Is it Time to Modernize the F-Market and Wharves?

Push on to Re-Open the Fort Mason Tunnel--But Why Stop There?

A modern low-floor tram/streetcar in Strasbourg, France. Photo: Wikipedia
A modern low-floor tram/streetcar in Strasbourg, France. Photo: Wikipedia

As fans of San Francisco’s F-Market and Wharves historic streetcar line are aware, the trains only clickety clack and clang as far as Jones St & Beach St–just shy of the Fort Mason tunnel, which once permitted trains to continue to Marina Boulevard and Laguna Street…and beyond. The San Francisco Examiner reported today that SFMTA has applied for a $1.1 million Federal Lands Access Program grant to study re-opening the tunnel.

Streetsblog, of course, fully supports this effort. But it also raises the question: if the tunnel is opened and the F-Market and Wharves/E-Embarcadero streetcar line gets that far, isn’t it time to start thinking about it in a different way? Yes, it will always be a line popular with tourists. But, from Streetsblog’s perspective, it is also a line that isn’t living up to its full potential.

We first asked this question back in 2009–is it time to think about converting the F-Market and Wharves into a modern streetcar line? It’s not as if it would take much effort: the acquisition of some light weight, low-floor streetcars is really all it would take (admittedly, these projects do have a way of getting more complicated). Back then, Streetsblog was commenting on the nearly $2 million it cost to renovate one of the historic trolley cars and whether that really made sense.

“Using the Fort Mason Tunnel for Muni trains could relatively cheaply expand it to the Marina and the Presidio,” said Dennis Lytton, a local transportation policy expert and former staffer at the American Public Transportation Association.

The disused Fort Mason train tunnel. Photo: Wikipedia

In terms of technology for trains through the Fort Mason tunnel, Lytton recommends that, “…Muni switch to using modern streetcars. These are the standard for new streetcar systems across the US and worldwide. They are basically more nimble versions of Muni light rail trains and are capable of low floor boarding.”

“More development is planned for the waterfront and to meet growth in the corridor and MTA’s ambitious transit ridership goals, the Embarcadero corridor will need fully-accessible, higher-capacity transit. Modern low-floor light rail vehicles [a.k.a. modern streetcars] can provide that, and they can even share right-of-way with historic streetcars,” said Tom Radulovich, Executive Director of Livable City. “Unfortunately SFMTA undertakes its light rail projects incrementally, without a real strategy for transforming the light rail system to meet the City’s 21st-century needs.”

Of course, if SFMTA does buy low-floor streetcars, it should apply San Francisco’s “transit first” policy and give the new streetcars signal preemption on Market Street, something that isn’t currently done on any of SFMTA’s surface lines.

That said, even re-opening the tunnel is still a ways off. “A specific plan for Fort Mason has not yet been finalized,” said Paul Rose, a spokesman for SFMTA. And nobody’s studying or talking about modern streetcars for the F-Market and Wharves.

Still, given how much money San Francisco is spending on the Central Subway and all the talk of other high-price projects, acquiring some modern low-floor streetcars seems sensible and timely.

“Cities that took a more strategic view – West-Coast peers like Seattle, Portland, and San Jose, or European cities like Zurich and Paris – made the transition to low-floor light rail vehicles with more reserved rights-of-way, helping them to carry more customers with greater safety, reliability, and accessibility,” added Radulovich.

What do you think? Post below.

  • Kieran

    Exactly..Those tunnels are the only reason those streetcar lines are alive. Genuine historic streetcars if anything have become unique by how rare they are in the US outside of transit museums/static display and running in a handful of cities such as New Orleans, Kenosha, San Diego, Memphis, Tampa, Boston and Philly.

    Cable cars aren’t as unique as you think, though…Cities such as Melbourne, Seattle, Chicago, Oakland, Manhattan and Dunedin all had extensive cable car systems. It’s just that none of the other cities’ history with cable cars is ever brought up, so many people in many countries falsely believe that San Francisco was the only city in history to operate cable cars.

    I’ve met many people who’ve believed this until I told them that other cities also had cable cars, It’s just that San Francisco found a way to hold onto theirs(plus Halladie invented cable cars here in 1873 so that helps).

  • Underground the whole thing to the Presidio. Otherwise, you’re crawling in traffic like a bus, minus the flexibility to weave in/out of traffic, and it will actually be a slower ride than the bus. It’s costly, like any major infrastructure project, but the “last mile” of the Central Subway is desperately needed. Any money earmarked for the M line should be put towards this project. Not only would it speed up travel for residents, but tourists as well, considering it would link pretty much all the major destinations from Chinatown to North Beach to the wharf to the Presidio, not to mention Caltrain.

  • Good luck digging a tunnel to the Presidio. There’s not a lot of digging you can do before you hit water. Most of the Marina area is fill. We spent over a billion dollars tunneling a relatively short section of the central subway, and we had the luxury being able to use TMBs for most of it. Tunneling through fill involves trench and cover, which is far more labor intensive, expensive and disruptive.

  • oceanstater

    I was surprised that there is no signal priority for surface light rail/streetcar lines. That would not be superexpensive to implement, and would use equipment and labor more efficiently by not sitting motionless waiting for lights as much. And faster trips could attract more riders.

  • Kieran

    Ziggy pretty much stated why I suggested the streetcars come outta the tunnel at Washington Square Park. It’s because the Marina/lower Cow Hollow is pure landfill, hence to save $ I picked the best surface alignment possible.

    I agree with you in that any $ earmarked for that M subway should be to extend the Central Subway.

  • Joel Villasenor

    Out of curiosity, which lines could you see modern streetcars being used?

  • Robert Parks

    The problem is the curves. Virtually all the curves on the F-line from the Embarcadero to Castro, and most of the curves on the west of Twin Peaks Metro surface tracks are too sharp for modern low floor cars by a fair margin.

    Worse, the vertical crests and dips on the J, L, M, N lines preclude modern low floor cars on that side of town!

    The overhead lines on the F and E have plenty of power…it was the new LRV yard in Dogpatch that had to get an upgraded substation.

    Once you have ADA access, you can’t remove it. And new operations/extensions must be accessible.

  • Chad Fusco

    New modern cars in and of themselves don’t speed up the F-line, which is my biggest criticism and the rest why I (and most locals) don’t ride it. At minimum, signal prioritization is needed if the F-line is ever to become actual public transit.

  • Rick Laubscher

    Actually, Toronto’s new streetcars (which many consider LRVs — four sections) use trolley poles, and they work fine.

  • AJ Fernandez

    i think you bring up a good point. i am 64 years old and was born during the heyday of the pcc streetcar and i am very fond of them,having said that,i think it might be a good idea to try integrating a few modern streetcars together with the historic ones keeping in mind that San Francisco IS a tourist town and the tourists love the historic streetcars especially the F line and they are the ones that are spending the money.

  • Graham Jones

    There are several advantages and disadvantages of modernization. The original heritage streetcars should not be scrapped because there are so many visitors from worldwide who love these cars and visit San Francisco for mainly traveling on the lines. Adding a new rapid transit rail system to S.F. streets, using some of the existing streetcar lines, is feasible, provided the system is signaled correctly and safety becomes prominent.


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