Central Subway will Bleed Muni for Years

Columnist Joe Eskenazi is the Managing Editor of Mission Local. On September 26th his vivid critique of the Central Subway Project concluded that the Central Subway is a “grotesquely over-budget and behind schedule rail project…that will bleed Muni for years”.

Here’s how bad it is. At $2 billion the Central Subway, with only 76% of its 1.7 miles actually in subway will come in at $1.2 billion per mile. The table below, which came from a comprehensive ENO study of urban rail project costs in 9 countries throughout the world indicates how this Bay Area subway price compares to similar projects elsewhere.

For the ENO report see: https://projectdelivery.enotrans.org/international/

As Mr. Eskenazi notes, this ill-conceived, politically-motivated project will forever hang as a financial load stone around MTA’s neck. Here’s why:

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Central Subway ridership is now projected to be 45,000 riders a day (a pre-COVID estimate), less than half the figure touted by the MTA during the time that it was selling the project to local elected politicians and other stakeholders. Yet, if there ever were a high demand for Central Subway service, such as when large events were on going at both the Oracle Park baseball stadium and the Chase Center basketball pavilion, the Central Subway….limited as it is to two-car trains….would be hard pressed to carry the load.

The Central Subway was initially sold based upon a boast that it would save Muni $23.9 million a year in operating costs. That rosy number turned out to be grotesquely inaccurate. Current estimates have the subway as increasing Muni operating costs by an estimated $20 million a year. The MTA’s 2008 selling pitch was off by $44 million a year.


Transferring from Central Subway trains to any of the trains in the Market Subway will require a trek of almost 1,200 feet, equivalent to 4 football fields.

Chinatown residents and visitors will be shocked to discover that the seven stories deep train ride between Chinatown and Union Square/Market Street is only 1/2 mile in length.

The project was originally billed as “The Chinatown Subway”, that is until reality hit home. According to the EIR only 20% of Central Subway riders will actually go to Chinatown. And there’s a reason for that.

Picture a 60 year old Chinese lady who lives in the Richmond or Sunset District used to traveling on an east-west Muni bus and then a Stockton Street bus to buy Chinese groceries or other specialty Chinatown items or to see her friends. To get there she transfers from her Muni Metro or BART train, or east-west bus to a Stockton bus and then gets off close to her destination. Carrying her bags of groceries she returns home the same way. If instead, she decides to take the “Chinatown Subway” here’s the ordeal she will face.

Going to Chinatown: If she comes by Muni Metro she will have to walk almost 1,200 feet through the mezzanine to Union Square and then catch the subway for her one-half mile trip to Chinatown, where she will get from the 75 foot deep platform to street grade at Washington Street and walk to her destination.

Returning from Chinatown: Instead of catching her 30 or 45 trolley Stockton Street bus at a nearby bus stop, she will walk to Washington Street, descend 75-feet into a huge subway cavern where she may not feel safe, and ride the train one-half mile to the Union Square Station/Market Street Station. If she uses the Market Street subway she will then walk with her groceries the same 1,200 feet back to the Powell Street Station to catch a BART or Muni Metro train. If she uses a Market Street bus she will walk roughly 600 feet, and then ascend to street grade to catch her bus, or walk another 600 feet to catch a Mission Street bus. If she’s lucky enough to live close to the 38 Geary bus line she will ascend 75 feet to street grade and a nearby 38 bus stop. If she uses a Post/Sutter bus she will ascend to street level and then walk another 600 feet uphill and back toward Chinatown to catch a westbound Sutter Street bus. No wonder the MTA changed the name of the project from the Chinatown Subway to the Central Subway.

The currently anticipated “Grand Opening” of the Central Subway will occur this November, four years late. However, according to Mission Local the MTA is calling the opening a “soft launch”, meaning that it will be limited to shuttling trains back and forth between Chinatown and the Fourth-and-Brannan station. In other words the initial Central Subway operation won’t connect to either to the Third Street Line or Caltrain. And it will run only on weekends, presumably to limit the uproar in case there are additional problems. Some Grand Opening.

The conceptual flaws in the Central Subway project were well recognized and repeatedly called to the SFMTA’s attention between 2008 and 2012, long before construction began. These warnings, including those set forth in the CRG and San Francisco Grand Jury reports, were ignored and now the City is saddled with the results.

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