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.