Imagine that one could travel from the south side of San Francisco through downtown and into North Beach on fast buses or trains unhindered by traffic. Connections to the BART and Muni Metro subway systems would be quick and easy. Chinatown would be served by two stations, each conveniently located just below street grade. A central subway constructed underneath Union Square and Chinatown could benefit tens of thousands of San Franciscans every day.
Unfortunately, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's (MTA's) plan falls far short of what could be. Instead of tackling the transportation problems of northeastern San Francisco in a comprehensive and farsighted manner, the MTA has unfortunately settled for a deep and enormously expensive short subway that would take people only as far as the south end of Chinatown.
Flaws in the Program
The MTA's Plan contains five unacceptable flaws:
1.) By ending at Washington Street, the proposed subway would be of little use to anyone living north of that point. Today, the Muni's 30 and 45 electric bus lines serve riders traveling to and from Chinatown, North Beach, Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill, Polk Gulch, Fisherman's Wharf, Union Street, Cow Hollow, the Marina District and the Presidio of San Francisco. All of these riders bound for points north of about Jackson Street would be obliged to continue using buses that would continue to bog down in heavy surface traffic, particularly along Stockton Street.
2.) By failing to serve all or even most riders of the 30 and 45 lines, the MTA's plan would make it impossible to reduce bus operations sufficiently to cover the extra cost of the subway operation. As a result the MTA would be obliged to operate both a very expensive subway deep underground and a substantial surface bus operation; thereby digging the Muni's fiscal hole even deeper than it already is.
3.) Because of extra walking and waiting times subway users would experience trip times actually longer than the trip times of today's surface buses. For more information on this subject see: "Perceived Travel Times"
4.) By rerouting the T-Line from its alignment along the Embarcadero and Market Street Subway to Chinatown, the project would disconnect riders from Mission Bay, Dogpatch, Bayview-Hunters Point, Little Hollywood and Visitation Valley and the rest of southeast San Francisco from the Market Street Subway. Those with Market Street or Market Street subway destinations would ride the Central Subway past Market to a new Union Square station, and then backtrack on foot a substantial distance to Market Street or the Powell Street Station.
5.) Because of the depth of the subway, the short distance between the Washington and Union Square Stations and the extra walking and waiting time required to use the subway, most people, especially if they are transferring to any of the east-west Muni lines crossing Stockton and Fourth Streets, will find riding the subway less convenient than today's bus trip. Having to walk several blocks to a subway station at Washington Street, then descend seven stories to the subway platform, then riding the subway less than half mile to Union Square, then ascending to mezzanine level and then walking an additional 1,000 feet to a BART or Muni Metro LRV platform is not likely to attract many riders. In addition, transfers from the subway to most of Muni's east-west bus lines would be longer and less convenient from the subway than from the buses now operating along Stockton Street. The MTA likes to claim that the Central Subway is being promited primarily as the benefit to Chinatown. Yet according to the Central Subway EIR/EIS, only 10% of the riders of the Muni 8x, 30 and 45 bus lines riders would bother using the Central Subway.
Chinatown needs and deserves a reliable and expeditious connection to downtown San Francisco, as does the rest of northeastern San Francisco. Here are alternative ways of achieving that objective:
a.) Some of Muni's No. 30 and 45 electric buses as well as the T-line light-rail vehicles could use the subway. Buses could be brought to grade through portals located north of Broadway. This would enable the rest of Chinatown and residents of the nine neighboring communities to benefit from the subway. If the bus lines were extended southward, Mission Bay and Potrero Hill could also benefit.
b.) The subway could be shallow instead of deep. Going shallow without the mezzanines would allow both a Market Street station and two well-located Chinatown stations. Moreover, passing a shallow subway over rather than under the Market Street subway lines would improve access for riders, allow for longer stations, better accommodate electric buses and cut costs.
c.) To cut costs, buses or light-rail vehicles could operate in a median of Fourth Street until they crossed Mission Street, at which point the transit vehicles could proceed in a shallow subway under Market and Union Square to Chinatown.
d.) By speeding up bus loading and by reconfiguring Stockton and its nearby streets in a manner designed to improve bus flow, calm traffic and make things easier for pedestrians, Muni's surface bus operation could be significantly improved. This improvement could be implemented at far lower cost and at least 8 years sooner than the MTA's subway plan.
e.) Implementing a congestion pricing system for San Francisco would significantly improve Muni surface operations.
None of these alternatives was adequately addressed, either in the Central Subway EIR/EIS or in public discussions. For more information on this subject see "Better Alternatives".
Let's Adopt a Long Range Concept for a Long Term Need
Whatever is built will affect San Francisco for centuries. The stakes are much too high to permit the MTA to blunder ahead with its current short-sighted plan. Taxpayers have a right to expect government to make the most of this rare opportunity to bring high quality public transit to eastern San Francisco.