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.

  • bikerider

    “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.”

    That’s a rather “interesting” description of how the FTA process was corrupted. The Central Subway was, in fact, a political fiction and separated out from the overall T-third line to evade FTA cost metrics. Even then, the ploy failed and Mistress Pelosi had to earmark the stubway.

    For full description of what actually happened, read comment at the bottom of

  • jdub

    Dave, thanks for this great article. An extended CS makes sense but the plan with a Chinatown terminus to be done in 2019 does not. The proposal for the Central Subway exists in part because at the time of its inception, no one could conceive of removing cars to make room for transit. Had we been designing it now, we might propose that Stockton St between Market and Columbus be reconfigured for exclusive bus (or surface rail) access which would allow reasonable performance on the 30 Stockton corridor.

    I would go further and say that 30 Stockton BRT from Caltrain, running both directions on 4th, up Stockton with a stop directly in front of Union Square (not on Kearny as exists now) through the Stockton tunnel Chinatown and North Beach and then on to the Marina would be a much better solution.

    Given that the CS Clay St will not be done for another 10 years, this solution could be implemented in the next couple of years and bring relief to the tens of thousands of daily riders of the 30 bus. It would require moving the overhead wiring from 3rd to 4th and the loss of two car traffic lanes on 4th and on Stockton. On the other hand, if we made Kearny and Third two way and eliminated parking on both these streets, we get at least one lane back.

    In any case, it is interesting to consider what we might do if removing car traffic were on the table. It does not seem as though it is at the current time.

  • jdub, thank you! You are the first person other then myself who has been saying this. While I take a bit harder stance against the waste of the CS, I feel that a plan similar to yours would work wonders on the Stockton route.

    We need to look at lower cost plans, building a CS several stories below ground should not be considered a sound plan just because it has the green light on a small percentage of the funding. The CS should be shown for what it is, a pander to the Chinatown merchants for the loss of the Embarcadero Freeway. Why should more money be wasted to help alleviate the parking lot that is Stockton? Why not just remove the cars and provide a sound public transportation option at a fraction of the cost? The amount of pedestrians in Chinatown should speak volumes to this need and the need to create a safe public sphere.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    Nobody mentioned the station location yet? Chinatown riders are bound for Stockton or Powell. Central Subway dumps them at Kearny, hundreds of feet below their destination. This is a hill so steep that people routinely wait for the 1-California to come along so they can ride a single block. The subway station at Kearny does not serve people who now ride the Stockton buses.

    I’m in complete agreement with mikesonn that a dedicated busway on Stockton is a greatly superior plan. It could be implemented by any motivated agency in a matter of weeks.

  • j

    Jeffrey –
    The CS does not use Kearny, it uses Stockton. The stations north of market are on Stockton.

  • Larry

    You mean the dedicated busways that are planned for Van ness ? Or Geary ?
    The ones that are projected to start service in TWELVE years ? What planet do you people live on where you can just suggest something better off the top of your head and say it can be implemented “in a matter of weeks”
    You may not like this project as planned, but it would be wise to work within the plan to make it better – rather than work to scrap it and go a different route.

  • Jeffrey W. Baker

    j: you’re right, I just revisited the EIR. Not sure where I got that idea.

  • Larry, I’m not just suggesting it off the top of my head, but you do have a valid point. The reason the CS is going forward is because it has had years of planning behind it. I wasn’t around in the city when the discussions started or I would have suggested the transit only Stockton then. The Chinatown merchants want their cake and to eat too. They want fast transit, but also car traffic and parking; but at what cost?

    And why keep dumping money down a black hole just because we have invested so much already? Cutting a project that is a boondoggle is sometimes the best option. Especially when a better idea can be implemented faster (albeit not in a matter of weeks, but years and not decades) and for a fraction of the cost.

  • zig

    “And why keep dumping money down a black hole just because we have invested so much already?”

    Because most of it isn’t “our” money in a local sense. This is the answer. Extending the subway takes it from absurd to maybe effective (but clearly not cost effective). this is just the way things are done. You either take the money for the proposed project or you get nothing.

    This extra station and the surface extension really improves the connectivity with future BRT lines and the North part of the city. Just having this thing as a stub at Chinatown is really mickeymouse.

    Curious what level of priority we are envisioning on these “rapid lines”?

  • zig

    With Regard to the future subway on Geary:

    Has anyone ever proposed a future BRT tunnel as a cheaper more flexible option east of Van Ness?

    Either way I simply cannot see BRT east of Van Ness on Geary being successful. Spatially and enforcement wise I can’t see this being fast unless a lot of right turns are banned.

    Last idea that I think has merit:

    is this city really needs to look into better surface redundancy for the Market Street subway (maybe as part of restricting autos on Market?). The thing is awful and getting worse and its a cattle call. The PCCs are cute and all but I’d like to see the introduction of real low floor modern trams. With very little trackage I could see new lines being implemented (maybe to Golden Gate Park as an example which could also provide relief for the N) Maybe turn the J into a surface line too.

  • Here is what we could do in a matter of weeks that might would be largely equivalent to the service improvements with the CS:

    1. Create a bus only lane on southbound Stockton with draconian enforcement.

    2. Remove parking on the east side of Stockton between Sacramento and Columbus and use the space for a bus only lane, again with draconian enforcement.

    3. Eliminate 30 Stockton route stops at Filbert, Pacific, Sacramento, Sutter and others, with bus stop spacing at least 1200 ft apart.

    4. Allow and encourage boarding at multiple doors. Use fare inspectors on the bus to ensure fare compliance.

    This does not involve any new infrastructure at all. All it requires is less room on the streets for private cars. We do not believe in that here in SF so we will have a multi-billion dollar, multi-decade project instead. It amazes and frustrates me that solutions for improving our transit system are readily available at no cost and yet they are not implemented.

  • I just want to see what the old ladies in Chinatown pick… just get on the 30, or go several stories underground on an escalator with their pink bags of crap and take the Central Subway. Especially if they are then going to have to transfer at Powell to BART.

  • Zig, converting the J-Church to a surface line would also relieve congestion in the tunnel is already at capacity.

    All the surface J-Church stops are already low platform and the only new track required is an outbound switches (the inbound switches are already there) from Market to Church. The MTA was already planning to rebuild the diamond crossings (where the Chruch tracks cross the Market tracks) before the project was put on hold. If there was ever a time to complete the turn this would be it.

    As for the streetcars, the MTA will be buying new streetcars for the Central Subway anyway. Low-floor streetcars could be bought off the shelf for the J-Church to free up some of the current light rail vehicle for the Central Subway instead of having a small order custom built. That assumes Breda (manufacturer of the current fleet) or another manufacturer were even interested in custom building an order of only 4-8 vehicles as called for in current Central Subway plan.

  • I think all this talk or BRT or other surface “rapid” routes is a red herring. Even if you took all cars off Stockton st (which will never happen, since cars depend on that street to get into and out of the Union Square garage) you still have to deal with the cross streets. Blocks along the route of the CS are around 330 feet long, and barring some type of signal priority that SF has never managed to create any buses or LRTs will have to stop at many of these intersections. This is especially true during rush hour.

    And that’s to say nothing of crossing Market.

    The CS is expensive and connects inefficiently to the Market Street Tunnel, but a subway will allow for the volume of rapid transit service that a surface line through downtown could never deliver.

    FWIW I think the TBMs should continue all the way along the route pictured in the article above, connecting to a Van Ness subway. I support taking lanes from cars and dedicating them to transit, but they will never perform the way that fully grade-separated subways do.

  • Great Jamison – more trolley tracks on Market at Church for me to crash on… 🙁

  • Larry

    Anyone who thinks you could eliminate stops in this town in a matter of weeks either is
    2)literally just moved here

    NOTHING in San francisco happens in weeks. They have proposed removing stops on the 49 how many times previously, and each time local citizens were in an absolute uproar. End result was nothing changed.

    You might as well propose nuclear fusion – because its almost as likely to be an option.

  • Larry

    Sorry – that should have read 48 – not 49

  • Looking at SPUR’s map, it would be difficult to accommodate LRVs on the surface of Columbus, given the skewed intersections and cable cars. And with the planned road diet of Columbus, there is no room. Furthermore, the streetcars and cable cars already connect Fishermans Wharf with downtown; a third connection is not warranted.

    Instead, leave the LRV underground with a station at Washington Square, and then turn left on Lombard and tunnel under Russian Hill. It could then run in dedicated center lanes on Lombard all the way to the Presidio. Removing two auto lanes on Lombard would complement the two removed on Van Ness.

  • $5 one-way tickets and a no-transfer policy that doubles that if you want to stop in Chinatown, don’t make cable cars an effective link from the wharves to downtown. And the F-Line doesn’t serve North Beach or Chinatown, leaving us with no really good, tourist friendly, north-south route that connects them all.

    Is one route trying to solve two different use cases?

  • Let’s just take a pulse reading of political reality circa 2009:

    1. ANY “extension” of the politically correct and yet transit nada Central Subway involves boring a tunnel and a turnaround under a Catholic Church in North Beach. This is a neighborhood that has issued fatwas against LOCALLLY owned businesses for expansion. Do you honestly think they’re going allow a TUNNEL for a SUBWAY under Washington Square Park? Go ask the Alioto clan and get back to me.

    2. How quickly we forget our history. The only reason there is even a Stockton Tunnel is because…wait for it…it was a tunnel to take streetcar-only transit line in the first place. You could eliminate car traffic on Stockton, leave it open for delivery traffic for bizniz, and open up a free Senior Shopper Shuttle for the Chinatown Community and eliminate the delays to the buses and such over there. Trust me, I know – I house-sat for 5 months in the area and was a beleaguered 1 California rider AND an N Judah rider at the same time and I’ve seen firsthand how this area works.

    3. let’s not forget that this entire subway was a Willie Brown promise to get re-elected a decade ago. Willie Brown could give a tinker’s cuss about MUNI or those who rely on it and it wasn’t his money so he spent it how he wanted. You can’t tell me that we have to go half-assed with BRT on Geary St., the most traveled mass transit line west of the Mississippi just to suck off federal dollars “because they’re there” for a train to nowhere that could be serviced cheaper and better for all involved.

    Sadly, we’re going to kill Geary St. and kill the metro system in SF for candyland B.S. No wonder people hate us and think we can’t spend our money right. For shame, SF, for shame.

  • Peter

    SPUR wants rail, not BRT, for North Beach and beyond?

    Oh — that’s right — there’s white people up in them parts.

  • Howard Wong, AIA

    Let’s honor President Barack Obama’s directive to stop wasteful expenditures. Like Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere’s” funding shift, the Central Subway’s $1.4 billion can be reallocated to street revitalization for pedestrians and public transit—THROUGHOUT San Francisco.
    The result would be flurry of immediate economic stimulus projects.
    The distance from Market Street to Fisherman’s Wharf is 1.5 miles—the same distance from Venice’s train station to Piazza San Marco; or Copenhagen’s Stoget pedestrian zone; or Shanghai’s Nanjing Road pedestrian street. Rejuvenated pedestrian streets and surface transit would enhance San Francisco’s Mediterranean spirit—ushering millions of people into restaurants, cafes, retail, services and neighborhoods.
    In the Central Subway EIR/EIS, a cutback in surface buses/trolleys is projected as 76,400 hours annually—to offset new operational/maintenance costs. This is likely a conservative number—given the need to budget for the New Muni Metro East Maintenance Facility (currently operating below capacity), budget deficits and general inflationary costs. North of the Central Subway’s Washington St. Station and South of Market Street, tens of thousands of Muni riders will have DECREASED bus/trolley service.
    Moreover, the rerouting of the T-Line creates a form of “transportaion stroke”. San Francisco’s major growth districts (SOMA, Eastern Neighborhoods, Mission Bay, Central Waterfront, Bay View, Hunters Point) would LOSE DIRECT CONNECTIONS to ferry service (at Ferry Building), all BART/Metro Stations on Market St., Transbay Terminal and future High Speed Rail.
    In essence, politicians make poor transportation planners. As publicly stated by one sage Planning Commissioner: “The Central Subway constitutes bad planning”. Actually, we don’t have to drink the “Transportation Kool-Aid”.

  • Zig

    I dislike the central subway but each of these statements is questionable:

    “would LOSE DIRECT CONNECTIONS to ferry service (at Ferry Building), all BART/Metro Stations on Market St., Transbay Terminal and future High Speed Rail.”

    Ok I will concede the Ferry service one is true so people in Bay View will have to find make a transfer to get to their ferry to Larkspur.

  • Zig: routing the T-Third through the Central Subway will quite clearly degrade access to the Market Street stations. The T currently directly serves each of these stations. Once routed through the Central Subway, the T will be at least a few minutes walk (according to a simulation) to Powell Station, including elevation changes. That transfer will also involve exiting one Muni faregate and then entering another one later. The statement you quoted about degraded access to Transbay/HSR follows because the Transbay station will have an underground pedestrian connection to Montgomery or Embarcadero (but not to Powell).

  • jeff

    i’ve lived in s.f. for 30 years on the j and n lines and have been a regular rider of both. during much of that time muni has struggled to even adequately service its existing routes and authorizations are being offered from goverment agencies to further expand this resource-starved system? can we simply focus on improving existing muni service before further taxing it with expanded routes?

  • It does not make sense to spend extra money extending a LR line that is value engineered downwards so that it is unlikely that the line can handle the load of the existing alignment.

    If there is extra money identified, it should go to expand platforms of existing stations to handle added capacity in the future and to facilitate the connection with the Market Street rail lines.

    Once the existing project is made whole then an extension north and west would make sense.


  • marc makes a good point

    howard does as well – but it’s going to take the legal equivalent of a blowtorch and a pair of pliers going medieval to make that happen. But you are pretty much on the money, so to speak.

  • As I read all of this, the second guessing, the insistence that this or that absolutely will not work…. San Francisco used to have cable cars out to all of these routes. From the bay to the beach. Super wide streets like Geary or Monterey or San Jose… were all streets with trains or cable cars running down the middle. We can make any of these plans work if we want to, because they already have.

    If we are going to have a tunnel, and that is what we are going to have, how can we maximize its usage through changes in street level redirection of transit and traffic? Looking at the plan, as it is, what are the options for working around it to benefit as many people as possible?

  • joan wood

    Where were all of you when the Subway EIR was (reluctantly) approved by the Planning Commission then unanimously re-affirmed by the Board of Supervisors who chatted and wandered around while appeals were being heard? North Beach was omitted from the planning process although the tunnel boring machine will emerge at Washington Square, 7 blocks past the last approved station. The whole plan arose in the Brown administration and appears to be a fulfilment of promises to Rose Pak about access to Chinatown. Then SPUR, a national organization of developers, got into the act and we were doomed. A proposed North Beach station seems an attempt to put lipstick on the pig. I hope commenter above is right about the Alioto family being able to derail this crazy scheme as letters to the Secretary of Transportation have not been successful.

  • SPUR believes that the presence of a dumbed down Central Subway in SOMA will be cause for…wait for it…additional heights along that corridor! Imagine that, SPUR supporting height bonuses! Outrageous! Of course, the luxury condo dwellers will accept levels of “service” that folks currently “enjoy” on the T line and will ditch their cars to ride in packed sardine cans that never come.

    Did you know that Nancy Pelosi managed to pull a federal subsidy out of her hat a few years ago to pay for SPUR’s new “urban center” on Mission Street east of 3d? That’s an auspicious location, because once upon a time, before they got fixated on hight bonuses, SPUR was known as the San Francisco Urban Renewal association and was the major corporate cheerleader for cleansing the SRO hotels to make way for Moscone Center’s construction. That was a major contributor to the gentriifcation of San Francisco and the root cause of the homeless crisis which arose shortly after they got rid of 4000 SRO units.

    They could have at least tried to build it on the ruins of an Ohlone burial mound.

    But, hey, who needs Pelosi to be identifying funding for Muni or other broadly based public services when she needs to be ponying up the public cash for developer lobbyists masquerading as a think tank?


  • zag

    A new group will be talking of ways to improve the Central Subway project on Friday May 8, 2009, beginning at 5:00 p.m. at 708 Montgomery Street. For more information, see Use E-vite to rsvp.

  • I have to agree with a lot of what you’ve said… I wish that politicians would just make it more difficult for cars to get around by replacing surface avenues with public transit-only routes. San Francisco is one of the few cities that’s had so much success with anti-car tactics–the freeway revolt led to the rebirth of Octavia Street, the Panhandle Park (nearly a freeway) and the death of the Embarcadero Freeway. Our city would be much less liveable if those things came to fruition. Market Street, due to re-mapping, is now a veritable nightmare for anything but bicycles and buses, thank God for that.

    On the other hand, we have a long ways to go before we return to the heyday of public transit right-of-way. You could once travel from downtown to Ocean Beach via streetcar, or from San Mateo to Oakland… the entire lower level of the Bay Bridge was designated for streetcars and trucks. I would be pleased as punch if we had more sidewalks and bus/trolley-only streets, like perhaps Stockton.

    I wonder about the feasability of a BRT on Geary. I don’t understand why no one has floated the prospect of a light rail line running down an adjacent street, like Balboa, Anza or Clement?! This would be akin to what was done with the N or the L. It seems like it would be much cheaper than running a light rail down Geary… plus, all those streets are very wide, not well trafficked, and building a light rail down either would create businesses and jobs along the path of the light rail. Has anyone at Muni or in the city government floated this?

  • Richard Morris

    Please review Suntram on YouTube. It would cost about 20 Mil


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