Waiting for a Streetcar Named Common Sense

By Joel P. Engardio

There’s a streetcar named desire along San Francisco’s waterfront.

Residents and businesses on Third Street in the Dogpatch and Mission Bay neighborhoods are yearning for the new E-Embarcadero line, which will bring more public-transportation capacity to one of The City’s most rapidly growing areas.

The Dogpatch has been transformed from a gritty warehouse district to a hip residential area. Thousands more housing units are on the way, yet there’s no direct ride that connects the neighborhood to the rest of the waterfront.

The same goes for Mission Bay, home to a UC San Francisco campus, a planned children’s hospital and the future Warriors arena.

“We are exploding with development and we need more transit options,” said Janet Carpinelli, president of the Dogpatch Neighborhood Association. “Putting in the E-line is a no-brainer, especially when the T-line is so inefficient.”

To travel from the Dogpatch to Fisherman’s Wharf, the T-Third Street line only goes halfway. It stops at The Embarcadero and a transfer to the overcrowded F-Market line requires a 200-yard dash. When the new Central Subway diverts the T-line to Chinatown, the waterfront ride will get even more fractured.

The fully envisioned E-line promises a seamless, one-seat ride along the waterfront from the Dogpatch to Fort Mason on classic 20th- century streetcars.

“It’s a charming way to get where you’re going,” said Rick Laubscher, president of Market Street Railway. “Streetcars draw people out of cars in ways buses don’t, because they’re fun, attractive and clean.”

So if the E-line can satisfy capacity demands and lessen traffic congestion, what’s the delay? Muni says the E-line will start daily service in 2016 — but not for the Dogpatch residents who need it most. It will also skip much of Mission Bay, only running from the Caltrain station to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Muni staff said it fears vintage streetcars running through the Dogpatch and Mission Bay could break down and hold up modern T-line trains. Yet vintage F-line trains have shared tracks with contemporary trains for nearly 20 years without problem.

“It’s almost like Muni is looking for excuses to not do this,” Laubscher said.

Cost isn’t a big issue. The E-line would use existing track. Stations south of Caltrain along Third Street would only require extending current sidewalk-level platforms about 30 feet. The E-line’s vintage streetcars have already been refurbished and paid for.

“It’s silly not to get the maximum value out of this huge investment we’ve made,” Laubscher said.

Politics also play a role. There are forces against change at the waterfront, especially projects that would increase height limits. But the fight over waterfront development shouldn’t derail E-line plans.

“There is plenty of unmet demand for efficient public transportation along the waterfront,” Laubscher said. “All you have to do is see what’s already there — not what’s dreamed about, or fought about — but what’s being built right now.”

The politics get even trickier for the second phase of the E-line, which would require spending $50 million to build new track and extend service across Fisherman’s Wharf to Fort Mason. The current track ends at Jones Street, not reaching attractions such as Ghirardelli Square and Aquatic Park.

“Stores lose tens of thousands of people every day who don’t walk past the end of the track to Ghirardelli,” said Troy Campbell, director of the Community Benefits District at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Some Marina residents fear an extended E-line would overrun their neighborhood with tourists, but a stop at Fort Mason would benefit locals by serving their own commuting needs. And it would be within walking distance to Chestnut Street shops, encouraging visitors to spend dollars there.

Back in Mission Bay, the E-line would certainly help with the crowds the new Warriors arena will attract. That’s why a fully envisioned E-line is the streetcar named common sense.

Also published in San Francisco Examiner April 27, 2014