Norman Fong

Central Subway: justice and jobs


OPINION The Central Subway is a result of years of grassroots environmental transit justice organizing that San Francisco should be proud of. But in recent weeks, politicos and the media have stirred up a string of unfounded criticisms of the Central Subway — an essential project that will upgrade transit for the long term, create thousands of jobs in the midst of a recession, and expand opportunity for tens of thousands of San Franciscans who need to get to work everyday. Politicians who supported the project for years are now reversing themselves and calling it a “subway to nowhere” and a “boondoggle.” And short staffed newspapers find it easy paint a cartoon picture of City Hall and Chinatown “powerbrokers” who conspired to sell the city on an expensive project it doesn’t need.

But San Franciscans should ignore the overheated rhetoric of the moment and see the future value and need for this critical project — particularly when the Republicans in Congress are attacking us from the right. We need to unite as one city and not squander what might be the last opportunity to access federal funding to make the economic center of the city more transit accessible for all San Franciscans. In this limited space, we offer some of the facts about the project that seem to be missing in the present reporting.

The number of recent critics and media attention about the subway makes it appear that the subway’s costs and design were new news. Planning for the project began more than 20 years ago, and the essential alignment and projected costs have been agreed to and consistent since 2008. There is no new news.

The claims about skyrocketing costs are misleading, comparing different project proposals. The Civil Grand Jury and others fail to do an apples-to-apples comparison. The project costs have increased primarily because, in response to public feedback, the final project is a different project. It has a new alignment, new stations, and more contingency funds built in. The core costs for the project have not changed since 2008, when it was approved with broad support, including some of its present critics.

The critics who claim that not building the project will save future Muni operating costs fail to address the costs of doing nothing. The environmental impact report showed that the no-project option would cost even more. The absence of a subway would require Muni to run and maintain more buses on streets that will be more crowded and more gridlocked. (Ten years from now, if the critics succeed in killing the project, when you are stuck in traffic and late for work you will know who to blame).

Beneath the unfounded criticism about costs is actually a disagreement over values. The grand jury report relied upon by critics makes a only brief and superficial criticism about costs. The report actually devotes more attention and criticism to the location of the Chinatown station. The grand jury prefers a subway that runs closer to the financial district. For critics, the present project is a “subway to nowhere.” But for the Asian, black, and working class neighborhoods that will be connected via the subway and the T-line, this is a subway to jobs and economic opportunity.

Finally, we need to be clear that this is probably the last chance in many of our lifetimes for San Francisco to grow its transit system. While critics talk about alternate uses for the $940 million dollars of federal funding, the reality is we cannot redirect those dollars. The funding process for the subway is nearing the finish line after an arduous ten-year competitive federal application process. Given the federal budget, re-starting that application process may not merely mean a multi-year delay, it will likely mean there will be no funding to apply for and the loss of 30,000 jobs over the life of the project.

We urge all the mayoral candidates and our media pundits to tone down the rhetoric around the subway. We should not let short-term thinking and the heat of political passion of this campaign season kill a project that has had broad support for 20 years and will provide new transit that we desperately need for our city’s future.

Ultimately the subway is an issue about justice and access to jobs. Justice for some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in San Francisco, where 80% of the residents don’t own cars and rely entirely on public transportation. And we’re talking about the potential loss of thousands of construction jobs and access to jobs for those who need the transit to their workplaces.

Stand firm, San Francisco, for jobs and justice.

Rev. Norman Fong is the incoming director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. Mike Casey is the head of UNITE HERE Local 2.