The J Church train could begin running again later this month on at least part of its surface route. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

The J Church train could begin running again later this month on at least part of its surface route. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)

First Muni trains will return to service Dec. 19

Three additional bus routes coming back online in January

A glimmer of hope emerged at Tuesday’s San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board meeting: some portion of the rail system could return later this month, sooner than planned.

The J Church line will return to a surface route on Dec. 19, running from Church and Duboce to Balboa Park, surpassing previous expectations that all trains would lay dormant until early next year.

The T Third could follow about one month later, on Jan. 23 and run from Sunnydale to Embarcadero, SFMTA Transit Planning Manager Sean Kennedy told the board Tuesday.

The L, K and M lines will continue to be run by buses through the spring, and the S tunnel shuttle will be brought online only when the demand dictates it, he said.

Though underground service will lag behind, the re-introduction of surface trains will allow for more social distancing and enhanced reliability along existing routes, currently handled by buses instead. It will also free up buses to add more vehicles to other Muni routes and reduce crowding on highly-trafficked lines.

SFMTA plans to limit access to the downtown tunnel to reduce delays and enhance efficiency, an approach it piloted in August with a brief relaunch before overhead wire problems forced it to shut down after two days.

“Devoting the tunnels to the higher capacity routes allowed the SFMTA to use the space in the subway much more efficiently,” the staff report said when explaining the agency’s emergency order authority. “These changes support more essential trips, physical distancing and The City’s economic recovery.”

The board approved a slate of temporary street, parking and traffic changes Tuesday to support the return of the J Church and, eventually, the entire rail network as well as install a number of temporary accessible boarding islands at the new terminuses of these modified lines.

Many of these changes, such as traffic lane closures, left turn restrictions, curb zone changes and the removal of some parking spots, were already implemented ahead of the planned return of Muni Metro in August under the agency’s emergency authority.

Traffic changes were most notable on Church Street between 15th and Market streets, and are intended to make it easier for all riders to safely board and transfer between trains without risking crowding or accessibility.

Similar modifications to traffic lanes, curb classifications and parking spaces were made near the new West Portal LK transfer stops, predominantly in order to make room for boarding islands and make the transfer accessible for those with mobility impairments.

The board retroactively approved these changes Tuesday, and gave staff permission to move forward with the second phase of similar minor changes.

Originally, staff planned to present these modifications to the Board for final approval in September, but the botched rail relaunch that shut it down after just two days back online, coupled with a series of CEQA appeals against the changes that were later dismissed, delayed the vote until Tuesday.

Costs are expected to total roughly $300,000. The agency plans to use capital funds as well as seek up to 75 percent reimbursement for the cost of staff time through the Federal Emergency Management Agency program that’s helping cities respond to the pandemic.

Muni buses

Bus service is also key to the transit agency’s coronavirus response.

The board signed off on plans to restore service to a number of bus routes, improving transit access in pockets of The City where it continues to be crowded or inaccessible.

SFMTA will bring back slightly modified versions of the 27 Bryant, 33 Ashbury-18th Street and 55 Dogpatch lines in early January, and establish a new temporary Muni route called the 15 Bayview-Hunters Point Express to connect The City’s southeastern areas with downtown.

The 27 Bryant and the 15 Bayview-Hunters Point Express routes come after months of communities in the Tenderloin, SoMa and Bayview-Hunters Point calling for increased service to their neighborhoods, home to many of San Francisco’s essential workers and transit-dependent riders.

Kennedy directly tied additional service to public health, tying more buses to more space on vehicles.

“We know that in the future there will be some hard choices coming up, but we do have resources right now, and since a surge is coming, we do want to deploy those resources,” Kennedy said.

Low ridership

Existing ridership remains concentrated on routes that largely serve transit-dependent riders, lower income residents and essential workers.

Lines such as the 14-Mission, 14R-Mission Rapid and 8-Bayshore remain some of the system’s most used buses, with many riders reporting crowded conditions or situations where the driver has to pass people at stops in order to comply with social distancing guidelines.

Recent SFMTA data shows roughly six percent of trips across all lines were considered crowded in November, though more populous corridors such as Stockton and Geary reached up to 10 percent.

Kirschbaum called crowding the biggest issue the agency faces in terms of service.

The agency transitioned from a schedule model to a headway model last month, empowering drivers to base their driving behavior off of time between Muni vehicles rather than specific trip times.

Rapid routes currently in operation run at proper headways 85-90 percent of the time, while the regular buses are running closer to 80 percent, Kirschbaum said, attributing the performance entirely to the work of “incredible staff.”

Kirschbuam also said adding more service along crowded corridors, restoring bus lines and returning rail rail would help alleviate overcrowding and also improve Muni’s reliability even further.

All the changes approved by the SFMTA board are temporary, and required to sunset 120 days after the ongoing emergency order is lifted. To be made permanent, they’d be subject to evaluation, public outreach and board approval.

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