Noe Valley Voice April 2007

City Aims to Get J-Church Back on Track

By Lorraine Sanders

Noe Valley resident Lisa Butterworth lives less than a block from the J-Church streetcar stop at 24th and Church streets. Yet each morning, she walks five blocks downhill from her apartment to reach the 24th Street BART Station. From there, she heads to her job in the Financial District. In the evening, her routine is much the same, except she has to walk uphill to get home.

"I find it so miserable that I never take it," Butterworth says of the J-Church line. "As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't even exist--except when it screws up my television reception when a train goes by my apartment."

Butterworth isn't the only rider frustrated with the J-Church line, which carries an average of 18,700 passengers each weekday along its route from Balboa Park through Noe Valley to the Embarcadero.

"I have often looked online to coordinate with BART, and [the J-Church] often doesn't come when it says it's going to," says Shanna Willner, a Berkeley resident who rides the J-Church line to Noe Valley twice a week.

Riders' frustration with the rail line is hardly unfounded. A recent report from the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA) identified the J-Church as the city's worst-performing rail line, with an on-time performance record of just 61.9 percent last year. Under Proposition E, passed by voters in 1999, all municipal rail lines are required to be on time at least 85 percent of the time. The J isn't even close.

But the line's low score does have a silver lining. On March 5, the SFMTA announced the J-Church Pilot Program, part of the Transit Effectiveness Project's Early Action Plan and modeled after a similar initiative that improved on-time performance on the California-1 bus line from 81 to 88 percent over a three-month period completed in February 2007. The 120-day pilot project, slated to run through July 13, 2007, will assess the rail line, its scheduling and day-to-day operations, in order to determine what causes delays and how best to improve on-time performance.

"We are very focused on doing everything we can to improve the service," says SFMTA spokesperson Maggie Lynch.

While the project is designed to pinpoint when, where, and why the J-Church becomes delayed, Lynch says that likely factors include internal problems like "missed runs," which are defined as regularly scheduled trains that fail to operate due to mechanical problems or an operator's absence, as well as external issues like automobiles and delivery trucks blocking the tracks.

"We don't have what you'd call exclusive right of way. If somebody double-parks to run in and get a mochaccino, we're gonna sit there," Lynch says.

Rider Survey in Progress

Since the project's launch early last month, transit employees have been collecting data detailing how much time, on average, it takes for a J-Church streetcar to travel from stop to stop. The SFMTA has added an inspector at the departure terminal to ensure all J-Church cars are in operation when they are supposed to be. And transit employees have been asking J-Church riders to complete Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP) surveys that detail their experiences on the line. The SFMTA also plans to reprogram the traffic signal at 18th and Church streets to allow J-Church streetcars priority passage.

SFMTA employees are already working to stop streetcar drivers from beginning their routes early, a practice that can lead to overcrowding on the next car, or not running at all. The Department of Parking and Traffic is also stepping up patrols along the J-Church route to deter drivers from obstructing the streetcars' path with their vehicles.

Adding Cars May Be Slow-Going

With these continued efforts, riders are likely to see improvements before the project's completion in July. Other changes will require more time. Adding new streetcars to the route, for example, would take more time, says Lynch, due to union regulations surrounding employee signups for new transit routes.

As for the project's cost, Lynch declined to give an exact figure, but said it would likely be less expensive than the California-1 project, which cost a reported $168,000, because there are fewer cars in operation on the J-Church line than buses on the California-1 route.

Despite the rail line's poor performance record, some J-Church riders are able to look on the bright side. Take Clipper Street resident Peter Olfe, for example:

"Relative to the Muni buses, it doesn't smell that bad. Besides, the view at the top of Dolores Park makes the ride worth it."

The SFMTA is actively seeking people to report on their J-Church riding experiences during the pilot program. For information, e-mail Jennifer Ulbrich at