Bill Lieberman, new planning director for the Municipal Transportation Agency, wades into the swamp of San Francisco transit politics

The 38 Geary -- our main bus route transporting people from the Richmond District suburbs to downtown -- spends much of its time lurching from stop to stop on every block through the Tenderloin District. The ride is so slow and uncomfortable that many people drive instead, clogging the streets and making the buses slower still.

Not long ago, Muni planners tried to quicken this trip by removing a few stops, so buses would stop every other block, instead of once or twice a block. Riders with bus stops in front of their apartment buildings launched a protest movement, and the Board of Supervisors voted to disallow the removal of stops, thus burnishing the supes' profile as champions of social justice. There was no harm done, politically speaking, and the 38 Geary remains an underused extended sentence in transit jail.

One reason it costs so much to move people swiftly in San Francisco is the expensive spread of transit resources to serve sparsely populated areas in the city's western and southern fringes. Last year, city planners put forth a proposal -- dubbed "the housing element" of the city's General Plan -- that would have allowed property owners to build more and higher apartment buildings along major bus and trolley routes. This plan was intended, in part, to allow Muni to move more people, more swiftly, for far less money than is now possible, by putting more people where transit lines already exist. But to gain the political support of suburban homeowner groups, which feared new apartment buildings would make it harder to find parking spaces, mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom promised in 1999 to kill the plan. Once elected, he did. And there was no harm done, politically speaking, and public transit will continue to be inefficient and expensive far into the future.

If Congress continues to appropriate money for its construction, the Third Street Light Rail, the $1.4 billion trolley that will someday cross the Fourth Street bridge, will continue into its second phase, a so-called Central Subway connecting the bridge to Chinatown. This platinum extension is seen by people who pay attention to transit in the Bay Area as a colossal waste of money. Chinatown is not a particularly popular commuter destination. The route is already served by extensive bus service. The subway would require boring deep underground at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Hunters Point, meanwhile, could have been served just as efficiently, at far less cost, by a system called bus rapid transit, in which buses ride in exclusive lanes cordoned off from other traffic and riders use raised and gated platforms, à la the city's light-rail stops. Bus rapid transit would provide more speed and greater capacity than light rail -- at a fraction of rail's cost.

Had the Third Street-Central Subway lines not been pursued and the money for them been spent elsewhere, the time San Franciscans suffer in Muni incarceration could have been cut by eons. The same funds dedicated to rapid bus lines along the Geary, Van Ness, and Mission corridors would move vastly more people per dollar spent. Trips that now take 45 minutes might take half as long, perhaps even approaching bicycle speed.

But a Chinatown subway line was offered as part of a decade-old political deal involving Willie Brown and neighborhood leaders whose backing was critical to the mayor's electoral success. Brown enjoyed substantial pull with federal officials in a position to fund such a project. So politically speaking, the Central Subway's a winner, too, and efficient, cost-effective bus service won't be funded, so a subway boondoggle can.

Well-planned transit -- which includes measures that emphasize pedestrian, bicycle, and bus (rather than automobile) access -- generally pencils out as more cost effective than the dramatic, politics-driven engineering projects that Bay Area mass transportation is known for. The cost gulf widens further once shovels start piercing the earth. Invasive projects such as subways and rail lines turn up unexpected challenges and expenses, especially in a fragile old city like ours. Take the example of the Fourth Street bridge, a seemingly simple feat in which an old drawbridge would be strengthened so it could accommodate a new commuter rail line.

Once into the project, however, workers discovered that the rotting concrete of the Mission Creek retaining walls near the bridge lacked the strength to build a satisfactory rail platform. Returning to the drawing board will entail significant additional cost, Michael Burns said last week. Thankfully, the city has just recruited a transit planning czar who seems committed to reasserting an emphasis on simple, relatively inexpensive planning as the best way to make our trains and buses run on time.

If the smallish audience at the offices of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, an urban-affairs lobbying group, were kids in black T-shirts and new MTA planning director Bill Lieberman were a rock singer, the crowd would have been swaying with burning cigarette lighters aloft.

For nearly two decades Lieberman served as San Diego's transit planning director, and before that he helped launch Portland's acclaimed light-rail system. Last week, he talked about his post-college days working in Amsterdam.

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