How did those “temporary” tracks on 17th Street get there?

No, contrary to urban myth the streetcar tracks on 17th Street that have sent so many bicyclists to the hospital were not there when the Spanish first sailed in. In fact they were never supposed to be there now either.

They were designed and installed for a very specific purpose and duration. The tracks allowed the streetcars to continue running  while Castro Street & Church Street Stations were being built thus maintaining a vital link between downtown and the Western neighborhoods.

17thStreetHistory3Our research indicates that these shoofly tracks were installed in 1972 for a purpose that was realized from December 3, 1972 when the first KLM streetcars began using them in service until December 17, 1980 when those lines entered service using the brand new MUNI system and new MUNI Light Rail Vehicles. They are T-rail and not as heavy as the rail on nearby Church Street. I have been told but have not confirmed in writing that the power supply for the 17th St. tracks is perfect for streetcars but not for the Light Rail Vehicles that now run up and down Church Street and under Market Street.

The Muni system as we know it today dates back to the BART system which was created in the 1970’s. The BART project transformed MUNI from a streetcar in the street system to a Light Rail Vehicle system with dedicated right-of-ways and bigger cars running under Market Street in their own tunnel. BART financed and built all the stations and the tunnel and the trains for San Francisco. The company that did all this was known by it’s initials, PBTB (Parsons Brinkerhoff Tudor Bechtel).

More locally, the company hired William A. Bugge, a brilliant engineer who left his job as the Director of Highways in Washington State to work on BART in San Francisco. He was the Project Director for the Upper Market portion of the project and technically speaking the man who oversaw the installation of the temporary shoofly tracks on 17th Street.


Mr. Bugge actually referred to the plan for the temporary tracks on 17th Street in several reports which are available online through the SF public library (Digitized by the Internet Archive in 2013). They were even interrupted by the Concrete Truck Drivers Union which called a non related labor action during track construction which delayed the initial installment of those notorious tracks. But no one who built them thought they would be there ten years later, much less 45. That we are certain of.

February, 1973 Development Project Newsletter.
February 1973 Development Project Newsletter


San Francisco Chronicle, July 19, 1972:

“If it weren’t for the strike, we could complete the concrete shell of the mezzanine extensions from the Powell street subway station, and backfill and restore the street,” Cohn reported.

Without the strike, this whole project “would have been nearing completion by now,” Cohn reported. As matters stand, even if the strike is settled quickly, the work will continue for more than another month.

Colin also reported that pouring concrete to finish the laying of the temporary Municipal Railway tracks on 17th street, near Castro, had also been held up for a month, with auto traffic sharply restricted meanwhile.

It is hoped the entire Muni subway may still be in use before” the end of 1975. BART  service here is to start in June, 1973.

A few words about the big picture — the BART project.

The origins of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District date back to 1947, when the joint Army-Navy board suggested construction of a rapid transit tube beneath San Francisco Bay, to speed travel between Oakland and San Francisco. During the Second World War (1939-45), railroad, aviation, logistical supply and port facilities mushroomed around the Oakland-Alameda estuary, surpassing San Francisco in volume of commerce.

In 1951 state legislation was enacted to create a S.F. Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission, with directors selected from the nine bay Area counties. Feasibility studies for a transbay tube were completed in the early 1950s and submitted to the state for review in January 1956. This original report envisioned a 300-mile long system tying then-developed portions of the Bay Area together with the most modern rapid transit system conceived up until that time. During the same interim, rush hour traffic in Oakland and San Francisco increased 44% between 1954-59, spurring dire predictions of complete gridlock by 1970 (Godfrey, 1966). Further east, traffic increased 115% along Highway 24 in Contra Costa County between 1955-67 (Payne, Russell and Pacheco (1968).

In June 1957 the State approved creation of a Bay Area Rapid Transit District, called “BARTD”. This was subsequently shortened to the BART acronym we recognize today. Sonoma, Santa Clara, Solano and Napa Counties were not taken into the original district because planners did not perceive a need for commuter transit service from outlying areas. At this same time, it was decided to abandon the electrified Key System commuter rail service across the lower deck of the S.F. Bay Bridge, transforming the structure into the double-decked freeway in use today, with 6 traffic lanes in both directions.

Engineering feasibility studies were performed between 1957-61. In early September 1961 BARTD released its initial engineering plans for a five-county system. reproduced in Fig. 1. This plan envisioned using the Golden Gate Bridge for trains, but the Golden Gate Bridge District disapproved the concept, and Marin County was left out of subsequent plans. Flush with the new Bayshore Freeway (US 101), and the Junipero Serra (Interstate 280) freeway then in planning, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors rejected participation in BART in December 1961. This decision obviated the original plans to serve San Francisco International Airport, subsequently resurrected in the 1990s. The reasoning of other Bay Area counties was likely influence by the nearly $100 million annual expenditures in highway construction in the S.F. Bay Area during the 1960s, the lion’s share of which came from the Federal Highway Trust Fund, without additional local taxation.

In November 1962, 61.2% of the voters in San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties (as an aggregate total) voted to be a part of the new rapid transit system, approving a $792 million construction bond, with another $133 million was to come from Bay Bridge tolls (Demoro, 1968) The envisioned cost of $996 million made BART the first “billion dollar mass transit project”, attracting hundreds of contractors to the Bay Area. The new 75-mile light rail system would serve these three counties, as shown in Fig. 2.

In the late 1960s annual inflation approached 7%, more than double the economic predictions utilized in the original plans back in 1962. From mid-1967 onward, the system fought one financial crisis after another, struggling to remain afloat. The balance of funds to complete BART came from local, state and federal sources, including a Federal mass transportation demonstration grant, a capitol construction grant from Federal Housing and Urban Development, 1966 Urban Mass Transportation Act monies, and $150 million from additional sales taxes in the three counties served by BART (enacted in April 1969, to bail the project out). The actual construction figure ended up being about $1.6 billion, $315 million of which came from the Federal government.

In large part due to the frustrations completing BART, the federal Urban Mass Transportation Assistance Act (UMTAA) of 1974 mandated federal assistance of 80% of all capital costs for new mass transit systems. As the pioneer mass transit project, 80% of BART’s funding came from local sources, but UMTAA funds would play a major role in allowing the system-wide extensions completed in the 1990s (Fig. 2).

Design Activities Commence

Engineering expertise was brought in from across the country to deal with the many pioneering aspects of the first “from the ground up” rapid transit system to be constructed in America in almost 50 years. $47 million was set aside for engineering in the 1962 bond. A joint venture was formed between the engineering firms of Parsons, Brinkerhoff, Quade & Douglas, Tudor Engineers and Bechtel Corporation (hereafter referred to as PBTB), who collectively served as BART’s general engineering consultants throughout the project (1962-75). Tudor and Bechtel were San Francisco based firms, while Parsons-Brinkerhoff was based in New York. Parsons had previously been engaged to perform a comprehensive mass transportation study for the Bay Area, completed in 1957.

The original PBTB design team employed about 300 engineers, which swelled to nearly 8000 engineers and technicians during construction. Based on testing by Stanford Research Labs in wind tunnels, in September 1963 PBTB selected lightweight electrified cars running on 115 pound (per 3 feet) rails. The spacing between rails was spread from 4′-8-1/2″ standard gage to 5′-6″ apart, to increase high speed lateral stability. The design speed of the system was intended to be between 50 and 80 mph, while the entire right-of-way would be 100% grade-separated to avoid any delays associated with rail or vehicular crossings. This was deemed essential to maintaining reliable transit schedules that could compete favorably with freeway commuting (Bugge and Irvin, 1964).

This was excerpted from a much longer more detailed document that you can read here.

Anyway, the history of the 17th Street tracks is irrefutable. They were temporary and should have been torn up decades ago. So what happened?

As Oliver Gajda from SF Muni Rail Division put it so succinctly at the 17th Street Bike Safety Project Meeting on June 15, 2017. “We see a benefit in having those tracks.”

So much for planning.


  1. The original transportation plan also called for elevated freeways running from the Bay Bridge up Oak Street through Golden Gate Park. Plans change. Transit first makes sense, taxpayer funded “free” parking does not.


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