Extending the Central Subway: Why Stop at Fisherman’s Wharf?

The nascent prospect of extending the Central Subway beyond Chinatown gained steam this week with the release of a preliminary city study [PDFthat lays out some conceptual proposals to bring the subway further into the city’s northern neighborhoods.

T-Third “Phase 4”: subway to the Presidio? Image: SFMTA [PDF]
North Beach neighbors, who are living with construction disruption as the tunnel’s drill is extracted in their backyards, but won’t get a station, joined Fisherman’s Wharf merchants at an SFMTA Board of Directors meeting this week to cheer the “T-Third Phase 3” extension proposal. (The existing T-Third alignment is the line’s first phase, and the Central Subway currently under construction is the second phase.) The extension doesn’t have any firm plans or timelines yet, as this is the first time city planning agencies have formally examined the possibilities.

But one transit advocate asked: Why stop at the wharf?

“You have to be more far-sighted,” said Howard Strassner, chair of the local Sierra Club chapter’s land use and transportation committee.

For all the Central Subway’s faults, extending it to connect Muni’s T-Third line northward to major destinations would make it more useful. Strassner said a westward expansion of the T past Fisherman’s Wharf, through Russian Hill and the Marina, to the Presidio — a prospect the city study loosely discusses as “T-Third Phase 4” — “should be [analyzed] at the same level of intensity and completeness…. It’s just as important, it may get many more riders.”

Indeed, the city’s preliminary study says that a rail line to the Presidio — whether it’s underground, on the surface, or a mix of both — could be too popular. “The ridership increase would overload the existing T-Line system infrastructure to beyond planning capacity levels, because the 2-car platforms and 2-car trains are too small,” the study says.

That’s just one of the numerous ways in which extensions of the Central Subway have been hamstrung by the line’s piecemeal planning (or rather, lack thereof), which began some 20 years ago with the short-term goal of getting a subway to Chinatown. Strassner said major considerations for eventual extensions were discussed early on in the planning process, but apparently ignored by planning agencies at the time.

Back then, Muni opted to build platforms only long enough for two cars, instead of four, “to save a nickel,” said Strassner. “Now, you really have to do the job right. Take your time.”

Another consequence of the subway’s piecemeal planning is that the SFMTA likely won’t be able to build a North Beach station on the prime site it’s using to extract the subway drill, across the street from Washington Square Park. That lot, where the Pagoda Theatre once stood, was leased for the drill operation by the SFMTA last year after neighbors contested an earlier plan to extract the drill on Columbus Avenue.

But an 18-unit housing and retail development was already planned for the lot, and the owner has no plans to give up the site for a subway station. Even if he did, the SFMTA doesn’t have a plan in place to justify buying the lot, said agency chief Ed Reiskin. The most likely option remaining for a station would require digging into the street — which, well, is why the lot was even leased in the first place.

Some North Beach residents, however, are happy to endure the dust if it means getting fast and reliable subway service. The neighborhood group SF NexTstop was formed to rally for a northward T-Third extension.

“Every time we look to build something that costs a lot of money, people are going to complain,” NexTstop’s Pat Valentino told the SFMTA board. “The complaints will be about construction, traffic, and expense. But they’ll, of course, be the first riders on the system.”

  • But an 18-unit housing and retail development was already planned for the lot, and the owner has no plans to give up the site for a subway station. Even if he did, the SFMTA doesn’t have a plan in place to justify buying the lot, said agency chief Ed Reiskin. The most likely option remaining for a station would require digging into the street — which, well, is why the lot was even leased in the first place.

    Okay, so what would it cost to buy the basement level at that lot, and/or to dig around it to Columbus Ave. in order to create space for a North Beach station?

    It’s such a shame that we dug a tunnel all the way to North Beach without building a subway station there. Frankly, North Beach deserves a subway stop and everyone involved is squandering an enormous opportunity.

  • jonobate

    If the subway was to be extended to Fishermans Wharf, the best choice is one of the subway-to-surface options due to the substantial cost savings in exchange for minor travel time increases. For extending west, the best choice is to branch off just after North Beach, tunnel under Russian Hill, surface in the center of Lombard somewhere west of Van Ness, and use the center two lanes of Lombard as a dedicated LRV ROW out to the Presidio. Lombard could use a ped/transit friendly rebuild, and using any other street would require running LRVs in mixed traffic (slow) or continuing the line as a full subway (expensive).

    Just my two cents. I realize that branching the line at North Beach means dividing frequency, but the plan is already to run two service patterns – a full line out to Sunnydale, and a short line to Dogpatch. One of those two lines could run to Fishermans Wharf, and the other to the Presidio.

    And yes, building two-car subway stations was very short sighted.

  • Nathanael

    Yeah. Is it possible for SF to move quickly to change this, and get an agreement with the developer to put a subway station in the basement? If not… why not?

  • David Marcus

    Why does every other great world city build subways and we’re forced to accept slow-running streetcars in mixed traffic? If we want great mobility in SF, it’s time to start building great transit that will survive the growth of our city.

  • njudah

    if talking and talking could actually get something done, we’d have a kick ass transit system. Instead we have a lot of chatter, and a lot of middle management types fiddling and diddling plans endlessly and we get NOTHING DONE.

  • jonobate

    The Marina is not super dense, and is not likely to become much denser than it currently is. It’s also a fairly short corridor – there’s no logical place west of the Marina to continue the line to once you hit the Presidio. I would save the money for longer, denser corridors where a subway is worth the investment, e.g. Geary.

    Subways are great but expensive, and running streetcars in mixed traffic is cheap but slow and unreliable. A well-designed surface line with dedicated lanes can be a good compromise between the two – the surface option for Fishermans Wharf adds about 1.5 minutes of travel time and saves about $400m. But, it requires the politically difficult decision to take travel lanes away from cars. That’s the argument I think needs to be made and won. Saying “subways or nothing” is going to result in… nothing.

  • Dark Soul

    Simply the train should stop at Presidio … Fisherman Wharf got many buses/street car going there

  • @jdbig

    I cannot comprehend why the SFMTA chose to reduce the platform lengths,
    but they did. Still, I would think three cars could more-or-less fit on
    the existing platforms, perhaps leaving the last door (or two) of the
    last car closed. Perhaps Phase 4 could work with the short headways and
    2-1/2 train cars?

    The revised FEIS/FEIR on the Central Subway
    website says the stations were reduced from 250′ to 200′ (
    http://centralsubwaysf.com/FSEIS-SEIR-Chapter-2 ). Ansaldobreda says
    our Muni LRVs are 900″ (i.e. 75 feet long) (
    http://www.ansaldobredainc.com/images/stories/san_francisco_light_rail.pdf
    ). Assuming a three car train is about 225′, the second to last door on
    the car should likely fit on the ridiculously short platforms.

  • Cody Hicks

    Because that would be illegal and cost money that the SFMTA doesn’t have. It’d have to go through environmental review which would be costly — and pointless — especially if they are moving in the way of pursuing an extension beyond that point already.

  • vcs

    They really should rename it to the T-Tourist subway.

    Fishermans Wharf-North Beach-Chinatown-Union Square-Moscone-Ballpark-Arena.

    Sounds great, except for that part where they bypassed a a little employment center called the Financial District. Expect ridership to be underwhelming.

  • vcs

    > Saying “subways or nothing” is going to result in… nothing.

    I will bet against you on this one. We will eventually get a Columbus Ave Subway, regardless of any other more important transit needs, subway or otherwise.

  • vcs

    Keep in mind Metro is silly system, and the T line will transition to the surface and run as a streetcar. Currently Muni only runs one car T trains for public safety reasons. Is it safe to run a 3-car train on the street? Can the Third Street platforms even accommodate more than 2 cars?

    Also the Market Street platforms can accommodate 10-car trains (hypothetical BART), but Muni still only runs 2-car trains. So this seems like a pretty obvious place to cut corners.

  • zharguy

    Careful, we had the same conversation in Toronto, Canada, and that led to a huge LRT plan delayed for 7-8 years. Better to have something then nothing.

  • Horreurs Musicales
  • p_chazz

    Two words: eminent domain.

  • David Marcus

    Favorite reason ever for not building transit: “Indeed, the city’s preliminary study says that a rail line to the Presidio — whether it’s underground, on the surface, or a mix of both — could be too popular. “

  • @jdbig

    I was mostly thinking that three-car service underground/short line to dogpatch would make most sense, even though it would barely fit underground.

  • Gezellig

    Yeah! What? The Golden Gate Bridge alone sees up to 10k people crossing it by foot every day, and a rail connection would probably encourage even more to venture out there. Even if “only” half took transit, with the roundtrip you could easily be seeing daily boardings in the teen-thousands just for the bridge alone. Compare this to the J-Church, whose entire line sees about 17k daily boardings *total* http://archives.sfmta.com/cms/rtep/tepdataindx.htm.

    Crazy that any hypothetical T-to-Presidio’s “problem” is the opposite of Train To Nowhere problems. In fact, from the perspective of thousands of daily tourists it’d be the Train To Basically Everywhere (GG Bridge/Presidio/Palace of Fine Arts/Fisherman’s Wharf/North Beach/Chinatown/Union Square). Not to mention pretty useful to all the people who live within the walkshed of such a line.

  • guest

    Fisherman’s wharf is a dead end extension, since it would have to substantially backtrack in a roundabout way and go through/around unpopulated areas and tough topography to get anywhere useful. If it goes there that will be it forever. Past the north beach station the only sensible extension is west through the heart of Russian Hill and the Marina, and then south along Divisadero to the Castro/Mission to link up with a connection to Mission Bay. Voila – a useful central city neighborhood connector.
    Moreover, Fisherman’s Wharf ridership will be almost exclusively tourists. Yes, transit is overcrowded going to the wharf, but it doesn’t affect the daily lives of almost anybody that lives and works in SF. There are relatively few jobs there and no one lives there. I simply can’t see the people of SF allowing the City to prioritize sinking a billion dollars into a subway that literally serves almost no one but tourists at a time that major dense neighborhoods are underserved by good transit. It would be a travesty.

  • Surface T-line platforms are only two cars long and there are some short blocks (4th between King and Berry) where there isn’t room to expand the existing platforms to three cars in place.

    Extending the subway platforms would have added significant cost and couldn’t even be used.

  • All of the westward expansion route options would result in an increase of several thousand passengers per day on the T-Line LRT service as many passengers moved to use the LRT line and stopped using service provided by bus Routes 30, 41 and 45. Assuming passenger travel patterns present on these routes were to remain in place, the ridership increase would overload the existing T-Line system infrastructure to beyond planning capacity levels, because the 2-car platforms and 2-car trains are too small. The overloading of the system would occur “downstream” in the T-Line-Phase 2 (Central Subway) portion of the line closer to Market Street and Caltrain where the existing MLP is located. To build a T-Third Phase 4 extension will require T-Line infrastructure to be rebuilt to accommodate longer 3-car or 4-car trains, or a second parallel rail line will need to be built.

    I find it really hard to believe a Marina extension adding “several thousand” riders/day could have such an impact that running two-car trains every 2.5 minutes wouldn’t be able to absorb that. If that’s the case then the Central Subway has almost no room for ridership growth.

    Maybe SFMTA should get on that third subway corridor as soon as the Central Subway Phase 3 is underway?

  • Even failed experiments teach us things and I don’t think this is a statement to get snide over. What we’ve now learned is any further extension can’t handle the capacity it would draw.

    And the study does provide alternatives: do nothing, rebuild the entire T-line, or build a new corridor. What we now know from the study is a Marina Extension would mean having to close down the brand new T-Line to extend the subway and at least some surface stations. We’ve also got a suggestion now to look at creating a new high-capacity corridor which means the possibility of new subway connections. Maybe an extension of Van Ness BRT into the Marina?

  • Is it safe to run a 3-car train on the street? Can the Third Street platforms even accommodate more than 2 cars?

    Not without some significant changes. The platform at Fourth/King (between King and Berry) is on a narrow block which just physically doesn’t have the room.

    Further down Third Street it would mean removing tor shortening turn pockets, closing cross streets to traffic and all of that was carefully planned (not necessarily well planned, but there’s a lot of freight traffic to consider) if going further than the Mission Bay Bay loop starts really messing with the Candlestick/Hunters Point redevelopment was carefully planned around connections at Third Street.

  • Also the Market Street platforms can accommodate 10-car trains (hypothetical BART), but Muni still only runs 2-car trains.

    Further out from West Portal the surface stops and stations don’t all accommodate more than two-cars, or even that much on the K and J. In the Market Street Subway/Twin Peaks Tunnel the limiting factor is Forest Hill, which can only fit a three-car train. The N-Judah surface stations on the Embarcadero and King can fit longer trains and it seems likely that if it all works Muni will at some point start running three-car game-day shuttles out to Caltrain.

    There is a study underway looking at an M-Ocean View subway under 19th Avenue through Parkmerced. If the platforms there are built for three-car trains and St. Francis Circle lengthened, Muni could run three-car M trains from the Ballpark to Park Merced.

  • jd_x

    “Moreover, Fisherman’s Wharf ridership will be almost exclusively tourists. Yes, transit is overcrowded going to the wharf, but it doesn’t affect the daily lives of almost anybody that lives and works in SF.”

    Sure it does: if public transit to tourist areas is overcrowded or otherwise sub-standard, then tourists drive. And more people driving, tourists or not, effects everyone, especially since the tourists don’t just drive around Fisherman’s Wharf (since most don’t have accommodation there). Further, GHGs and pollution are still just that regardless of who is emitting them and where.

    Nonetheless, I agree that the subway shouldn’t stop at Fisherman’s Wharf and should continue ….

  • coolbabybookworm

    Not to mention the article put out today about people who quit working at Fisherman’s Wharf because it was just too hard to get to work. I would argue that the Wharf is a big employment center in the same way a mall or theme park is. Just because it is generally low wage work doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be well served by transit.

  • jonobate

    I think it’s very likely we will see an extension to Fisherman’s Wharf. I’m not so sure it will be subway all the way. We’ll see how it plays out.

  • jonobate

    That’s not necessarily a show stopper. You could extend the 4th/King platform across the Berry St intersection by forcing all cars traveling on Berry to make a right onto 4th. Or, just move the whole thing to the north side of the intersection, which would give better access to Caltrain.

    Every other platform looks like it has enough space to expand until you get to the Bayview, so just expand the platforms north of the Dogpatch turnaround, and use three-car trains for the short line only. Rebuilding surface platforms costs peanuts compared to rebuilding subway stations, which sadly is now what would have to be done to run longer trains.

  • tungwaiyip

    “Fisherman’s Wharf ridership will be almost exclusively tourists.”

    This is not true. According to ACS census 2005-2009, North Beach has a population of 14,860, slightly ahead of Chinatown’s 14,540.

  • David D.

    Yeah, because the 8X, 30, and 45 always run empty while the 10 and 12 are packed like sardines. Yup. That’s totally what’s happening.

  • David D.

    The NPS has already studied an extension of the F line west to Fort Mason. I know it’s a painfully touristy line, but why no mention of it? If it’s going to run west to Fort Mason, it could be extended further west to the Marina. Along with the creation of the E (planned) and T (discussed above), there might be enough capacity to serve this part of the City. All that despite the short-sighted reduction in platform lengths that was done to reduce the Central Subway’s painfully expensive construction costs.

  • DragonflyBeach

    SFMTA has a weird aversion to logical rail instillation, I don’t know what it is. They’re so uninterested in expanding the Muni Metro rail services to replace dense bus routes. Watch SFMTA propose Bus Rapid Transit, instead. “Bus to the Golden Gate Bridge! Hoorah!”

    Of course they stop at Chinatown, because it wasn’t about convenient rail service; do people really think the SFMTA is spending billions of dollars to alleviate the crowded 30 Stockton/45 Union buses that are only crowded for three stops to Chinatown? No, of course not. It’s a municipal apology for tearing down the Embarcadero Freeway of course, Muni doesn’t care about service.

    It’s so bad even BART is considering a Geary corridor since Muni can’t be bothered to do it.

  • Diane Nathan

    best place to shope and rome around at pier 39 . must place to visit in San Francisco. http://www.allwonders.com/san-francisco/attractions/fishermans-wharf

  • James Lampert

    So what if the existing station platforms can only accommodate 2-car trains. Back home in Southern California, the same thing was done when the Blue Line was built (back then, one particularly rail-hostile wag suggested that for the handful of people fool enough to ride a trolley through Watts and South Gate, it would be cheaper to pay them to drive the freeways instead. And then of course, the Blue Line became one of the most successful trolley startups in decades, with ridership exceeding even the most optimistic projections, and the LACMTA ended up going through and extending almost all of the stations to accommodate 3-car trains. Like you can’t do that in San Francisco? And like you can’t just lower the moving steps on the cars that stick out beyond the ends of the unconverted platforms?

  • James Lampert

    “A municipal apology for tearing down the Embarcadero Freeway”?!? What about a municipal apology for ever having BUILT the Embarcadero Freeway?

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