csub.jpgHang on to your hats: Muni’s about to change everything.

Decades in the making, the Central Subway
is about to radically change the way San Franciscans get around. When
it opens in 2016 update: 2018 (hopefully), the T line will no longer curve around the
Embarcadero, but instead descend below ground, crossing beneath Market
Street and Union Square before stopping in Chinatown. And although the
trains won’t go any further than that for now, the tunnel will continue
north to Washington Square, in the hopes that future city leaders will
have the nerve to extend the line.

Not everyone is pleased, particularly the transit advocates at Save Muni. (Not to be confused with Rescue Muni, SF Transit Riders Union, or March Against Muni.)
The line is too short, Save Muni says, and riders will encounter even
more delays due to time spent walking to and from below-ground stations.

But Central Subway Program Manager John Funghi doesn’t agree. At a roundtable convened Wednesday evening to share information with local transit reporters, he explained that the Stockton lines currently crawl
along at around 4 miles per hour. They’re sluggish, packed, and
expensive for Muni to run. Funghi described his own frustration at being
passed by 30s that were too crowded to load more passengers.

In contrast, he said, the Central Subway will speed riders from
Caltrain to Chinatown in seven minutes, with trains frequent enough to
prevent crush-loading.

It’s not the first time that rail has passed through the neighborhood. Up until the 1950s, the Stockton Tunnel was reserved for streetcars. Ever since then, we’ve been waiting for fast mass transit to Chinatown — and we’ll have to wait a bit longer. Although the SFMTA broke ground back in February,
work has focused mainly on inconspicuous utility relocation, and
service won’t start for another 6 years.

Service to North Beach is still
a big question mark, and would require the support of the Board of
Supervisors. When asked if Muni would attempt to build that extension,
Funghi replied, “I’d love to,” but added that it’s outside the scope of
his position.

But once service starts in 2016, Funghi said, the Central Subway
will enjoy high ridership. “From day one, when the line will open, it
will become very popular in terms of ridership, because it will provide a
very efficient means for getting from point A to point B.”

By 2030, he predicted, there will be 38,000 transfers per day
between the north-south line and the east-west lines on Market.

Save Muni’s Jerry Cauthen doesn’t buy that number. “Table 3-9 on Page 3-38 of the EIR/EIS Section 3
shows 28,600 transfers a day (of which only 14,014 a day would be
transfers between subway lines),” he pointed out.

Funghi also pointed out that stations will be compact, putting an end to the frustrating
experience of descending an escalator and finding a train waiting way at
the other end of the station. He didn’t feel that they’d be so
compact as to limit train lengths or cause backups on the stairs. “I
don’t think it’ll be limiting,” he said. The Central Subway will
typically see the same 2-car trains that travel below Market Street.

He added that three and four-car trains are impractical, since they
would block intersections above ground, requiring a time-consuming
de-coupling before emerging from the tunnel.

Detractors
have pointed out that passengers may be stymied by time-consuming
transfers between the Central Subway and Market Street lines. In 2007,
consultant Tom Matoff issued a report indicating that the project as then described could worsen travel times.

But plans for the stations have changed considerably since then.

“We
took Mr. Matoff’s comments into consideration when looking at the
redesign,” said Central Subway External Affairs Manager Brajah Norris.
“We are still considering other changes that will improve the designs.”

Among those changes: shortening the underground transfer between the
T line and Market Street lines to a walk of about 4 minutes. The design
has also been flattened near Geary and Post, in anticipation of one day
connecting with a Geary light rail line. Moving walkways are also under
consideration.

So who’s paying for
all this? We are, of course — taxpayers fund construction projects like
these. But provided that Muni can justify the project, the bulk of the money will come from the federal government:
$948 million, to be precise. The state is kicking in $375 million, and
local funding totals $255 million. That’s due in part to heavy initial local
investment in the T-Third line south of Caltrain, which was considered
“Phase One” of the project. For that construction, the feds kicked in
$123 million, the state $160 million, and the city $364 million.

Some of that money is already in place — but most still haven’t been delivered. So far, of the federal funds, $72 million is allocated, $17 million is programmed, and $876 million is planned.

For awhile, those federal dollars were somewhat in question. Back in August, the FTA asked the SFMTA to assure them that the Central Subway would not cause pre-existing service to suffer.

“The FTA’s goal is to maintain an appropriate state of good repair and running condition for existing service that it the federal government has already invested in,” explained Central Subway Finance Manager Lewis Ames.

In response, Muni put together a “road map” for operating the new subway without harming other lines, and will work with the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission to evaluate and maintain service. Ames acknowledged that the FTA would be watching construction closely, and pledged to “continue to operate and maintain the existing system at a state of good repair and renewal.”

The Federal Transit
Administration is keen to keep the project on-track, having awarded it “medium-high” and “high” ratings for project justification and land use. “There isn’t another agency in the country at this stage of development that’s rated higher than us,” Funghi said.

Responding to questions from a Twitter user
about the project’s cost-effectiveness, Funghi said, “The Central
Subway will certainly allow the ridership without introducing new
expenses. … We can bring in riders without necessarily adding
operating expenses.”

That’s the hope, at least. Muni may be
unable to avoid shelling out for expensive repairs made worse by
deferred maintenance. This week, a disabled train in the subway turned into a mini-meltdown when towing equipment also broke down. It remains to be seen whether the Central Subway will break Muni’s cycle of disrepair.

Another Twitter user expressed concern about overloading the fleet.
But the Central Subway will purchase four additional cars for the
system, Funghi said, and the MTA will purchase ten more over the next
decade. In 2020, the agency will begin a process of fleet replacement.
In addition, he said, there will be minimal reduction in service levels
on surface lines. “We do anticipate some minor reduction of surface
vehicles,” he said, but added that those reductions would be offset by
faster travel times due to decreased passenger load.

Muni has been particularly eager to spread good news about the
project, particularly after many years of hostile treatment by the
press. In particular, the social media outreach for the Central Subway
project has gone above and beyond Muni’s typical avoidance of online
communication. You can check out a PDF of Wednesday night’s presentation here.

Coincidentally, the day after that meeting, the @munialerts
feed (which is run by yours truly) received a notice from Twitter that
the account had been reported for trademark violation. That came after
two days of intense tweeting about the Central Subway project, with
information being shared that was difficult to come by from any other
source.

At any rate, Funghi’s assurances are unlikely to persuade the
detractors at Save Muni. They’d rather see Muni implement improvements
to existing above-ground transit routes, such as prohibiting left turns
near the Stockton Tunnel.

But it’s unlikely that the project can be stopped
at this point: much of the money is in place, construction has started, and
property has been update: will soon be acquired. And most crucially: politicians, business
leaders, and even members of the public are already looking forward to
opening day.

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  • Erik

    This will be a godsend for the Bayview-to-Chinatown commute crowd.

  • Erik

    This will be a godsend for the Bayview-to-Chinatown commute crowd.