Despite Hardship, Muni Plans for Subway Return

Service increases and new bus lines are planned to come online, but Muni’s overall financial situation is incredibly bleak.

Muni is facing one of the most difficult moments in its 108-year history. San Francisco’s transit agency is mourning the death of a bus driver from COVID-19, dealing with the fallout of faulty construction in both its brand new and old subway tunnels, and facing a massive budget deficit that could lead to as many as 1,200 layoffs

Still, Muni keeps rolling. At an SFMTA Board meeting Tuesday, agency staff announced plans to resume more bus lines, increase service on busy corridors, and gradually re-start metro rail. It’s a classic case of hoping for the best and planning for the worst. 

At the Tuesday meeting, Muni staff announced additional service to the lines serving Fillmore, Geary, Fulton, San Bruno, and Stockton streets, citing increased crowding.  

Staff added that Muni will bring back the 27 Bryant, the 33 Ashbury, and the 55 Dogpatch in January. Muni also plans to bring back a long dormant line, the 15 Third Street, which was retired in 2007 with the opening of the T Third metro rail line. Since then, Bayview residents have suffered from sluggish service on the rail line, and have asked the city for an express bus service that can make the trip faster. In response, in January SFMTA plans to begin service on a new 15 Bayview/Hunters Point Express bus that will make more limited stops. The exact route is still being finalized in light of community feedback. 

As it stands now, the J Church surface streetcar line is slated to return on Dec. 19, shuttling above ground between Balboa Park Station and the intersection of Market and Church. The T Third is expected to resume its surface route, between Sunnydale and the Embarcadero, in mid January. Finally, by early February, part of the Muni subway will once again be put to use, when the N Judah is anticipated to return, running its full, pre-pandemic length. The S Shuttle, connecting Embarcadero and West Portal, will return in early March. 

The K, L, and M lines, which, in addition to the J, are slated to run in a new service pattern, won’t be open through at least the spring. 

Muni’s metro rail system was shut down at the beginning of the pandemic, and then brought back in August for just three days, before being shut down again. The routes were replaced by surface buses. 

At a time when preventing delays and limiting potential coronavirus exposure was of paramount concern, there were simply too many maintenance issues for the system to be able to operate reliably. There are problems with the splices that connect the overhead wires that power the trains, and the rocky substance upon which the train tracks sit, called ballast. Muni is currently working to resolve both issues. (Similar construction snafus have plagued the Central Subway, connecting Chinatown, the Moscone Center and Mission Bay, which is now scheduled to open in 2022, following years of delays.)

While some of Muni’s problems are self inflicted, others are not. As the Examiner recently reported, Muni fare revenues are down 93 percent, and other funding sources are also down significantly. Even after cutting costs, the agency projects a $168 million deficit in the next fiscal year. SFMTA director Jeffrey Tumlin told the Examiner that extra funding from the federal government appears to be the only way to stave off massive layoffs and service cuts. “The future of Muni absent outside support looks very grim, which means the future of San Francisco’s economy looks very grim.”

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