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Geary Boulevard

Geary Boulevard (designated as Geary Street east of Van Ness Avenue) is a major east-west 5.8 mi long thoroughfare in San Francisco, California, United States, beginning downtown at Market Street near Market Street's intersection with Kearny Street, and running westbound through downtown, the Civic Center area, the Western Addition, and running for most of its length through the predominantly residential Richmond District. Geary Boulevard terminates near Sutro Heights Park at 48th Avenue, close to the Cliff House above Ocean Beach at the Pacific Ocean. At 40th Avenue, Geary intersects with Point Lobos Avenue, which takes through traffic to the Cliff House, Ocean Beach and the Great Highway. It is a major commercial artery through the Richmond District; it is lined with stores and restaurants, many of them catering to the various immigrant groups (Chinese, Russian, and Irish, among many others) who live in the area. The boulevard borders Japantown between Fillmore and Laguna Streets.

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Geary was Muni’s first rail corridor. It opened on December 28, 1912, and over the next four years, four routes operated on Geary (Matoff et al. 27). The A-Geary operated from Downtown to Fulton and 10th Avenue until 1932 (McKane and Perles 174). The D-Geary/Van Ness operated from Downtown to the Presidio via Geary Street, Van Ness Avenue, and Union Street until 1950 (McKane and Perles 178; San Francisco Examiner). With that remained the B-Geary and the C-Geary/California lines. The B and C lines were soon up on the chopping block. It all began when Mayor George Christopher was elected as mayor of San Francisco in 1955. According to Rick Laubscher of the Market Street Railway, he campaigned on the platform that the B-Geary streetcar will be saved. Unfortunately, he had a change of heart once elected, proposing to switch operations on Geary to trolley buses (Laubscher; Matoff et al.). As an interim measure, the Geary line would operate with diesel vehicles, which they still do today. On the morning of December 29, 1956, the last B-Geary streetcar pulled into the Presidio Carhouse at Presidio and Geary (McKane and Perles 174). The next morning, however, an interim rapid transit plan was implemented. According to the San Francisco Call Bulletin, express buses began to run on Geary, starting from 10th and Geary and running to 2nd and Market in Downtown San Francisco (San Francisco Call Bulletin). That plan would be replaced by BART when it will be built to Marin. Or so they thought. Since then, there has been a never-ending fight to revive rapid transit on Geary. As soon as the B was discontinued, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system planned to build BART out to Marin County. Unfortunately, in 1962, Marin County pulled out of the BART agreement, and as a result, plans for rapid transit on Geary were shelved (Geary Task Force 3). Things would not get better for the Geary corridor. According to the Geary Task Force Final Report, a 1966 bond that would have brought BART to Geary was defeated (Geary Task Force 3). BART made one last attempt to study the Geary corridor in 1973 as part of the Northwest Corridor Extension. That, too, came to a halt, as there was significant opposition (Geary Task Force 3). It seemed that enhanced transit service would never be reality on Geary. That changed in 1979. On August 31, 1979, Muni implemented Phase 1A of the five-year plan. This involved implementing enhanced express bus service from the Richmond to Downtown, a limited-service bus route down Geary, and rerouting the 38-Geary away from Balboa to Lands End (McKane and Perles 229; Geary Task Force 4). Neighbors soon opposed this arrangement, and the 38 was eventually branched into three segments (Rosenberg). The first segment maintained its original routing to Ocean Beach via Balboa, while the second segment maintained its new routing to Lands End. A third segment was created to serve the veterans at Fort Miley. Soon, increased growth in both the Richmond district and Downtown led residents to organize for more improved service on the 38. While rapid transit was still a long reach, improved routing of the 38 enabled better access to and from the Richmond District. Eventually, a task force was created to oversee alternatives for rapid transit on Geary, in response to a halfhearted plan to convert service on Geary to operate on trolleybuses (Geary Task Force 4). The task force researched light rail and a bus rapid transit subway Downtown, which set the precedent for future project planning along Geary. They noted that it would be expensive to build a rapid transit mode using trolley buses, especially if it were to be accommodated by a subway. The task force ultimately chose to build light rail, contingent on funding. That is where Proposition B comes in. Prop B was passed in 1989, which created a half-cent sales tax for transportation projects. But there was no way Geary could be built since there were no feasible alternatives developed by Muni to bypass two complex intersections. The proposed transit would have to bypass Fillmore, where three lanes of traffic in each direction dive under the Fillmore overpass, and Presidio/Masonic, where two lanes of traffic in each direction pass underneath. In addition, a competing light rail project spelled the doom for Geary light rail. According to Peter Straus and Duncan J. Watry, Prop B stipulated that funds would be allocated to build light rail on either the Geary or the 3rd Street corridor (Straus and Watry 61). Muni ultimately chose to build light rail along 3rd Street, because of widespread community support (Straus and Watry 62-63). Despite this, Geary was still a focus of transit improvements. Not all hope was lost for the Geary corridor. A corridor planning study was initiated in 1995, which, like the Geary Transit Task Force, also studied light rail and bus alternatives. Vehicles would originate from a facility at Lands End, and operate on an exclusive right-of-way from 39th Avenue to Laguna, then enter a subway at Laguna, and emerge either at Market, where it could continue to the Transbay Terminal, or at Howard and 2nd, or at 3rd/4th Streets and Brannan (Merrill & Associates, 18-20). The study also evaluated the feasibility of BART service on Geary, which would run from Marin County to the East Bay or the San Francisco International Airport. This study also attempts to address the situation caused by the intersection arrangements at Fillmore and Presidio/Masonic, by suggesting placing transit on viaducts as the sole alternative (Merrill & Associates 49, 61). Another issue that was addressed was how the subway would cross Market Street to reach the South of Market or the Transbay Terminal. They studied having it cross above the Market Street Subway at 3rd Street, the only point feasible, or below the existing subway, which would be cost-prohibitive (Merrill & Associates, 50) . This study reaffirmed the importance of the Geary corridor, and how rapid transit was badly needed. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority agreed. In 1996, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority identified Geary as one of four rapid transit corridors vital to the city, based on the 1995 system planning study (San Francisco Guideway Associates). This ensured rapid transit would still be guaranteed for one of the busiest corridors in the city. With Prop B funding earmarked for the Third Street Light Rail project, they did not have enough money to build. Meanwhile, with the Richmond experiencing a population influx, contributing to increased traffic, something had to be done soon. It was then when the TA decided on a two-phase approach to rapid transit on Geary: BRT, then light rail. This was eventually embraced by the then-newly formed San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Muni released its Vision for Rapid Transit in San Francisco study in 2002, which outlined the corridors deserving of frequent, reliable service in order to accommodate growth in the city. This was where BRT was introduced as a concept that could improve Muni service, since funding was limited (“Vision” 9). Geary was selected as one of 12 rapid transit corridors which would initially receive BRT, but ultimately would be studied for either light rail or trolley coach BRT, making enhanced transit on Geary closer to reality (“Vision”, 19). It finally received a definite source of funding in 2003, when Proposition K, a 30-year extension of Proposition B, passed. Proposition K calls for allotting $110 million for a BRT system that includes Geary, and $55 million for building light rail along Geary. As a result, this project evolved to a rail-ready project, where the infrastructure for bus rapid transit will be constructed to light rail standards (“Sales Tax” 155-156, Dyett & Bhatia et al. 2-11). The Geary BRT project as we know it today consists of dedicated lanes that will begin at either 25th or 33rd Avenue. They will proceed to Gough Street, where a transit-preferential street treatment will be built from Gough to Market Street (Fung). The Geary project has come a long way. It was Muni’s first corridor, and now has the potential to be Muni’s first BRT corridor. Over the years, it could have had BART operate into the Richmond, but support was lackluster and they weren’t willing to commit. Eventually, many sought to get light rail built, but the ambivalence remains. This was why the project planned in the 1980s has failed to materialize. Today, there is a BRT planned for the corridor, which appears promising, but is marred by opposition. It is also threatened by a new enemy: the lack of outreach which could potentially lengthen opposition and perpetuate passenger apathy.

Contributed by Henry Pan

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