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.”
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.