Why I resigned from Geary Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) board

I love Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). Implementing BRT is recognized by transportation professionals across the world as a proven set of techniques to significantly improve a bus line’s performance with little up-front investment in costly infrastructure such as rail. BRT has proven itself to be a real-life “silver bullet” for cash strapped transit agencies to implement serious improvements with minimal time and cost.

Imagine my excitement when I moved to San Francisco in 2006 as a fresh faced transit enthusiast and heard wind of a planned BRT line on Muni’s 38-Geary bus line! The Geary corridor is often touted as the single busiest bus line by ridership west of the Mississippi and is a critical component of transportation infrastructure connecting western San Francisco residents to the downtown Financial District. Like the rest of Muni’s lines, the corridor suffers from unpredictable travel times, poor on-time performance, lack of dedicated lanes, excessive stopping, etc. contributing to an unreliable transit corridor. BRT, I thought, would be the perfect solution — cheap, quick to implement, with quick return on investment for the residents of San Francisco.

So, I followed the “rules” of community engagement to support a transit overhaul: over the past 6 years I joined a volunteer action group for Geary BRT, petitioned business owners and residents, presented to our local elected officials, found that the SF County Transportation Authority (SFCTA or simply the TA) had secured initial approval and exploratory funding, was appointed to an advisory Committee for the BRT project, and the dream comes true, right? Wrong.

What I’ve seen in the past 6 years has been a severe disappointment during which I have lost trust in America’s regulatory framework to enact effective transit improvements.

This has led me to no other choice than to resign from my role as a member of the Geary BRT Citizen’s Advisory Committee and begin a personal campaign to revise this process, both at the State and Federal levels.

During last week’s Geary CAC meeting I delivered the below statement. In the coming months I hope to followup to this post with a series of suggestions and actions to fix our federal and state processes for improving transit infrastructure.

Below is a transcript of my resignation, original audio here.

So, first of all I want to say I appreciate the engineering effort that has gone into this project. From an engineering perspective this is one of the best alternatives I’ve seen on this project since its inception. I think it does a great job of providing the hybrid approach of increasing speed and travel time while also serving the needs of local residents and folks that need shorter bus stop distances.

However, I am concerned because we have had these conversations multiple times before. When we look at these charts that say, well, “Here’s the parking [changes] that we’re going to see and we need to do community outreach again,” I’m highly concerned that we’re doing this over and over again. In the parlance of startups, which is the world where I come from, what this seems like is we’re having developers redo the same product 5 different times without ever launching it to the public, and that’s really concerning.

Another thing that concerns me is that prior to this presentation I was curious to get a status of, at a very high level, where is the status of this entire project relative to its completion or the start of service. Instead of hearing a response to that, I really feel like that was pushed off and that is not something you want to talk about, and I really do feel like this is a core failing of the Transportation Authority’s core responsibility.

A bit of a reminder, I joined [the Geary BRT] CAC in 2008. At that time [Elizabeth Bent] and Jesse [Kohler] were running this project and they are not here today. You guys have joined this team and I think the only person that has been here is maybe Paul [Bignardi from SFMTA] since that time.

I met with [TA project managers at the time Bent and Kohler] in 2008 to express my excitement about this project launching in 2012 which was the original planned start date because that [anniversary] coincides with when Muni was started in 1912 as a rail line, and that was the first municipalized line ever.

But, since then this project has slipped, and never once during a slippage has the Authority told the CAC or the public “Here is a slippage and here is why.” We have now learned over the past few years that the expected start date is 2020. [The currently proposed alternative as presented today] is a great plan and this is fantastic, but I’m concerned this is continuing to slip.

As an attempt to try to address this [slippage] I have asked multiple times for what I would call “sunshine” on what is the TA’s approach toward project management, and one of those specific requests was to have a Gantt chart about what is the current status, and we got that about a year and a half ago and that basically said “There are 3 phases, we’re in [phase 2] of EIS/EIR and here’s where we are.” I then asked, “Hey, can we have a Gantt for [phase 2] EIS/EIR.” And I’ve asked for that multiple times and that was never provided and so I’m very concerned there is not visibility into what is the actual process and what will actually going be completed and I do understand that there is some precedent for how long [EIS/EIR process] takes, but I’m not convinced that’s really being accelerated as fast as possible. I see repeating elements here like [fellow CAC member] Bruce [Osterweil] had mentioned earlier that we’re reaching out to citizens, especially the business community. I was present in 2009 and I videotaped multiple interactions with folks, this was with [Elizabeth Bent] and team, talking to citizens, elderly community members and the business community, about loss of parking. This has been done before and I’m very concerned this is continuing again.

It really makes me sad but I would like to say that I have lost my trust in the TA working on this project. I am concerned that the TA involvement is slowing this down compared to if the MTA had managed this project directly; and what I’m seeing is that this is actually happening now — because the MTA’s improvements to its operations are basically providing the improvements claimed to have been providing back in 2012. I am basically left with no alternative but to voice my concern for the record here. I have tried to have individual meetings with Zabe, Jesse and you guys and I really am left at this point with nothing else I can do. I’m very concerned and I’m sounding the alarm.

I think it would be appropriate for me to resign at this point because I feel as though my presence on this committee does not help accelerate the project or get it delivered at a date that is acceptable to our residents.

But I like this idea.

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8 Responses to Why I resigned from Geary Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) board

  1. Pingback: Geary BRT Advisor Resigns in Frustration at Snail’s Pace of SFCTA | Streetsblog San Francisco

  2. Pingback: RT @SFTRU: A personal account from a Geary BRT CAC member who recently resigned over delays in the project http://t.co/OdBVX5ej | Lightencircle

  3. Too bad you resigned but it has been my experience that the environmental review process gets unfairly blamed for project delays. The institutional and organizational issues that you cite are one of the drawbacks. But not having a robust and accountable decion-making process is at the heart of the problem. This starts with project staff to policy makers. Otherwise you have this endless do-loop of reviews that seem to never end. But if you’re in the business of getting things done and improving mobility, it can happen.

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  8. This is a sad story. Looking forward to your thoughts on what could be done at a higher level to accelerate things.

    I’m reminded of the line from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy:

    “Who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
    The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
    …, the law’s delay,
    The insolence of office and the spurns
    That patient merit of the unworthy takes,…”

    That was written in 1600….makes me wonder if this is just the way things will always be. I think you mentioned in another post that the people in charge felt they risked something (lawsuits) if they pushed this forward, and risked nothing by wait-and-see.

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