Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Man for Masonic: James Shahamiri, New Project Manager for Troubled Corridor

Photo: James Shahamiri

Image: SF Planning Department

James Shahamiri, a civil engineer, thought he’d be designing buildings or bridges by now. Instead, he found his “true passion” lies with transportation. He credits a remarkable internship with the City of Oakland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Program for the discovery a few years ago. Shahamiri has been a transportation engineer with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) for three years where he has worked on several projects, including his favorite, the re-design of 7th Avenue and Laguna Honda Blvd.

I remember riding that route every weekend back in my youth. Coming back and improving those streets for bikes was pretty cool, and definitely something I never would have thought I’d have a hand in when I was younger.
Bicyclists and motorists who use the western end of Fell street ride through one of Shahamiri’s other projects, the partial re-design of traffic and bike lanes between Scott and Divisadero and along the ARCO station. In the midst of much contention over parking removal, global oil politics, and the right to safe travel, he helped SFMTA install what no one, including himself, considers perfect, but most have come to agree is a decided improvement. Shahamiri is completing work now on the new bicycle lanes on Phelan Avenue by City College. Although he’s been enjoying his new bicycle, Shahamiri is not a bike-only guy. He relies mostly on Muni to get around the city and sometimes skips the bus to walk instead.

Earlier this month Shahamiri became manager for the Masonic Streetscape Project following the retirement of Javad Mirabdal who led the community design process for Masonic through a successful public hearing. The following excerpts are from his first interview since taking the new position.

You’ve been involved with the re-design of Masonic for some time, including work with the grassroots group Fix Masonic.
My role during the initial Fix Masonic meetings, going back to 2008, was to provide input and support for the community at the early planning stages for a larger project that eventually became the Masonic Streetscape project.

Last year you helped develop different options for a re-design of Masonic. How did the Boulevard plan with removal of all on-street parking become one of the alternatives?
The Boulevard option became one of the four possibilities based on community feedback we received during the first Masonic Streetscape meetings. People really wanted a new look and feel for Masonic, something to transform it from the urban freeway it is today into not only a safer place to walk, bike, or drive, but also a more pleasant place to be.

Were you surprised that there was little organized opposition to the Boulevard proposal leading up to the public hearing in May?
To be honest, yes, it was a bit of a surprise. In a city like San Francisco, parking is a difficult thing to remove. The Boulevard option was a bold proposal, but the community has been asking for dramatic improvements to Masonic for many years now. Through the community process, I think everyone understood that in terms of priorities, parking was toward the bottom of the list.

The Masonic study was a collaborative effort among city departments that historically have not worked together closely. Is a new norm developing for how to tackle large re-design projects?
Interdepartmental collaboration is becoming the norm. Having a design team composed of members of various city agencies really helps the city deliver the best possible project. Each agency brings their experience and expertise to the table. This enables the design team to consider ideas and solutions that might not have been apparent if each agency worked in isolation.

After the public hearing last month, project staff said 4-6 months would likely pass before the SFMTA Board of Directors would consider the Masonic plan. Why such a long time to get this legislated?
Because this is a full streetscape project and not simply a restriping of the roadway, environmental review needs to consider many items. Aside from the traffic analysis, things like air quality, noise and construction impacts also need review.

But the bicycle and traffic design changes were covered in the environmental review that preceded the lifting of the bicycle injunction. Why additional review now and who is conducting it?
The options for Masonic that were analyzed and cleared in the Bicycle Plan review are not identical to what the Boulevard option proposes. Because there are differences, further analysis is needed. … The environmental review is being conducted by the Planning Department.

What has to happen before design changes appear on the street?
After the project is environmentally cleared, it will go to the SFMTA board for the legislative approval necessary for the parking and traffic changes needed for the project. Once this approval is received, detailed designs and construction can begin.

Are you and the SFMTA staff seeking funding now before the project has been approved?
Yes, SFMTA is seeking funding for both detailed design and construction through several sources right now.

Others interested in the Masonic project suggest that an initial phase could involve the landscaped median, removal of parking, and bike lanes striped but without a cycle track treatment or the bus bulb-outs and sidewalk landscaping.
We’re assessing our implementation strategy. It really depends on how the funding works out. The complete build-out of the Boulevard proposal will cost about $18 million, which could be challenging to secure all at once. That said, we’re trying to get the project built as quickly as possible.

Waiting two years or more for actual changes on the street frustrates everyone who feels the street remains unsafe. What more will be done by the SFMTA to improve safety in the meantime?
I think we’ve done a good job implementing measures on Masonic to increase compliance with existing traffic laws and regulations. We’ve heard many great ideas from the community, and we’ve implemented most of them. We’ve lowered the speed limit to 25 MPH, installed radar speed signs, re-striped the lane lines and added “25 MPH” markings, and re-timed the traffic signals for 25 MPH progression. In the near term, we’ll also be upgrading several traffic lights to add pedestrian signals and improved signal visibility for motorists.

I won’t say there’s nothing else we can do, but there aren’t many more low-cost improvements to be made. The next step is really the re-design of the roadway itself, to make it self-enforcing in terms of user behavior. That’s the track we’re on now.

In your experience as a traffic engineer, how much enforcement – and how frequently scheduled – is needed to stop the speeding on Masonic?
I really can’t speak for SFPD. I know they have stepped up their enforcement of Masonic Avenue in the past year.

I’m a big fan of the “three E’s”: Engineering, Education, and Enforcement. Without all three, it’s difficult to change people’s behavior. Streets need to be designed for the expected behaviors, users need to be educated on how to use the street, and lastly, the expected behavior needs to be enforced. If one or more of these steps is missing, it’s tough to get to the goal of safe, inviting streets for all.

Masonic area neighbors and livability advocates want to help push the project forward. How do you see them helping?
I’ll start by saying that the Masonic Streetscape project is a direct result of the efforts by community members and livability advocates. Without all their hard work and pressure, Masonic would not be the priority it is today.

There is still a lot of work to be done before the project goes on the ground. The community and advocates need to keep doing what they’ve been doing: maintaining a collaborative, unified vision of how they want Masonic to look and feel. It’s this community-driven vision that’s ultimately moving this project forward.

For other stories in the A Better Masonic series, check here.

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