to turn right. “I would support dedicated center lanes through Fillmore and Japantown,” he said. “Moreover, the garage often has vehicles queuing in from Geary when the garage is full, especially on festival days. Providing a transit-only lane will not work for the garage.”

Hashimoto also manages the Japan Center Garages. Hashimoto, however, said the underpass fill project should be a separate project, as proposed by the SFCTA.

Stop Removals
Other potential major changes include the elimination of several local stops. The recommended plan removes the bus stops on both sides of Laguna and Webster streets and a new stop is proposed for where the Buchanan Street intersection would be on Geary Boulevard. With the eastbound Laguna Street stop removed, the Gough Street stop would be moved a block to the west to the front of the St. Mary’s Cathedral, according to the recommended plan.

The new stop on Buchanan Street would be a local stop and the BRT would not service it. The 38 Limited, which the BRT would replace according to the SFCTA, currently services the bus stop on Laguna.

“There are stop consolidations at various locations throughout the corridor,” Dentel-Post said. “We’re trying to speed that service up and make it more reliable. Focusing on the Fillmore, we have a nice opportunity.”

Dentel-Post said the new Buchanan Street stop would provide a “direct access point” into the Peace Plaza between the Japan Center Malls and would complement the proposed pedestrian crossing. The distance between the new stops would also allow a more even spacing between the local stops. Dentel-Post elaborated that the spacing between the Laguna and Fillmore Street 38 Limited stops are the shortest interval of Limited stops west of Van Ness Avenue.

“We understand this is a potential issue with seniors and other folks who have difficulties to walking further,” Dentel-Post said. He added that the SFCTA is planning to set up future meetings with the senior centers along the corridor to hear their concerns.

Steve Nakajo, executive director of Kimochi Inc., said his senior program’s participants typically use the Laguna and Webster Street stops to enter Japantown and go to their lunch program at the culture center. While the Peace Plaza might sound like a sensible place to enter Japantown, he said, the current connection between the plaza and Geary Boulevard would be ill-suited to serve as an entry point.

“There’s a little tiny staircase and if you’re disabled or carrying something … you’re gonna have to go through the Trade Center and come out through the garage. That’s not … a feasible alternative to access,” he said. Nakajo and Dentel-Post acknowledged that there is a ramp to the side of the Peace Plaza, but neither could say whether it provided a valid alternative.

Meeting attendees also pointed out that the Webster Street stop served shoppers from the Nijiya Supermarket on the corner of Post and Webster streets and that many of the senior living communities were located on top of the hill by Laguna Street. Kathie Cheatham, president of the residents association for The Sequoias, said the new stop placements makes the BRT stop inaccessible to the senior home’s residents. “It is more difficult, not impossible for the local service,” she said. “But the BRT is out of the question.”

Marlayne Morgan, co-chair of the Seniors on the Hill coalition, said she is concerned about the removal of the Laguna Street stop. “Cathedral Hill and Japantown have a high density of senior residents who rely on transit and the hill from Webster to Gough is very steep and hard for seniors and persons with limited mobility,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Lotus Yee Fong, who lives across the street from the Japan Center at the St. Francis Square Apartments, said during the meeting’s Q-and-A-format session that the loss of the stops were unacceptable and that Buchanan would not work. “The location of Webster and Laguna work,” she said. “You can’t use Buchanan on our side because we have two driveways into our parking lot as well as the Buchanan Y(MCA).”

Following the presentation, the city staff and meeting attendees examined maps outlining the staff-recommendations for detailed questions and comments.

Sugaya later commented that he did not know how a Buchanan Street entrance to the Peace Plaza would be created. “Well, the Peace Plaza is Park and Rec, maybe it’s up to them. Maybe 3D, do they get involved? And the garage is separately administered too,” he said. “It’s an interesting idea, but it’ll be hell to implement.” 3D Investments owns the Japan Center Malls, while the parking garage located underneath the plaza is owned by the city and operated by the Japan Center Garage Corporation.

Chester Fung, the SFCTA’s project manager, later wrote to the Nichi Bei Weekly saying he acknowledged the community’s input from the meeting. “We’re looking for a stop configuration here that works best for as many riders as possible and that also makes for efficient transit service for everyone who rides through this area,” Fung wrote. “We’re continuing to listen to the feedback and we will keep the dialogue going with the Japantown community.”

Potential Loss of Parking
Due to the side-lane BRT design, the staff-recommended plans require the loss of some parking spaces in and around Japantown.

“The bus lane does take some space in the street and requires some reconfigurations,” Dentel-Post said.

The loss, primarily along the frontage road of the underpass, would eliminate 20 to 115 parking spaces in the area. “We are looking into how we could add back more spaces on side-streets and see if we could squeeze spaces back into the street,” he added.

Dentel-Post also said the improved bus service could also alleviate parking needs as more people decide to take the bus to Japantown.

Hashimoto said the Japantown and Fillmore area could not afford to lose parking spaces and called the staff recommendations “unreasonable.”

Nakajo added that many community members drive to Japantown and the loss parking is a major issue. “I know that the recommendation is for everyone to ride the buses, but that’s not reality. For a lot of our community members, our seniors are individuals that drive their cars and park around the community,” he said. Citing the many festivals that take place in Japantown, Nakajo said “parking is a commodity.”

Looking to the Future
According to the SFCTA, following the draft Environmental Impact Report, which is due out later this spring, the BRT project will continue to receive feedback and hope to finalize the EIR by the end of the year. Construction itself is planned to last two years, but interspersed throughout the corridor to mitigate impact. Each segment, according to Dentel-Post, would take one to five months of construction depending on how extensive the work is.

Dentel-Post also said the city expects $38 million from the Proposition K sales tax, $2.5 million from a land development fee from the new California Pacific Medical Center that is currently under construction on the corner of Geary Street and Van Ness Avenue, and an estimated $75 million from federal grants. Dentel-Post said the project is short $110 million, but is on track to finding additional funding through the mayor’s office.

The Geary BRT project continues to solicit comments and concerns from the community. To find out more visit www.gearyBRT.org or call (415) 522-4804.

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