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Central Subway

Muni Monday: The Future of the Central Subway

STV.jpgCentral Subway Chinatown station. Graphic: SFMTA

Now that the Central Subway has received its Record Of Decision (ROD) from the Federal Transit Administration, advocates are pressing the MTA to start planning for the subway’s extension into North Beach and beyond.

The Central Subway is considered phase two of the T-Third Muni Metro line, extending that service from Fourth and King Streets to Chinatown. It is proposed to enter a subway on Fourth Street under the freeway, and continue in a subway to its stub end destination in Chinatown.

Among the criticisms of the project when it was proposed is the fact that the dead-end station failed to connect to the rest of the Muni network very effectively, limiting its utility and ridership. Yet the MTA could not publicly discuss the possibility of an extension for bureaucratic reasons that are too typical and indicative of the illness that affects community planning in the United States. Because its proposal to the Federal Transit Administration did not contemplate the extension, to formally discuss it would have called into question the definition of the project and forced the FTA to consider the possibility that the MTA had misrepresented the project as smaller than it actually is, which would have at least delayed and possibly killed the project.

With the ROD out of the way, the MTA is free to consider an extension. Groups such as SPUR have argued that a one-stop extension to North Beach is so effective and so affordable that the MTA ought to complete the extension as part of the same construction contract for the rest of the Central Subway, simply keeping the tunnel boring machine (TBM) at work a little bit longer. In fact, the MTA is already planning to extract the TBM from the ground in North Beach near the location where another station should be located.


A North Beach Station will benefit not just North Beach residents but also people in Chinatown because it would put a station at the north end of the neighborhood to match the already planned station at the south end, according to Cindy Wu, Community Planning Manager at the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC).

The CCDC is already helping to plan the extension, working with the MTA and UC Berkeley professor Peter Bosselman, who is interested in having graduate students do a planning review of the North Beach extension.

“There is a lot of attention right now about the number of vacancies in North Beach, and the struggling small business owners,” says Wu. “This would really help bring people, including local shoppers, supporting the kind of retail people want to see.”

Stephen Taber, the chair of SPUR’s Central Subway Task Force, is looking beyond North Beach. “In order for the central subway to achieve its full potential it must extend more than just one station beyond major transfer points. We need a full citywide system of rapid rail transit, including this line extended beyond North Beach to other high-density neighborhoods that will support rail transit, past Van Ness along Lombard Street into the Marina and Cow Hollow.”

When phase two is complete, the T-Third will connect Chinatown with Union Square/Market Street, the Moscone Center, the 4th and King Caltrain station, Mission Bay, the Bayview, and Visitacion Valley, which has seen an influx of former Chinatown residents due to overcrowding and affordability issues in Chinatown. Many Vis Valley residents have extended family in Chinatown, and rely on the neighborhood for myriad cultural and institutional services. “The bus route between these two neighborhoods is so busy that people will take the bus north from Chinatown just to find a seat, or even just standing room, on the bus to Vis Valley,” said Wu.

At its south terminus, the line will soon be extended one station beyond Vis Valley to the Bayshore Caltrain station, in conjunction with a development project at the old Schlage Lock factory site.

The line is expected to be in service by 2017, but delays in funding caused by the current bond market could push that back to 2018 or 2019. “From the point of view of the SFMTA, the project is fully funded,” says project manager John Funghi. The $1.4 billion project has yet to encounter the usual cost escalation for rail transit projects which, on average, drives up the eventual price tag by about 40 percent, according to a SPUR report. (The T-Third line conformed to this average, coming in at 40 percent over budget.) It's possible the economic downturn will depress prices for labor and steel and mitigate against the usual escalation.

“We’re really excited to see this come to fruition but want to be sure it’s done right, gets as many riders as it can and gets people to where they want to go,” said Wu.

Dave Snyder is the transportation policy director at SPUR.

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