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Fort Mason tunnel searching for light

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Some in San Francisco are asking The City to reopen the Fort Mason tunnel, which would reconnect Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina District. (Ryan McNulty/Special to SF Examiner)

San Francisco police Inspector Harry Callahan raced in the night.

In one hand, he carried a yellow duffel bag stuffed with ransom money to bargain for a kidnapped girl’s life. His other hand cradled his Smith & Wesson magnum.

Callahan ran straight into a dark, damp San Francisco tunnel, only to be confronted by two hoodlums looking to separate the cop from his cash.

“What’s in the bag, man?” one of the crooks asked.

“You don’t listen, do you, asshole?” snarled Callahan, portrayed by actor Clint Eastwood, right before he smacked one of the hoodlums in the face with his gun.

Though the iconic scene from 1971’s “Dirty Harry” isn’t real, the tunnel Eastwood ran through is far from fictional. Five years after Eastwood knocked heads in its depths, the tunnel was closed.

The tunnel’s closure in 1976 cut off Fort Mason and the Marina District from rail connections to downtown. Today, only one bus line connects Fort Mason to the rest of The City via public transit.

But a small group of citizens, transportation advocates and the Fort Mason Center itself are rekindling the call for the historic Fort Mason tunnel, which extends from Fort Mason Pavilion at Laguna Street to Fisherman’s Wharf, to finally reopen.

If successful, the early 1900s-era F-Market & Wharves streetcars would roll from Fisherman’s Wharf through the Fort Mason tunnel to the Marina District.

In a small, low-lit room tucked into the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s seventh floor on Tuesday, a committee of the Citizen’s Advisory Council asked SFMTA staff numerous questions about the streetcar extension.

Ultimately, it came down to one inquiry: What’s the holdup?

Lack of funding is one roadblock, but the other impediment — political battles stretching back years — may have finally ended.

Clint Eastwood stars in 1971's "Dirty Harry," which features the historic Fort Mason tunnel. (Courtesy Photo)

Clint Eastwood stars in 1971’s “Dirty Harry,” which features the historic Fort Mason tunnel. (Courtesy Photo)

Funding scarce, ridership numbers challenged
In 1914, San Francisco leaders needed to freight countless tons of construction material to the now-Marina District — then-Washerwoman’s Bay — to build the Panama Pacific International Exposition. In order to do that, The City needed trains.

So the existing State Belt Railroad Line was extended, connecting the Ferry Building on Market Street to what now is the Marina District. The trackway was suspended above the San Francisco Bay, over then-Black Point Cove. Trains skimmed the briny blue waters and went on through a tunnel to what is now Fort Mason.

Now 102 years later, those trainless tracks run through cement by Aquatic Park. Ivy hangs over the walled-off tunnel entrance. Graffiti and trash line the tunnel walls, where “Dirty Harry” once fought the bad guys.
San Francisco’s F-Line streetcars now click and clack their way from the Castro District, down Market Street to Fisherman’s Wharf every day, but they don’t go to Fort Mason.

The streetcar stops at Jefferson and Jones streets, just four city blocks from the Fort Mason tunnel.

The extension has already been studied extensively, with the last report published in 2011. The project would cost upwards of $50 million, according to SFMTA staff, but completing final studies may cost less than $5 million.

That money, however, is hard to come by.

“At a time where we have other capital projects, this project has not risen to the top as one the agency is ready to implement,” Paul Bignardi of SFMTA Sustainable Streets told the citizens committee on Tuesday.

One diagram SFMTA created showed federal funding is the most frequent source of new transit construction projects. The $230 million available for San Francisco in the near future would likely go to high-ridership SFMTA projects, like Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit, Geary Bus Rapid Transit and the potential new M-Ocean View subway under 19th Avenue.

The Fort Mason tunnel would be nice, Bignardi said, but it would only increase the F-Line’s daily passengers by 1,640 — not a high enough impact to merit leap-frogging larger projects.

So funding hinges on potential ridership. Fort Mason Center board trustee Jim Chappell took issue with that ridership estimate during the meeting.

A diagram of the streetcar extension to Fort Mason. Courtesy National Park Service

A diagram of the streetcar extension to Fort Mason. Courtesy National Park Service

“That data is really faulty. It was faulty when the [environmental impact study] was done, and it’s faulty now,” Chappell told SFMTA staff. The numbers need revising, especially with the San Francisco Art Institute, art store Flax and a number of new restaurants populating Fort Mason.

The daily ridership numbers were just that — daily — Chappell said, and don’t capture big-draw events like the Friday food truck party Off the Grid, or pavilion expositions like the annual Alternative Press Expo, which frequently draw thousands of visitors.

Rich Hillis, executive director of Fort Mason Center, said the “biggest challenge” for the center is attracting visitors and employees because the public transit is lacking.

The only public transit to Fort Mason Center is the 43-Masonic bus, but it does not connect with downtown or BART. Instead, it leads to The City’s less dense western neighborhoods.

Ferry fight finishes
In 2004, the governing body of San Francisco’s Presidio suggested something neighbors considered radical: extending the F-Line to the Presidio. That effort was also tied to a new proposed Alcatraz Island ferry landing at Fort Mason.

In 2011, the proposals were packaged together with a bow. Foreseeing a deluge of 2.1 million annual visitors to the area in the future, Marina District neighbors lashed out, dooming the streetcar extension project to limbo.

At the time, Supervisor Mark Farrell, whose district includes the Marina and Fort Mason, wrote a multi-page screed against the project decrying potential traffic and parking snarls.

“My estimate is 1,000 additional vehicles will drive into the Marina each day,” he wrote, which would have a “significant impact” on neighbors.

Twelve years later, when the streetcar’s new route to AT&T Park — the E-Line — was announced, Sen. Dianne Feinstein told the San Francisco Examiner, “Now, onto the next challenge — extend the line from Fisherman’s Wharf to Fort Mason!”

That challenge may be lessened now.

The Port of San Francisco is poised to approve a new 50-year lease to keep Alcatraz ferry service at Pier 31½, as reported by the Examiner last week. The threat of millions of visitors to the Marina is gone.
Farrell said he’s now “supportive” of an extension to Fort Mason.

But he noted San Francisco should not be the one to fund construction.

With no federal funds and perhaps no local funds, the future of the Fort Mason extension may seem bleak. But Rick Laubscher, head of the nonprofit Market Street Railway, said if the ridership numbers were re-evaluated, the SFMTA would see the true benefit of the extension.

“There’s a lot of reasons why this is a strong investment in the future,” Laubscher told the committee during Tuesday’s meeting.

But until the SFMTA revises those numbers, the project’s future may be as fictional as “Dirty Harry.”

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  • goodmaab

    They can fund the money for the central subway and Parkmerced’s initial dead-end they can find the funding to provide mass transit access to the presidio among the prior pan-exhibition line out to the GG bridge, or south to reconnect the west-side through a future project to the N and L lines. This project should have been a priority a long time ago…. Fix It! build It! And pay for it!

  • sffoghorn

    Rich Hillis and Jim Chappell, I’m just sayin’.

  • Rick Laubscher

    Since I’m quoted in the article, let me take a minute to correct a couple of inaccuracies in the article.

    1. This project predated the idea of a possible Alcatraz Ferry relocation by 30 years. The two aren’t connected. The idea of a waterfront streetcar line serving Fort Mason dates to 1974, when Supervisor Dianne Feinstein asked then-Muni planer Jerry Cauthen (now with Save Muni) to study it. Muni Planning officially proposed it for the first time in 1979.

    2. The “governing body” of the Presidio, the Presidio Trust, did not “suggest” the extension of streetcars the Presidio, ever. Fisherman’s Wharf, Fort Mason Center, and Market Street Railway suggested that the original Muni plan to go to Fort Mason be implemented, based on the huge success of the original F-line and the fact that the western part of the Wharf was losing visitors because the streetcars didn’t go all the way to Ghirardelli Square, etc. The National Park Service, using funding obtained by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, decided it should conduct a feasibility study for both Fort Mason and the Presidio. The Presidio Trust’s leadership was not really enthusiastic about it but went along. The feasibility study found good cost-benefit for the Fort Mason extension, but not as much for going further. That, plus the opposition of some vocal Marina Boulevard residents, ended any thought of going past Fort Mason, and the Environmental Impact Statement only covers Jones and Beach Streets to Fort Mason. Our group’s view is that Fort Mason can serve as a mini-transit hub, with increased bicycle rentals, and connections to the PresidiGo bus shuttles via Lombard Street to reach Presidio destinations. The Presidio is really too low-density now and in the future to justify a rail extension.

    3. The article does not mention at all the considerable benefit to residents of the Northwest Marina District, who can walk to the streetcar terminal just inside the Fort Mason Laguna gate for a quick ride to the Ferry Building, Ball Park, Caltrain and Downtown.

    4. The 40+ non-profits housed at Fort Mason Center have increasing trouble attracting workers given the lack of transit access. In an era when non-profits are under siege from rising costs in the city, it makes sense to support the city’s leading home to non-profits.

    Don’t know how Harry Callahan would feel about it, but we think restoring that historic tunnel to rail use at this affordable cost is a lot better than leaving it locked up.

  • Earl D.

    Well. You pretty much have to build MUNI where you can and when you can. All it takes is one well connected neighborhood group to tie up even the best projects for decades. Until that problem is resolved, it would be silly to halt consideration of other expansions because best build-outs are mired in red-tape.

  • Robert Parks

    From my experience as an operator on the 30 (serving in a roundabout way Fort Mason, the Presidio, and the Golden Gate Bridge), and on the F (serving in an even more roundabout way Fort Mason, the Marina, the Presidio, and the Golden Gate Bridge) there is a huge underserved tourist demand for more direct service to those destinations. Even if the F only went to Van Ness, the connections would be greatly improved!

    San Francisco is a tourist city…provide them some appropriate service for all the money they spend here. And as Rick points out, an efficient way for employees to get to and from work!

  • dvtsea

    Thanks for putting forth the time and effort to correct the author’s (many) inaccuracies.

  • 2of3jays

    As someone who lives nearby and sees the enormous amount of automobiles gridlocking this scenic part of the City, I vote for MUCH MORE MASS TRANSIT and support the extension of the line to both Fort Mason and beyond. I frankly believe that for residents and tourists, to be able to have train access from BVHP all along our waterfront, all the way to the Presidio and Lands End (i.e) would be a boon and possibly one of the most used transit systems anywhere. The only way we are going to reduce the automobiles that choke SF is to build more mass transit. If we can’t dig subways, let’s at least reinstate the surface trains.

  • saimin

    I remember the city talking about running Muni trains through this tunnel for the America’s Cup. Of course, that didn’t happen.

    As Crissy Field, the Presidio, and Fort Mason get more and more tourist development, we really need better public transit out to that area.

  • goodmaab

    Density is coming regardless and the marina and presidio are not “exempt” from the pressures of where to build. There’s plenty of ground to build along the pan exhibition line. I would not state that any area is off limits

  • Kevin Savage

    I know there are a few places at Fort Mason I’d spend more time (and money) at if I could get there more easily. It’s one of the spots in the city that absolutely needs more transit options. The other projects mentioned in the article are all good ones but none of them actually adds access like this would.

  • Chad Fusco

    As long as the F line still crawls along at surface level leading up to the Fort Mason tunnel, I could care less about this project. At-grade mass transit is stupid. Put it all underground, and then people will start taking SF mass transit seriously. Until then, this is a car city.

  • Dexter Wong

    Putting transit all underground it going to cost a huge amount of tax dollars. Are you willing to pay it?