19th Avenue Streetcar Improvement Plans Raise Skepticism

Will Carruthers/Ingleside-Excelsior Light

After unveiling a plan for a tunnel under 19th Avenue from West Portal to Park Merced on Feb. 7 at San Francisco State University, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency representatives spent the rest of the month holding public education and comment sessions in neighborhoods impacted by the proposal.

The plan to move the M-Ocean View streetcar line underground is also meant to make 19th Avenue safer and more efficient for cars, bicyclist and pedestrians. However, many residents at meetings in the Merced Extension Triangle and Ocean View felt that the proposal would leave residents south of SFSU with worse service than they have today.

The tunnel proposal is the latest attempt to modernize the streetcar line, which has been running on 19th Avenue since 1925. Existing heavy traffic on 19th Avenue and the expansion of Park Merced are two challenges that the SFMTA is hoping to solve with the project.

Community members were frustrated that the M-Ocean View would no longer run through its namesake neighborhood under the current proposal. Instead, it would terminate at Park Merced station while the outbound J Church would be extended from Balboa Park to SFSU. Ocean View residents would have to travel on the outbound J and transfer to the inbound M or travel on the inbound J through Noe Valley to reach downtown.

Liz Brisson, director of the 19th Avenue M-Ocean View project, argued that travel times would be improved by avoiding the street traffic on 19th Avenue and that transferring trains underground at SFSU will be easy.

Brisson also stressed that this plan will be subject to more changes based on public input before any construction occurs.

“We’re years away from making a decision about a project,” Brisson said. “There will be ample time for input and if anything were to be approved it would be eight plus years before any construction would happen.”

The fact that Park Merced, SFSU and Stonestown Galleria have spent about $140,000 on the feasibility studies of the tunnel extension made some Ocean View residents suspicious of the planners’ goals.

The city partnered with the Chinese Progressive Association to reach out to Ocean View’s large monolingual Chinese population and translate during a meeting at the I.T. Bookman Center on Feb. 16.

Flora Luo, a translator with the Chinese Progressive Association, said that the Chinese residents were worried about the transfer times going downtown.

“It’s not mentioned here whether there will be an increase in frequency on the lines. If not, when they transfer they still have to wait a long time,” Luo said. “They prefer to keep the track how it is right now.”

Funding Uncertain

Speaking at a Merced Extension Triangle Neighborhood Association meeting on Feb. 9, SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin tempered expectations about finding funds for the project, which is expected to cost between $2.5 and $3 billion.

Projects to extend Caltrain to downtown San Francisco and BART to San Jose will consume the big federal funds for the next 10 to 15 years, according to Reiskin.

“We don’t really have a firm funding plan,” Reiskin said. “We think it’s a really strong project and one that should happen at some point in San Francisco subject to community input on what the final design looks like.“

After the meeting at the I.T. Bookman Center, Brisson was more hopeful about finding funding.

Because it will make the current infrastructure work better, the 19th Avenue project is a good candidate for citywide prioritization and then for regional and state funding, according to Brisson.

Lingering Questions

Although Brisson stressed that the project should improve travel times for Ocean View residents by bypassing traffic on 19th Avenue, the city hasn’t studied what the overall travel time would be for riders transferring from the J to the M.

Tom Radulovich, executive director of the planning advocacy group Livable City, pointed out that it would be important to see plans to improve the historically unreliable J-Church line if Ocean View residents were to get behind the current plan.

“With all of these questions hanging around, it’s going to be hard for folks in the [Ocean View] to get behind this,” Radulovich said. “They have every right to be skeptical.”

A representative of the West Portal Merchants Association had no comment on the project since they did not have enough information.

Improvements coming to 19th Avenue in the next two years include accessibility improvements at the 19th Avenue and Junipero Serra Boulevard stop and track replacements for the M-Ocean View on 19th Avenue.

This article first appeared in the Ingleside-Excelsior Light’s March print edition.

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