Mission District anti-gentrification activists made one thing clear to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Tuesday night: They do not want the bus-only red lanes the transit agency has planned for 16th Street.

“You gave us two years to stop them from being painted — now tell us how!” said Rick Hall, a member of United to Save The Mission, a coalition of neighborhood activists, echoing the sentiments of many in the room.

The tense meeting, attended by roughly 40 people at El Centro Del Pueblo at 16th and Valencia, concerned MTA’s “16th Street Improvement Project,” which was approved in January 2016 and proposes a slew of changes and additions to the 16th Street corridor. Those include bus-priority traffic signals, pedestrian signals, bike lanes, and of course, the bus-only red lanes.

The project is slated to wrap up in 2021 and is expected to cost $67.5 million. It is being undertaken in two phases. The first focuses on improvements from Third Street to Potrero Avenue, and the second phase will be along the busier stretch from Potrero to Church Street.

The staunch resistance to the red lanes is buttressed by the common complaint of Mission Street merchants that the lanes are to blame for a decline in business. Businesses argue that the lanes have limited parking on Mission Street and that restricting left turns onto the corridor further limits accessibility.

“We can’t support the new project until you fix the problems of the old one,” said a woman who gave her name as Susan.

The meeting, organized by the San Francisco Latino Democratic Club and United to Save the Mission, saw MTA officials on the defensive as they had to explain the project had already been approved by the MTA board, and that the improvements will, in the end, make commuting along the corridor easier.

Sarah Bernstein Jones, a project manager with the SFMTA, admitted that the effects of installing red transit lanes on Mission Street on small businesses and their customers “wasn’t something that was focused on in depth.”

But, with the forthcoming 16th Street project, she said MTA will focus on balancing the needed transit improvements with needs of businesses and community members.

While the meeting wrapped up amicably, there were a few heated exchanges. At one point, Kate McCarthy — an MTA Public Outreach and Engagement Manager — suggested that the frustrated community members seek recourse through Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s office.

“We have no legal recourse to make you do or not do red lanes anywhere,” retorted Carolina Morales, a legislative aide in Ronen’s office.

McCarthy then said that the MTA Board is “unlikely to undo” the project’s approval without “political pressure” via Ronen’s office.

“I feel like there is a little bit of a distraction here,” Morales told McCarthy. “It feels like it’s damaging the relationship a little bit,” adding that McCarthy was sending the message that Ronen had the power to prevent the lanes from being painted. “That’s not the case.”

Another undercurrent of the discussion was that the MTA board approved the project without significant community process. The community members felt as though the improvement was a sop to benefit future commuters to the burgeoning Mission Bay neighborhood that has been home to San Francisco’s biotech and tech industries and will soon feature the new Golden State Warriors arena.

Many community members, including Paula Tejada (right), shared their discontent with what they said was MTA’s lack of process for this project. Photo by Julian Mark.

“Why we’re so agitated and why we’re so upset is because this is not about transit first — this about equity first,” said Lucia Obregon, a community leadership development manager with the Mission Economic Development Agency. “The Mission has been planned on top of without its input.”  

But others, like Cat Carter, a Mission resident and a member of the San Francisco Transit Riders Union, said she supported the red lanes and argued that they do, indeed, promote equity. Carter said the lanes cut her commute down from 60 minutes to only 30 minutes.  

“It’s not the gentry on the bus,” she said. “It’s a lot of families, a lot of locals, a lot of seniors, a lot of disabled people, a lot of low-income people … a lot of different people getting around.”

The ridership of the 14-Mission, Carter asserted, don’t have the time to come to meetings like the one held last night.

“Who pays you?” yelled several people in the room, including Hall, the activist.

Kevin Ortiz, an organizer with United To Save The Mission, had to tell participants to take a deep breath at points during the meeting.

“Nobody is against having the ability to take transit,” he said, explaining he uses the bus to get to work. “I’m all for transit — but not at the expense of community and the lack of process that’s gone into it.”