As Central Subway Funding Deadline Looms, Chinatown Rallies Support

Chinatown Community Develompent Center and Chinatown Tenants Association members rally for the Central Subway. Photo: Matthew Roth

Chinatown Community Develompent Center and Chinatown Tenants Association members rally for the Central Subway. Photo: Matthew Roth

Much has been made over the past two days about the funding gap the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) needs to make up by spring of 2011 to complete the Central Subway, the result of an article in the Chronicle and a small dust up between the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) Executive Director José Luis Moscovich and SFMTA CFO Sonali Bose yesterday.

Moscovich criticized Bose for presenting what he said was an unconvincing plan [pdf] with scant detail on how the SFMTA plans to find $137 million by February, 2011, when it owes the Federal Transit Administration its local funding plan to secure federal New Starts grants of up to nearly $1 billion. Though the SFMTA is confident it will meet the obligations from the feds, Bose was instructed to return to the SFCTA with a more detailed plan next week.

Despite the theatrics of the meeting, SFMTA Central Subway project manager John Funghi told Streetsblog the agency has numerous options for identifying the funding and that it doesn’t need $137 million in cash, merely the commitments from regional and state partners to program the money and spend it by 2015.

“It’s a programming exercise to program the project by the first quarter of next year,” said Funghi, who noted the SFMTA still has at least $60 million set aside for it from Proposition 1A, the High-Speed Rail bond, given the inter-connectivity to the larger project. He also hoped to get more money from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission through regional funding measures like Proposition 1B. The agency could also consider bonding for the project, once it has established its credit rating to issue municipal debt.

Opponents of the project, like Save Muni’s Howard Wong, argue the capital investment in the Central Subway prevents the agency from addressing massive deferred maintenance needs to motor coaches, trolleys and other infrastructure. “The entire Central Subway program is damaging to the system,” said Wong. “They have $2 billion deferred investments. Any funds put toward any other long-term infrastructure project is damaging to the current existing operations.”

“Muni riders in the next few years are facing that poor service, crumbling service,” he added.

Image: SFMTA

Image: SFMTA

As for criticism that the SFMTA will add debt to a system that will be paid from future operating revenues, Funghi said the FTA’s rules prohibit such a scenario.

“That’s sort of a cardinal rule. We’re not going to do that, or you lose the funding,” said Funghi. “We’re putting together a solid financial plan to assure the FTA that we won’t do [that].”

“If we don’t close the gap, there won’t be a project,” he added. “There isn’t a fear that we’re going to move ahead with a program that won’t be fully funded.”

Despite the SFMTA’s confidence it will meet its obligations, Chinatown advocates were concerned enough by the possibility the project wouldn’t cross the finish line to hold a rally Monday in support of the Central Subway.

“This is an environmental justice issue that we’ve been fighting for for a long time. It’s a good thing for all of San Francisco,” said Chinatown Community Development Center’s Reverend Norman Fong. “We’ve already paved the way for federal funding. We don’t want Sarah Palin or any of her buddies to get that money. It’s gotta stay with us. This subway is our subway and it’s going to happen. We should celebrate it.”

Several speakers at the rally referred to the project as an environmental justice issue and said the city should fulfill its promises to the Chinatown community, some decades old.

“There seems to be some sort of movement to target the Central Subway as though not supporting the Central Subway would resolve the issues within Muni,” said Alex Tom, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association. “Just as the right and the conservatives targeted bus drivers and said that bus drivers are the problem with the system and we need to cut the wages of bus drivers. Muni as a whole system has problems, but we cannot allow people to scapegoat Chinatown and to scapegoat this subway project to say that this subway is the problem with Muni.”

Amid chants and cheering from approximately fifty people at the rally, Wing Hoo Leung, Vice President of the Chinatown Tenants Association, said the project opponents were not representative of Chinatown. “The people of Chinatown have spoken. Those of us who live and work in the neighborhood have said yes to the Central Subway,” said Leung. “We need to respect those voices and work positively toward making this project a successful reality.”

According to Carter Rohan, acting executive director of the SFMTA, who updated the board of directors yesterday, the SFMTA will return to the SFCTA next week with a more detailed funding plan. He also assured directors the agency would meet the FTA’s guidelines and line up the funding in time. “In the coming months, we are very confident the funding gap will be successfully addressed to begin major construction as scheduled.”