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