Every attempt in Bay Area history to extend BART down Geary has fizzled.
It’s not because Richmond District denizens don’t like transit.
The neighborhood has a sizable transit ridership, with 114,000 people riding Muni buses to and from downtown every day — nearly twice Caltrain’s entire daily ridership of 65,095, and more than a quarter of BART’s daily ridership of 432,000. But the lack of direct rail connections to the East and South Bay drives many Richmond District neighbors into cars for longer regional trips.
Now, however, transportation officials are about to take another crack at bringing BART to the West Side.
BART General Manager Bob Powers told the San Francisco Examiner that an extension to Geary Boulevard will be examined in the agency’s upcoming study of a second transbay rail crossing.
Studying “west side access” should be “tucked in with the second crossing,” Powers said.
The need for a new crossing is great. BART’s steel tube across the San Francisco Bay, which opened in 1972, is bursting at the seams with passengers.
In just 15 years, BART’s transbay service will be “at capacity,” Powers said, “which in ‘transit time’ is tomorrow.” A second tube would help BART run more trains to serve a booming Bay Area, which is expected to get at least 4 million more residents by 2040.
In June, the BART board approved a five-year, $50 million contract with transportation planners HNTB Corporation to develop engagement, funding and partnership plans for the second rail crossing. A public update is planned for early 2020.
But it’s not just the broader Bay Area that will need new railways to grow. San Francisco officials say that a growing Richmond District needs BART too.
Supervisor Sandra Fewer, who represents the Richmond District, said, “It needs it very, very, badly.”
“Ridership is huge on the Geary line,” Fewer noted. “But we are going to have to go underground.”
The Richmond District also pays taxes into citywide Muni and Bay Area-wide BART improvements, but “we don’t see these big transit investments,” Fewer said.
State Sen. Scott Wiener told the Examiner, “I would love to see subway service, whether it’s BART or Muni, on the West Side of San Francisco.”
Once upon a time, that was the plan.
The Richmond District was once well-served by rail. Through the 1950s, streetcars dominated San Francisco transit, and the first Muni line was a streetcar line down Geary Street.
But in 1956, San Francisco ripped out the steel rails that had run down Geary Boulevard for decades and replaced the streetcars with buses, according to Rick Laubscher, a local rail historian and president of the Market Street Railway nonprofit and museum.
“It was Muni’s busiest streetcar line, it used 50 streetcars in daily service,” Laubscher said. “And Mayor (George) Christopher, at the time, as a campaign pledge, promised to keep rail service on Geary.”
The City “took the street that was two lanes wide from Gough to Divisadero to what (became) eight lanes at first, a semi-freeway,” Laubscher said.
Cutting out rail, however, may have been a short-sighted move by civic leaders. Demand for transit in the Richmond District has only grown, though it’s now served by a patchwork of bus lines running west to east on parallel routes to downtown.
Talk to any transit planner and they’ll tell you: Those bus routes are Band-Aids slapped on a gaping wound left from yanking out rail.
Muni’s 38-Geary is often described by transit officials as having the highest ridership of any bus route in the United States west of the Mississippi River, a sign of a bustling area.
And the number of Richmond District butts in Muni seats has only grown in recent years.
While historically ridership has fluctuated, the combined 38-Geary and 38R-Geary Rapid lines saw a daily ridership of 47,800 in 2015; by 2018, that had grown to 51,000. Upcoming improvements from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Geary Rapid project soon may improve travel time on that route, inviting even further ridership booms.
The 5-Fulton and 5R-Fulton Rapid are no slouches either, shuttling 21,000 daily riders from the Richmond District downtown every day. The 1-California sports a daily ridership of 23,500, the 2-Clement carries roughly 5,200 daily riders, and the 31-Balboa roughly 8,800 riders. Express commuter lines, the 1AX, 1BX, 38AX and 38BX, carry a combined daily ridership of 5,600.
That’s more than 114,000 daily transit riders on Richmond District Muni lines alone, every day.
“The volumes of people moved on Geary, the thresholds arguably warrant capacity of transit,” said Arielle Fleisher, transportation policy director at San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), an influential urban planning think tank.
The birth of BART could have heralded rail’s return on The City’s West Side.
When civic and business leaders crafted early BART maps in 1961, they proposed a subway under Geary Boulevard that would stop at Fillmore Street and Presidio Avenue, before turning north through the Presidio to the Golden Gate Bridge and on to Marin.
Yet it was not to be. The Golden Gate Bridge District deemed it infeasible for BART to travel attached to the bridge’s underside. Planners would instead have needed a new underwater tube, a proposition that was deemed far too expensive, said Mike Healy, author of “BART: The Dramatic History of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System.”
As a result, BART asked Marin to exit the regional effort, fearing the cost would sink the project’s chance to win voter approval.
“The Marin Board of Supervisors did not want to drop out. But BART really leaned on them to drop out,” Healy said.
Within the decade, discussion arose again about running BART down Geary Boulevard. That’s when a familiar organization stepped in and said no: SPUR.
“It was discussed whether Geary should be included in the BART plan,” Healy said, but “SPUR recommended against it. They instead (pushed for) an exclusive bus right-of-way to serve the Geary Corridor.”
One of the most recent sizable swings at bringing rail back to the busy boulevard came in 1995 when a Geary corridor study by Merrill & Associates for what was then called the San Francisco Municipal Railway concluded that extending BART to Geary and Sixth Avenue could cost $1.4 billion.
Adjusted for inflation, that would equate to about $2.4 billion in 2019.
That plan would have married a BART extension to a then-planned Muni rail on Geary, leading to an estimated 18,000 daily BART boardings.
Judge Quentin Kopp, who was a state senator in the mid-1990s representing San Francisco, recalled the plan went bust due to “merchant opposition and some residential opposition in the aftermath of building BART down Market Street.”
The completion of BART tunneling downtown would be “comparable” to Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit construction today, which has led to declining foot traffic and customers, hurting businesses’ bottom lines, Kopp said.
But in the decades since, daily Muni ridership on Geary Boulevard downtown has boomed fast past that 1995 report’s estimates.
Connecting the Bay
Today, SPUR believes a BART extension down Geary should go hand-in-hand with planning more desperately-needed housing along the corridor. Wiener agrees.
“We have a history with BART of extending into low-density areas,” Wiener said. “The Richmond isn’t low density like Orinda is, for sure, but I think it would be important to zone for more density to make sure we’re taking full advantage of such a large investment.”
Without new housing, Wiener argued, San Franciscans old and new are pushed farther and farther into the outer Bay Area.
Failing to invest in subways — whether Muni or BART — can take a toll on Richmond District residents, said Winston Parsons, who sits on the board of the Richmond District Democratic Club.
The San Francisco native’s mother recently injured her foot, but Parsons’ sister — who now lives in the East Bay — has had trouble traveling via public transit to offer care.
“It’s intensely personal,” he said. “We’ve been taking turns to help her out … if we had a BART line even to the Inner Richmond, that’d be a huge deal to make sure our family could look after each other.”
To visit his sister he has to ride Muni, to BART, to AC Transit. That’s an hour-and-a-half trip, Parsons noted.
Geary Boulevard BART might make that trip in half that time.
But by the time that’s a reality — if history lends any clues — Parsons himself could need caregiving from a younger generation.