The proposed Central Subway project has arrived at a critical point in its planning stage, with the public comment period for its environmental documents coming to a close Dec. 10 after a series of recent workshops and meetings.
Proponents see the project as an important next stage of the Third Street Light Rail Project and a vital link to Chinatown, which was made less accessible when the Embarcadero Freeway was torn down. But even some transit advocates question whether the project, with a price tag of $1.2$1.7 billion, has enough bang for the buck to be worth it.
The Central Subway would realize the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s long-standing vision for a subway system that links to the northeast sector of the city, alleviates traffic problems, and improves connections with BART and Caltrain.
This phase of the project, which proposes to connect the South of Market area to Chinatown by underground rail by 2016, has received the fiscal green light $1.2 billion in state and federal funding is already pledged.
Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin, whose District 3 includes Chinatown, called the Central Subway "a very good and wise investment in San Francisco.
"Any investment in public transportation is a good thing," he added. "Is it expensive? Yes. But so were" many other transit projects.
Rose Pak of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, an influential force in San Francisco politics, insists that the Central Subway project is imperative to the Chinatown community.
"It’s long overdue," she told the Guardian. "Over 70 percent of our people rely exclusively on public transit. It’s very important to them. They don’t own cars, but they still need to get here for work, to see friends and family."
But is a 1.7-mile stretch of subway the right priority for and the right way to spend San Francisco’s scarce transportation money? Tom Radulovich, elected BART board member and executive director of Livable City, said making the Central Subway a top priority is a "big mistake."
"If everything else was well with Muni, this might be a good project," he told us. "But we need to take care of first things first."
Radulovich emphasized that improving the existing Muni service is a better step toward resolving San Francisco’s transit problems. He pointed out that using state and federal government money for other projects would go a lot further in improving the overall system. He said the Central Subway project is prematurely being made a priority.
"It’s like trying to build a master bedroom suite on top of a foundation that needs reinforcement. It’s nice, but it doesn’t make much sense," he said.
When asked about the possibility of revamping the Muni bus lines that presently serve Chinatown, Pak explained that the existing bus service already functions at capacity.
"Stockton is one of the busiest streets in San Francisco," she said. "Have you ever tried to ride a bus there at rush hour? It’s almost impossible."
In fact, the project’s Supplemental Environment Impact Report states that bus service already runs at three-minute frequencies or better for most of the Central Subway corridor. It also affirms that the area is operating at capacity, "particularly Stockton Street."
Pak added that the Central Subway would allow for shorter transit times and a "minimum disruption of surface streets."
After the Embarcadero Freeway was disabled by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the decision was made to remove and not replace it. That angered many Chinatown merchants, who became the base of support for the Central Subway project.
At first the group "didn’t have the muscle nor the power," Pak told us. "But our community rallied. We did massive letter writing and postcard writing."
Now challenging the project or raising concerns about its cost or feasibility which some critics and media reports have done means doing battle with Pak and the Chinese American community, a substantial voting block. So Mayor Gavin Newsom, Sup. Peskin, and other top elected officials support the project.
At the San Francisco Planning Commission meeting held Nov. 15, David Chiu, a commissioner on the Small Business Commission (and candidate to succeed Peskin as District 3 supervisor), said he was "really looking forward to this project moving forward" but would like to see more detail in the SEIR about the process for relocating small businesses.
Commissioner Michael Antonini "strongly advised" extending the subway as soon as possible to North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf and all the way to the Richmond, arguing the current terminus in Chinatown doesn’t make long-term sense. But few at the hearing argued the project shouldn’t be built.
According to the SEIR, traveling from Fourth Street and King to Chinatown on the Central Subway would cut up to 12.4 minutes from the journey in 2030 from the bus time projection of 17 minutes to less than five minutes in one subway alignment alternative.
Four "Alignment Alternatives," or designs for how the subway will be built, are laid out in the SEIR, which was released for public review Oct. 17 and made the subject of three community workshops and a Planning Commission hearing.
Options range from enhanced bus service and no subway to one that includes some surface rail along Fourth Street (with a new station at Moscone Center) to an option with more of the route underground and Chinatown stations in various spots.
Once an alignment plan is chosen, the SFMTA will vote on the final design next year. And if things go smoothly, construction on the project could start in 2010 and service begin in 2016.