Shelter squabble threatens Van Ness BRT

A key federal grant for San Francisco’s Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project could be in jeopardy.

A letter dated Oct. 27 sent from the Federal Transit Administration said the project is danger of not qualifying for the FTA’s Small Starts grant program because of recent design element changes to the Van Ness Avenue project.

The letter from the FTA’s regional administrator Leslie T. Rogers explains that the recent changes to the project to not include a canopy or roof-type transit shelters to protect riders from weather elements will disqualify the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency from receiving funding from the FTA program.

The transit agency said it had anticipated receive up to $75 million to help pay for the bus rapid transit project along the Van Ness Avenue corridor.

Rogers said in his letter that the FTA’s grant program had updated its definition of a bus rapid transit system and eligibility requirements, which now states that a BRT system should have shelters that offer protection from the weather:

“The provision of weather protected elements is an important feature of BRT projects that serves to enhance ridership and improve the travel experience for the riding public.”

The current Muni red seismic wave shelters, supplied and maintained by Clear Channel Outdoor, Inc. were originally part of the original plan of the bus rapid transit project, but the SFMTA had taken them out because the current members of the Arts Commission disliked them, according to the SFMTA.

Though commissioners from 2008 had approved the red wave design, which can now be seen at most Muni bus stops.

In a letter obtained by SFBay to the Art Commission’s Cultural Affairs Director Tom DeCaigny on Nov. 4, Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin said the SFMTA did oblige to the commission’s request of not including the shelters with the red roofs earlier this year, but now must move forward with the red wave shelters or else it will forfeit funding from the FTA:

“The SFMTA must not risk $75 million in FTA funds needed for the Project by proceeding with the current design without roofs over shelters. A loss of such funding would jeopardize the Project.”

Though the City Charter gives the commission the right to approve designs for all public structures, Reiskin said in the letter that the charter also allows the SFMTA exclusive authority on how it manages its properties and assets.

The letter also states that the transit agency has already asked the City Attorney’s office for advice on the matter.

The City Attorney’s office said the SFMTA is not bound to follow the direction of the Arts Commission if the design:

“… would alter or interfere with the functioning of structures under its jurisdiction, unreasonably delay construction, or disproportionately increase the cost of the structures…”

Reiskin said this would apply in this situation. He said the SFMTA determined that constructing a new transit shelter or designing a different roof for the BRT bus platforms would cost between $5 million to $10 million, which he said the transit agency does not have funding for nor funding to maintain the customized shelters:

“…The SFMTA has neither the time nor the money to start over and explore a new design.”

Reiskin ended his letter by thanking the Arts Commission for reviewing the designs, but said the project has to move forward with the transit shelters provided by Clear Channel.

The $125 million Van Ness BRT system is scheduled to open for service in 2018 with construction to start in late 2015.

The system will include a center dedicated transit-only lanes for Muni’s 47-Van Ness and 49-Mission /Van Ness buses, low-floor Muni vehicles and giving buses priority at traffic signals, which the SFMTA said will improve transit travel times by up to 32 percent and reliability by up to 50 percent for both of those routes

Other funding sources for the project include the local transportation sales tax (Proposition K) and also from state funding resources.

SFBay reached out to the Arts Commission, but has not heard back.

The SFMTA board will take up the parking the changes related to the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project at its meeting on Nov. 18 at City Hall at 1 p.m, Room 400.