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Another Vision for the E-line

An excellent article by Aaron Bialick in Streetsblog San Francisco discusses the possible demise of the northern end of Interstate 280 as a means to help facilitate — and pay for — undergrounding of High Speed Rail and Caltrain to reach Downtown. A version of this plan has been mooted by the Mayor’s Office.

The article includes a link to a fascinating and very thoughtful study by Ben Caldwell, studying for his Master’s at UC Berkeley’s School of Urban Design. Caldwell goes beyond the “just tear it down” mentality to analyze how to knit the urban fabric of that part of the city back together. An important part of his vision is an extended E-Embarcadero streetcar line, which Market Street Railway has been advocating for ten years.

Caldwell understands that the center of residential and job gravity in San Francisco is moving south and east toward the Central Waterfront. He, like us, advocates extending the E-line (slated for full-time operation starting mid-2014) from its first-phase terminal at the Caltrain depot south on the T-line tracks to 18th or 20th Street and the Pier 70 area. But Caldwell goes further, advocating that the E then loop through the exciting developments by Orton and Forest City at Pier 70 and emerge on 22nd Street, then run west to the Caltrain 22nd Street station, which would be upgraded into a major transit hub once the 280 freeway above it were removed.

Pier 70 transit Ben Caldwell's plan.jpg

Detail from Ben Caldwell’s presentation on removing I-280, showing E-line extension around Pier 70 and onward to the 22nd Street Caltrain station. Click to enlarge.

Caldwell goes even further, with a “long-term” proposal for an extension along 24th Street to Church, including a tunnel under Potrero Hill, to create what he calls the “C-Circle” line surrounding the vibrant growth areas from the Mission to Mission Bay.

Okay, that C-line part might seem a bit breathless, or at least ahead of its time, but remember the admonition of the great urban planner Daniel Hudson Burnham: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will themselves not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die.”

We like the way Ben Caldwell thinks big. It’s certainly worth talking about. A couple of caveats, though. Every media mention of a potential teardown of even the northernmost tip of I-280 (from Mariposa to King Street) has generated a firestorm of vitriol among commenters. This presages a long and divisive process. And time is not the friend of this project, since Caltrain backers want electrification of the line — necessary for use by high speed rail trains as well — to go forward in the next few years. That may well conflict with any 280 removal. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, we invite you to join our movement to extend the forthcoming E-Embarcadero historic streetcar line both south to Pier 70, and, at its other end, west to Fort Mason. One way to help is to offer comments to SFMTA’s Transit Effectiveness Plan, which only envisions the E-line from Caltrain to the current F-line terminal at Fisherman’s Wharf. You can see the environmental documents for the TEP here, and offer comments until February 22 by email here. If you support extending the E-line to serve the growing Central Waterfront and the National Park attractions of Aquatic Park and Fort Mason, it’s worth your time to say so now.

By the way our next “Inside Track” newsletter, out late this month, will feature our comprehensive vision for the E-line. Our newsletter is a key benefit of being a Market Street Railway member, and your membership is what enables us to advocate for the historic streetcars and cable cars. We hope you’ll join, or, if you’re already a member, send this article to your friends.

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Better to think as big as possible so the end result is still something good, instead of always catering to the small NIMBY whiners, and the nay sayers, and end up with something pricey and half-baked.

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