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‘A punch to the gut’: Bridge repairs to sever San Francisco Muni line for up to 2 years

A man a gray bottom shirt poses for a portrait along a bridge
Renato “Ray” Guerrero, owner of Mexican restaurant La Laguna, said the closure of the Islais Creek Bridge could prompt him to sell his business and his building. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

The Islais Creek Bridge is a 73-year-old drawbridge on San Francisco’s Third Street that connects the Dogpatch neighborhood in the north to the Bayview in the south. Muni’s T-Third Street light rail line runs straight down the center of the bridge, which shudders as vehicles pass over its metal grates.

Pretty much everyone agrees that the structure that spans Islais Creek needs renovation, including the California Department of Transportation, which has identified structural deterioration and other troubling issues. 

But a forthcoming $60 million project to replace the aging bridge would sever a main thoroughfare connecting the Bayview and the rest of San Francisco and halt light rail service in the historically underserved neighborhood for up to two years.

Residents and merchants fear taking the bridge out of commission for two years would be a devastating blow to an area still reeling from the impacts of the pandemic and add to a history of policies that have isolated their community from the rest of the city. Bayview has the highest percentage of Black residents of any neighborhood in the city.

A steal bridge with person in a red hoodie walking over.
The 73-year-old Islais Creek Bridge connects the Bayview to the Dogpatch neighborhood. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Construction on the project, according to a draft environmental report, could start as soon as spring 2025. A Planning Commission hearing on the bridge project is scheduled for Jan. 11.

The project would demolish the existing structure and replace it with a fixed-span bridge with a center 26-foot-wide dedicated light-rail transit lane, four lanes for vehicles and two lanes for pedestrian traffic.

In the meantime, cars, buses and pedestrians would be detoured around Third Street to surrounding routes. City officials say the light rail will be replaced by a comparable bus shuttle service.  

“It’s a devastating blow to an already isolated neighborhood,” said Theo Ellington, the interim director of the Bayview Opera House, a historic performing arts theater a mile south of the bridge on Third Street. “The idea that you are cutting the main transit artery to a community that has been historically marginalized is simply mind-boggling.”

Ellington, who was born and raised in the Bayview, traced the recent history of city solutions meant to improve accessibility to the neighborhood. First was the extension of the T line into the Bayview after much community advocacy, only for it quickly develop a reputation for delays, unreliability and infrequency. 

A colorful mural that reads Bay View Forever with a likeness of Black Panther.
Colorful murals are common along the Third Street corridor in the Bayview, a few blocks from the historic Bayview Opera House. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

In response, the city eventually added the temporary 15-Bayview Hunters Point bus line as a way to make up for the light rail’s lack of reliability.

But the bridge replacement project would not just sever the light rail but also cut all vehicle, pedestrian and bus traffic, necessitating detours and likely worsening traffic and congestion.

“We need more transit options. The last thing we want is to cut them just as it’s started to get a little better,” Ellington said. “People are hopeful, but when stuff like things happens, they feel like it’s just business as usual.”

Cutting the Connection

Thomas Roitman, a project manager for the Department of Public Works leading the Islais Creek Bridge replacement, also led the effort to renovate the Lefty O’Doul Bridge near Oracle Park in 2020. That project—which cost around $40 million—was a renovation rather than a replacement. 

In that case, pieces of the bridge were taken apart and repaired, meaning that at least some lanes remained open during the bulk of construction. 

Roitman said the Lefty O’Doul Bridge is more active in terms of maritime uses and called it a “more historically significant bridge” because it was designed by Joseph Strauss, who later served as the chief engineer for the Golden Gate Bridge. 

Cars pass under a large metal bridge with a commercial building to the right.
Cars travel on Lefty O’Doul Bridge in SoMa, near Oracle Park, with Mission Bay in background. | Source: Google Street View

“Keeping that bridge in place and rehabilitating it made the most sense,” Roitman said. “Whereas with this bridge, it’s a little bit different because it’s an industrial area that isn’t built out right to the edges.”

With the accelerating pace of sea level rise, Roitman said the city saw the need to replace the Islais Creek bridge with a fixed span at a higher elevation. He said although the short-term costs will be significant, he weighed that against the long-term benefits. 

“What we didn’t want is to have a bridge that meets today’s needs, but then 25 or 30 years from now, we have a bridge that’s sort of obsolete already,” he said. 

The bulk of the funding for the infrastructure project is coming from the federal government and being administered by state transportation officials. Roitman said with the complicated regulatory process, it’s likely that the project will not break ground earlier than 2026 and local transit officials are developing preliminary plans for a bus shuttle substitution.

“We feel that we still have two-plus years before we start construction, so it’s premature to seek too much community feedback on the transportation plan while it’s still in the early development stages,” Roitman said. 

Cars cross over the Islais Creek Bridge.
Cars cross over the Islais Creek Bridge in San Francisco on Friday. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Roitman said that the city provided notice of the project earlier this year to “a fairly large net of community groups and residents near the project.” He said that placards were also placed on Muni buses and trains. 

Earl Shaddix, executive director of Economic Development of Third, a nonprofit economic development organization, said that he’s spoken with dozens of merchants along the corridor and none were aware of the bridge replacement plan.

He pointed to the problems of the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit lane and the furor over the Geary Street Improvement project as analogs to what’s happening in the Bayview. Shaddix is calling for an extension of the project’s public comment period to allow time to gather feedback past the busy holiday season as well as meetings between merchants and city officials. 

Shaddix said the last time a train was replaced by bus shuttles was during the construction of the Central Subway. Although transit workers were out in full force in the early days of the pause, it didn’t take long for them to dissipate and placards to disappear. 

“Oftentimes with these shuttles, you’re standing without a shelter in pouring rain or in the pitch black and there’s no predictability for your work schedule,” Shaddix said. “We want this to be a success. We understand sea rising, climate change and global warming, but let’s do it together. They waited 50 years, so they can wait another three more months.” 

Severing the bridge, Shaddix said, would severely disrupt traffic into the neighborhood, and hamper Bayview residents traveling elsewhere in the city for their jobs.

District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton, who represents the Bayview, said his office aims to work with local officials to mitigate negative impacts and ensure appropriate input from the community. 

Supervisor Shamann Walton speaks at the opening of the new Lucky Bayview in front of a large crowd including Mayor London Breed.
Supervisor Shamann Walton speaks at the opening of the new Lucky Bayview grocery store at 3801 Third St. in 2022. | Source: Mike Kuba/The Standard

“There will be no ideal scenario, but my hope is that all transportation strategies are effective and cause minimal disruption to community,” Walton said in a statement. 

‘A Business Decision’

Renato Guerrero, the owner of La Laguna, a restaurant at 3906 Third St. just south of the bridge, compared finding out about the bridge replacement to “a punch to the gut.”

He estimates that he makes $300 daily from customers who use the nearby light rail stop. That adds up to tens of thousands in sales annually. It’s been a lifeline for his restaurant, which has seen sales recover to only 60% of their pre-Covid levels.

Ray, as he’s affectionately known to longtime customers, is a pillar of the community and has cheerfully continued to serve up burritos, tacos and quesadillas through two recessions and a pandemic. The bridge construction, however, might be the last straw.

Since learning about the project last week, he’s already met with a real estate agent to probe the prospect of selling the building that houses his restaurant. Without grants or some sort of financial aid from the city, he said the building’s sale and his business’ closure would essentially be a done deal. 

“I’m sure in the long term it’s going to be good, but what do we do in between those years? That’s my big question,” Guerrero said. “I’m already struggling to stay open. If I wait to see how exactly it’s going to hurt me, it will be too late. I have to make a business decision.”

A man Ray Guerrero stands on the Islais Creek Bridge facing the camera while posing for a portrait.
Renato "Ray" Guerrero, owner of Mexican restaurant La Laguna on Third Street, compared finding out about the bridge replacement to “a punch to the gut.” | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Gumbo Social sits along the Third Street corridor and is the brainchild of chef-owner Dontaye Ball, who turned a pandemic-era side hustle into a brick-and-mortar serving a soul food classic he considers America’s national dish.

The business opened in June to a fair amount of positive press, but Ball said it’s still a struggle to draw customers from around the city into his stretch of the Bayview. Cutting off an area that has long struggled with accessibility would hurt sales from third-party delivery partners, he predicted. 

“The lack of transportation options is obvious,” Ball said. “We’re already cut off from the rest of the city, and this cuts us off even more.”

The scheduled construction would hit in the middle of his lease term, just as he hoped to be gaining momentum for a potential renegotiation with the landlord. He said he would not have opened his business where it is today if we had been aware of the bridge replacement plans.

“They went through strenuous efforts to save the bridge on McCovey Cove. We just want to be treated with the same amount of respect, the same amount of time and the same amount of empathy,” Ball said. “We’re not just hoping for that—that’s what we’re going to demand.”