2022 will be a big year for Muni: Central Subway and Van Ness bus route are coming

After long delays, two major public transit projects are finally slated to open

On a frigid morning this week, commuters queued up at the temporary bus stop on the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Mission Street facing the new red lanes in the middle of the boulevard. Very soon, these dedicated lanes will whisk Muni and Golden Gate Transit riders past the notorious traffic on Van Ness.

For now, though, riders are still waiting.

“It’s about time they get it open,” said William Cog Hill, who commutes to Nob Hill on the 49 every day. “Hopefully we waited this long for something good.”

For San Francisco transit riders, there is finally a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. After years of delays, both the Van Ness bus rapid transit line (known as BRT) and the Central Subway — which will connect Chinatown and Union Square to SoMa and Mission Bay — are slated to open in 2022.

While there are likely to be hiccups as these projects come online, the benefit to riders on some of The City’s busiest transit corridors should be dramatic, said Doug Johnson, transportation program manager for the San Francisco Planning Department. “These projects are so important because they both give transit the speed advantage it should have in a transit-first city,” he said. The Central Subway and Van Ness BRT will also create new links between neighborhoods that today feel distant from one another, improving crosstown service in a transit system that is currently very downtown-focused.

Even as they start welcoming riders, San Francisco’s big transit openings next year will highlight more questions about how The City builds infrastructure and where the next batch of big projects should go, Johnson said: “2022 is going to be a very busy year.”

Central Subway

The Central Subway will extend the T Third Muni Metro line into downtown along 4th and Stockton streets, adding new stations at 4th and Brannan streets, the Moscone Center, Union Square and Chinatown. The Union Square station will include an underground transfer to the Powell Street Muni and BART station.

Workers install finishing on the edge of the platform at Chinatown Station as Central Subway construction in July 8. (SFMTA Photo by Natalie Jensen)

Workers install finishing on the edge of the platform at Chinatown Station as Central Subway construction in July 8. (SFMTA Photo by Natalie Jensen)

Fully approved in 2008, the Central Subway has been under construction since 2012. Its opening has been pushed back several times, and the project is more than $300 million over budget. Construction is now “substantially complete” and testing is underway for a projected opening in October, according to San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency spokesperson Stephen Chun.

Cost overruns for the Central Subway and Van Ness BRT have been paid through SFMTA reserve funds, Chun said.

While the extension is short, just 1.7 miles, it will be transformative for riders on the T Third and 30 Stockton — one of Muni’s slowest and most crowded lines. The project is designed to travel from Chinatown-Rose Pak station, at the corner of Washington and Stockton streets, to the Caltrain station at 4th and King Street in just seven minutes.

With the line open, Chinatown will be more easily accessible to the growing Chinese American community in Bayview. Residents of the southeastern part of The City will have a quicker route to jobs, entertainment and BART downtown.

Union Square hotel guests and downtown office workers will find it easier to reach Oracle Park, Chase Center and Caltrain. The line is also expected to catalyze development in the Central SoMa neighborhood, where several large office and housing projects are approved to begin construction.

The Central Subway is designed to offer four-minute frequencies, with a short line extending to Dogpatch and a longer line going the length of the T tracks to Sunnydale. However, it’s unclear whether these frequencies will be possible when the project opens, as SFMTA continues to grapple with labor, budget and service challenges.

A Muni test train approaches Chinatown Station in the Central Subway during construction in July 21. Train testing will continue ahead of an expected September or October 2022 opening for service. (SFMTA Photo by Natalie Jensen)

A Muni test train approaches Chinatown Station in the Central Subway during construction in July 21. Train testing will continue ahead of an expected September or October 2022 opening for service. (SFMTA Photo by Natalie Jensen)

Van Ness BRT

The Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project is adding center-running, bus-only lanes and bus priority traffic signals along nearly the entire length of Van Ness Avenue, from Mission to Lombard streets.

The project was approved in 2013 and broke ground at the end of 2016. Its opening has been delayed about three years and the project has come in about $37 million over budget.

But now it’s essentially complete, with workers currently installing public art and drought-resistant median plants. The start of passenger service is slated for the end of March or beginning of April, Chun said.

Pallets of construction materials sit along a new bus stop along the Van Ness Avenue bus rapid transit project near City Hall on Tuesday. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Pallets of construction materials sit along a new bus stop along the Van Ness Avenue bus rapid transit project near City Hall on Tuesday. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Van Ness BRT is expected to improve trip times by 32%, or about six minutes, along the corridor, and will provide a more seamless connection between the Mission and northern neighborhoods such as the Marina and Polk Gulch, via Muni’s 49 Van Ness-Mission bus line. The project, which also makes the boulevard safer and more inviting for pedestrians, will provide access to the new California Pacific Medical Center hospital as well as several planned and recently completed apartment buildings.

No matter the benefits, construction was a slog for Van Ness merchants and residents. A San Francisco Civil Grand Jury Report found the perennially delayed project suffered from a lack of coordination among agencies, inadequate study of sewer conditions and poor contractor selection. SFMTA says it has applied those lessons to subsequent projects. The agency recently abandoned a plan for center-running BRT on Geary Boulevard in favor of side-running transit-only lanes that can be installed more quickly and with less disruption.

“We have to do all of our trial and error in public,” Johnson said. “It’s not to say we shouldn’t be striving to be perfect. It’s just to say, we need to ask for the public’s patience.”

Bigger Plans

Next year may also see more detailed plans revealed for future transit mega-projects. The ConnectSF Transit Strategy, released earlier this month, calls for building a subway line down Geary Boulevard and 19th Avenue, a new Caltrain station in Bayview and an extension of the Central Subway. In addition, planners are continuing to work on the Downtown Extension of Caltrain into the Salesforce Transit Center, and a long-term plan for a second transbay train tunnel known as Link21.

Still, progress will be incremental. The Central Subway Extension alternatives study, a key step in advancing that project originally slated for release next year, is on hold as SFTMA focuses on other priorities, Chun said. The subway tunnel already extends to Washington Square Park in North Beach — which SFMTA determined to be the easiest place to begin excavation — marking a logical first step for an extension. A 2015 analysis estimated that adding track and building a station would cost $340 to $500 million, a range that has surely increased since. From there, the line could travel to Fisherman’s Wharf, the Marina and the Presidio.

“I don’t think we should be afraid to be bold,” said Johnson, who’s leading ConnectSF. “It might be messy and it might be hard, but it’s my hope that in the future, these projects and these changes will be worth it.”

bschneider@sfexaminer.com

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