Will the SFMTA Gut Muni Improvements to Prop Up the Central Subway?

Central Subway construction on Stockon Street at the site of the planned Union Square Station. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/xpressmagazine/6483705089/in/set-72157628350968779/##SFSU Xpress Magazine via Flickr##

The Central Subway’s latest funding troubles with Congress have brought some burning questions to the surface: How far will the SFMTA go to prop up the project, and what will the price be for Muni riders?

The U.S. House of Representatives approved an amendment to an annual appropriations bill last week that would block $850 million in federal funds for the project. The amendment could be stripped in conference with the Senate, but as the Bay Citizen revealed, SFMTA management is concerned that Congress may not deliver the $942 million — the majority of the project’s funding —  in a timely manner (assuming it comes through at all). The SFMTA had expected the funds to be approved in December 2011. If the agency doesn’t get the funds by September, according to the Bay Citizen, it will waste $4 million in staffing costs every month until it does.

When asked what the SFMTA’s backup plan is, agency spokesperson Kristen Holland didn’t provide one, stating only that the funding probably won’t be blocked because the “amendment is not in the Senate version and should be eliminated in conference.”

“The bottom line is that this project will improve transit for the city, region and state and has been vetted by every level of government and given high marks every step of the way,” Holland told Streetsblog.

But the project’s cost has already risen from the original estimate of $995 million (in 2011 dollars) to $1.6 billion, according to the SFMTA’s Central Subway blog. Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City, said he’s worried the SFMTA may take funds from Muni’s existing service, its abysmally neglected maintenance department, or needed improvements like the Transit Effectiveness Project (TEP), which he says should be a higher priority than the Central Subway.

Though the SFMTA insists that the Central Subway won’t take funds away from other projects, Radulovich said the agency has already been digging into discretionary funds — the money that could be used for any project. “That’s part of their funding plan,” he said. “The trajectory this project is on is to take more and more and more funding from the necessary and essential improvements to Muni.”

The TEP is expected to yield major savings in operating costs and travel times on 16 Muni routes, comprising a “Rapid Network,” for far more riders than the Central Subway at an estimated one-tenth of the cost. But most of the TEP’s funding is unsecured, and if the Central Subway sucks up the funding it needs, the TEP may not meet its target for completion in 2017.

Proposals for eight TEP routes were shopped to the public this spring, including the clogged Stockton Street corridor, which the Central Subway is intended to serve. Although Streetsblog reported in January that the SFMTA wasn’t planning to improve surface transit along Stockton, even as bus riders are detoured around the construction for years, the agency later announced that the street would be included as one of the TEP’s first eight routes. However, it wouldn’t undergo the kind of fundamental changes needed to substantially prioritize bus service on the corridor, like providing two-way bus access throughout Stockton and Fourth Street or restricting car access in the Stockton tunnel.

Radulovich said he also worries that cost-cutting on the Central Subway could make the project worse than it already is. It is one of the most divisive projects among transit advocates, long criticized as a politically-motivated boondoggle with ballooning costs, poor connectivity to other transit routes, minimal benefits for travel time, and low impacts on ridership. Most recently, new protests have come out of North Beach, which won’t get a subway station but will endure the subway’s construction impacts. Save Muni, perhaps the group most committed to opposing the project, also filed a new lawsuit claiming the planned Union Square Station violates the City Charter.

“If there is a delay, I hope MTA uses the time for a rethink of the project,” said Radulovich. “I think there is a Central Subway project that makes sense for San Francisco. It’s not the Central Subway project they’re building.”

  • mikesonn

    Well written, as always, Aaron.

  • Anonymous

    Once again, political games triumph over research and common sense. And yet no one seems to mind…

  • Anonymous

     tinyurl.com/cyk9xz2

  • Guest

    Can someone please provide a vision for Stockton St if not the Central Subway?  I think we’ve run through the options, and basically since we cant eliminate or even reduce the number of cars and trucks, we have to go underground.  

    But we also need to understand the vision. The tunnels to North Beach are being designed in such a way that it will support future rail when funds become available. The problem they are going to have is that they wont be able to obtain the funding there because we are not properly supporting transit infrastructure as a whole.

    We should be funding MUNI and all our other regional and long distance systems such that we can provide systematic improvements in addition to basic operations AND maintenance. Just like how we’re designing “rail-ready” BRT, if we had the funding, neighborhood support, and political cohesion, we could have a line built all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf.

    We need to stop nitpicking and start working together to build better projects.  Also, we need to stop the frivolous lawsuits that delay projects and waste taxpayer dollars!  I wonder how much we’ve had to spend on consultants and lawyers to settle the differences.  How much has this contributed in delays?!

  • mikesonn

    “basically since we cant eliminate or even reduce the number of cars and trucks, we have to go underground”

    Oh? If that is your starting premise then there is no other option. But spending $1.6+ billion to keep the Stockton Tunnel (originally built for transit) open to cars it “the only way” then dig on my friend. Dig on.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    But we also need to understand the vision

    The vision is that grotesquely corrupt rent-seeking construction companies and their associated very cheaply bought hangers-on — SFCTA staff, CCDC, the puppet mayor, etc — get to suck down billions of public dollars, while making the urban environment worse, and do it forever.  A massive, unending transfer of public to private wealth transfer.

    There’s your vision.  Tomorrow is the same as yesterday.  And the day after that will be the same.

  • Sebraleaves

    Exactly which buildings will be effected by this construction process? Is no one concerned about the destruction of North Beach  which is one of the biggest tourist attractions in SF? How many buildings and historical sites will be off-limits during the construction phase and how many will be destroyed?

  • We need to stop nitpicking and start working together to build better projects.

    The fact that this project will not have a seamless connection to the current market street subway is not a nitpick. At this point I’d personally wave the white flag and say the contractors that Richard rips on so much have won, but that does not mean it is right.

    If you are going to dig a big hole like this once a generation, get it right. The people complaining about this are not the same NIMBY Tea Party crew bitching about HSR. Of course the special interests don’t care if the project is useful or not, they get paid either way, so any delays will just delay a paycheck, and a cancellation is disaster.

    The worst part is that killing this project does not mean we get the billion dollars to spend on something that would be more useful. A subway to chinatown sounds so glaringly obvious to the uninitiated but the only people looking at the details know that it’s not exactly a “monorail”

  • Richard Mlynarik

    he people complaining about this are not the same NIMBY Tea Party crew bitching about HSR

    California HSR is in fact exactly the same as the Central Subway.  The exact same corrupt scumbags are behind it, and have systematically “designed” it to be the worst, most expensive, least utile, and most Uniquely American (ie a piece of  crap, with all  furriners with any experience of success prohibited from any involvement) HSR disaster on the planet.

    The only difference from the Central Subway — of the BART extension to the SJ Flea Market that the same criminals are profiting from –is that it 80 times bigger and 80 times more expensive.

    The Central Subway is purely and exclusively about contractor profits.  Terrible design and inutility and cost are the whole point.
    PBQD’s Special VIsion of High Speed Rail is exactly the same: same cast of characters, same catastrophic outcome.

    But sure, believe it is evil “NIMBYs” and “Tea Partiers” who are the only ones who could possibly give a damn about the environment, public finances, government for the people, or good transportation.

  • Richard – we could argue forever about the minutia of the HSR and CS projects. But assuming that HSR gets built, I will in fact be able to take the train at nominally fast speed from somewhere in the SF city limits to Union Station in LA, which is a useful thing. Imperfect, overpriced, corrupt, but nonetheless useful – for a lot of people.

    I have yet to figure out the marginal added utility of the Central Subway, BART->SJ, or the OAC.Well, I guess a Berryessa station on BART would be cool if I wanted to ride my bike up Mt Hamilton, but that’s not exactly a large target market.

  • mikesonn

    @twitter-14678929:disqus Exactly.

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