A Roundup of Recent SFMTA Mistakes

I.  SFMTA plans unnecessary second T-Line turnback loop.  Turn backs are sometimes necessary to avoid sending too many Muni vehicles to parts of the city where they are only lightly patronized.  Today’s Third Street Line has the capability of turning back some of its southbound LRV’s at an existing turnaround loop extending from Third via 25th, Illinois and Cesar Chavez back to Third.    This loop is appropriately located and has been in place and in use since 2005.  However in 1998, during the height of the Mission Bay fervor, a second turnaround loop was envisioned, this time extending from Third via 18th, Illinois and 19th back to Third.  As was obvious from the outset, the second turnaround, called the Mission Bay Loop, was devised for the sole and exclusive benefit and convenience of Mission Bay.  As the Potrero View puts it,  the second loop proposal was “first floated more than a decade ago, when the Dogpatch neighborhood (located just south of Mission Bay) housed a large number of partially derelict lots and former industrial buildings. Today Dogpatch is one of the City’s hottest areas, ground zero for construction of thousands of new apartments, businesses and condominiums.”

In other words the second loop might have made sense 17 years ago.  But things have changed.  What seldom if ever changes regardless of circumstances is bureaucratic and political momentum.  Despite all that’s happened, the SFMTA continues to focus on Mission Bay and the Mission Bay developers, to the detriment of the vibrant Dogpatch neighborhood.

As indicated, the Third Street line already has a turnaround loop at 25th Street.  Extending all T-Line trains to 25th Street or beyond would provide Dogpatch with the same level of Muni service given to Mission Bay.  Activating the 18th Street turnaround on the other hand would cut the T-Line service to Dogpatch by at least a third.

Janet Carpinelli, Dogpatch Neighborhood Association President, summed up the situation as follows: “The investment of $10 Million, the SFMTA’s estimate to construct the Loop, would be better spent on a forward thinking plan, rather than on a proposal based on 10 to 15 year old data that’s no longer relevant”.

Building a second T-Line turnback loop at 18th Street is an unnecessary waste of money and makes no sense.

II.   SFMTA’s Nonfunctional Bus Location System.  “Next Bus” is an Ap with the technical ability of telling riders with cell phones exactly when their next bus will arrive.  Under Next Bus the locations of buses are determined by triangulation from communications satellites.  For this reason the system is capable of providing precise arrival times even if a bus is off schedule.  But that’s not the way the SFMTA system works.  Much to the chagrin of waiting Muni riders the system now regularly “loses” buses or promises service from “phantom buses” that are in fact out of service.  This puts hapless Muni riders right back where they were in the 1980’s, never knowing when…or if…their buses would get there.

The SFMTA attempts to explain this away by blaming the problem on buses not leaving their terminals on time, bus diverted to other uses, bus breakdowns and “driver error”.  When buses are delayed or diverted it should be easy for a satellite-based communication system to keep up.  As far as the so-called driver error is concerned, when the Central Computer directs a change that takes a bus out of service on a particular route it should be programmed to simultaneously inform the satellite communication system, thereby eliminating the possibility of driver error.  The idea that in 2015 a GPS-based communications system should be losing buses and tracking “ghost buses” that are not in service is downright antediluvian.

This can and should be fixed.

III.  SFCTA’s M-Line Mess.   By far the biggest problem with the Market Street subway is its absurdly low, peak-period carrying capacity.  It has been estimated that because of the obtuse way in which the SFMTA operates the subway, it currently carries less than half the number of peak-period riders it was designed to carry and less than a tenth the number that most modern subways carry

One of the pre-requisites to using the subway to full advantage would be to eliminate the disruptive effects of the 13-phase St. Francis Circle traffic signal on K and M line service by undergrounding the K-Line section between the median of Junipero Serra and the southwest end of West Portal Avenue, and the M-Line section between the median of 19th Avenue and the southwest end of West Portal.  Placing these two lines beneath the St. Francis Circle would cut running times by several minutes and significantly improve the evenness and reliability of service on both lines.

Unfortunately, instead of addressing this obvious problem, the SFCTA….with the SFMTA in tow….has veered wildly off course by opting for a scheme, apparently dreamed up by the Park Merced Developers, to detour the M-Line, in  subway, directly into their development.  The $1.5 billion Park Merced subway would shift the M-Line from its protected surface operation along the median of 19th Avenue to the west side of 19th Avenue, which would be torn up in order to provide for the subway.  After stopping in Park Merced, the detoured M-Line would return to the west side of 19th and then travel over a new rail bridge to Randolph Street.

The reason usually given for this scheme is that conditions at the surface M-Line stop at Holloway (opposite San Francisco State University) are crowded and unsafe.  Yet the obvious fix to the Holloway Station problem would be to leave the M-Line in the median of 19th Avenue where it operates today and depress the Station.  With this vastly cheaper arrangement, the platforms could be widened and riders from both sides of 19th Avenue would have full access to them via underground walkways, thereby eliminating all conflicts between people rushing to catch M-Line LRV’s and 19th Avenue traffic.

Southwest San Francisco deserves a much better transportation solution than the cockamamie Park Merced Development Plan dreamed up by Park Merced businessmen and subscribed to by acquiescent SFCTA planners.

IV. The Private Bus Shuttles: Undermining Muni or Just Filling a Vacuum?

The private competition is getting bolder. San Francisco now features Lyft, Uber, Hi tech shuttles, UC Med and other institutional shuttles and privately-operated buses, as well as Muni.

Why is this? What’s going on? Well let’s take them one by one:

a.) Lyft and Uber: People got tired of being jammed into unreliable buses or waiting for taxis that might or might not ever arrive. The Fix: Develop a more robust and reliable Muni service

b.) Hi tech shuttles: The hi-tech companies got tired hearing employees complain endlessly about the difficulty getting from their San Francisco digs to Caltrain.  The Fix:  Extend Caltrain to the Transbay Transit Center and Market Street; develop faster and more reliable Muni service.

c.) UC Med and other institutional shuttles: Muni doesn’t operate efficiently enough to accommodate the needs of these groups. The Fix: Develop faster, more flexible and more reliable Muni service.

d.) Private operators charging more for better service on specific downtown routes. Each case is different but all share one thing in common. In every case the rise of a private bus line has occurred because of a failure on the part of the SFMTA to satisfy a particular transportation need. The Fix:  Close the gaps in Muni’s network of bus lines.

The rise of private services is a wakeup call. If a city’s public transit agency is allowed to wither, something else is bound to take its place. Playing around with bicycle lanes and street beautification while ignoring the once dominant network of Muni trains and buses is not working. It’s time the SFMTA got back to minding the Muni store.