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Great Highway, huge price tag: Pro-car ballot measure could cost city $80 million

A car drives past the oceanside water pollution control plant located on the eastern side of the Great Highway between Sloat and Skyline Boulevard in San Francisco Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. This portion has been subject to erosion along the Pacific Ocean and may close to vehicle traffic. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

A ballot measure seeking to restore full car access to JFK Drive and the Great Highway would not only reopen the roadways but also require the city to launch a 20-year infrastructure project that could cost $80 million, according to a new report from the San Francisco Controller’s Office. 

Proposition I’s stunning price tag comes from a requirement to keep the southern stretch of the Great Highway—called the Great Highway Extension—open to cars, despite the city’s plans to close it in 2023 to protect wastewater pipes and a treatment plant from erosion. The report says keeping the road open would require constructing a more costly conventional seawall in place of current plans to remove coastal armoring, construct a small wall and add park amenities. 

Authored by retired San Francisco police captain Richard Corriea and Howard Chabner, an advocate for people with disabilities, Prop. I came in response to a Board of Supervisors vote earlier this year that made JFK Drive’s car-free status permanent. Mayor London Breed led the way on that legislation.

“While several alternatives are currently under review, the most likely alternative requires construction of a conventional seawall along the South Ocean Beach shoreline,” the report states. “This alternative is estimated to cost approximately $80 million more than the current preferred Project.”

The report also estimates Prop. I would create $400,000 in one-time cost savings and $250,000 in savings each year if JFK Drive reopens to cars by cutting shuttle lines and road improvements planned as part of the closure. 

A spokesperson for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which is leading the shoreline project, declined to comment on the measure’s estimated price tag, saying the agency doesn’t weigh in on ballot measures. 

While the effort to reopen JFK Drive and the Great Highway to cars has often pitted seniors and people with disabilities against parents and safe streets advocates, the Fine Arts Museums city agency—which oversees the de Young Museum and Legion of Honor—have played a major role in the fight.

Socialite, philanthropist and longtime de Young Museum benefactor Dede Wilsey spent $200,000 to help gather signatures from registered voters to qualify the measure for the ballot, and Jason Moment, president of the Fine Arts Museums Board of Trustees and a managing member of Route One Investment Company, has dropped $50,000 into the campaign. This week, the nonprofit arm of the Fine Arts Museums, COFAM, also spent $90,000 on the campaign for the measure. 

Matt Brezina, a volunteer parent-organizer for Kid Safe SF, a group opposing the Access for All campaign, criticized Wilsey and others behind Prop. I after learning of the controller’s report.

“Everything about her ballot proposal is wrong for the future of San Francisco,” he said. “It’s not how we should be using our money and not how we should be using our parks.”

Luke Bornheimer, an organizer working to make the Great Highway car-free, said the $80 million seems like a low estimate for the costs already incurred by the city in studies and planning for the road’s closure. 

He said he’s not surprised the ballot measure’s authors want to keep cars on the Great Highway Extension despite the whopping price tag—because if the southern extension was blocked, it would destroy their entire argument for keeping cars on the rest of the road, as southbound traffic would be directed via Sunset Boulevard. 

“If the extension is going to be closed, it’s only a matter of time that people want to close the whole highway,” Bornheimer said. 

Joe Arellano, a spokesperson for the Access for All campaign, issued a statement Thursday evening defending Prop. I and its potential costs.

“The city’s budget this year was $14 billion. Paying up to $4 million a year is a small price to pay to ensure that residents that rely on the Great Highway for their daily commutes have access to it,” he said. “Pushing that traffic onto neighborhood streets is not a feasible long-term solution for residents on the west side.”

Voters also will be asked to weigh in on a competing ballot measure, Proposition J, that would reaffirm the supervisors’ vote to keep the roads closed to cars, as well as Proposition N, a third measure to transfer management of the 800-space garage under the de Young to the city’s Recreation and Parks Department. 

Meanwhile, the future of the city’s slow streets is set for a vote later this fall at a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency meeting scheduled for Sept. 20. 

Supervisor Gordon Mar, whose district includes the Great Highway, supports turning the road into a park for pedestrians and cyclists, and he wants to use the 2023 closure of the Great Highway Extension as a deadline for a city decision on the future of the road.