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Federal funding could drive forward tunnel’s future

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Streetcars may once again travel through the Fort Mason tunnel if the SFMTA is able to secure the funding to engineer the tunnel back to life. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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On any given day, the historic Fort Mason tunnel is dark, and a stench of mold wafts from either end. Fences barricade both openings as weeds grow shoulder-high over century-old rail tracks.

Where once streetcars clicked and clacked at Fort Mason near the tunnel’s entrance, today the sounds of boats, bikes and laughter at Aquatic Park barely echo through.

But the rail cars may roar through the Fort Mason tunnel again.

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The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has applied for a federal grant to study engineering the tunnel back into life — perhaps the first major step the agency has taken to revive the tunnel in four years.

“This is definitely a step forward, it’s no question,” said Rick Laubscher, who heads the Market Street Railway nonprofit.

The Fort Mason extension would bring streetcars from their now-terminus on Jones Street in Fisherman’s Wharf to the tunnel, at Van Ness Avenue, into the now-Fort Mason parking lot in the Marina District. The Marina District hasn’t had a rain line since 1951, Laubscher said.

The SFMTA filed for a $1.1 million Federal Lands Access Program grant in mid-May, according to the agency, which is a grant established in order to improve transportation facilities that provide access to, or are adjacent to, federal land. The grant’s website describes it as having a focus on “high-use recreation sites and economic generators.”

Fort Mason is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and was historically an army post.

“It turns out this grant is one that is dedicated to improving access to national parkland,” Laubscher said, noting, “You’re not competing against a new bicycle lane, or another streetcar for the N-Judah line.”

Instead, San Francisco’s transit agency is competing against proposals like, say, expanding parking lots at the Grand Canyon, Laubscher added.

The last movement on the Fort Mason tunnel project was the 2013 environmental clearance of the tunnel extension, proposed to allow the F-Market & Wharves historic streetcars to rumble to Fort Mason, after a completed report was published in 2011.

The Fort Mason extension has been stuck in limbo ever since.

SFMTA’s capital budget straightforwardly describes $700,000 set aside for the project as a “placeholder,” with ominous planner-speak describing the Fort Mason project’s future phases as “contingent upon funding availability.”

As the San Francisco Examiner previously reported, the project would cost upwards of $50 million, according to SFMTA staff.

In that same budget, projects by the dozens have listed start and end dates. The Fort Mason tunnel extension’s project start is simply a dash, with no description.

Now it seems the project may be back on track.

“We are working to move the project forward in the hope of positioning it for future large, possible funding opportunities,” said Paul Rose, a spokesperson for the SFMTA.

Businesses are already singing the extension’s praises. Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of public policy at the Chamber of Commerce, which represents 2,500 local businesses, wrote a letter of support to the Central Federal Lands Access Program, which disburses the grant.

“The great attractiveness of the colorful historic streetcar fleet has [the] proven ability to draw people who usually drive out of their cars and onto this ride,” wrote Lazarus. “Parking is at a premium in the park vicinity, and there is no room or ability to add more.”

Aaron Choate leads bicycle tours daily with national and international tourists along San Francisco’s waterfront to the Golden Gate Bridge. He told the Examiner the steep hill from Aquatic Park to Fort Mason is not clearly signed or well-lit at night, and proves too steep for many.

He hopes the tunnel would be accessible to pedestrians and cyclists too.

The idea to extend the streetcars into Fort Mason along the historic track was the brainchild of Fisherman’s Wharf representatives, Fort Mason Center and the Market Street Railway. The F-Market & Wharves proved so popular in bringing tourists (and some locals) to the Wharf, that an extension to Fort Mason seemed natural, Laubscher said.

The feasibility study for the extension initially looked at going further west, perhaps even to the Presidio, but found the cost-benefit only penciled out as far as Fort Mason.

Previous analyses showed ridership on the F-Line may increase by 1,600 people daily if the extension were created. Fort Mason Center board trustee Jim Chappell challenged that ridership estimate in a public meeting last year.

“That data is really faulty,” he said. “It was faulty when the [environmental impact study] was done, and it’s faulty now.”

Fort Mason has grown, he said, especially with the San Francisco Art Institute, art store Flax and a number of new restaurants populating Fort Mason since the study was completed.

Rich Hillis, executive director of Fort Mason Center, said the lack of robust public transportation nearby is a challenge for visitors and employees alike. About 1.5 million visitors flock to Fort Mason annually.

Reviving the track may have current-day benefits, but it would also make history move again.

In 1914, the existing State Belt Railroad Line was extended from the Ferry Building on Market Street to what is now the Marina District, to freight construction material by the ton to what was then-called Washerwoman’s Bay.

To build the Panama Pacific International Exposition, the World’s Fair that took place in San Francisco in 1915, the Fort Mason Tunel was born.

And in 1971 audiences across the world got a taste of San Francisco’s scenic views — and the Fort Mason tunnel itself — when fictional detective Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood, ran through it with ransom money stuffed in a yellow duffel bag.

“You don’t listen, do you, asshole?” Callahan snarled at a hoodlum, who tried to jump him inside the tunnel. Just five years after audiences heard those words, the tunnel was closed.

The Examiner tried contacting Eastwood to ask if he had any nostalgic feelings for the tunnel, but did not hear back from his agent.

Laubscher, of the Market Street Railway, is no gun-toting detective, but he was excited for the grant. Still, he said folks should hold off on popping any champagne.

“It’s ‘wow’ if it’s granted,” he said of the funding. “You’ve got to get it first.”

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