The Central Subway is SF’s Gravina Island Bridge


SF Weekly’s Eskenazi sums it up:

Pagoda TBM Extraction – A Waste of $80 million
September 23, 2013:  Everyone now knows that the Central Subway is and always has been a weak project, doggedly promoted for foolish reasons.  However, the plan to remove the used-up tunnel boring machines (TBM’s) through a large hole located 2,000 feet north of the end of the subway at the site of the old Pagoda Theater pushes things to new extremes.
The SFMTA (the agency running Muni) insists that it must spend an extra $80 million in this unneeded tunneling and hole-digging for the sole purpose of “saving” two TBM’s worth a total of $4.5 million.  Does that make sense?
If this cockamamy plan goes through, it will reportedly be the first time in history that a tunnel anywhere in the world has been extended substantially beyond the end of a subway in order to recover used-up tunnel boring equipment. Elsewhere tunnelers either disassemble the machines and back them out the way they came in, or bury them in an out-of-the-way place (in this case under Jackson Street)

Over the past year numerous individuals and groups have tried to get the SFMTA to explain why it wants to dig a huge TBM extraction hole in North Beach. To no avail. Apparently fearful that its financially shaky house of cards will collapse, the SFMTA has consistently refused to answer the question or even discuss the subject.  Yet the absurd $80 + million plan, which the SFMTA insists is needed to save two TBM’s worth a total of $4.5 million, plows ahead.  As a result, North Beach and in particular the affected residents and businesses near the construction site have already experienced construction noise, falling debris and other effects…with the digging yet to come.
For this and other reasons the SFMTA now acknowledges the project contingency reserve, once ballyhooed as being $330 million, is now mostly gone.  The latest figures show the reserve as having dropped to around $50 million or 3% the cost of the project (far below the federal government’s requirement of 10%) with much difficult construction work yet to come.
According to a risk management analysis completed by the Federal Transportation Administration and SFMTA March of 2010, the project appears destined to go significantly over budget.  The FTA/SFMTA report concluded that the project had only a 30% chance of staying within its $1.58 billion budget and only an 80% chance of holding the overruns to less $400 million.  Under federal rules, the local sponsors of New Starts projects pay for all overruns.  Which means that the San Francisco tax payer could be saddled with paying for extra Central Subway project costs of $400 million or more. This is a risk that should be –  but apparently isn’t – of concern to all of San Francisco’s elected officials.
More about SFMTA’s incursion into North Beach
Here is a chronology of the events that have led up to the current debacle.
June 2012:  SFMTA announces plans to tear up the heart of North Beach by extending its tunnels 2,000 feet north of the Chinatown terminal station, allegedly because of a need for a suitable site from which to extract two tunnel boring machines (TBM’s).  This causes a firestorm of opposition from North Beach merchants and residents, furious over the idea of digging a 42 foot deep, 45 by 49 foot hole in the middle of Columbus Avenue.
September, 2012:  SFMTA thinks better of the Columbus Avenue idea and instead proposes to pull its TBMs out of the ground at the privately-owned Pagoda Theater site on Powell Street near Filbert.  Negotiations with the private property owner ensue.
February 15, 2013:  The SFMTA announces that the shift to the Pagoda site would increase the overall cost of the Central Subway project by $9.15 million….money it says it would divert from Muni’s already overburdened operating budget.   (The cost of the shift has since climbed to $13.7 million and is destined to rise still further).  In view of a project contingency reserve that the SFMTA has at various times put between $150 million and $330 million, it is not clear why the cost of the Pagoda shift should come from Muni operating funds rather than Project funds.  Here are two possible explanations:  
         a.)  The contingency reserve has already been used up.  
         b.)  The Feds won’t play ball because they now realize that extending the tunnels 2,100 feet beyond the Chinatown terminal has nothing to do with TBM extraction and everything to do with someone’s dream of a future Phase 3 * extension to Fisherman’s Wharf).     
*  Phase 3 is a fantasy.  An extension to Fisherman’s Wharf was not described or even mentioned in the Central Subway EIS/EIR. No local, regional, State or federal agency has approved it or provided any funding for it.  Since Muni already provides ample bus and rail service to Fisherman’s Wharf, there is no discernable reason for giving this pet idea precedence over Muni’s many other pressing capital needs.
April 28,  2013: As indicated, despite its growing lack of credibility, the SFMTA continues to claim that digging a big hole in North Beach is the only way of recovering its TBM’s.  If the SFMTA were to “get real”, by removing or otherwise disposing of its TBM’s in the conventional manner, it could save the project at least eighty million dollars, with absolutely no loss of subway functionality.
Nevertheless the SFMTA is pushing ahead with its TBM extraction plans, undermining important environmental safeguards and running roughshod over affected businesses and nearby residents in the process.   EIS’s and EIR’s are supposed to ensure that the environmental impacts of a proposed project are carefully and accurately described and evaluated before construction begins.  By proceeding into an unknown, unapproved and unfunded Phase 3, all in the name of TBM extraction, the SFMTA is making a mockery of NEPA and CEQA regulations and guidelines.  
Charts Showing SFMTA’s False Central Subway Claims  
Charts, developed from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s (SFMTA’s) own data, compare Central Subway ridership, costs and trip times.  The charts show clearly how the SFMTA was telling the Fed one thing and San Franciscans another. 


How Central Subway was Deceptively Sold to Chinatown and the rest of San Francisco
Litigation News
Updated April 28, 2013:  The Central Subway project remains vulnerable to litigation.
At least one pending action against the California High Speed Rail Authority would deny the Central Subway project $61.3 million in State Proposition 1A high speed rail funding.
In September 2012 an action was filed by a North Beach resident.  In this case the plaintiff charged that the reasons stated in the EIR for pushing the subway 2,000 feet beyond the Chinatown terminal into North Beach were bogus.
Despite its merit, the lawsuit was thrown out on technical grounds.’s Union Square Action:  A separate action filed by SaveMuni in October challenged the SFMTA’s right to extend a Central Subway station into a public park (Union Square), without the approval of the voters, as required under SF City Charter Section 4.113.  While this action also showed legal promise, the case was blocked by a City Attorney demurrer upheld by the Superior Court Judge assigned to the case.  Because of a lack of funds it was not possible to appeal the ruling.
SaveMuni’s North Beach Action:  On February 5, 2013, a letter from Lippe Gaffney and Wagner LLP,’s attorneys, was delivered to the SFMTA.  The letter raised substantive concerns and legal objections to the SFMTA’s plan to extract its tunnel boring machines (TBM’s) at the recently-selected Pagoda Theater site, located on Powell Street near Filbert.  For a variety of reasons, including potential geotechnical and ground water problems, potential ground subsidence, threatened historic structures and threatened incursions into public parks, believes that before disrupting and otherwise affecting North Beach in order to extract its TBM’s, the City should prepare and certify a subsequent or supplemental Environmental Impact Report.  The funds needed to pursue this valid case also appear to be lacking.
Congressman McClintock Blasts the “Subway to Nowhere

Congressman McClintock’s very forceful and effective statement was a key factor in the US House of Representatives 235 to 186 vote to deny all federal New Starts funding to the Central Subway project.

House Denies Funding to Central Subway 
June 29, 2012:  Congressman Tom McClintock’s Amendment denying all federal funds to the Central Subway boondoggle passes the U.S. House of Representatives 235 to 186.   (The amendment was later sidelined by the Democratically-controlled Senate).
SF Civil Grand Jury slams Central Subway:  For Grand Jury Report, see

S.F. Subway Derails Into Boondoggle


Characterizes the Central Subway as “a case study in government incompetence and wasted taxpayer money”
Sierra Club Opposes Central Subway
May 7, 2011:  Reversing its previous position of neutrality, the Sierra Club’s Bay Chapter calls for all unspent Central Subway funds to be put to better use on other Muni improvement projects.  Central_Subway_resolution.pdf
Quentin Kopp Skewers Central Subway 
July 16, 2011 and October 23, 2012:  Retired Superior Court Judge and former California High Speed Rail Authority Chair Quentin Kopp blasts the project Download  and in an Examiner Op Ed piece:  True Facts on the Central Subway
Aaron Peskin Weighs in
August 23, 2011:  Former SF Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin announces his strong opposition to the Central Subway, which he notes was sold to him and other supervisors based upon understated costs and overstated ridership.  See SF Weekly Article  


Jake McGoldrick Blasts the Project
August 18, 2011:  Jake McGoldrick, former Chair, SF County Transportation Authority, comes out swinging against the project, which he also characterizes as having been sold on false pretenses.  See SF Chronicle Op Ed piece
Mayoral Candidate Dennis Herrera’s Statement

September 9, 2011:  In a well-researched 9-page analysis, San Francisco City Attorney and Mayoral candidate Dennis Herrera comes out strongly against the Central Subway.  See:  herrera2011

Dr. Robert Feinbaum’s KQED Radio Statement
Listen to on KQED Radio 
SF Weekly Nails the Problem
SF Bay Guardian Describes the “Tawdry Political Process” leading to Debacles like the Central Subway
Stockton Street Surface Improvement Plan
August 14, 2011:  SaveMuni releases its Surface Improvement Plan for Stockton Street.
Cal Watchdog Weighs In White Paper on the Central Subway

Click on “2010 Milestones”


More Facts about the Central Subway 
Bypasses Market and Mission Street transit riders
Market/Mission Disconnect:  From the Union Square Station, Central Subway riders attempting to reach a Market Street subway train would be obliged to travel on foot the distance of 4 football fields placed end to end to make their connections.  Similar walks would be required to transfer to the Mission Street buses.  Even getting to a Market Street bus would be substantially less convenient than it is today.
Reroutes today’s T-Line riders away from Important Destinations  
The Central Subway would disconnect Muni’s existing light rail T-Line riders from the the baseball park, future basketball pavillon, Embarcadero, Market Street Muni Metro and BART subway stations, ferry boats, Transbay Transit Center and future high-speed trains.  Instead T-Line riders would be taken by Central Subway to the Convention Center, upscale Union Square shopping area and southern part of Chinatown.   
Fails to Serve East-West Bus Riders
Today’s Stockton bus riders can easily transfer to Muni LRV lines J, K, L, N, M, F and T and to Muni east-west bus lines 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 9, 9L, 10, 12, 14, 14L, 14x, 21, 31, 71, 71L and 76.  With the Central Subway, connections to every one of these 24 east-west Muni lines, as well as to four BART lines and the Mission Street  SamTrans buses would be substantially less convenient from the subway than from the buses currently operating on Stockton Street.   In addition, most Central Subway riders would experience longer total trip times via subway than via today’s Stockton Street buses.

Note:  To help pay for the subway, the SFMTA plans to cut service on the 30 and 45 trolley bus lines by 50%.                 

Fails to Serve Anyone Much North of Jackson Street

Because the Central Subway stops at the Washington Street terminal it does nothing to accommodate the outlying riders of the 8x, 30 and 45 bus lines.  For this reason it fails to serve not only the northern two-thirds of Chinatown but also Muni riders from the Cow Hollow, Presidio, Marina, Buena Vista, Fort Mason, Polk Gulch, Russian Hill, Telegraph Hill, and North Beach neighborhoods.  


Fails to Serve Much of Western San Francisco

Because of the aforementioned missed connections most riders from the Richmond, Sunset, Castro, Twin Peaks, Presidio Heights, Pacific Heights, Nob Hill, Hayes Valley, Haight-Ashbury, Western Addition, Forest Hill, OMI, and Mission neighborhoods would find the Central Subway even less convenient than today’s slugglish Stockton Street buses.


escalator Is much Deeper and more Expensive than Necessary
Unnecessarily deep tunnels and stations require long escalator rides.  When the escalators go out of service as they often do, it means either a slooooow elevator ride or long treks up and down stairs.
A mezzaine level, not required for a low ridership line like the Central Subway, unnecessarily pushes up construction costs.
Has Limited Future Carrying Capacity (updated September 17 2014)
To save money, the LRV platforms were reduced to two-car lengths (potentially expandable to three).  Short platforms serve only short trains, ruling out a higher capacity operation in the future.

Fails to Meet the Challenge
If the eastern San Francisco’s north-south transportation system had been laid out and designed properly, Muni riders would have traveled unfettered by traffic congestion from one
end of San Francisco to the other on fast buses or trains.  Connections to the BART and Muni Metro subway systems would have been quick and easy. Chinatown would have been served by two stations, one near the #1 bus line; the other near the #10 and #12 bus lines. Stations would have been conveniently located just below street grade. A well designed system could have provide much better transit service at much lower cost than the cost of the Central Subway.In the place of what could have been San Francisco will eventually be saddled with a deep and enormously expensive short subway projected to carry only a small fraction of what city subways normally carry.

The SFMTA’s Central Subway is fatally flawed.  Here are five of them: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, most subway users will 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 SFMTA likes to call its Central Subway the Chinatown Subway.  Yet according to the SFMTA’s own EIR/EIS, once the first blush of newness has worn off, only 10% of the riders of the Muni 8x, 30 and 45 bus lines riders will bother to use the Central Subway.
 Neglected Alternatives

Chinatown needed and deserved a reliable and expeditious connection to downtown San Francisco, as did the rest of northeastern San Francisco. Here are some of the neglected 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 have used the subway. Buses could have come to grade through portals located north of Broadway. This would have enabled the rest of Chinatown and residents of the nine neighbohoods to the North of Chinatown to benefit from the subway. If the bus lines had been extended southward, Mission Bay and Potrero Hill could also have benefited.b.)  The subway could have been shallow instead of deep. Going shallow without the mezzanines would have allowed both an efficient Market Street station and two well-located Chinatown stations.  Locating the subway over rather than under the Market Street subway lines would have improved access for riders, allowed for longer stations, better electric bus accommodation at much lower cost.c.)  To cut costs, buses or light-rail vehicles could have operated in a median of Fourth Street until they crossed Mission Street, at which point the transit vehicles could have 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 have been (and in fact still can be) significantly improved.

    e.)   Implementing a congestion pricing system for San Francisco could also have been given greater attention.
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“.


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