Traffic flows past temporary barricades as Central Subway construction continues along Stockton Street in Chinatown on Friday, July 19, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Central Subway to debut in 2021, nearly three years later than planned

It’s official: Muni’s new Central Subway will debut three years late.

Muni officials are preparing to formally announce the $1.6 billion dollar Central Subway’s newest opening date, June 2021, after an exhaustive six-week fact-finding period by the subway’s new director, Nadeem Tahir, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

Sources told the Examiner the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency expects to finish construction by June 2020, but will need to conduct testing for a year and will open for service by March or June 2021.

Sources who spoke to the Examiner on condition of anonymity confirmed the new date. SFMTA later announced the delay openly to various San Francisco news outlets after the Examiner asked them about the delay.

“It’s a bummer of the highest magnitude,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents Chinatown, among other neighborhoods. “But,” he added, SFMTA has been more transparent about this delay than they have previously.

“At least the SFMTA is finally telling the Board of Supervisors the truth,” he said.

And that truth hurts.

Now, T-Third trains will roll from Oracle Park through Union Square to Chinatown Rose Pak Station just in time for The City’s summer fog to roll through in 2021, when originally trains were set to debut to the sound of sleigh bells in December 2018.

“We are heartbroken by these delays,” Cat Carter, spokesperson for the San Francisco Transit Riders advocacy group said, in a statement. “It is unspeakably frustrating that we can’t get this subway in service.”

The delays are particularly impactful to merchants from Union Square to Chinatown, who have complained that ongoing construction has led to a drop in foot traffic, and therefore poses a threat to their livelihoods. At least one Chinatown business closed and told the Examiner the construction was to blame, and other merchants have said they are on the brink of closure.

Queena Chen, co-chair of the Chinatown Transportation Research Improvement Project, an advocacy group, said they are “very disappointed” to hear about the latest delay.

“We hope SFMTA can implement programs and services right away to drive back customers and community members to Chinatown,” she said, in the form of bus shuttles for traffic-beleaguered Chinatown visitors, and advertising help throughout The City to direct people to Chinatown.

Peskin pledged that Stockton Street merchants would be fiscally recompensated for Central Subway-related business impacts. The roughly $5,000-$7,000 The City paid to Chinatown businesses last year “will happen again this year,” he told the Examiner.

Central Subway’s new director is hoping to smooth over bumps in the road for the long-delayed subway.

Tahir started as the new Central Subway director in July, with 35 years of transit experience spanning Los Angeles, Hawaii, and across the United States. SFMTA promptly announced he would conduct a six-week analysis so the agency could be firm in the subway’s debut date.

Those six weeks were up September 6, although SFMTA did call the span of time “approximate,” to give themselves wiggle-room.

This also marks the first time Muni officials have definitively confirmed a Central Subway delay. For years, an independent federal monitor cautioned the subway’s “revenue service date,” the technical term for when passengers can pay to board trains at a completed subway, was slipping.

But SFMTA repeatedly denied some of those claims, with former SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin adhering to a revenue service date of December 2019 at every turn.

The San Francisco Examiner exclusively revealed the first major Central Subway construction-related delay in 2017, when the debut date slipped by ten months, and also exclusively revealed subway contractors laying 3.2 miles of the wrong type of steel in 2018.

The independent federal monitor warned again in May this year that Central Subway’s opening date would slip into mid-2020, which the agency previously denied.

“The constant delays and moving of the goalposts has been unacceptable and infuriating,” Supervisor Matt Haney said. “We urgently need this subway completed, and there must be accountability, better planning and communication, and much stronger mitigation for residents and businesses in future projects.”

Reiskin, whose leadership spearheaded the project, resigned from the agency in August.

Acting SFMTA Director Tom Maguire, sources said, has since been frank with the challenges the agency is facing.

“It is also a slap in the face that we’ve basically been lied to, that we might have thought there was a possibility of a subway before the Warriors’ first tip-off in San Francisco,” Carter said.

She added, “It’s also apparent that there needed to be a whole new team at the top to get the real story and to move forward. We really appreciate SFMTA’s honesty and transparency and hope the agency will thoroughly investigate and explain the delays. But even with that, SFMTA has a lot of work to do to gain the public’s confidence.”

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