Boring through

Pub date November 24, 2010

Despite an official groundbreaking ceremony last February, the Central Subway — an underground Muni connection to Chinatown — still doesn’t have its full $1.5 billion in funding lined up yet, and now the project is facing renewed criticism that the high cost isn’t worth the benefits.

The project was a promise by former Mayor Willie Brown to Chinatown leaders who were upset that the Embarcadero Freeway was torn down after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and never rebuilt, leaving that densely populated part of town difficult to access. But not everyone in Chinatown wants the project.

Wilma Pang, founder and co-chair of A Better Chinatown Tomorrow (ABCT) stands firmly against it, while the Rev. Norman Fong, deputy director of programs for the Chinatown Community Development Center, takes a solid stand for building the project, as does Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who represents the district.

Fong explains that the majority of Chinatown has united to make sure the subway comes through, and that he himself has never seen the community in Chinatown more set on something. “This is an environmental justice movement,” Fong said. “For me, this was the first time Chinatown had ever fought [for such a major infrastructure project].”

City staff is also focused on moving the project forward. “This project has been supported by our state, local, and federal officials,” Brajah Norris, external affairs manager for the Central Subway Project, told the Guardian.

But the group SaveMuni — formed last year by progressives, transit engineers, transit advocates, and other activists “working to reverse Muni’s death spiral” — recently called for the Central Subway to be shelved and its resources put to more efficient projects. “Now that the analysis has been done, it’s time to rethink the situation,” SaveMuni says in a white paper on the Central Subway.

The group argues that using the subway will take longer than other transit options, threatens many businesses on Stockton Street, and doesn’t even connect effectively with the Muni system. Even worse, they point out that Muni would have to spend an additional $4 million a year in local operating expenditures beyond the existing bus service, an expenditure that seems unnecessary to the organization members.

Although creating a subway for the crowded community seemed like a good idea initially, people like Tom Radulovich soon began to realize that a 1.7 mile subway stretch buried 20 feet underground is not the same as the plan he hoped for when considering an economically efficient transportation system for the people in Chinatown.

“People deserve a whole range of alternatives,” said Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and an elected member of the BART Board of Directors. “You have to be mindful of when the [current] project is not the same project you voted for.”

For those at SaveMuni, the project long ago strayed from its original goal. Although they agree that Chinatown community members deserve their own form of reliable transportation, they believe this is not the right way to be spending federal, state, and local money.

“It’s an important corridor, so funding should go there,” Radulovich said. But he thinks the same money could be better used other ways, such as for a dedicated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lane.

Jerry Cauthen, a retired SFMTA transportation engineer who cofounded San Francisco Tomorrow and SaveMuni, explained that he initially liked the concept of a subway but then became “bitterly disappointed” as the project progressed.

The subway line has three stops mapped out: one at Moscone Center, one at Union Square/Market Street, and one in Chinatown. From the Chinatown station, the tunnel will continue under Washington Square and remain there for future extensions to the subway, which is projected to begin service in 2018.

“There’s no reason to wait 10 years for a subway,” Cauthen said. “Because it is not going to do what it says it will do.”

Cauthen explained that the route for the Central Subway misses the most important lines anyway, which would be “serving Chinatown poorly.” Cauthen was not alone in his concern that the three-stop subway system will prove to be more of a hassle than a convenience.

But in a committee meeting held Nov. 16 at City Hall, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (which oversees capital expenditures, while the SFMTA runs Muni) addressed the issue that the city in fact does not have all the money it needs to complete this project. While federal officials have already handed over $72 million out of $948 million, getting the rest of that federal money requires the city and its affected agencies to come up with local matching funds of between $137 million to $225 million.

Malcolm Yeung, public policy manager for the Chinatown Community Development Center, explained that based on the recent hearing, the SFMTA needs to find a viable source for the remaining $137 million. It has until February to inform the Federal Transportation Administration how it will obtain the rest of this money. The SFCTA meeting was an attempt to request an allocation of about $22 million in Proposition K (sales tax) funds.

Now that the city is having trouble meeting its fiscal goal by February 2011, the new question is, if city officials don’t come up with the money, will San Francisco lose the project and its funding?

“I don’t think it means that we lose the whole project,” Yeung said, but there could be delays. And every time there is a delay, there is also an associated cost to be paid.

According to SFMTA, the project received $948.2 million in federal money, $375 million from the state, and $255.1 million in local contributions. Norris explained that since the federal money was given for this specific New Starts program, then it can only be used for this project. And if the project comes to a halt, the money will go somewhere else. “People don’t realize that $948 million is part of the New Starts program,” Norris said. “If we don’t get it, we actually lose it.”

Fong, Chiu, and other supporters of the project rallied in its support outside City Hall on Nov. 15. As Fong told us, “[People against the project] don’t appreciate the hard work, that it takes a decade to get the federal funds … It cannot be simply shifted or “redirected” as some have said.”

For Fong, ending this project would be “disregarding two decades of hard work.” Although the ideas to improve Muni seem fair to Fong, moving forward with the subway is the only option for him right now.


*This article has been corrected from an original version.