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Bring streetcars to Fort Mason

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It’s time to put a historic railroad tunnel under Fort Mason to good use by extending Muni’s popular historic streetcar line. (Courtesy photo)

Many San Franciscans don’t know there’s a historic railroad tunnel under Fort Mason. It’s time to put it to good use by extending Muni’s popular historic streetcar line to serve Fort Mason Center users, Marina residents and visitors enjoying our beautiful northern waterfront open spaces. It can be done at very low cost compared to other proposed rail projects and, as federal parkland, it’s eligible for special funding not available to other Muni projects.

The Army built the tunnel in 1914. Trains carried supplies and sometimes troops through it from Aquatic Park to Fort Mason until the tunnel was closed in 1975. When the National Park Service took over Fort Mason, their master plan reserved the tunnel for future rail transit use. NPS also turned over the historic Port of Embarkation buildings and piers at Fort Mason to a nonprofit, Fort Mason Center, to be used for arts and cultural organizations.

Today, Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture is The City’s leading nonprofit venue, attracting 1.2 million visitors a year. More are coming, including 400 San Francisco Art Institute students and shoppers at the new Flax Art Supply store. Yet Muni’s only service to Fort Mason, the 43-line bus, goes west to the Presidio and the Richmond, not east to the Wharf, BART, Caltrain and downtown. Without transit, too many people drive, overloading Fort Mason Center’s 400 parking spaces more than 25 percent of the year. Cars spill over into the Marina District, affecting traffic and parking there. The streetcars would provide an attractive, convenient alternative to driving.

The original Muni plans for historic streetcars went through Fisherman’s Wharf to Fort Mason. But that last mile of the line was left for later, when the F-line started running to the wharf in 2000. Soon after, though, leaders of the wharf and Fort Mason realized extending the streetcars along Beach Street to Polk, then across Aquatic Park and through the tunnel would build on the big success of the F-line.

A seismic study of the historic tunnel deemed it in good shape for its age. A Federal Environmental Impact Statement followed, conducted by NPS and Muni. It calls for a streetcar terminal at the west end of the tunnel, inside the gates of Fort Mason Center. The tracks would not extend into the Marina neighborhood, but thousands of residents in the surrounding Marina blocks could easily walk up to the terminal and ride, joining Fort Mason visitors and its nonprofit tenants’ employees, for whom commuting is expensive with the poor transit options.

Among currently proposed Muni rail projects, the Fort Mason extension is the only one that has received environmental clearance and is ready to design and build. As half of the extension would be on federal parkland, it is also eligible for federal parkland transportation funding that other Muni projects aren’t. And at an estimated $60 million to build (including tunnel seismic work), it would cost a tiny fraction of most new Bay Area rail projects being talked about.

Importantly, this project enjoys strong support from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who ordered one of the first studies of the idea back in the 1970s, and it received funding for its feasibility study from Rep. Nancy Pelosi.

The historic streetcar extension would bring new and attractive Muni service to northeast Marina residents, Fort Mason users and employees, and those looking to enjoy our national parkland, and offers the best bang for the buck of any proposed Muni rail project. The existing Presidio bus shuttles on Lombard Street could easily connect to the streetcars at Fort Mason, and existing bike rental operations could be expanded.

It’s time to move this great idea forward.

Jim Chappell is an urban planner and chairman of the board of trustees of Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture. Rick Laubscher is a transit expert and president and CEO of the Market Street Railway.

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