Central Subway Gets Approval to Enter Final Design Phase

unionsquare.gifThe proposed Union Square Station. Image courtesy SFMTA.

The MTA received approval from the Federal Transit Administration on Thursday to enter into Final Design for the Central Subway project.

In a letter (PDF) that also echoed concerns from some local transit advocates about the project, the FTA officially approved the MTA’s request to move into Final Design on the 1.7-mile light rail and subway line, which is considered phase two of the T-Third light rail line, extending it from Fourth and King Streets to Chinatown. The approval is an important step for the project as the MTA moves towards eventually seeking a full-funding grant agreement from the FTA, the final step in the New Starts process.

It will still be almost two years before Muni could receive a full grant for the subway, which is now expected to cost $1.6 billion, with service currently expected to begin in 2018.

"We are deeply gratified by this decision," said MTA Executive Director Nat Ford in a release. "We are making tremendous progress toward improved transportation for the communities along the congested corridor that the Central Subway will serve."

In the second paragraph of the four-page letter, the FTA states several concerns that transit advocates and project critics have had about the project, including the MTA’s ability to maintain its equipment in a state of good repair, which is required by federal law before the FTA will fund new projects. Before the FTA will consider awarding a full-funding grant agreement, the MTA will be required to "develop and implement a financial plan demonstrating that construction and operation of the Central Subway project will not adversely affect current transit operations or reduce state of good repair expenditures."

The FTA is also requiring the MTA to secure $164 million in funding for the project by the end of 2011. The Chronicle’s City Insider blog reports that MTA officials are confident they can address the FTA’s concerns in time.

BART Director and Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich is skeptical that the MTA will secure the funds without raiding existing operations, and said he shares the FTA’s concern about Muni’s ability to maintain existing levels of service once the Central Subway is built. "They do not have enough money to maintain their existing system," said Radulovich. "They have taken money, like the bridge toll money, that they could have used for very pressing existing capital needs, and they’re channeling that toward Central Subway."

"Our feeling is MTA needs to be first things first," he said, speaking for Livable City. "They can’t be compromising the quality and the safety of the existing service to fund these expansions."

Radulovich is also concerned that the MTA isn’t working to improve existing conditions for Stockton Street buses, such as adding boarding islands, or even converting Stockton into a transit mall, while maintaining delivery access for trucks. "I feel like they’re holding all the transit riders in that corridor hostage in a way to make the case for the Central Subway, when there are some low-cost fixes to Stockton Street that will serve people well as a short-term measure, until they get the Central Subway running, but which will also serve people after the Central Subway is built."

Though the design of the project has come under heavy criticism for its short length, high-floor vehicles, indirect connection to Powell Street station, deep tunnels, and high cost in the face of the MTA’s perennial budget shortfalls, it has strong support in Chinatown and from Union Square merchants, and received a medium-high overall rating from the FTA last year.

  • Thank you Streetsblog and Tom Radulovich! Thank you! Thank you!

    Now, to shut this thing down!

  • What a waste. Hopefully they can extend it farther north and salvage something out of this corrupt payout masquerading as public transit.

  • Anonymous

    Cannot believe MTA will evict 15 families from an SRO at Washington and Stockton.

  • RH

    It amazes me that MUNI can’t even get the current system to run correctly. Yet we will spend millions of dollars for this mess? Someone needs to have there head examined, including Gavin Newsom, who clearly has checked out completely!

  • Robo

    It’s the big luau that won’t die: more pork than we can eat. Who ordered this mess, anyway?

  • david vartanoff

    picture worth xxxx words. a design from hell. Amazing how much money it will cost to build a user hostile dysfunctional mistake.

  • Peter M

    I wonder how much that massive mezzanine for the Union Square/Market Street station adds to the cost of the subway

  • As most of you agree, this project is going to cripple MUNI for years to come. Savemuni.com is trying to put together a “MUNI Summit” in the coming months. It won’t be just about the Central Subway, but about what we as a city (neighbor groups in particular) can do to help MUNI through these tough economic times. Also, we have to keep the faith that reason will stop the Central Subway.

  • orson

    It’s so hard being a transit supporter in this town. In the grand scheme of things, of course a subway is better, and fantasizing about what SF would be like with a London-style underground network is one of my favorite pastimes. Moreover, a well-designed central line from North Beach to SOMA makes a lot of sense as a first step. But there are so many things wrong with this design, and such pressing needs elsewhere (hello, long-suffering 38 Geary), even though it breaks my heart I can’t help but be against it. Argh. I mean, it’s like Muni purposefully builds delays into the system. Anyone who’s stuck in the inching-along N & Js in the portal behind Safeway should look at the planned 4th St. portal of this thing with absolute horror — imagine how slow that’s going to be. Especially considering how extending the subway to the Caltrain station offers, for instance, a pretty good alternative to the transbay terminal nonsense (which requires a screeching S-curve to get to, tons of destruction of cool old buildings, and again, doesn’t sync up with BART & Muni). Not lining up the central subway with Powell station is also pretty psychotic, but in a world where it made tons of sense to planners to make BART riders trapped behind cages as they walk through Muni stations above, then exit and re-enter, passenger convenience is clearly not a consideration.

    Arrrrrgh!

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