BikeLane.jpgThe San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board unanimously approved plans to modify a stretch of Masonic Avenue into a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly boulevard today.

Traffic modifications with the “Masonic Avenue Streetscape Improvement Project” between Fell Street and Geary Boulevard were approved after about five years of meeting with residents, neighborhood groups, local representatives, and bike and pedestrian groups, including Walk SF and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

The modifications for the $18 million project hope to create a boulevard on the stretch of Masonic Avenue that connects the North of the Panhandle neighborhood to Lower Pacific Heights by removing all 167 street parking spots on both sides of the street and adding a landscaped median and other greening and lighting improvements, and widening sections of sidewalks for pedestrians and bus riders.

For bicyclists, plans include 1.2 miles of raised cycletracks, which are bike lanes separated from car traffic.

Concerning bus service, transit plans include adding bus bulbs and removing less-used stops such as the one at Golden Gate Avenue.

According to SFMTA bicycle program assistant engineer James Shahamiri, Masonic Avenue is the only north-south corridor for half a mile in either direction and provides a direct bikeway toward downtown.

SFMTA worked with the city departments of Public Health, Planning, and Public Works in a “Masonic Avenue Redesign Study” in summer 2010 and met with the community, including improvement advocates with “Fix Masonic” and “Bike NOPA,” as part of outreach efforts throughout 2010 and in the past two years.

Last year, SFMTA held a public hearing offering two options to revamp the main arterial road, which offered a “gateway” plan, or a “boulevard” option.

SFMTA planners chose to continue with plans for a boulevard option after a survey of 109 residents showed the community and users of the thoroughfare preferred those plans over a gateway, that would have removed commute-time tow-away lanes, but kept one lane of parking.

Shahamiri called the outreach work “a powerful process” that has become a model for other planning projects in the city.

The engineer noted SFMTA has received 45 letters of support for the boulevard plan and 11 letters that oppose.

At today’s public hearing portion of the meeting, three people spoke against the plan and focused on the elimination of parking spots, including Fulton Food Shop owner Abraham Ahwal who has gotten 300 neighbors to sign a petition against the plan in the past month.

The San Bruno resident who has worked in the area for 18 years said he appreciates bicyclists who often frequent his shop and wants a safer bike route, but the design does not consider motorists like himself who cannot bike to work.

Ahwal is concerned about lack of parking for customers, residents and their guests, and space for delivery trucks and other services that need street space.

At the meeting many shared their support for the project including representatives from supervisors Christina Olague and Eric Mar’s offices.

Amanda Papanikolas, who has lived on Masonic Avenue for three years, shared her support with her baby on her hip as she told the board that when she is on Masonic, “I feel very vulnerable and defenseless.”

NOPA resident Michael Helquist, who has lived at Golden Gate and Center avenues for about 15 years, wrote a “Bike Nopa” blog tracking progress on the Masonic Avenue plan for about two years.

The bike coalition and Fix Masonic member said he was part of the process getting in touch with neighbors and getting support from area supervisors, community groups, school officials including the University of San Francisco, and city departments.

He noted an SFMTA area parking study showed immediate residents don’t appear to use the parking on Masonic Avenue.

As a driver, along with a pedestrian, bicyclist and Muni rider, he said of Masonic Avenue, “I don’t feel comfortable driving on it.”

“The end result, we will have a showcase street,” he said about the street design that includes plans for the city’s first ever cycletracks.

“Fix Masonic,” the grassroots neighborhood organization, has raised concerns with the city about the dangers of Masonic Avenue intersections for bicycles, drivers, and pedestrians alike.

The area has earned a dangerous reputation for those traversing by foot and pedal after two fatal accidents in the past two years.

On Aug. 13, 2010, 21-year-old German tourist Nils Linke was killed while biking south on Masonic Avenue near Turk Street. He was hit by a car driven by an apparent drunken driver.

On May 6, 2011, 61-year-old San Francisco pedestrian James Hudson was struck and killed in a hit-and-run on Masonic between Golden Gate Avenue and Turk Street.

SFMTA has stated concerns about the safety of Masonic Street are “are supported by collision data that show a high number of bicycle, pedestrian, and vehicular collisions from 2004 to 2009.”

Masonic Avenue area resident Edward DePalma said at today’s meeting that as a biker and pedestrian he fears for his life.

“I don’t want to get killed on the way to Trader Joe’s,” he said.

Trader Joe’s is located just north of the project area on Masonic Avenue just past Geary Boulevard.

Before the roadway redesign is complete, interim measures SFMTA has implemented on the busy corridor included repainted street markings and radar speed signs.

In a San Francisco first, in 2008 SFMTA installed a bicycle-only signal at Fell Street and Masonic Avenue. As part of the improved intersection, vehicles turning left on Masonic Avenue from westbound Fell Street are only able to turn with a green arrow.

Walk SF director Elizabeth Stampe has been advocating for improvements for the thoroughfare that is known for its “speedway” feel.

“Any area that’s dangerous for pedestrians is dangerous for everyone,” she said.

The walking advocating group director said there has been some opposition to the boulevard plans, but overall “we’ve heard a lot from people who live along Masonic say, ‘It’s terrible out here.'”

Stampe said the group, which has been working closely with bicycle groups including the SF Bicycle Coalition, is keeping an eye on funding for the project and the progress of planning and construction–most recently with an environmental impact review, which gave complete environmental clearance for the plan.

The board unanimously approved the boulevard plans this afternoon, however board members Malcolm Heinicke and Leona Bridges noted intersections on Fell and O’Farrell streets that they want further study about traffic safety and flow.

The estimated $18 million has not been entirely secured, but SFMTA, with Walk SF and other groups are working to obtain transit, regional and other grants. However, as money trickles in, it may force SFMTA to implement the plan in phases.

Assistant engineer Shahamiri said more specific designs can move forward with the board’s approval, but funding is necessary and then construction, which should take about two years, can get underway.

Sasha Lekach, Bay City News

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