Construction-related work recently began on an ambitious subway project that’s remarkable for its high cost and short length. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Central Subway line will cost $1.6 billion and extend just 1.7 miles across The City. Construction is complicated and expensive, in part because it must pass beneath Muni and BART tunnels that run along Market Street.
Initial construction, which began in February at Fourth Street beneath Interstate 80, involves removing sewer, water and electrical lines from beneath streets and placing them under footpaths.
The subway will run beneath Fourth Street south of Market Street and under Stockton Street north of Market Street.
While it will take less than 10 minutes to travel the length of the line, it runs beneath some of San Francisco’s most heavily congested streets and could speed up commute times and reduce dependence on cars.
The scale of the construction project will deliver economic and work force benefits for San Francisco, according to Supervisor David Chiu, whose district includes the affected northeast corner of The City.
“I’m extremely supportive,” Chiu said.
A gas station and a mixed-use building are planned to be acquired and demolished to make way for the project. The Barneys department store at Stockton and O’Farrell streets will have to close its basement shopping section, which is in the path of the subway.
The northbound T-Third Street Muni line, which extends from the Sunnydale neighborhood to downtown, currently travels from Fourth and King streets along the South Beach waterfront and then hooks southwest underground at Market Street.
But the T-line will be realigned when the subway opens. It will travel north from the Fourth and King streets station along Fourth Street and dip below the surface after picking up passengers at a Brannan Street station.
Stations are planned at Fourth and Brannan streets, next to the Moscone Center, at Union Square and on the southern edge of Chinatown.
Only the station at Fourth and Brannan streets will be aboveground.
“The northeast part of San Francisco is the densest, most crowded part of The City,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. “Paradoxically, it’s the part of The City that doesn’t have a subway.”
Cars, pedestrians and Muni buses crowd the narrow Stockton Street corridor, particularly through the densely populated Chinatown, often slowing traffic and transit times on the 30-Stockton bus to a virtual crawl.
“Stockton Street is an amazing street. It works great as a pedestrian shopping street, but it doesn’t work for rapid transit,” Metcalf said. “The Central Subway is about putting transit below ground where it can actually move quickly in the part of The City that needs it most.”
But the project is criticized by Muni watchers because it will drain funds that could be put to other uses, such as improving bus service.
Critics also say planned stations are so deep underground and located so far away from existing terminals that additional walking times could wipe out the benefits of reduced commute times.
Plans to terminate the subway at the southern edge of Chinatown also are criticized.
“The fact that it cuts off at Washington Street is perhaps the most outrageous flaw of all,” activist Gerald Cauthen said. “For everybody north of Jackson Street, there’s no benefit.”
Project spokesman Brajah Norris said the Central Subway is the second phase in a three-phase project.
The first phase laid light-rail tracks along Third Street to Sunnydale, according to Norris.
The third phase, for which planning has not begun and funding has not been identified, is expected to eventually extend the subway farther north from Chinatown into North Beach and beyond.
Muni passengers can expect to feel some inner-ear sensations when they travel on the Central Subway.
The subway will dip 120 feet from the Chinatown station to the next station at Union Square.
The descent will be more sudden than that experienced by BART passengers in the 6-mile tube between Oakland and San Francisco.
That tunnel, which rests on the bottom of the Bay, drops 135 feet below street level, agency figures show.
1.7 miles Length
$948 million Federal share of cost
$342 million State share of cost
$288 million Local share of cost
$8.9 million Annual operating budget
76,000 Ridership in 2030
8 to 10 minutes Travel time
20 minutes Current bus travel time