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It’s going to be a bumpy ride: City streets hurting as S.F. struggles with heavy use

First in a series examining the state of the city’s roads.
The city has been aggressively pursuing its mandate to repair and change San Francisco’s roadways and related pedestrian amenities. Photos: john zipperer

After residents or visitors travel the streets of San Francisco, the main stories and photos they share with others about their experience are likely to include Lombard’s zig-zagging street or the Painted Ladies. Those are the good memories. The bad memories are likely to involve roads with broken pavement, sagging blacktop over old potholes, and construction equipment everywhere, blocking off lanes and turning rush hour commutes into nightmares.

In the most boring cities one can imagine, street upkeep and upgrades are matters requiring constant attention and investment. In San Francisco, whose population balloons each business day with suburban commuters and each weekend with visitors, the roads get a punishing amount of traffic. That traffic is also increasing from a growing population, which is expected to top 1 million within a couple decades. Even if only a portion of those newcomers drives cars, they will add to the pressures on the city’s extensive streetscape network.

For many people, Indianapolis, Ind., is the most boring city they can imagine. Even locals have long referred to Indy as “India-NO-place.” But it had a straightforward way of dealing with its roads. After William Hudnut retired from the Indianapolis mayor’s office in 1992, he recalled his typical morning commute during his 16 years leading the city. If he noticed a pothole or other road problem, he would stop and call his staff and tell them to fix it ASAP — and they’d better have gotten started by the time he arrived at the office. It wasn’t just because he liked a smooth ride; he had made attracting new business to the city one of the centerpieces of his administration, and the businesses that came to Indianapolis needed good infrastructure.

In 2013, the national transportation research group TRIP rated America’s worst urban roads. Of the 20 worst urban regions with “the greatest share of major roads and highways with pavements that are in poor condition and provide a rough ride,” the San Francisco-Oakland area ranked as second-worst, with 60 percent of its roads meeting that lowly standard. (The Los Angeles area took top dishonors, with a 64 percent rating.)

Those bad roads translate into some stories that locals and visitors are definitely likely to remember, because it costs them to travel our bad roads. On TRIP’s rankings of major regions by how much additional vehicle maintenance is attributable to the poor road conditions, San Francisco-Oakland ranks third, costing drivers an additional $782. Only L.A. and Tulsa, Oklahoma, are worse.

Are things improving? Not if you check TRIP’s 2014 report, which gives pretty poor reviews for roads and bridges throughout California, but once again includes San Francisco-Oakland among its bad-boys list. “California’s roads and highways are among the most heavily traveled in the nation, and this report reflects the fact that our transportation system is simply worn out,” said Will Kempton, executive director of Transportation California. “Unfortunately, local and state agencies don’t have adequate resources to keep these facilities in good condition. However, it would be cheaper to pay to fix our aging system than paying the extra costs of driving on rough roads, and the longer we delay, the more expensive the cost of repair will be.”

That is the problem that San Francisco city leaders tried to address this year when they placed Proposition A on this month’s ballot. With a title of “City of San Francisco Transportation and Road Improvement Bond,” Prop A seeks to raise the funds to get started.

After a San Francisco Transportation Task Force identified and put a price tag on a number of “crucial infrastructure projects,” Prop A was devised to help fund some of them. “Some” is the operative word, because the $500 million that Prop A authorizes is only a down payment on the whopping $10 billion in needed projects identified by the task force. If the city is serious about addressing its “crucial infrastructure” needs, there will certainly be a lot more such propositions on the ballots in future years.

The uses for Prop A’s money are as follows: constructing transit-only lanes and separated bikeways; installing new boarding islands, accessible platforms, and escalators at Muni/BART stops; installing new traffic signals, pedestrian countdown signals, and audible pedestrian signals; installing sidewalk curb bulb-outs, raised crosswalks, median islands, and bicycle parking; and upgrading Muni maintenance facilities. The mayor and the Board of Supervisors would have to approve the use of the funds for any project.

It would not be the first time that local voters have gone all-in for a roads bill. In 2011, San Francisco voters gave the necessary two-thirds approval to Proposition B: Road Repaving and Street Safety Bonds, which provided for the issuance of nearly a quarter billion dollars in general obligation bonds for road repairs. The list of projects supported by Prop B range from pavement renovation, sewer replacement, and water main installation at Chestnut and Gough Streets to the extensive changes to traffic flow, biking lanes, and pedestrian safety on Polk Street that have been a source of heated debate for years. (Readers can learn the status of projects funded by the bonds at streetsbondsf.org.)

Whether it’s the extended barricades and construction machinery along Market Street or the massive work of the Doyle Drive Replacement Project or a lumpy pothole fix in front of your home, San Francisco streets have been undergoing large-scale and small-scale fixes and changes.

If you drive around the city, you might see the name of Annuzzi or other contractors that are working on the projects, but it is the city’s Department of Public Works that runs the projects that are improving or at least changing streets and, in some cases, making commutes slower. (DPW lists neighborhood construction projects and their status at sfdpw.org/index.aspx?page=35.) DPW’s fiscal year 2014-15 budget is $222.8 million, up from $214.1 million the year before and $194.3 million two years earlier. In 2014–15, DPW will spend the biggest portion of its budget — $46.4 million — on infrastructure design and construction projects; another $27.4 million will go to building design and construction, and $37.4 million to street environmental services.

DPW’s budget is growing again after years of neglect, but it — like the city’s streets themselves — is the focus of never-ending hopes and fears of city residents, businesses, visitors, and politicians. If the city streets are great, all smooth and well-planned and executed, then people don’t notice them and they slide downward on people’s lists of priorities.

But the streets matter again, whether it’s changes to Polk, attention to biker and pedestrian safety, public transportation, auto safety, or just providing a nice ride to visitors so they don’t go home with rotten memories.

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