BART expansion could be part of SF Richmond district’s transformation

A dream of many BART riders and one longtime agency director is back in the spotlight.

A second BART tunnel from the East Bay to San Francisco and expanded service in The City could make the commuter rail system more efficient and increase transit capacity, while also boosting population density in the Richmond.

However, the 42-year-old system will probably celebrate its 100th birthday before anything like this comes to fruition.

At a recent San Francisco County Transportation Authority committee meeting, Ellen Smith, BART's acting manager for strategic and policy planning, discussed the idea in principal and said to “keep in mind that we're talking about a long-term vision here. This is maybe 30 to 50 years off for some of these projects.”

And with that timeline, any hard numbers on cost or ridership are pointless.

Bringing BART out to the Richmond was a long-held goal of James Fang, who after serving on the board of directors for 24 years lost his seat in the November election to Nick Josefowitz. Fang did not return calls for comment, but Josefowitz said the project comes at a critical time.

“We're going to need a second tube to accommodate the Bay Area's growth, and ridership growth,” Josefowitz said, adding that he thinks “we can't just hold out hope a second tube will solve all our problems. We need to work on solutions that can be implemented in the short term, now.”

Though the project is still a glimmer in planners' eyes, Smith said, it is a top priority among many proposed future projects.

One obvious advantage of a new tube across San Francisco Bay would be making late-night BART a reality, as nighttime maintenance needs prevent continuous operation of the system since there is only one tube and it must be de-electrified for track work.

“To have 24-hour train service, we'd have to have a second tube,” Smith said.

The limited capacity also creates headaches for commuters when there are problems on the tracks.

This quagmire just so happened to be on full display for Wednesday morning's commute, when smoke on the tracks at the Embarcadero station in downtown San Francisco led to systemwide delays for the tens of thousands of commuters trying to use the trains.

Such delays would be mitigated by a second tube, said Scott Wiener, a San Francisco supervisor and the vice president of the Transportation Authority.

“BART is way over capacity,” he said. “Ridership is exploding.”

Some of that explosion could spur the increasing population density of San Francisco's western districts if the system were to expand there.

A preliminary map of the new tube project shows a tunnel spanning from Oakland through Alameda, which does not currently have BART service, under the Bay to downtown San Francisco. The tunnel would continue to Masonic Avenue, where it would fork, with one prong stretching down 19th Avenue to Daly City and the other shooting straight underneath Geary Boulevard toward Ocean Beach.

Geary runs through the Richmond. And though the neighborhood has many Muni bus options to travel across town, much of those lines are stretched to capacity as well, according to the office of district Supervisor Eric Mar.

The latest numbers from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency show more than 50,000 people ride the 38-Geary bus line, a vital Richmond route, every day. Another important line, the 5-Fulton, carries over 14,000 riders a day. When Mar's proposed express service began on the 5, the daily ridership jumped by more than 2,000, his office said, demonstrating the need for transit options.

The same may happen if BART service was available.

“There's a lot of latent demand” for transit, said Peter Lauterborn, an aide to Mar.

That's part of why Mar's office pushed so hard for Geary bus rapid transit. The project would see new medians and dedicated center lanes for the 38-Geary, potentially reducing travel time up to 25 percent.

But would providing Geary BRT and BART expansion in the Richmond be redundant? BART policy guru Smith does not think so.

“Geary BRT is the short-term future, but in the [long-term] future, there could be enough demand to warrant additional service,” she said. “The demand for transit far outstrips the ability of the buses to serve it.”

The expansion would complement the multiregion Plan Bay Area proposal, in which leaders from cities across the region are seeking to prepare transit and housing infrastructure for population booms in the coming decades.

“To absorb 2 million new residents in the Bay Area by 2040,” Smith said, “we need density in places that can be served by rail.”

Mar's aide Nick Pagoulatos said this mirrors efforts already underway to increase housing density along Geary.

Planning Department staff and Mar's office are working on a Richmond density plan, similar to Supervisor Katy Tang's proposal to increase density in the Sunset, which she represents. Zoning may not change in the neighborhood, necessarily, but planners would analyze height limits along Geary and identify which city blocks still have room to grow.

Much of The City's housing battles focus on the hot rental markets of the Mission and South of Market. But Mar's new plan would potentially create more housing, and below-market-rate housing, in the Richmond.

Smith said she will present preliminary plans on transit expansion to the BART board of directors in January, when they will direct her on future deadlines for studies and planning.

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