Rail options dismissed as too costly
Geary Boulevard is one of San Francisco’s busiest roadways, packed nonstop with automobiles, pedestrians, and buses as it runs east-west from downtown to the sea at 48th Avenue. The San Francisco County Transit Authority has been working for years to improve public transportation along the corridor; buses there currently serve more than 50,000 riders a day, and the street once had a streetcar line. A few days ago, the authority released its draft alternative analysis for the corridor, and the results indicate that the city will move ahead with a busway along the street with reserved lanes in the median, costing about $200 million to construct by 2013. The authority’s board will vote later this month on what alternatives to pursue as the project moves forward.
Light rail service — either street-running or underground — will likely be eliminated from consideration because there simply isn’t enough money in the authority’s coffers to pay for the project. Improvements to the section of Geary entering downtown east of Gough Street, where it is too narrow to accommodate reserved bus lanes and vehicular traffic, will not be included in this project either because of similar cost issues. The bus rapid transit line west of Gough Street will be built to light rail specifications, however, so if future funding became available, the corridor could be converted to train service.
The alternatives study doesn’t articulate a bus rapid transit-over-light rail preference, it simply argues that Proposition K, which provides funding for transit improvements in San Francisco, will only raise about $100 million over the next several years (after money has been distributed to the expensive Central Subway project). Even with the 60-40 federal-local funding split common under the New Starts program, a light rail project running the length of Geary would be far too costly to build. There’s been some criticism of the report, focusing on its outrageous cost estimates, including $2.5 billion for an all-surface light rail line running the route’s six miles (in 2025 dollars), but even if the project only cost $600 million to build, it would still be too expensive.
I’m not a huge proponent of BRT; there are so many good reasons why rail, especially in a big and dense city like San Francisco, makes more sense. But the alternatives analysis is, more than anything else, realistic. It would be a waste of time for the Transit Authority to demand a rail line for which the city has no capacity to pay.
In the long-term, it might be a good thing that the city isn’t pushing forward with a light rail line on Geary. (If built, the project could have theoretically operated independently or, if underground, as a spur from the Central Subway.) Rather, the Geary right-of-way should be reserved for the city’s most important — but so far unplanned — project: a new BART subway. BART’s capacity through the Transbay Tunnel to the East Bay is at capacity, and continued growth in the urban core, as well as a future potential California High-Speed Rail connection to Oakland, makes a new under-the-bay connection necessary. Pairing BART and CAHSR tunnels would cheapen overall costs.
If you’re building a new underwater tunnel, it makes sense also to connect that line to new capacity in the urban core — probably near the proposed Transbay Terminal Center, and then, if we’re thinking big, up Geary. This idea has been well covered by SPUR (PDF), Transbay Blog, and The Overhead Wire. The street has high potential ridership and could probably qualify for a true high-capacity metro, not just a light rail line (from a cost-effectiveness perspective). If the city went ahead and built a light rail tunnel under the street today, a BART line there would be unthinkable, so BRT is a good move from that perspective.
There’s one final advantage to moving ahead with this BRT project: it will lead to significantly improved amenities for pedestrians and bicyclists along the street. It would also eliminate two vehicular lanes and as a result reduce traffic. Geary is, shall we say, not the most beautiful of boulevards, so the chance to clean it up and improve the urban environment there should be welcomed. If the light rail subway alternative had been advanced by the report, we wouldn’t be discussing how to use transportation funds to pretty up the street. BRT gives us that option.
More than anything else, though, this alternatives analysis is a pragmatic approach to addressing a complicated transportation problem with limited funds. We’ve got to find more money before we can start dreaming about rail.