Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg was in town last week to tubthump the slow-rolling disaster that is the Central Subway project and to claim that, on the undetermined date it does commence service, it’ll be worth the wait.
That’s a hell of a thing to say, considering this project has been in conception since he was in high school and was put before voters when he was just out of college.
In that time, the price tag for this project has more than tripled; the final cost is now tabbed at upwards of $1.9 billion, and will all but certainly be significantly higher than that. Close to half a billion of those dollars figure to come from local sources. That’s something to think about the next time your bus doesn’t show up; Muni is a system with infinite needs and finite resources. And this is how it’s spending them.
The sclerotic process of the Central Subway is, by definition, an old story. We’ve had lots of time to write about how it’s taking lots of time. That doesn’t make it okay, but you’ve read this. The exploding cost is also not a revelation, and San Francisco officials have long since given up feigning concern about a couple hundred million here or couple hundred million there. Hey! Stuff costs money! So get off it!
If the Central Subway was a good and useful project, no one would remember the inveterate delays or obscene cost overruns. The BART extension to SFO also went grotesquely over budget — and, perversely, local transit agencies serving put-upon riderships were made to fund a rail line for more affluent airport passengers. But nobody talks about that anymore, because the BART line to the airport is so useful. You can go to the airport without even meaning to! Now that’s convenience.
It is exceedingly difficult to foresee many future San Franciscans saying this about the Central Subway. That’s because it’s exceedingly difficult to overstate how poorly designed this subway line is. Though it could’ve been worse: Earlier iterations of the project neglected to include air ducts, which would have resulted in rail patrons being asphyxiated.
Future riders on the Central Subway figure to be able to breathe and survive. That’s for the good. But it’s a remarkably limited rail line, divorced from the rest of the Muni Metro system and accessible from Muni Metro and BART only via an onerous transfer seemingly designed by Rube Goldberg.
That’s not for the good. And it gets worse: As an ostensible cost-saving measure, the Central Subway tunnel platforms were designed to only accommodate two-car trains — a disastrous decision, among so many disastrous decisions, that singularly dooms this multi-billion dollar project to failure.
Someday in the future, the Central Subway will finally open. And someday after that, the transit riders of San Francisco will pine for the days that it was closed.
“As a transit nerd and subway fan, it is painful how badly they built this subway,” laments former longtime BART commissioner Tom Radulovich.
“There is incredible awkwardness built into the Central Subway, and we’re going to be reckoning with it for a long time.”
Like the Central Subway, let’s slow down. Let’s focus on the decision to build subway platforms only large enough to handle two-car trains. There have been so many awful decisions regarding this subway project, but this one may be the worst.
It’s O. Henry-like in its tragic irony: The ridership capacity that would have justified this multi-billion dollar project is now impossible to achieve. Even if people flock to take this rail line, two-car trains will quickly fill up and be overwhelmed.
It will be difficult for Muni to extend this line to North Beach and the Marina (no one is lining up to give San Francisco the necessary money after this debacle, and Muni additionally ceded control of key tracts of land). And that’s a damn shame: Extending this line to Fisherman’s Wharf is the only thing that would make it a worthwhile transit project. But even if this comes to pass, saddled with puny two-car trains, the Central Subway cannot handle augmented ridership; during peak demand, trains departing the Marina would be full before they reached Chinatown.
Simply put: The Central Subway cannot carry the ridership numbers that were used to justify its existence. And post-facto enlarging the platforms in the now-completed subterranean stations would be fantastically disruptive and costly — if it were even possible at all.
“These two-car trains — it’s like the Toonerville Trolley,” quips Gerald Cauthen, a transit engineer and former Muni employee who helped plan and build the Metro system four decades ago.
“Subways can provide high-capacity transit for a lot of people. This subway won’t,” sums up Radulovich. “They designed it with very short platforms.”
And this, he continues, will lead to cascading problems. The dense development planned along the path of the Central Subway was meant to be served by a high-ridership line. “But it’s N-Judah capacity,” Radulovich says, “not BART capacity.”
The plan was, “let’s basically build New York-style density. But on a streetcar line that can only run two-car trains,” he adds. “It’s a real mismatch.”
Who will the Central Subway work for? For anyone hoping to take a straight shot from the Third Street corridor up to Chinatown and back, it could be all right, provided you don’t require additional transit to get to or from your departure point, and that your preferred destination is near one of the relatively few stops.
For well-heeled visitors staying at Union Square hotels and hoping to attend a Dubs game at Chase Center or a convention at Moscone, it’ll be great.
It’ll be a bit surreal for passengers coming or going elsewhere via Muni or BART and hoping to make a transfer to or from the Central Subway. This rail line is essentially an orphan, and its failure to be a step toward establishing a true subway network represents a spectacular missed opportunity for San Francisco. As it is, the transfer from the Central Subway’s Union Square/Market Street station to Powell Street Station requires a 1,018-foot walk — nearly three football fields. There’s also an 85-foot ascent and an estimated travel time of seven minutes, six seconds.
And that’s for an able-bodied adult.
Even the term “Central Subway” is a misnomer; that name described a project originally envisioned to serve both the Stockton Street corridor and the Geary corridor. That plan would’ve been truly useful. But, alas: Along with long-enough platforms, it has been relegated to the city’s transit history dustbin.
Perhaps that’s for the best. Who knows if they’d have remembered to put in the air ducts?
In 2008, Muni made the audacious claim that the Central Subway would be a moneymaker, to the tune of $23.9 million a year. That was an unbelievable claim — as in, one couldn’t believe it. By 2012, Muni had changed its tune and admitted that the Subway would drain $15.2 million a year from the system.
Muni didn’t respond to requests last week for the current projections of the Central Subway’s annual operating cost. But considering the passage of time, and the patterns for this project, it’s hard not to see it being greater than $15.2 million. Perhaps far greater. This money is going to come from a system that was strapped, even before Covid-19. So your commute will be affected, even if you never get near the Central Subway.
“They’re moving so much money to one small part of the city and ignoring the rest,” says Howard Wong, an architect and longtime Central Subway foe. “If just the local matching funds for large projects were invested in the overall Muni system, San Francisco would have a more robust transit system today.”
Perhaps, one day, San Francisco may design a transit project with the actual needs of transit riders in mind. Won’t that be worth the wait.