A Visit to San Francisco

Home » A Visit to San Francisco

Last week I visited San Francisco.  While there I rode old street cars, electric trolley buses  diesel buses  the “Muni” rail lines and the ferry to Sausalito.  In this blog I write of my impressions of the San Francisco system compared to our Metro system.

Also, I learned about a mega- bridge project that I wanted to share with you because it is so interesting and it gives us some perspective on how well we are doing with major transportation projects here.

San Francisco has a tremendous public transportation system.  Here is what their website says:

“The Municipal Railway http://www.sfmta.com/cms/mhome/home50.htm , known universally as Muni, is one of the oldest transit systems on the globe, dating from 1912. It is the largest transit system in the Bay Area and seventh largest in the nation, serving more than 200 million customers a year. The Muni fleet is unique and includes: historic streetcars, bio diesel and electric hybrid buses and electric trolley coaches, light rail vehicles, para-transit cabs and vans and the world-famous cable cars.”

I purchased a 3 day Muni Visitor Passport for $21.

The Passport, called the “Clipper” http://www.sfmta.com/cms/mfares/Clipper.htm , is like our ORCA card.   It allows unlimited rides and one visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the de Young Museum.

Here is a summary of the Muni features that I thought are better than King County Metro’s:

  • Many more transit options both on city streets and below ground
  • Much greater frequency of service
  • The old streetcars from other cities are interesting to see with their original city of service posted on the side of the streetcar.
  • The automated announcements are clear and helpful with messages such as:  “hang on!” or what number to call if someone is vandalizing the bus
  • Each bus has a four digit number in very large print above the driver.  It is easy to read from the back of the bus
  • All articulated buses have three doors making boarding much faster
  • “Clipper” sensors are located inside each door making boarding faster
  • Real time arrival information at most bus shelters is accurate  
  • My iPhone provided accurate bus route and arrival time information

A few examples of where I think Metro and Sound Transit are better:

Metro and Sound Transit busses and the tunnel stations are cleaner.

  • Seattle bus rides are more comfortable.  Generally, San Francisco streets are in poor condition. The hard plastic or wooden seats of the busses and trains make the rides uncomfortable.

A Perspective:  The San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge Project Seismic Safety Project

When I rode the ferry to Sausalito I noticed a massive tower rising high above the Bay east of San Francisco.  I learned that it is a major part of the San Francisco Bay-Oakland Bay Bridge Seismic Safety Project http://baybridgeinfo.org/media/video/overview-san-francisco-oakland-bay-bridge-seismic-safety-projects .  After the  1989 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake caused a segment of the Bay Bridge to collapse, engineers determined that  the eastern span  of the bridge (a cantilever bridge and causeway) betweenYerba Buena Island and Oakland had to be replaced.


After 13 years of disputes over design and alignment, work on replacing the eastern span with a suspension bridge began in 2002 with completion planned for 2007.   But, work was halted on the suspension portion after bids came in nearly twice the original estimate. Other cost overruns began to occur.

With the high bids and the overruns, costs estimates soared from $2.6 billion to more than $6 billion. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger demanded that the suspension design be replaced with a simple causeway design.   The suspension bridge project was placed on hold and costs continued to rise.

However, a new design would require a new environmental analysis and the permitting process would have to begin again.   Also, it was doubtful that the Coast Guard would approve a causeway design because shipping channels would be more restricted.

Gov. Schwarzenegger relented and agreed to continue the suspension span construction and work began again in 2006. The estimated cost of the replacement project is now $6.3 billion, mostly to be paid by tolls which will increase from $4 to $5 on Labor Day 2013 when the new bridge opens.

The new bridge is a marvel of seismic engineering.  Instead of parallel cables anchored between two towers holding up the roadway, the deck hangs below a single tower with a single cable anchored to the roadway itself, looped from one end to the other and back again. The eastern span of the Bay Bridge is now the longest self-anchored suspension bridge in the world.

The single tower and the concrete piers on which the tower is mounted are designed with a unique system to withstand very large earthquakes. Here is the video produced by the local public TV station in San Francisco that illustrates these seismic design features.

I  write about the Bay Bridge project to put into perspective our experience with two of the major Seattle area transportation projects that are underway.  Because, in so many ways, the history and controversy of the San Francisco Bay bridge project makes the new SR 99 tunnel and new SR 520 bridge projects look like models of how local and state government can successfully plan such complex projects -constructively and cooperatively to minimize the engineering risks and risks of cost overruns.

While both projects have been controversial and have taken some time to reach agreement between all parties, and neither project is complete, we can be confident that we have done as much as possible to ensure that neither project will take as long or throw us as many curve-balls as the effort to replace the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.