M-Line to Mars?

The day our new Central Subway opens, I will enjoy the fast ride from Mission Bay to Chinatown. But the “last stop” announcement will be jarring for people expecting to finally access North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf without the traffic and parking nightmare.

They’ll wonder: “How did we spend $1.6 billon for a tunnel that doesn’t reach its logical destination?”

Grumbling will ensue when riders find out the tunnel boring machines actually did make it to North Beach, only so they could be extracted and sold to Russia. Tempers may flare if the trip included a transfer at Union Square. Those passengers will have already complained about the long walk between trains since the Central Subway doesn’t directly connect with existing Muni and BART lines.

Big public works projects need politically palatable price tags. That’s why planners make compromises and cut corners. But tunnel vision is no way to build a tunnel. A sustainable city must plan transportation and housing needs with a holistic vision. Subways are essential and future generations will wish we got it right.

We already regret not tunneling to Fisherman’s Wharf in the same way we regret not building enough BART tunnels 50 years ago. Now the cost will be astronomical to expand both — and it needs to be done.

The good news is we have the opportunity to extend the West Portal tunnel, which our kids and grandkids will thank us for. Our Muni subway starts at Embarcadero, but at West Portal it becomes a streetcar that competes with surface traffic. Anything longer than two train cars is extremely challenging to make work on the street, so the underground stations that can hold four cars are underutilized.
That’s why you have to run to the far end of downtown platforms to get on short, overcrowded trains.

If approved and funded, the Muni Subway Expansion Project promises a continuous tunnel from Embarcadero to Parkmerced that will run four-car trains the entire length of the M-line.

It would become the spine of a true subway system, serving downtown workers, residents of new high rises near City Hall (where the short trains are always packed), westside homeowners, Stonestown shoppers, San Francisco State University students and thousands of new housing units at Parkmerced.

Tunneling under 19th Avenue and the congested St. Francis Circle would also improve traffic flow. Removing the tracks on West Portal Avenue would create space for wider sidewalks and outdoor café seating.

Liz Brisson is the young city transit planner behind the project and her dedication to getting it right gives me hope we won’t end up with another Central Subway situation. Brisson defines what a great civil servant should be: passionate about the vision, smart in planning it, patient and empathetic with stakeholders and able to adapt to input while improving the design.

“When I first heard about the project, I thought it was crazy,” said Kath Tsakalakis, who has lived near the M-line for 15 years and objected to an early sketch that featured a massive concrete train bridge over 19th Avenue instead of a tunnel. “I called Liz, poor thing, and I just ranted. But Liz really impressed. She did lots of outreach and came back with an even better proposal.”

Brisson learned that she and Tsakalakis wanted the same thing: a real solution and not the quicker fix of an ugly bridge over one intersection. A survey of the Lakeside neighborhood showed that 75 percent of respondents wanted the full tunnel versus nothing.

Planners often only consider a small amount of available funding when determining what to build. Brisson said that is how we end up with uninspired designs that don’t address actual needs. She wants to flip that mentality by using a big idea to drive funding efforts.

“Now I realize how important it is to shoot for the moon when it comes to projects that will be with us for generations,” Brisson said. “Now is the time for us to define the next big transit vision and keep advancing it.”

In that spirit, my request to Brisson is to keep tunneling past Parkmerced and connect Muni to the Daly City BART station. Don’t stop at the moon when we can shoot for Mars.

Joel Engardio lives west of Twin Peaks in District 7. Follow his blog at www.engardio.com. Email him at info@engardio.com

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