In April, after construction delays and budget overruns, Muni, at long last, inaugurated its newest rail line, the T-Third Street. Advertised as “Connecting People, Connecting Communities”, the T-Third Street is an investment in some of San Francisco’s long-overlooked communities, particularly the humbler Bayview and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods, in the southeastern corner of the city — a place many people in the Bay Area and even San Francisco know only through the Chronicle‘s homicide reports. The line provides direct rail service from downtown to the 3rd Street corridor, as well as to the UCSF Mission Bay campus and the new neighborhood that will surround the campus some years in the future. Solely from the perspective of transit service, the 3rd Street corridor should not have been given first priority for a rail line, but the T-Third project demonstrates a tangible and substantial investment in troubled neighborhoods, making it an excellent political tool. Back in April, the SFMTA held an opening ceremony in which city supervisors, “Da (Old) Mayor” Willie Brown (who spoke because the project was studied and developed under his watch), and even Madam Speaker Pelosi, in a grand sort of “Kumbaya”, pontificated about the deep symbolism of the new line and how it would help usher in a new era for the neglected southeastern neighborhoods. The transition from the old 15-Third bus to the new T-Third rail line became a metaphor for the future promise held by the 3rd Street corridor — promise which the T-Third would itself encourage and help to cultivate.
The speeches would have been much more effective had the opening ceremony happened before the official start of operations. Unfortunately, the T had already been running full time for a week by that point, and the disaster that unfolded during that first week and in the subsequent weeks cast an aura of uncertainty over Nancy Pelosi’s and Willie Brown’s assured optimism. It quickly became clear that Muni required substantial time to work out the bugs and get used to the new burden of running an additional rail line — despite the fact that they had been testing the T for months before the official opening. Many runs were missed due to lack of train operators, and headways on the T were far longer than what was promised. Other Muni Metro lines started running only a portion of their routes (for example, the N-Judah was turning around at 19th Avenue, two miles short of its actual terminus at Ocean Beach, thus abandoning any passengers traveling west of 19th) so that trains could be diverted to fill in the gaps. The presence of an additional line in the Market Street subway — as well as the T’s awkward turnaround at Castro Station — led to waves of delay in the whole Muni Metro system. It was all too reminiscent of the 1998 meltdown.
Fast-forwarding a few months to right now: although T service is still not as consistent as it should be, through operation of the K and T lines (essentially creating one really long line, the “KT,” running between Balboa Park and Sunnydale), along with a few other changes, has more-or-less helped to return the Market Street tunnel to a state of normalcy. But there are still issues to be ironed out. Meanwhile, Bayview district residents have protested, calling to dismantle the T and reinstate the 15-Third bus that formerly ran on the southern portion of the T’s route. Such an action would be an impossibility, tantamount to an admission that the $648 million spent on the rail line were wasted.
The rocky start to T-Third operation offers the obvious explanation for why Bayview residents were clamoring for the return of their old 15-Third bus. But on the north side of Market Street, between Polk and Van Ness, a memorial exhibit to the 15-Third takes a more poignant, personal approach:
The display is part of a series of public transit art exhibits put up by the San Francisco Arts Commission Public Art Program. The 15-Third exhibit, done in 2007 by Helena Keeffe, is centered around Vawanda, an employee of Muni for eighteen years, and driver on the 15 line:
The quotes scattered around the art piece are Vawanda’s, reflecting on her time with the 15-Third and its riders:
I will truly miss the 15 Third — for its excitement, adventure, laughter and roller coaster ride. I appreciated the diversity of the people and I learned a little something from all of them. Their uplifting spirits made work enjoyable.
Vawanda also speaks of both change and constancy along the route:
I’ve known this line for a long time. I rode the 15 as a kid with my grandmother when I was little. A lot of things on 3rd Street have changed but you still got Sam Jordan’s, Finley Mortuary, Kennedy Liquor, Golden Eagle Liquor and the Bayview Opera House. Those places have been around a long time. We used to get on at 3rd and Thomas to go to Market Street. That was in the late 50’s early 60’s. I never dreamed I would be driving this bus one day.
It seems that for Vawanda, her transit route was more than just a way to get from point A to point B; it was an integral part of daily life, both as a child and as an adult. Perhaps as a driver, this connection is deeper, but should it be much different for riders? Any manner of life experiences, both bad and good, can occur in transit, with the bus offering a sort of background stage for those events to play out. We riders may not think about the connection as explicitly as Vawanda did, but I think it’s there nonetheless.
The mixture between change and constancy that Vawanda alludes to will become an increasingly prevalent characteristic of the Bayview district in future years — indeed, of all the 3rd Street corridor neighborhoods. That the T-Third will bring in all manner of development to 3rd Street seems inevitable, helping to usher in a new era in which underutilized industrial parcels along 3rd Street transform into transit-oriented housing and more vibrant mixed use neighborhoods. A Bayview redevelopment agency has been set up to facilitate this process in a more systematic way. Given the city’s history of 1950’s redevelopment projects in the Western Addition, residents of the Bayview are perhaps justifiably worried about the word “redevelopment” now being attached to their neighborhood. We’ve learned a lot about planning since then, though, so I am not so much worried about the mistakes of the Western Addition being repeated in the Bayview. However, the 3rd Street neighborhoods are sure to change, and worries over the dreaded “G” word — gentrification, of course — will no doubt lead to many struggles over the next several years. In time, we will come to a better understanding of how the Bayview can evolve into a safer, more vibrant neighborhood that nonetheless does not turn its back on the past.
The future of the Bayview is a topic for another day. Of course, the retiring of the 15 bus cannot indicate any exact changes, only that change is bound to occur sooner or later. Hopefully, the potential of the 3rd Street corridor will be realized in a way that is at once respectful and visionary. For now, though, I’ll just be happy if the T runs remotely on time.