After a decade-plus of planning, San Francisco finally sets 2016 date for bus rapid transit


The proposed design of the Van Ness bus rapid transit project will include center bus-only lanes and platforms, improvements that will speed buses significantly, transit planners said. Illustration courtesy of the Municipal Transportation Agency.

It took the United States eight years to get a man on the moon, but it’s going to take transit officials almost 12 years to get a new high-speed “bus rapid transit” system onto one of San Francisco’s busiest corridors.

The Van Ness Avenue project, which in 2006 was projected to open at the end of this year — in time for the Muni centennial — has been pushed back four more years, largely because transit planners had underestimated the time needed to complete the environmental work and project planning.

The environmental impact report and the state’s own environmental review took more time to complete because of the complexity of the project, said Tilly Chang, deputy planning director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. She said this is more than just a transit project because it involves completely re-engineering the street.

The first feasible study on corridor in 2006 predicted that the environmental report would take two years to complete. Now it’s not expected until fall 2012.

That pushes back the start of service to fall 2016.

Late last week, the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency said it would pay the estimated $125 to $130 million cost of the project with money from the federal government, local sales tax and regional and state funds. Construction would start in spring 2015.

The transit agency’s board of directors made the plan more concrete last week by approving a design that puts the buses in the center of the street and boarding platforms on the right side. The design will also further limit left turns for drivers.

BRT 101

A bus rapid transit system dedicates a lane of traffic to public transportation. Getting buses out of regular traffic helps speed trips for riders, studies in cities around the world have shown. The system also can include signal priority for transit vehicles, low-floor buses for quicker boarding and pedestrian safety measures.

Tim Papandreou, deputy director of transportation planning for the city’s transit agency, said bus rapid transit on Van Ness will be 30 percent faster compared with current Muni service on the line, and buses will hold 25 percent more passengers.

The project calls for new 60-foot-long articulated buses for the 47-Van Ness route. Current buses on the line are only 40 feet long.

“On face it may seem simple, but it’s quite complicated,” said Michael Schwartz, transportation planner of the authority.

Worldwide trend

Many cities across the country are working on similar projects or already have them up and running, including Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Canada and dozens of other countries have some form of bus rapid transit system.

Schwartz said the city’s bus rapid transit plan is unique in the United States in that it would be a full-featured bus rapid transit system in a very dense city. He said planning and analysis for the project needed to be more thorough, since other local and state agencies were involved. (Caltrans, for one, maintains Van Ness Avenue as a state highway.)

Despite all the delay, Schwartz said he remains optimistic about future bus rapid transit projects, and that the Van Ness Avenue experiment “will serve as a proof of concept” to speed development of bus rapid transit on Geary Boulevard and elsewhere.

The authority’s commissioners still needs to approve the design. A decision is expected in late June.

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SF Streetsblog wrote an in-depth story about the environmental impact report challenges. Read it here.