City Leaders Gather for Central Subway Groundbreaking Ceremony

IMG_1473.jpgMayor Newsom addresses supporters of the Central Subway. Photo: Michael Rhodes

Dozens of local elected officials and community leaders donned their novelty hard hats today for a Central Subway groundbreaking ceremony under the I-80 freeway overpass. Tunneling for the subway won’t start for at least another two years, so a utility relocation project at the future site of the tunnel’s SoMa portal had to suffice.

“We’re here specifically to mark the beginning of the last month of relocation of utilities to make room for the tunnel portal that will start under this freeway and end at Moscone station,” explained MTA Executive Director Nat Ford.

Led by Mayor Newsom and Ford, an array of speakers praised the project as an important transportation link for the city’s eastern-most neighborhoods. The project is set to open in 2018 and would extend the T-Third Street light rail line from the 4th and King Caltrain station to mid-Chinatown, diving underground at the I-80 overpass in SoMa.

“We view this project as – it’s about Chinatown – but more importantly, connecting important places in San Francisco: Bayview-Hunters Point, Visitacion Valley, the entire eastern seaboard, Mission Bay, Chinatown, North Beach,” said Gordon Chin, Executive Director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, which has pushed for the project since before its inception.

Board of Supervisors President David Chiu called the project a “vision of turning San Francisco into a true 21st Century Transit First city.”

“The neighborhoods that we are talking about that will be affected by this are the densest neighborhoods on the West Coast. They were our first transit-first neighborhoods.”

pastedGraphic.jpgClick to enlarge. SPUR, CCDC and other groups have supported building the line through Chinatown into North Beach. Image: SPUR.

Hoi Chong Wong, President of the Community Tenants Association, and recently the subject of a Streetsblog Muni rider profile, said the project is strongly welcome in Chinatown. “Our community is very excited about the Central Subway, and this ceremony is definitely a huge recognition of all of our hard work,” said Wong.

“The majority of our 1,000 members are transit dependent San Francisco residents. We will continue to give our unwavering support to the project.”

Several of the speakers, including the Mayor, alluded to the project’s controversial reputation among the city’s transit advocates. Many have voiced concerns about the 1.7-mile subway project’s $1.6 billion price tag, its potential impact on Muni’s operating budget, and its lack of stations in northern Chinatown or North Beach.

“Controversy and transit projects always seems to go hand in hand,” said Carolyn Diamond of the Market Street Association. Comparing the project to the construction of BART and the tearing down of the Central and Embarcadero Freeways, Diamond projected the city’s residents would come to see the subway as essential. “These were visionary projects, as this is,” said Diamond. “In the years to come, we will look back and wonder how San Francisco would move without this important link.”

The Mayor also made a wager that isn’t always a safe bet when it comes to transportation projects: that the project would stay on budget. “This project is still – a lot of folks are cynical about this – still tagged at about $1.6 billion,” he said. “We believe, and I can say this at my peril, but I say this with some confidence, that we will deliver this on time and on budget, that we have designed and engineered this in a way that I believe these numbers are absolutely achievable.”

Central Subway planners have mostly received positive news from the federal government, including a recent $20 million appropriation in President Obama’s budget. But last month when the FTA officially approved the MTA’s request to move into Final Design on the 1.7-mile light rail and subway line, it attached some strings.

In its approval letter, the FTA told the MTA it must produce a plan demonstrating it can finance the project without adversely affecting its current operations or reducing state of good repair expenditures.

After today’s event, Ford reiterated he’s confident that won’t be a problem. “We’re continuing to work on the financial plan. It’s an ongoing effort,” he said. “Every year, we have to submit our application over and over again and then walk through all the financial kinks. But we feel good about where we’re at right now.”

As for surface level conditions on Stockton Street, Ford said the MTA isn’t planning any improvements before the subway opens – another bone of contention with transit advocates. “Right now we’re going to continue to work on really just transit-priority, working with the PCOs, making sure we keep the corridor as clear as possible,” he said.

  • Sick.

  • Where do I begin? First of all, Newsom – go F* yourself. On budget and on time? He’ll be long gone before the bills come due so why not promise something that’ll never happen.

    And thank you Michael for asking Nat about that clause in the FTA letter, but he gave the answer I thought he would. Maybe their reasoning behind dismantling MUNI piece-by-piece is to make sure the operating costs for running the CS don’t impact service because there won’t be much service left.

    And yes we are a dense city, but we are also a walkable city. Which means that Stockton can easily be turned into a transit only street with wide sidewalks. Why are we spending $1.6B for no other reason then to continue to let cars use the Stockton Tunnel?

    So now it is known how North Beach will lose it’s service down 4th, but it’ll get what it lost from the 20. THe SFMTA giveth and the SFMTA TAKETH away.

  • Why must we continue to peddle the lie that one day this thing is going to go through north beach on a surface extension.

    There is no money to pay for it.

    The neighbors and the Church will not allow a tunnel or any tracks to be put down.

    This is not going to happen.

    And yet, all coverage indicates it “might” happen. It isn’t.

    The whole thing is just a boondoggle. At the very least they could have restored the old streetcar line the Stockton tunnel was built for, at significantly less cost.

    And all of this is because we tore down the Embarcadero Freeway, and a few Chinatown leaders were upset claiming “no one would drive to Chinatown” and demanded the concession as part of supporting Willie Brown’s re-election. Now billions will go down this subway to nowhere, and “Chinatown” won’t be served very well at all.

  • Michael Rhodes

    Hi Greg – Sorry for any confusion. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the extension to North Beach is financially or politically feasible, just that some observers have proposed it as a way to improve the project’s utility.

  • Greg, I’m glad you have a blog and a louder voice than I. But yeah, speaking from someone who is active in the North Beach community – a LOT of people feel that there WILL be a station in North Beach. I called out the PR machine from the CS that came to our North Beach Neighbor meeting and he whimpered for a couple minutes about the “future” plans. And if it does come to North Beach (which it never will), there will be 15 yrs of arguing where it should come out – Washington Square or the NB Library.

  • @Michael, you didn’t imply it – everyone on the payroll for the CS is from Pelosi to Newsom to Ford to the paper pushers. They want people to believe it is in the pipes so that they get the backing from the politically connected in North Beach since they already have the Chinatown power-base wrapped up.

  • HAVEN’T WE LEARNED FROM THE MEGA-BOONDOGGLES OF THE PAST?

    Like Alaska’s shifting of funds from the “Bridge to No Where”, we need to shift Central Subway funds to immediate transit needs, quickly creating tens of thousands of jobs.

    Tragically, the Central Subway’s own EIR cites a large reduction of surface buses to offset higher operating costs. The Subway would drain funds from the Muni system city-wide. Tens of thousands of riders, north of the Washington Street Subway Station, will have reduced service. Few riders will benefit from the one-half mile subway ride from Washington St. to Union Square. Far worse, from Stockton & Pacific Ave., the Total Travel Time by Bus to Market St. is faster than the Total Travel Time by Subway.

    The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) sees the Central Subway as “a high risk project” and states that pre-approval does not guarantee future Federal funds. Local officials are gambling with taxpayers dollars, while the Muni system spirals downward.

    The FTA has set extremely high requirements that place the City at risk:
    1. Securing non-federal funds of $164 million—which are much more needed to salvage existing public transit.
    2. A financial plan for operating/ maintaining the Central Subway without depleting funding from current transit operations. But the Central Subway EIR itself cites large cuts in surface transit.
    3. Develop a plan to assure local funding in case the project’s costs escalate. Based on almost all large infrastructure projects, this could well bankrupt San Francisco.

  • Besides the continuing creep of high-rises north of Washington St., the looming threat is the mere concept of a Central Subway Project. Driven by political needs rather than transportation needs, the Subway’s planners tout new development and access to CalTrain, i.e. commuter connectivity to the southern peninsula. Well-heeled professionals will commute to work from luxurious rentals/ condos in North Beach and Chinatown. Soaring retail/ commercial rents and gentrification would follow, as exemplified in the world’s prime locations, locations, locations.
    Ironically, the biggest losers will be the Chinese Community, particularly lower-income immigrants and Chinatown itself—the City’s number two tourist destination.
    BUT AS THROUGHOUT SF’S HISTORY, AVERAGE CITIZENS CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE!
    SEE SAVEMUNI.COM.

  • After all the Muni service cuts – the one time they could take the cheap way out and it would actually be more beneficial, they don’t do it? Hell, we could probably get improved surface transit-ways and a full, safe bike network (to-go) for what small fraction?

    And I can’t help but feel there’s a humanistic side of a need to avoid going underground as much as possible – while visiting New York, I’ve felt like a mole. Must we abandon our streets?

  • G. Cauthen

    Muni has serious unmet capital needs. Service on the existing Muni Metro light rail system is fraught with problems and getting worse. Buses in many parts of the city, Stockton Street in particular, creep along under cattle car conditions. The lack of spare parts is a serious and growing problem. Transit reliability is concept of the past. Routes and service hours are being cut. Fares are being hiked and fare evation is rampant.

    So how does the SFMTA and Mayor’s office respond? Instead of addressing these problems head-on, they frantically chase federal dollars. Dollars that they want to use to inflict a virtually-useless, money losing piece of a subway on Francisco’s already beleaguered transit system.

    The Central Subway Project should be deferred and the funds used to eliminate Muni’s real problems.

  • sf4fun66

    All I can say is “wow” and shake my head. The nerve of Newsom and Ford to tout this boondoggle as a solution when the entire MUNI system is in perilous need of attention today makes me sick.

    This line means nothing unless it includes a North Beach station and spur for a surface or tunnel route to the wharf or west to van ness/marina. At an absolute minimum how about creating a dual Chinatown/NB station between Pacific and Broadway.

    As for gentrification…dunno about that. Remember, the CS is a direct link from th Bayview which, to be politically-correct, is not the safest area in town.

  • corntrollio

    FWIW, love that the SPUR map has the Geary subway. If only we could get BART to build it…

  • Troy

    This subway is the worst waste of money. I sincerely hope that saner heads will prevail. Could they?

  • sf4fun66

    The Market St. subway’s been around for 30 years and hasn’t driven any substantial growth west of 5th. North Beach is already priced out, but I doubt Chinatown will see a huge conversion to megprojects and highrises.

  • Nathanael

    WHY WHY WHY aren’t they pointing the Union Square station towards Geary?

    Seriously, if they did that and announced it as “Phase One of the Geary Subway”, huge numbers of transit advocates would be cheering!

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