Photograph by Don Nolte

Photograph by Don Nolte

March 2013

Muni T-Line Struggles to Reach its Promise

Brian Rinker

While working in his dry cleaning shop on Third Street, Al McAfee heard a commotion erupting outside, on the light rail platform. He wasn’t surprised; it was a weekday, at rush hour. According to McAfee, he often hears the frustrated mumblings of people waiting for the T-Third train. 

McAfee looked out the window and saw a small crowd walking down the street. They were T-Line passengers who’d been kicked off the train and forced to walk the rest of their journey. McAfee said he sees this type of transportation disruption all of the time, with passengers prematurely discharged at 23rd Street because of a switchback — Muni-speak for a train that switches tracks either to make up for lost time or to go off duty — maintenance problem or accident. Once service has been interrupted, it can take significant time before a replacement train arrives. 

“The biggest problem with the light rail, which wasn’t made clear before it was built, is that every time there is a problem, delay or accident, the whole system shuts down,” McAfee said. “I’ve complained vehemently about a backup system to support the light rail.” 

When, in 1997, the City decided to replace the 15-bus with a new light rail along Third Street, the Dogpatch, Bayview, Hunters Point and Visitation Valley neighborhoods were promised a more reliable and efficient transit mode. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) speculated, and community members hoped, that the line would revitalize the derelict corridor, connecting isolated, underserved Southside communities with the rest of the City, by plugging the neighborhoods into the larger metropolitan transportation network. For Bayview-Hunters Point, which has a median household income of roughly $45,000 and a 13 percent unemployment rate, compared with the City’s $71,000 median income and seven percent unemployment, the T-line was supposed to serve as the economic engine that could. 

Six years have passed since the T-Line train first started plying Third Street. Instead of being a significant catalyst for growth, the line has earned a reputation for being slow and unreliable. “It doesn’t connect the community to the City the way the 15-bus did,” said Ben Kaufman, of the Transit Riders Union. According to Kaufman, the T-line has all of the makings of an effective rapid transit system, but falls short, not living up to its potential. 

The T-Line began regular operation in mid-2007, after years of construction that cost $665 million. A total of 5.l miles of new light rail track was laid from the Caltrans stop at King and 4th streets, south along Third Street, past former industrial buildings, now trendy restaurants and new condominiums in Dogpatch, and into Bayview, where the rails are lined with palm trees. The line continues south onto Bayshore Boulevard, ending at Sunnydale in Visitacion Valley. The T-Line serves Downtown along the Embarcadero and into the subway, where it merges with the K-Line. The KT then passes through Downtown to West Portal, where the line continues as the K to Balboa Station. 

One of the T-Line’s shortcomings that Southside residents find particularly troublesome is its indirect route: going past AT&T Park and looping by the 
Caltrains stop, where the train often sits for five minutes waiting for the light signal priority, which allows it to flow faster through traffic. The switchback at 23rd, where the train ride ends abruptly, is also an irritant.

Bayview resident Manik Bahl knows first-hand about the frustration and potentially dangerous situations that can occur with the 23rd Street switchback. Roughly a year ago, when Bahl first moved to the neighborhood, he boarded the T-Line Downtown one night heading to the Kirkwood/LaSalle stop. He hadn’t noticed that the train he was on ended at 23rd Street. After he was discharged from his train, instead of waiting 20 minutes for another one he decided to walk, and was mugged. The robber tried to take his iPhone; Bahl fought back. Although Bahl kept his phone, preventing its theft, he got pepper spayed by the attacker in the process. 

Between August 22, 2012 and January 15, 2013, eight robberies were committed on the T-Line or the boarding platforms from Kirkwood Street to LeConte Street. In seven of the robberies the victim was punched, pushed or dragged. One thief flashed a gun. According to Bayview Police Captain Robert O’Sullivan, a ninth robbery involving a gun occurred at a bus stop on Fitzgerald Street, near the T-Line. In six out of the eight robberies a smartphone was stolen, a common occurrence throughout the City. “While a robbery is a very serious crime there wasn’t anything more serious than that, in terms of a homicide or sexual assault along the T-Line,” O’Sullivan said. “My opinion is that the T-Line is safe along Third Street.”

 “I’ve become more cautious,” said Bahl, who was wrapping his hands in black tape while he waited for the T on his way to boxing class. “That incident taught me a lot.” Bahl said he’d never walk home from 23rd Street again, nor would he board a train that ended at that stop, which at night is dark and lonely; “it’s all bad.” Other than that night, though, Bahl hasn’t had any problems with Muni. On a scale from one to 10, he said, “I still give it a seven.” The T-Line has good service in the mornings and afternoon, Bahl said, except when the train goes underground it can get crowded. 

O’Sullivan suggested a common sense approach to reducing the risk of theft: be aware of your surroundings, sit next to someone with whom you feel comfortable, pay attention when the bus comes to a stop. Don’t sit next to the exits, unless it’s near the driver. “The ones who are being robbed are those engrossed in a hand held device, distracted or they are sitting somewhere near the exit points and somebody will come up and either through force take it or snatch it and out the doors they go,” said O’Sullivan, adding that you shouldn’t fight back if you’re robbed, instead focusing on being a good witness.

The KT-Ingleside/Third, the line’s official name, serves 30,000 riders daily. According to SFMTA, in 2012 the KT was on-time, at best, half of the time in February and March, and, at worst, 40 percent of the time in October. That same month the on-time average for all of Muni was 59 percent, higher than the KT train managed in any given month last year. Virtually none of the system is close to meeting the 1999 voter mandate that all transit be on time 85 percent of the time, a requirement Muni has never met. 

Out of the KT’s 108,128 scheduled hours last year, the line missed 1,179 hours — one percent — due to operator or vehicle unavailability. Not surprisingly, the T-Line is poorly rated on Yelp, with a two-star average out of 24 reviews. Most reviewers gave the line one-star, with the two people giving it a full five stars upping the average.

Muni spokesperson Paul Rose acknowledged that the line needs work, but asserted that improvements are being made. According to Rose, Muni is trying to enhance the line’s reliability by making adjustments to signal timing and system control, ensuring that all transit signal priority devices are working properly. He added that they’re in the process of hiring 200 additional operators, and will be looking to employ 126 more maintenance staff during the next two years to help with preventative maintenance system wide. 

“I have heard from many people that the T is slow, infrequent and unreliable, and that it performs far worse than the 15 did,” said Keith Goldstein, Potrero Dogpatch Merchants Association president. “The T contributes minimally to the economic health of the community. I doubt that many clients of the businesses that are increasingly opening along Third Street are traveling from other parts of the City on the T.”

“Having a discussion about the T-Line now is a bit like closing the barn door after the horse is gone,” said La Shon Walker, Bayview Merchants Association vice president. “But people seem to be waxing poetic about the days of the 15-Third bus. For my money, the T-Line is fine. However, as far as businesses along the corridor go, I do think that the platforms down the center of the corridor make it that much more difficult for businesses to be seen.”

According to Janice Harvey, a longtime Bayview resident, riding the T is better than driving. She takes the train to the Evans Station stop two to three times a week to connect with the 19-bus toward Polk Street. “It’s a pretty good ride,” she said, adding that some people can get a little crazy on the train, with their “unruly” and “loud” conversation, but nothing dangerous. “There’s always something going on on the T train,” Harvey said laughing. “But it’s not as rowdy as the 15-bus was.” 

Rose said that fare inspectors or community ambassadors — a City-funded program that provides safety and information escorts — frequently ride the T and other lines to help ensure passenger safety. “We are also starting to work with SFUSD to educate youth on appropriate behavior and etiquette while riding Muni,” Rose added. And in the last few months the San Francisco Police Department has increased its presence on Muni. “Every officer across every watch, day, night, swing, is required to ride a Muni bus or ride a rail line or walk a Muni platform, to do something Muni-related twice during their shift,” O’Sullivan said, adding that twice a week the police concentrates its efforts, assigning officers specific routes to ride. 

Kaufman believes that the T-Line will eventually serve the community as expected. Once the Central Subway is completed, he said, the T-Line will have a more direct route, running from Chinatown to Powell Station and straight down Fourth Street, bypassing the Embarcadero and ballpark. To accommodate the Central Subway route, Muni is planning to build a turnaround at 18th, 19th and Illinois streets. The plan is to increase the number of trains, and have some double back at the turnaround instead of traveling all the way to Sunnydale. Once the Central Subway is complete, more trains will be added to the Chinatown-Bayshore route, increasing its frequency. However, the Central Subway won’t be completed until almost 2020. 

 McAfee has lived Southside for 37 years; for 22 of those years he’s run McAfee’s One Hour Martinizing Cleaners and Laundry. According to McAfee, he’s almost been put out of business during the time he’s waited for the T-Line to meet the promises initially made by the City. Before the line’s construction began, the dry cleaners drew upwards of 58 customers a day. Once construction started “for two years Third Street was nothing but dirt and mud.” Customer visits declined. McAfee drained his savings to survive, only holding on because he owns the building in which his shop is located. Many other Bayview shops didn’t make it. 

After the T-Line opened business picked up, but it hasn’t returned to pre-construction levels, with customer visits ranging from a high of 36 daily to a low of half that much. “It’s a slap in the face,” he said, adding that Muni had assured him that once the line was operating his business would flourish. Now, when he hears people complaining about the T outside his store or sees people walking in herds down the street, he thinks to himself, “It’s no big thing. It’s common. I just step outside and observe.”

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