Judge clears way for Geary-BRT plan to begin

by Thomas K. Pendergast

A lawsuit seeking to put the brakes on the Geary Boulevard Bus Rapid Transit (Geary-BRT) plan has come to the end of the road, after a San Francisco Superior Court judge ruled in the City’s favor.

The Geary-BRT plan will strip Geary Boulevard of its traffic islands and trees, replacing them with long stretches of dedicated bus-only red lanes along much of the major transit artery in the Richmond District.

The boulevard would be reduced from three lanes of vehicle traffic in each direction to two, running in the center of the boulevard, between 26th and Palm avenues. East of Palm Avenue, buses will transfer to the curb lanes and operate in lanes painted red that are restricted to transit vehicles carrying 10 or more passengers.

The Muni #38-Geary bus line carries an average of 52,000 passengers a day along sections of its 6.5-mile route, which is one of the largest volumes for a city bus line
in the country.

The lawsuit was filed by a local citizen group called San Franciscans for Sensible Transit (SFST) against the SF County Transportation Authority (SFCTA), which is comprised of the members of the SF Board of Supervisors, and the SF Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which is the lead agency for constructing the Geary-BRT.

Sensible Transit argued that the Final Environmental Impact Report of the Geary-BRT contained “fatal substantive flaws,” including not adequately analyzing an option to not build the BRT at all. Also, that the SFMTA failed to incorporate system changes that were already being implemented along the route into the Geary Environmental Impact Review’s “no build” option. It also claimed the EIR relied on “outdated data and unsubstantiated models” for its traffic modeling.

In a court opinion rendered in October, Superior Court Judge Cynthia Ming-mei Lee concluded that substantial evidence supports the Geary-BRT’s EIR and its analysis of the Geary-BRT, and that transit officials followed the procedural requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The Geary-BRT plan was first brought to public attention in November, 2003, when it was included in a list of projects to be funded by Proposition K, an extension of a half-cent sales tax for transportation projects that was approved by San Francisco voters.

The SFCTA initiated the Geary Corridor BRT Study the next year, which evaluated the feasibility of four alternative configurations along the Geary corridor. In 2008, the SFCTA was designated the lead agency under CEQA, and it announced it would prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

In September of 2015, the SFCTA and SFMTA issued a Draft EIR, which stated that bus service along the Geary corridor was “unreliable, slow and crowded,” with many buses not arriving on time. It also concluded that during peak hours buses on the line took an average of 47 minutes to traverse the entire route, while an automobile took 22 minutes.

The court noted in its opinion that whenever an EIR is challenged as legally inadequate under CEQA, it would presume the public agency’s decision to certify the EIR is correct; while the party challenging the EIR bears the burden of establishing otherwise. The court’s review is limited to the question of whether or not the public agency abused its discretion by not proceeding as required by law or by making a determination not supported by substantial evidence.

In its lawsuit, Sensible Transit challenged the EIR’s analysis of transportation network company (TNC) vehicles, like Uber and Lyft, and their impact on traffic, ridership levels and the environment, among other things.

The court stated that “substantial evidence” means enough relevant information and reasonable inferences from the information that a fair argument can be made to support an agency’s conclusion, even though other conclusions may also be reached. A court may not set aside the approval of an EIR on the grounds that an opposite conclusion would have been equally or more reasonable.

In examining an EIR, the court “looks not for perfection but for adequacy, completeness and a good faith effort at full disclosure.” The court also based its ruling on whether earlier “administrative remedies had been exhausted.”

“The rationale for exhaustion is that the agency is entitled to learn the contentions of interested parties before litigation is instituted. If plaintiffs have previously sought administrative relief … the agency will have had its opportunity to act and to render litigation unnecessary, if it had chosen to do so,” the court ruling stated.

Judge Lee concluded that the Geary-BRT is supported by substantial evidence and the agencies involved proceeded in a lawful manner. Furthermore, the EIR “sufficiently analyzed the traffic impacts of TNC vehicles” because “the EIR included TNCs within the traffic volume analysis, counting TNCs along with all other vehicles in the corridor.

The court further noted that, “from the standpoint of traffic impacts, a shared-ride trip is similar to a trip in a rider’s own vehicle. Traffic volume is a function of the number of cars on the road, and whether the cars have taxi medallions or have Uber or Lyft stickers is irrelevant when assessing traffic volume. The EIR’s traffic modeling accounts for taxis and carpooling, which are reasonable proxies for other shared-ride services.”

The court also concluded that the EIR sufficiently analyzed red bus-only lanes and a reasonable range of alternatives, including the “no build” alternative.

After the court’s decision, SFST representative Robert Starzel said the SFCTA’s analysis was based on data from 2012, when the #38-Geary was experiencing many service problems after years of budget cuts, with a fleet of poorly maintained buses. He said an appeal of the court’s decision is unlikely.

Since then, however, “Muni had made great strides forward with the Geary-#38- Rapid after 2012 and by 2016 the service was really doing very well. We asked them to consider continuing incremental improvements, not a big, splashy effort to act as if they’d done something extraordinary,” Starzel said. “Just keep going. There are lots of things to do. And if they’d had a best practices group they would have looked at other transit districts and could have done a lot better.”

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