How San Francisco’s Transit Funders Starve the Tenderloin

by Randy Shaw on January 8, 2013

San Francisco prides itself on its progressive politics, but it has long financially starved the low-income Tenderloin neighborhood on street and safety improvements. While the city finds money for streetscape improvements on Divisadero, Upper Market, the Marina and other affluent neighborhoods, the city has not funded a single major Tenderloin pedestrian safety or streetscape improvement program in over thirty years. The Board enacted the Tenderloin-Little Saigon Neighborhood Transportation Plan in 2007, and still has not allocated funds for its completion. In contrast, the Divisadero Streetscape plan also conceived in 2007 received $5.5 million in funding and was finished in March 2010. And Divisadero is no anomaly; newly conceived upgrades in other neighborhoods routinely move forward while the Tenderloin’s 2007 plan is bypassed. As the Board of Supervisors soon votes on Prop AA streetscape improvements, it’s time for the needs of the Tenderloin’s 4000 children and thousands of senior and disabled residents to stop being ignored.

San Francisco is actively creating more livable streets for pedestrians, bicyclists, local businesses and neighborhood residents. It’s a terrific development.

But what’s not terrific is denying the Tenderloin its fair share of transit funds. It is a blatant example of the city discriminating against low-income residents.

When the Tenderloin got the Board of Supervisors in 2007 to enact a transit plan for just two of its many streets, many of us naively assumed the plan would be funded. But despite the Tenderloin being represented by two of the most dedicated supervisors in the city since district elections returned (Chris Daly and Jane Kim), transit funders continue to give the Tenderloin the short end of the stick.

Transit Funding Mysteries

I have tried to understand how transit funding decisions are made in San Francisco, and it is no easy task. It’s easy when the Board of Supervisors must vote on specific allocations (as in Prop AA), but recommendations for funding decisions come from transit planners who are disconnected from low-income neighborhood residents.

There is no way to easily show allocations of streetscape improvement money by neighborhood, a fact I confirmed with transit planners. I also confirmed that transit funding priorities are often determined outside of any public hearing process, and that transit planners often have little idea why some plans proceed and others do not.

When I was creating a budget for the two-way street conversion for Eddy and Ellis which is at the heart of the Tenderloin-Little Saigon plan, I was told that we had to buy new street signals, which dramatically raised the cost. I asked why we could not reuse existing signals and was told that the Tenderloin “was way down the list” for getting such signals.

The planner did not know why the Tenderloin was “way down the list.” But given the starving of the Tenderloin’s streetscape needs for over thirty years, it’s not hard to guess (not surprisingly, when the city wanted to convert the Tenderloin’s two-way streets to one way in the early 1960’s—effectively turning the neighborhood’s streets into a speedway to downtown and Union Square—it found the money it needed).

Even when the small first phase of the Tenderloin-Little Saigon Plan finally commenced in September 2010, it stopped prior to completion. It took my badgering and the combined efforts of Mayor Lee, Supervisor Kim and SFMTA chief Ed Reiskin to discover why the project stopped and how it could get restarted (a projected two-month project took18 months).

The Road Ahead

The Tenderloin will get its fair share of Prop AA funds later this month, but there is still no public money to complete the vital two-way streets and bulb out installation along Eddy and Ellis Streets. The small first phase has proven a resounding success in calming traffic, but it will soon mark eight years since community residents began advocating for two-way streets and six years since the Board of Supervisors enacted it.

Mayor Lee’s March 2012 development agreement for the planned CPMC facility at Cathedral Hill required Sutter Health to provide nearly all of the funding necessary to complete the Tenderloin-Little Saigon Plan. But the project did not move forward, and a much scaled down hospital plan is likely to return to the Board soon.

It is critical that this funding remain in the city’s development agreement. Not only do the traffic impacts caused by the project require it, but transit planners still have no plans to allocate public dollars for calming traffic, improving streetscapes or doing anything else along Eddy and Ellis Streets.

The Tenderloin has the fewest street and sidewalk lights of any residential neighborhood (an acute problem the Mayor’s development agreement with Sutter also addresses), and to my knowledge is the only residential neighborhood that lacks residential permit parking (I tried to change this during the Agnos Administration and was told the city makes too much money from ticketing cars in the Tenderloin to give that up).

The Tenderloin is making great progress, and transit agencies’ discrimination in the allocation of funding and benefits has got to stop.

Randy Shaw is Editor of BeyondChron and Director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic.

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