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.
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.
“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.”