Under the aegis of San Francisco’s then-Mayor Art Agnos, the Embarcadero Freeway was torn down in 1991. With the long-awaited removal of this hated concrete behemoth looming over San Francisco’s Bay views, The City finally rid itself of the most destructive public project ever constructed within its boundaries.
However, the teardown of the earthquake-damaged structure was not without controversy. Some of the merchants and residents in Chinatown objected, fearing that removing the freeway would reduce access to their part of San Francisco.
To placate these objectors, it was decided to build a short piece of underground rail tunnel, later to be known as the Central Subway, and a plan was hatched to build the tunnel with minimal financial participation by San Francisco itself. By “leveraging” an 8 percent city share of the cost with state and federal funds, The City thought it could enjoy the benefits of a $1.58 billion project funded largely by the state of California and federal government.
Unfortunately, in their frenzied pursuit of the state and federal grants, San Francisco officials forgot about what they were building and forgot about the benefits. With everyone’s attention riveted on all that “free” state and federal money, no one paid much heed to the project itself. Left to their own devices, the planners, the managers and the engineers made a series of weak and shortsighted decisions that resulted in an overpriced, disconnected and largely useless appendage to San Francisco’s public transit system.
First, the subway would deny service to anyone north and west of the southern third of Chinatown. Second, it would disconnect T-Third Street line riders from the direct access they now enjoy to the Market Street subway stations.
And finally, as laid out and designed, it would do nothing to ease traffic congestion along Stockton Street, little if anything to improve access to Chinatown and — according to San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency projections — fail to attract enough riders to justify its ultra-high cost. What the subway certainly would do if constructed is to permanently saddle Muni with millions of dollars a year in additional operating and maintenance costs.
For a clear picture of just how bad things are, one need only view the SFMTA’s official Central Subway reports on the Federal Transit Administration’s website ... or look over last June’s San Francisco grand jury report ... or peruse the outside audit of the Muni and Central Subway recently produced for San Francisco County Transportation Authority chairman and city Supervisor David Campos. The picture that emerges is that of a grossly overpriced, short subway of little transportation value to anyone.
It gets worse. The municipal officials who have so fervently pursued federal Central Subway funding also forgot what every Muni rider knows well; namely, that San Francisco desperately needs funds to properly operate, maintain and otherwise strengthen its disintegrating existing transit system. It appears these officials failed to notice that by sucking in San Francisco’s share of available state and federal funding for years to come, this one ill-conceived subway would slow up and stop progress on Muni improvement projects of much greater merit, probably for decades.
But all is not lost. Despite the fact that the SFMTA’s public relations machine has been working overtime to promulgate the myth that the Central Subway is a “done deal” — it’s not a done deal. In fact, Congress has 60 days to review the FTA’s preliminary recommendations and ratings before rendering its appropriation decisions, an evaluation period that has yet to begin.
The Central Subway is a sham. Ordinary San Franciscans have a long and distinguished record of heading off bad and destructive projects. So there’s hope.
Gerald Cauthen and Barry Eisenberg are with the group SaveMuni.com.