A tunnel too far?

Should the F-line be extended to the Marina, or are better alternatives available? Photo: Goodshoped35110s

My friend recently asked me for the best way to get from the Ferry Building to the Marina; I didn’t have a good answer. But there used to be an easy response: the E- or F-line. The E-Union and F-Stockton previously linked the Marina to the rest of the city via Union Street over Russian Hill and the Stockton tunnel, respectively. Now, 75 years since bus lines replaced the streetcars, District 2 residents are again asking how best to connect their community to the city at large. Transit activists have so far found that there’s no clear answer.

The need for more connections to the Marina, Cow Hollow, and the Presidio is clear. With Fort Mason staking out an eastern boundary, Pacific Heights complicating travel to the south, and the Presidio serving as a hindrance to westward travel, few would question that District 2 occupies a geographical challenge to most modes of transit. You can walk — but only the hardiest (or those most desperate to earn their scoops at Salt and Straw) hike up Fillmore Street to get to their destination. If you’re in Tour de France shape, you can bike — but you should know that even motorized scooters like Scoot struggle to confront the hills and curves bordering the district. Some try to bus, but even the 22, 30, 41, and 45 bus lines occasionally stall on their way out of the area. In short, expediting travel to the Marina will require instituting novel ways to get around (or tunnel through) its barriers.


The tunnel approach underlies a multimodal transportation plan for the Aquatic Park and Fort Mason. This plan includes renovating the historic Fort Mason Tunnel to expand streetcar access to the Marina District. Presented at a recent meeting held by the Marina Community Association, planners highlighted that this idea isn’t new: Muni first considered using the tunnel in 1979 and, as recently as 2013, the National Park Service (NPS) certified an Environmental Impact Statement related to the idea.

Even if everything went according to the ambitious plan, however, the tunnel upgrades and line extension are years away, due to a backlog of NPS capital projects and at least $10 million worth of seismic retrofitting. Nevertheless, advocates highlight the need for and benefits from transit investments in the area. Consider that 12 million people a year visit Fisherman’s Wharf and 1.5 million visit the Fort Mason Center alone. Establishing easier ways to get between these two points (besides the Everest-esque assent up the current Fort Mason walkway) could be an economic and cultural boon.


Those changes could also come by scaling up another approach, one that is already on the streets of District 2. You’ve likely seen Cruise cars autonomously navigating the hurly-burly on Chestnut and Union Streets. Autonomous Vehicle (AV) proponents posit that AVs have the potential to render the sort of capital-intensive projects like the Fort Mason Tunnel moot. Widespread adoption of AVs would lead to safer and more efficient transit on our preexisting roads. If San Franciscans embraced AVs with the fervor of cities like Las Vegas or Phoenix, then the most sensible path forward would direct resources toward an autonomous future. It follows that ardent AV fans offer transit planners an important consideration for any new investment: How does this plan account for the transit options and technological advances of the future?

One such future option comes in the form of increased water taxi service. Subscribers to aquatic transit claim it eases congestion while simultaneously reducing emissions. They additionally point to cities around the world such as Venice that demonstrate the potential for waterways to drastically reshape the movement of people and their method of travel. And, though some ferries and water taxis do exist around San Francisco, there are calls for drastic increases. As recently as September 2018, Assemblyman David Chiu was among those calling for the Bay Area to drastically invest in water transportation. He specifically advocated for increased ferry service to improve travel between San Francisco and Oakland, but there’s no reason ferry service couldn’t also facilitate greater intra-city travel.

Whether on land or sea, currently there’s no good way to get to the Marina. Uber, Muni, and nonvehicular travel all require substantial time, energy, money, or a combination of the three. There’s also no clear path to alleviate this issue.

Finding the right path forward will be an arduous process. At each step, though, activists ought to ask themselves these key questions: Will this mode of transit soon be obsolete? Is there a cheaper option? And, how will it change our climate, communities, and culture?

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