The Central Subway is slated to commence service on Nov. 19 with a scaled-back route that brings to mind Alan B. Shepard’s flight into space: You go up and you go back; the whole thing takes 15 minutes and, God willing, nobody has to bail out.
The “soft launch” will allow the ribbon to be cut on the grotesquely over-budget and behind-schedule rail line in calendar 2022, and will come only days after voters will be asked to re-up a vital transit sales tax. It will shuttle trains up and back between the Chinatown and Fourth-and-Brannan stations — meaning Muni does not yet have to integrate the T-Third into the Central Subway, or even deal with busy, problematic intersections like Fourth and King. And it will run on weekends only, so any hiccups won’t result in a great many riders missing work and raising a stink to high heaven.
And it’ll be free. So, it’s got that going for it. Which is nice.
In the coming years, the memories of the Central Subway’s spectacular delays and cost overruns would wash away like tears in rain — if it was a good and useful project. As we wrote earlier this month, that’s not the case. Among so many other built-in flaws, this subway’s platforms were only constructed to accommodate two-car trains. The ridership capacity that would’ve justified this decades-long project is now impossible to achieve: If people flock to this rail line, short trains will quickly be overwhelmed. And if they don’t, it becomes a costly white elephant.
Behind closed doors, Muni leaders claiming enthusiasm for this project admit that it was misbegotten — and that, once it finally opens, paying for its its operation and maintenance will hobble the agency.
So that’s that. The Central Subway is, literally, a sunk cost. The best thing Muni could do now — the only thing, really — is make the most of it. So let’s focus on how that might look.
The Central Subway is too big of a debacle for any quaint notions about lemons and lemonade. This is more akin to deciding to fertilize a garden after someone dumps a vat of manure on you.
There are lots of things Muni could do to, at best, complement its new subway — or, at worst, mitigate its damages. Many of these are things that should’ve been done anyway.
When Muni brought the T-Third into service in 2007, it eliminated the No. 15 bus. That was a mistake, and the No. 15 was belatedly resurrected. Muni should avoid making the same mistake of eliminating bus lines in favor of the Central Subway.
Rather than cutting back bus lines like the 15, 30 and 45, which run parallel to the Central Subway and extend beyond it, these lines should be beefed up. These buses can continue to serve local riders; they are assuredly easier to transfer onto than the Central Subway, and can take riders farther.
“Giving these routes more exclusive right-of-way through Union Square and SoMa would increase their speed and reliability and attractiveness to riders,” writes longtime former BART commissioner Tom Radulovich. “The City should have done most of this transit priority work years ago. They could have provided better transit service to tens of thousands of people who use these lines every day, and better prepared us for the Central Subway opening. So let’s do them now.”
In addition to enhancing existing bus lines, Muni may devise new lines that move people to and from the Central Subway, or alter the lines we’ve got. Muni’s bus service may never have been as flexible as it is now: Transit expert Michael Kiesling notes that Muni’s New Flyer electric buses, unlike a prior generation of electric buses, can come off the wires and run on battery power.
Muni has announced that it plans to run trains at four-minute intervals in the Central Subway, a jarring statement for put-upon riders of the T-Third. This rail line will ostensibly be integrated into the Central Subway in January; rather than turn right and head along the Embarcadero, it will roll straight into the new subway tunnel.
The T-Third opened 15 years ago, and underperformed to the point that the No. 15 bus it supplanted was reinstated. T-Third riders tell me they rarely recall trains running at 10-minute intervals, let alone four minutes. Their great worry, of course, is that trains will run more frequently in the Central Subway by turning back on abbreviated runs far before reaching the city’s southeast.
“If it’s just running four-minute trains to connect the Warriors to Market Street, that’s not helping Bayview,” sums up longtime city transit advocate William Walker. “My fear about the Central Subway is that it’s going to be a project to serve the burgeoning neighborhood planned in central SoMa, and will not benefit the Third Street corridor.”
Others noted that the Central Subway would be of far greater use to wealthy arrivistes in Mission Bay than to longtime residents in Bayview. And the T-Third, which forms the majority of the future Central Subway, has never been warmly greeted by the denizens of the city’s southeast.
“You can’t escape the T on Third Street,” Walker continues. “It shakes the buildings. But I talk to people about it, and it’s not useful to them. They ride the 44 to BART. They ride the 19. They ride the 15 express.”
If the T-Third could be made to run quicker and better, Walker continues, then the Central Subway would be quicker and better, too. Like the improvements suggested by Radulovich, these could’ve — should’ve — been done long ago. But now works, too.
Muni could better coordinate bus-to-rail transfers. It could improve signals to prioritize trains, and do more to keep trains from getting bogged down in car traffic. It could shunt more Muni vehicles into dedicated right-of-ways. It could eliminate left turns on portions of Third and Fourth streets, which allow a single dude in a car to hold up a packed train with scores or hundreds of people.
That would be a fantastic start (and would have been long ago, yes). The T is slated to be amalgamated into the Central Subway come January. Nobody I talked to — within Muni or without — had any inkling how 40-odd trains will be made to run smoothly through the fabulously busy Fourth and King intersection every hour.
It’s frustrating that the Central Subway has eaten up dollars that could’ve gone to other big projects. But we should still pursue those big projects. And, maybe this time, we shouldn’t screw them up. Here are just a few:
- Extending Caltrain into downtown “would make a really classy entrance into the densest part of the city,” says Gerald Cauthen, a transit engineer and former Muni employee who helped plan and build the Metro system four decades ago. “We need to improve SamTrans, extend Caltrain and make it possible for people [heading into the city] to not get into their cars.”
- If Muni ever upgraded to a better automatic train control system, the added precision would allow it to run trains more closely to each other — and, therefore, at more rapid intervals. This could vastly improve service, without adding more trains and operators. The price tag attached to such a system, however, is presently in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and growing. And claims that such a system could control trains on the surface strain credulity.
- You could consider removing I-280. You could extend the misbegotten Central Subway to the Marina. There are lots of big things you could do.
There are even more relatively small and inexpensive fixes that could vastly improve transit riders’ lives and potentially enhance transit more than any single big project. It hasn’t been money concerns keeping Muni from undertaking them. These are political issues.
Even transit experts highly critical of Muni praised aggressive steps in recent years to lay down red transit lanes and prioritize transit rights-of-way. But these moves often come in the face of fierce opposition from neighborhood merchants and residents.
Getting red lanes into the Mission was a mighty slog. Similar transit prioritizations in the city’s southeast would also figure to be adversarial. And the Central Subway may not help here.
“If you want transit to work, at some point you have to put restrictions on cars,” says Walker. “If you do that in a neighborhood that doesn’t feel like it has access to economic development, they’ll say this is a move to serve people who don’t live in the neighborhood.”
And they’ll have a solid argument, too. If the Central Subway proves to be an overpriced toy for affluent neighborhoods rather than the promised transit solution for the city’s working class, it will drain not only Muni’s finances, but its goodwill.
Both are in short supply.