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.”

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