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Supervisor Scott Wiener proposes new subway tunnels throughout city

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Supervisor Scott Wiener is planning to introduce a proposal that would increase subway infrastructure. (Mike Koozmin/2013 S.F. Examiner)

Despite all the transit successes San Francisco enjoys in its urban core, many neighborhoods in The City are far-flung journeys from one another.

A trip from the Sunset to Powell Street may take nearly an hour, for instance, while some riders from Oakland can cross the bay to downtown in 15 minutes.

Trains make the difference, says one supervisor. San Francisco lacks a major underground subway network, and without one, its public transit will always lag behind.

Now Supervisor Scott Wiener hopes to lay the groundwork to increase subway infrastructure citywide. San Francisco’s transit future may resemble New York City, if his proposal is approved.

Wiener plans to introduce his “Subway Master Plan” ordinance to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. That plan will task San Francisco with “always” having a subway under construction, and expanding the subway system throughout The City.

“There are vast swaths of The City who lack rail access,” Wiener told the Examiner, and expansion is needed. “It will be difficult, but we can do it.”

According to Wiener’s office, the ordinance will require The City to create a Subway Master Plan within a year of passage, and will be heard at the Land Use and Transportation Committee this fall. Wiener said that though the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has some Muni subways, the southern and western sections of San Francisco are far from transit rich.

The need for new tunnels is urgent, Wiener wrote in a blog post on Medium, lest San Francisco rest on its laurels after completing the Central Subway in Chinatown.

SFMTA is taking some small steps to remedy this with bus rapid transit systems on Geneva Avenue, Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue. Wiener said that may not be enough.

To address a booming population and burgeoning traffic problems, “transit investment and housing should be tied together,” Wiener said.

The Bay Area is home to 7 million people, but according to Plan Bay Area, a regional body, that population will boom by 2 million people in the next 30 years. The San Francisco Planning Department reports show San Francisco may grow by 413,370 households and 707,670 jobs by 2030.

Planning commissioner Dennis Richards told the Examiner that enriching transit in San Francisco’s “outerlands” is the first step to building more dense housing there.

“I look back to the 19th century,” he said. “Every time a railroad came to town, a railroad junction sprang up.”

Wiener’s plan also dovetails with current long term housing planning, Richards said, which may ease housing pressure off The City’s urban core (downtown, South of Market, and The Mission).

“You don’t see (housing) moratoriums in the Sunset, do you?” he said. “Just the Mission, which is right on a BART line.”

Wiener’s plan also calls for support of a second BART transbay tube, to connect the East Bay with San Francisco. Its construction may alleviate traffic pain as the Bay Area grows, said BART Board of Directors member Nicholas Josefowitz.

“It’s something in BART’s future,” Josefowitz said, of a second transbay tube. “Having the supervisors come out in support would be a real boost.”

Funding for new subway tunneling must be identified on a per-project basis, Wiener said, and is not identified in his master plan. Many capital projects depend on federal funds, said SFMTA Board of Directors Chairman Tom Nolan – and Uncle Sam has closed his wallet, of late.

“With the current situation, they’re not likely to give us an extra billion dollars for more subways,” Nolan said, of the federal government, which he said is more reason to support congressional candidates who support transit.

When speaking of his ambitious plan, Wiener referenced the can-do spirit of San Francisco at the turn of the last century – during the birth of Muni.

About 100 years ago, then-President William Howard Taft visited San Francisco, and saw the public transit system The City had built in the wake of the disastrous 1906 earthquake. New streetcars helped move supplies to rebuild, and ferried newcomers to the World’s Fair.

Taft saw this expansion and called San Francisco “The City That Knows How.”

Wiener said he hopes we can be that city again.

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