Central Subway - Background

An Opportunity Gone Wrong

“San Francisco Mayor Sunny Jim Rolph and his engineer MM O'Shaughnessey created one of the greatest municipal transportation systems in the world.  Today Muni carries 700,000 riders a day in this small city and serves the giant collection of small businesses that form the backbone of the San Francisco’s economy.  But now Muni is being threatened with strangulation by a gaggle of opportunists pushing a tiny, badly-engineered subway that will serve virtually no one and wreck Chinatown's Stockton Street, including one of the GREAT farmers markets on the West Coast”  Zach Redington Stewart, San Francisco Architect.


San Francisco is a special city.  What makes it special is hard to boil down to a few words but it has to do with the hills, the clear air, the Bridges, the surrounding Bay, the parks, the street patterns, the alleys, the intimate, pedestrian-oriented nature of its architecture, the variety and vibrancy of its 60,000 small businesses and its general vitality.  This also makes it vulnerable.  You can’t just stick something big in the middle of San Francisco and hope things will come out right. 


For this reason San Franciscans have often been called upon to stop the short-sighted and foolish schemes of self-serving individuals and its City government.  Fortunately, putting the brakes on City Hall has become a time-honored San Francisco practice, responsible for the timely and welcome demise of many destructive public and private ventures. 


In the case of the Central Subway, San Francisco’s government has really gone off the deep end.    


The idea of extending the Muni’s Third Street light rail line northward into Chinatown sounded good at first.  After all, why not?  Transportation along traffic-clogged Stockton Street had always been difficult and so why not extend the Third Street light rail line northward along Fourth Street and then under Market and Stockton Street to Chinatown? 


Had the subway been planned and laid out correctly it could have worked.  But the project soon went off the rails.  First came the decision to settle on a single alternative with the bona fide alternative analysis required by CEQA.  Soon after came the decision to route the extension under rather than over the Market Street subways.  This required a very deep tunnel under Market Street, thereby making it impossible to place a station at Market Street in order to create an efficient transfer between the Central Subway and the Market Street subway lines.  For this reason a harried traveler waiting at the Central Subway platform at the Washington Street terminal will travel by light rail vehicle one-half mile, and then be obliged to travel on foot the distance of four football fields placed end to end to connect to a Market Street BART or Muni Metro train.  

At the same time costs soared, from the $647 million listed in the November, 2003 Voter’s Handbook, to $700 million in 2004, to $1,580 million today and eventually....to who's know's what.   The response to escalating costs was a series of unfortunate additional design decisions designed to cut costs (e.g. build one instead of the two needed Chinatown stations, constrict the future carrying-capacity of the subway, remove 34,426 bus hours a year from the Muni's important 30 and 45 bus lines, delete the moving pedestrian ramps that were going to connect the Union Square and Powell Street Stations, ignore the surface mess on Stockton Street, truncate the subway at Washington Street).  Thanks to its poor layout the Central Subway will miss connections with all the connecting east-west trains and buses on and under Market as well as with all the east-west buses traveling on Mission, Post, Sutter, Sacramento, Clay and Pacific.