Skip to main content

Lawmaker may take San Francisco out of its freeway removal slump

State Sen. Scott Wiener speaks at a press conference at City Hall on Thursday, July 28, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

A state lawmaker asked the state’s transportation department to figure out what it would take to remove what’s left of San Francisco’s Central Freeway and to look into what can be done with two other freeways.

State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) formally asked the California Department of Transportation to study the cost and logistics for taking down the Central Freeway, the Bayshore Viaduct of Interstate 80 between 17th Street and the Bay Bridge, and Interstate 280 north of U.S. 101.

“We should not be investing huge sums in these structures before we evaluate whether we should be retaining them in the first place,” Wiener wrote.

The letter, cosigned by a dozen advocacy groups, adds momentum to a small but growing campaign to remove some of the city’s freeways.

Cars drive on the Central Freeway on I-101 on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard | Source: Paul Kuroda for The Standard

“Kudos to Senator Wiener for finally asking the right questions of Caltrans, and starting a long-overdue public conversation about what’s next,” said Tom Radulovich, leader of Livable City, which signed the letter.

For Daniel Owens of the Vision Blvd campaign, the letter is the latest encouraging development in his group’s efforts to make the Central Freeway removal an inevitability. He pointed to the upside for Caltrans’ budget.

“While they have historically worked to retrofit and upgrade freeway infrastructure, there is a chance they will no longer view the Central Freeway as something that they want to indefinitely maintain,” he said. “Why not take the Central Freeway off their books?”

Caltrans is working on a response to Wiener, according to a spokesperson.

In the late 1950s, progressive San Franciscans fought against freeway expansion to prevent neighborhoods from being cleaved. While freeway removal is now a national trend, San Francisco has never taken any down unless they were irreparably damaged.

Removal of the Embarcadero Freeway and the part of the Central Freeway that is now Octavia Boulevard helped the environment and made way for housing and open space.

But without Caltrans fully on board, the city can’t do much on its own.

The Office of Mayor London Breed said the area around the Central Freeway requires more study.

“As part of our Housing Element, we are looking across the city for any and all housing opportunities that exist,” her spokesperson Jeff Cretan said.

Hammering out the Housing Element, a blueprint for the city to meet state-set growth targets, has been a contentious process. The latest version had to show how the city will add 82,000 new homes over the next 10 years.

Amateur urban planners have speculated that thousands of units could be built if the 53-year-old “coronado blue” Central Freeway gets redeveloped.

The San Francisco Planning Department, charged with updating the Housing Element, wants to see how Caltrans responds to the letter.

“The city’s history of freeway removal is strong,” the department’s Chief of Staff Dan Sider said. “We’re eager to explore what might be next.”

A view from street level shows the road below the Central Freeway on Aug. 29, 2022. | James Wyatt for The Standard

The Standard first reported that the Transportation Element, a part of the city’s master plan, called for a study of how removing the Central Freeway south of Market Street would impact neighborhood livability, transportation and economy. Yet the city has not complied.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority, a key player in freeway removal, declined to comment on the letter.

San Francisco State University geography professor Jason Henderson—who was involved in public meetings for redeveloping the Central Freeway north of Market Street into Octavia Boulevard—said Wiener’s letter is a great start and wants Caltrans to respond positively. He believes lessons from Octavia Boulevard can inform the replacement of Central Freeway with a transit line and separated bikeways to connect Mission Bay with the city center.

“Many of us have advocated for this for decades,” Henderson said. “Done right, these kinds of removals can be transformative and inspiring.”

Alex Mullaney can be reached at