Tackling the Terrible T

Eleven years after its launch, is it time to consider taking the T-Third line underground?

Find any regular rider of a Muni line and chances are they’ll have gripes. The 22-Fillmore is slow, the 7-Haight-Noriega is always packed, and the J-Church somehow always seems to be more than 20 minutes away no matter what stop you’re at. But few lines deserve as much regular ire as the T-Third. The light rail line was designed to be a valuable connector between downtown — with all its BART stations, buses, and jobs — and the southeastern part of the city, with its heavily residential Bayview, and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods. But as any resident of those neighborhoods will tell you, the T is unpredictable, painfully slow, and often fails to show up altogether.

The five-and-a-half-mile line launched in April 2007, a year late and at a cost of $667 million — more than $120 million over budget. At the time, then-SFMTA Director Nathaniel Ford said “the Third Street line is far greater than the concrete and steel and track. It’s about connectivity. It’s about economic vitality. It’s about creating an opportunity to open up some doors.”

That was the plan — but it hasn’t necessarily been the result. A recent article in the Chronicle disclosed that the T hit its desired interval target of eight to nine minutes only 65 percent of the time over several weeks in September.

It’s also painfully slow, owing to a central track alignment that seems to prioritize vehicular traffic. Much of the time, outbound trains don’t even complete their route, switching back upon reaching Dogpatch and leaving those who need to get to the Bayview, Hunters Point, or Visitacion Valley stranded with no nearby bus lines. As an added frustration, a train that may say it’s coming in five minutes for a Bayview stop will suddenly get pushed to 50 as the train switches back Downtown.

For District 10 supervisor candidate Shamann Walton, the T has been a particular pain point — and not just because it takes an hour for him to get to City Hall from his campaign office on Third Street and Palou Avenue.

“If you look at areas of San Francisco that have been isolated and disenfranchised for decades, it tends to be areas where a lot of people of color exist,” Walton tells SF Weekly. “I very seriously doubt that we would be suffering from switchbacks if it wasn’t a large populated of colored people here in the southeast section. When we talk about institutional racism it’s really about what has happened systemically to communities of color. Switchbacks are part of the bureaucratic system of how a community is operating.”

Walton has a particularly bold plan for the T, spoken with the knowledge of someone who’s obviously done his research combined with the optimism of someone who hasn’t yet held a seat on the Board of Supervisors. Unlike other politicians — who may balk at the amount of fundraising, community meetings, and supervisor hearings kicking off a massive transit project triggers — he’s committed to taking the T underground. Or, at least starting the process.

“If you look at how much growth is coming into the southeast sector of the city .. We’re going to have thousands of residents moving into the neighborhood, to add to the ones already here,” he says. “If the T was underground, we could move more rapidly.”

It might sound like a pipe dream, but the city has tackled a number of major public transit efforts in recent years. The Central Subway line is delayed but progressing, the Salesforce Transbay Terminal is cracked but beautiful, and the Bay Bridge has finally been upgraded in full. The trick will be convincing stakeholders that the T line is worth it, but some are already paying attention. Despite the obvious public transit failures, the SFMTA hasn’t entirely abandoned District 10. A community meeting held in late October outlined a number of improvements the agency wants to make, from safer intersections for pedestrians to safer bike routes.

The one thing missing: fixing the switchbacks. If Walton is elected on Tuesday, he says it’ll meeting with SFMTA officials to resolve this issue will be one of his first actions on the Board.

“This is, for me, the most exciting part of San Francisco, with all the things that are here and happening and on the way,” he says. “Hopefully, we’ll get the transit coverage so people can see the beauty of District 10, the hidden gems that we have, and all the things that are magnificent about this district, because there are a lot. “

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
nsawyer@sfweekly.com |  @TheBestNuala

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