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No joke: After years of delay, Van Ness BRT opens to fanfare

San Francisco Mayor London Breed encourages everyone to get on the bus during the official opening of the new Bus Rapid Transit corridor on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco on Friday, April 1, 2022. | Nick Otto | Source: Nick Otto for The Standard

There was a sense of relief and, even jubilance, near City Hall on Friday as the city celebrated the long-anticipated opening of the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project. 

To the tune of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” performed by the San Francisco Symphony Brass Quintet and a performance from the San Francisco Opera—not to mention $346 million and over 20 years—the first bus rolled along a fire-red, transit-only center stripe heading north to Galileo High School, where attendees enjoyed live music and bites from Blocko Vegan Tacos.

The first bus out contained the city’s, and perhaps even the state’s, entire lineup of transit bigwigs, with Mayor London Breed, SF Transit Director Jeffrey Tumlin, California Secretary of Transportation Toks Omishakin, and State Sen. Scott Wiener on the first coach. 

“We are rolling out the red carpet,” Breed said. “No, this is not an April Fool’s joke. This is finally done.”

She wasn’t the only one to crack a joke: It wasn’t lost on the city’s leaders the irony of rolling out the new center lane on April Fool’s Day, after the project has faced almost laughable delays over the last two decades. 

A mapping snafu early on in the project gave incorrect information on the infrastructure underneath the proposed bus lanes, delaying it by nearly three years and $35 million dollars while leaving businesses along the corridor with little relief

City and state leaders said Van Ness is a lesson for the future in how to better manage and plan for similar projects—like the initial updates to bus lanes on Geary Boulevard, a project which started 7 years after the Van Ness project but was completed before. 

A Passenger is seen onboard the first Golden Gate transit bus to travel along the new Bus Rapid Transit corridor on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco on Friday, April 1, 2022. | Nick Otto | Source: Nick Otto for The Standard

Tumlin said future projects won’t include relocating utilities and instead, the agency plans to break projects into smaller chunks to get more competitive bids from contractors. When it comes to coordinating with businesses, he said overcommunication and adjusting work schedules to be less intrusive to businesses are key. 

What Van Ness revealed to the city, Tumlin said, is there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the city’s corridors.

“Nothing beats real-world experience and collecting data,” Tumlin said.

Tumlin also lauded Wiener’s work to expedite future projects like Van Ness through streamlining bills at the state level, which SFMTA has already leveraged for pedestrian and bike infrastructure. 

“It will not take this long in the future,” Wiener said.