New Third Street line starts free service, connects diverse neighborhoods 

After years of political wrangling, route planning and millions of dollars invested into the project, the Third Street light rail line took its maiden voyage Saturday morning.

The inaugural run of the T-Third Street line from the Castro Station, drew local politicians and officials, members of the media, curious spectators and potential commuters hoping to size up the newest public transit option.

Jan Weith, a North Beach resident, rode the T-Third Street back from Kirkwood to Montgomery station after speeches by Mayor Gavin Newsom and Supervisor Sophie Maxwell at Kirkwood.

"It was interesting, because I took the 15 down here, and it was very fast because there was no business traffic today," Weith said of the Muni bus line that will be merged into the San Bruno 9 line once the Third Street rail starts running full time. "The fact that this rail will run all the way down to Monster Park will certainly bring travelers, but if it provides a faster alternative remains to be seen."

Weith’s concern may be genuine, as the T-Third Street’s total traveling time of 63 minutes from Castro to Sunnydale Avenue was over the 50 minutes estimated by Muni officials. However, other riders said the route’s simplicity will still make it an improvement over their current commutes, which can require multiple buses to travel downtown.

Traffic snarls, trouble with rail switches and conflicts with the N-Judah line, which will no longer run past the Embarcadero station after the Third Street rail runs full time, contributed to the delays.

Many officials and residents are expecting the new line to benefit more than just commuters.

"It’s a classic case of connecting disparate neighborhoods with public transportation," said Erby Foster, a SoMa resident who uses the N-Judah line to do his grocery shopping. "There is a lot that most city residents don’t know about Bayview, and this is a great way of introducing other people to that area, and hopefully stimulating some economic growth there."

Most of the T-Third Street line will run above ground along Third, with stops at both AT&T Park and Monster Park, before ending at Sunnydale Avenue near the Bayview district.

The line will offer free service and operate on weekends only for the first three months, switching to a full-time schedule on April 7.

Saturday’s kickoff culminated a series of events dating to the approval of Proposition B in 1989, a half-cent sales tax benefiting the San Francisco County Transportation Authority.

In 1994, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission began investigating the possibility of extending routes down Third Street, with access to the Bayview district and beyond. In 1996, The City officially began detailing plans for the Third Street Light Rail Project.

Costs for the project, financed from various sources at the local, state and federal levels, topped out at nearly $650 million. The service was originally scheduled to start operations in December 2005.

Looking to the future: Central Subway up next

As planned, the T-Third Street light rail project will have two phases: the completed 5.1-mile line that runs aboveground along Third Street and another 1.7 mile extension that would go underground at Bryant Street to Chinatown, called the Central Subway.

Preliminary engineering on the Central Subway began in mid-2003 and an environmental review process is under way, according to Muni spokeswoman Maggie Lynch. The subway, estimated to cost $764 million, would cross beneath Market Street, as well as Geary and Stockton streets, and end at Stockton and Clay streets. Four new underground stations would be located at Moscone Center, Market Street, Union Square and Clay Street.

According to a Muni timeline, a final design for the Central Subway project is expected to be competed by 2010, with construction taking five years and the new route being ready to run in 2016.

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Will Reisman

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