Boring through

Central Subway has a funding shortfall and a growing number of critics, but its supporters are as committed as ever

Central Subway supporters (including Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, center behind sign) rallied at City Hall on Nov.
Photo courtesy of Rev. Norman Fong

Despite an official groundbreaking ceremony last February, the Central Subway — an underground Muni connection to Chinatown — still doesn't have its full $1.5 billion in funding lined up yet, and now the project is facing renewed criticism that the high cost isn't worth the benefits.

The project was a promise by former Mayor Willie Brown to Chinatown leaders who were upset that the Embarcadero Freeway was torn down after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and never rebuilt, leaving that densely populated part of town difficult to access. But not everyone in Chinatown wants the project.

Wilma Pang, founder and co-chair of A Better Chinatown Tomorrow (ABCT) stands firmly against it, while the Rev. Norman Fong, deputy director of programs for the Chinatown Community Development Center, takes a solid stand for building the project, as does Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, who represents the district.

Fong explains that the majority of Chinatown has united to make sure the subway comes through, and that he himself has never seen the community in Chinatown more set on something. "This is an environmental justice movement," Fong said. "For me, this was the first time Chinatown had ever fought [for such a major infrastructure project]."

City staff is also focused on moving the project forward. "This project has been supported by our state, local, and federal officials," Brajah Norris, external affairs manager for the Central Subway Project, told the Guardian.

But the group SaveMuni — formed last year by progressives, transit engineers, transit advocates, and other activists "working to reverse Muni's death spiral" — recently called for the Central Subway to be shelved and its resources put to more efficient projects. "Now that the analysis has been done, it's time to rethink the situation," SaveMuni says in a white paper on the Central Subway.

The group argues that using the subway will take longer than other transit options, threatens many businesses on Stockton Street, and doesn't even connect effectively with the Muni system. Even worse, they point out that Muni would have to spend an additional $4 million a year in local operating expenditures beyond the existing bus service, an expenditure that seems unnecessary to the organization members.

Although creating a subway for the crowded community seemed like a good idea initially, people like Tom Radulovich soon began to realize that a 1.7 mile subway stretch buried 20 feet underground is not the same as the plan he hoped for when considering an economically efficient transportation system for the people in Chinatown.

"People deserve a whole range of alternatives," said Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and an elected member of the BART Board of Directors. "You have to be mindful of when the [current] project is not the same project you voted for."

For those at SaveMuni, the project long ago strayed from its original goal. Although they agree that Chinatown community members deserve their own form of reliable transportation, they believe this is not the right way to be spending federal, state, and local money.

"It's an important corridor, so funding should go there," Radulovich said. But he thinks the same money could be better used other ways, such as for a dedicated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lane.

Jerry Cauthen, a retired SFMTA transportation engineer who cofounded San Francisco Tomorrow and SaveMuni, explained that he initially liked the concept of a subway but then became "bitterly disappointed" as the project progressed.

The subway line has three stops mapped out: one at Moscone Center, one at Union Square/Market Street, and one in Chinatown. From the Chinatown station, the tunnel will continue under Washington Square and remain there for future extensions to the subway, which is projected to begin service in 2018.

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