The SFMTA is taking its first baby steps toward reopening the Muni Metro, and those will begin with the December 19 restart of the J-Church line.

As everyone knows, Muni has all kinds of problems. The pandemic has only worsened those, and highlighted how the system is capable of collapsing even when hardly anyone is using it. On top of serious budget woes that will only be solved by federal aid or mass layoffs, the transit agency is still recovering from repair and maintenance flubs from previous years that have prevented even a bare minimum of service on the Muni Metro light-rail system for many months.

Following the last Muni meltdown to occur, just two days after the Metro system reopened in late August, we now get word from the Chronicle that the agency is planning to slowly restart the system again, one train line at a time, and only above-ground for now. The restart begins with J-Church service between Balboa Park and Church/Duboce on December 19 — and as you may know, this will be a preview of how the J line will work for the foreseeable future, turning around at Church and Market and no longer going below ground as Muni attempts to reduce train traffic in the main artery tunnel.

That will be followed on January 23 with the restart of T-Third service from Sunnydale to Embarcadero; and in early March, N-Judah service will reportedly restart from Judah & LaPlaya. (The Chronicle has it going to 6th & King streets, but that seems to be contingent on the main artery tunnel reopening.)

A bus shuttle between Embarcadero and West Portal is also in the works, but will only be launched if and when transit demand picks up.

Maintenance work on the tunnel west of the Embarcadero has apparently been slowed, the SFMTA said in a report to its board on Tuesday, because workers in the tunnel have apparently infected each other with COVID-19. An earlier outbreak of the virus among train control staff at the main control hub compounded problems with the late-August reopening of the Metro system.

And newly announced maintenance work in the Twin Peaks Tunnel — a necessary replacement of the ballast rock beneath the tracks that was supposed to have been done during a project two years ago — is expected to delay the reopening of underground light-rail service until "at least" February, as officials informed the board Tuesday. That work began on Monday.

When the Muni Metro is fully up and running again, it will be under a new route system that is meant to decrease the number of trains traveling underground below Market Street, and speed up service overall. As announced in June, the J, K, and L lines will no longer take passengers directly downtown. Inbound J passengers will need to transfer to one of the underground lines (M, T, or S) at Market and Church; and inbound K and L passengers will need to transfer at West Portal.

The map as it stood in August.
Inset showing the new transfer point at West Portal, and the combined L/K line.

The restart of light-rail service is likely to trigger the restart of additional bus lines that have been on hiatus since April — a couple of lines came back to life on August 24 when the Metro briefly reopened due to the increased availability of drivers when trains are in service and replacement shuttles go away. But the SFMTA has yet to make any announcements about this. And layoff woes may, in fact, lead to further service cuts, as SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin announced this week.

Related: SFMTA Reveals Blunder In Twin Peaks Tunnel That Will Cost 'Tens of Millions of Dollars'

Photo: Matt Baume