Central Subway, sold to San Francisco on False Pretenses

The Missed Opportunity

The SFMTA and the rest of San Francisco's government have just blown a once-in-a-century opportunity to provide great public transit to eastern San Francisco.  Instead of facing the problem squarely and devising a good solution, San Francisco's officials cobbled together a flashy-looking subway project of marginal usefulness, valued mainly as a means of obtaining "free" money from Washington.  Unfortunately no one much thought about the utility of the finished product.  As the ill-conceived subway project began to unravel, the SFMTA and SFCTA made matters worse by putting data-manipulation ahead of objectivity and salesmanship ahead of sound policy.  By distorting the data, the sponsors of the project managed...temporarily...to put a glossy sheen on a very weak plan. 

As shown in SaveMuni.com's Charts (click on Charts Showing the SFMTA's False Claims), the Central Subway Sponsors' duplicitous PR campaign was comprised of inflated ridership figures, misleading trip time claims, grossly understated operating costs and a general lack of transparency and forthrightness.  


The two agencies, no doubt influenced by those fronting for Fourth and Stockton Street property owners, the Building Trades and a Chinatown development group seeking project-related financial benefits, sold Chinatown and the rest of San Francisco a bill of goods. 


How Data was Distorted to Sell the Project


Under-estimated Capital Costs:  The SFMTA’s initial “not-to-exceed” estimate for Program Management was $82 million.  As a possible harbinger of things to come, by the time negotiations with the selected consulting firm had been completed, the price had rocketed to $147 million. 


Dozens of dilapidated older structures line the route of the proposed subway.  Yet the total estimated price of acquiring and/or protecting these buildings during and after construction is shown in the FEIS/FEIR as being only $67 million.   The SFMTA refused to comply with our Freedom of Information Act request for a breakdown of this rosy figure.


Wildly Inaccurate Projected Operating Costs:  In the Draft EIS/EIR, published in October 2007, the SFMTA showed the subway as saving Muni $23.8 million a year by 2030.  This figure was used in dozens of subsequent public meetings, along with inflated ridership figures and distorted trip times.  In November 2007, SaveMuni.com challenged this absurd claim.  When the Final EIS/EIR was issued 9 months later, the alleged savings had plumeted, from $23.8 million a year to just $3.18 million a year.  But it was still a savings, and consequently still cited by SFMTA spokesmen in dozens of additional public meetings as proof of the financial benefits of the subway.


In September 2010, the SFMTA submitted its FY 2012 New Starts Report to the federal government.  In the Report, the SFMTA quietly acknowledged what SaveMuni.com had been saying for three years; namely that the Central Subway was going to increase, not decrease Muni's fiscal deficit.  In fact, according to the official Central Subway report submitted to the U.S. Congress in 2011 year, instead of saving Muni $23.8 million a year, the Central Subway is going to cost Muni an extra $15.12 million a year.  The subway's future operating impact on Muni has therefore gone from $23.8 million a year saved to $15.12 million a year added, a spread of $38.92 million a year.  


Inflated Ridership Projections:  At the same time it was trumpeting non-existent Muni cost savings, the SFMTA was grossly exaggerating the future anticipated ridership of the subway.  Particularly misleading was the common SFMTA practice of lumping the ridership of the 5-mile existing T-Line in with that of the subway.  Here is a chronology of how the estimates of future Central Subway ridership were distorted between March 3, 2007 and December 10, 2010:


     o  March 3, 2007:  SFMTA spokesperson Maggie Lynch was quoted in an San Francisco Examiner article as stating that by 2030 Central Subway ridership would be 93,000 riders a day


    o   March 20, 2007:  At an SFMTA meeting she put the figure at 90,000 riders a day


    o  February 22, 2008:  An Examiner editorial put Central Subway ridership at 80,000 riders a day


    o  September, 2008:  In the Final EIR/EIS the figure dropped to 76,600 riders a day


    August, 2009:  Program Manager Funghi on City Vision had the projected subway ridership at 78,000 riders a day 


    o  February 9, 2010:  At the first Central Subway groundbreaking, Mayor Gavin Newsom cited the EIR/EIS figure of 76,000 riders a day figure


    o  September, 2010:  SFMTA’s FY 2012 New Starts Report, submitted to the federal government in the early Fall of 2010, shows the official the ridership of its $1.58 billion Central Subway as being 35,100 riders a day, a figure less than half of what the SFMTA had been claiming in local forums for over three years. 

November 18, 2010:  SFMTA's Program Manager continues to state that the Central Subway "would save the Muni money by carrying people more efficiently"

December 8, 2010: SFMTA web site continues to show Central Subway as carrying 76,000 riders a day


1.)  The projected 2030 ridership of the Central Subway forwarded to the Congress by the Federal Department of Transportation in 2011 is 35,100 riders a day.  

2.)  According to Final EIR/EIS Table 3-9, 67% of the 17,400 riders a day expected to board the T-Line at the 4th and King stop by 2030, would be transferring Caltrain riders.  For this reason, when Caltrain is extended to the new Transbay Terminal at First and Mission Streets, the projected Central Subway ridership of 35,100 riders a day is expected to drop by at least 25% to less than 30,000 riders a day.  Fine for a bus line, but hardly enough to justify a $1,580,000,000 1.7 mile subway.


Misleading Travel Times:  In the EIR/EIS and in hundreds of public meetings, the SFMTA was careful to write and talk only about “on-board travel times" (i.e., the time a person is actually on board riding the vehicle).  In its public pronouncements SFMTA representatives repeatedly cited the shorter on-board travel times as evidence of the Subway's superiority over surface buses.  Never mentioned were the extra times required to walk to and from the subway stations, descend and ascend 70 to 100 feet by escalator or stairway, walk substantially greater distances between lines when transferring, and endure longer waits on platforms.  With these auxiliary times included and taken into account, the total trip times experienced by most Central Subway riders will be actually longer and less convenient by subway than by today's surface buses.   For a comparison between Central Subway trip times and bus trip times click on  "Central Subway - Background", and then go to “Perceived Travel Times”. 


Quiet Cuts in Bus Service:  To help pay for the subway, the SFMTA plans to reduce service on the Muni's 30 and 45 trolley bus lines by 34,426 bus hours a year.  (This is documented in the SFMTA's FY  2012 New Starts Report, submitted to the Federal Transportation Administration in the Fall of 2010). The SFMTA has not as yet explained the impact of these large cuts in service to the affected neighborhoods:  Chinatown, North Beach, Telegraph Hill, Russian Hill, Fisherman’s Wharf, Polk Gulch, Buena Vista, Marina, Golden Gate Valley and Cow Hollow.  

Overstated New Riders:  Central Subway "new riders" are defined as individuals who begin using Muni because of the Subway. In the Final EIS/EIR it was projected that the Central Subway would attract 18,400 new riders a day by 2030.  However, in the FY 2012 New Starts Report this projection now shows as just 5,000 new riders a day.  Since the Central Subway's total trip times including walking and waiting times are in most cases actually higher than the total trip times of today's buses, a dismally low projected new ridership comes as no surprise.  In fact, it is not immediately apparent why the Central Subway would attract any new ridership.


Quiet Diversion of the T-Line:  Today’s T-Line riders from the southeast part of San Francisco enjoy direct access to the baseball park, proposed future basketball pavilion, Ferry Building, Transbay Terminal, future high speed rail and all of the Market Street subway stations.  With the Central Subway, these T-Line riders will be routed away from all these important destinations.  Instead they will travel along Fourth and Stockton to the high-end Union Square shopping/hotel area and southern third of Chinatown.  If, in the future, a T-Line rider wishes to connect to a Market Street subway train, he or she will be obliged to backtrack on foot from the Union Square Central Subway station the distance of four football fields placed end to end.  So far there has been virtually no effort devoted to explaining this substantial loss of service to the adversely affected residents of the Mission Bay, Dog Patch, Potrero Hill, Bayview, Hunters Point, Little Hollywood, Excelsior and Visitation Valley neighborhoods.

The Mess in North Beach:  There are some who would like to extend the Central Subway to Fisherman's Wharf (despite the fact that it is already served by the Muni F-Line, the Powell Street cable car line and four bus lines).  Promoters of the idea call it Phase 3 of the Third Street Corridor/Central Subway program.  Phase 3 has never been approved, or environmentally cleared, or even analyzed in any serious manner.  Yet to get a "leg up" on Phase 3, the SFMTA has seen fit to include 2,000 feet of this unapproved future "Phase 3" extension as part of the Phase 2 Central Subway.  This action appears to violate both the California Environment Quality Act and 49 USC 5309, the federal legislation authorizing New Starts grants.  In a clumsy attempt to obfuscate the real reason for the extension, the SFMTA has concocted an outlandish tale of how the extension is needed to remove the used-up tunnel boring machines after the tunneling work is finished.  This is shear fantasy.  There are other, much cheaper ways of removing TBMs that would not involve a 2,000 foot, $100 million tunnel extension complete with an unnecessary TBM extraction shaft.
Refusal to Provide Back-up Information:  In an effort to evaluate some of the SFMTA’s dubious claims, SaveMuni.com has made dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests for back-up data.  The SFMTA's responses to our requests have typically been slow and inconsistent.  In a number of instances, the SFMTA either loaded us down with irrelevant material, or simply refused to provide important information despite repeated requests.  A recent case in point is the SFMTA's flat refusal to produce the much talked about "internal study" which SFMTA spokesmen insist shows how extending the subway 2,000 feet into North Beach will save the project money.


The Central Subway was sold and is still being sold deceptively to Chinatown, San Francisco’s elected legislators and the rest of San Francisco.  SaveMuni.com had hoped that exposing the data manipulation and deception used to sell the Cental Subway would result in Central Subway funds being freed up to address more deserving Muni improvement projects, including many that are badly needed and of long standing....beginning with upgrading the Stockton Street surface bus operation.  Unfortunately, the response of San Francisco's government to this new information has been to lower its collective head and push blindly ahead regardless of changed circumstances.  

Muni has many unmet capital improvement needs. There are many ways of putting Central Subway funds to better use than wasting them on an overpriced subway of marginal benefit.