Cathal Hennessy, Deputy Director of the SFgo program for the Municipal Transportation Authority (MTA), conceded after a long and heated neighborhood meeting last week that the controversial message display signs on Fell and Oak streets are not crucial to the success of the system.
Both Hennessy and Jack Fleck, city traffic engineer, had already described to the neighbors the most important components of the SFgo program. Fleck explained, “The primary and biggest part of SFgo is infrastructure replacement.” Many of the city’s current traffic signals and corresponding technology date from the 1950s, according to Fleck, and an upgrade of the system was necessary to apply computer technology to traffic management. Hennessy added that an underground network of fiber optics connect with upgraded signal lights and new overhead traffic cameras to funnel information to a central communications center. From this command post, MTA expects to manage traffic to reflect conditions on the city's streets.
“The fiber optic cables are already in place at Fell and Oak, and they are essential links to other locations in the city,” Hennessy said in a separate conversation after the meeting. With this essential component of the system already secured, Hennessy reluctantly agreed -- with a nod and a "yes" -- that dismantling or moving the Fell and Oak signs would not cause a major disruption to the program. He stressed that the work was already under contract, but shrugged at the suggestion that contracts are re-negotiated all the time.
During the sixty minute discussion at a meeting of the North of the Panhandle Neighborhood Association (NOPNA) last Thursday evening, both Hennessy and Fleck emphasized that the purpose of SFgo has always been to help implement San Francisco’s “Transit First” policy through better traffic management. Yet Hennessy also told the group that the Fell street sign had a different purpose. And it had nothing to do with transit priorities.
“The primary message for the Fell Street sign is to tell about garages that are full at the de Young and to direct motorists seeking parking to alternatives like the UCSF garage,” Hennessy said referring to the underground garage in Golden Gate Park that serves visitors to the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. He explained that the MTA wants to keep museum-goers from circling streets in the Inner Richmond and Inner Sunset in search of parking when the concourse garage is full.
No one in the audience dismissed the "full garage" message, but they objected to the Fell street location being used for that purpose. Several neighbors complained that the SFgo sign would be a distraction to motorists exactly at the point where drivers need to be most alert to bicyclists and pedestrians. The Fell and Divisadero intersection is already hazardous with entry and exit to the ARCO service station regularly blocking the bike lane and sidewalk and with motorists' tendency to speed once they clear Divisadero. Others complained that the SFgo signs added a visual blight to the Divisadero Corridor which only this week the city began to tear up for physical improvements and visual enhancements. None of these comments appeared to have any impact on the MTA representatives. Hennessy, who introduced himself as a NOPA resident and cyclist, simply declared, “These signs are not distracting.”
Michael Smithwick, long-time Alamo Square resident, voiced some of the strongest sentiment against the Fell street sign, but he also offered a solution. “Put the sign at the off ramps of the freeway.” Smithwick suggested that motorists using Fell to get to the deYoung Museum and the Academy of Science are primarily coming off the freeway and that was when they should receive a “garage is full” message because then they would have a real chance to change their route.
The SFgo sign on Oak street just west of Divisadero was equally criticized by the neighbors. Michael Khavul said he hoped to develop property at Baker and Oak streets into a mixed-use complex but the SFgo sign would effectively prohibit it. “We are looking to have twelve bedrooms that will face that sign, (but) we cannot have anyone sleep there with those signs.” MTA regulations prohibit placing SFgo signs outside any second or third floor windows, and the managers chose the sidewalk along the Dept. of Motor Vehicles building with that in mind. Apparently MTA did not consider the impact on any new development at the site or existing buildings across the street.
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi has already objected to the Oak Street sign, according to his aide, Vallie Brown, who attended the NOPNA meeting. He told the MTA “no way,” she said, but apparently the MTA took little note of his objections. Brown explained, “We found out when you did about the sign going up on Oak Street.” Earlier in the day Mirkarimi told Streetsblog that “Nobody’s made a good case to me on Oak at all.”
The bottom line for the neighbors. No one objects to SFgo plans for infrastructure upgrades, the underground fiber cables, the above-ground traffic cameras, or the communications center. But the Fell Street sign creates a traffic hazard instead of preventing one, and it could better serve its real purpose – the garage parking issue – at a different location. The Oak Street sign would provide traffic messages, but few outside the traffic management world of MTA believe it will provide an essential service.
And the surprising thing is, one of SFgo's directors believes the program will do just fine without either sign.