Central Subway to fill transit hole

Living cities are not static; their neighborhood demographics are consistently changing. The best planning of a bygone day might well become irrelevant to contemporary needs. San Francisco’s public transit mapping from the mid 20th century was designed to serve existing ridership patterns — which are now significantly different, as urban districts evolved to meet changing needs.

In today’s San Francisco, one of the most blatant transit holes is the lack of an efficient north-south carrier line serving the entire east side of The City. There has been no convenient passenger link that connects newer attractions such as Moscone Center and AT&T Park with longer-established urban draws such as Union Square and Chinatown — even though all of these magnet sites are almost directly aligned.

South of SoMa and AT&T Park was one of The City’s most shamefully underserved districts, a fading old-industry bastion stretching all the way to now-redeveloping Hunters Point. This whole area got its fastest-ever connection to the downtown core last year via the T-Third light-rail line — which admittedly got off to a highly shaky start, but now seems to be running dependably.

On Tuesday the $1.3 billion Central Subway project — the long-proposed northerly extension to the T-Third — was green-lighted by the Municipal Transportation Agency board. Chinatown residents, whose main downtown access route is the ever-crowded 30-Stockton, have been demanding this new rail line for years.

The 1.7-mile Central Subway would start from the existing Fourth/King station terminus of the T-Third line. It would go underground at Interstate 80, pick up Peninsula commuters at the Caltrain terminal, cross Market Street and traverse the business district to Chinatown in some seven minutes. Station locations have not been finalized yet, but there are to be stops adjacent to AT&T Park, Moscone Center, Union Square and central Chinatown.

Commencing a $1.3 billion transit project even as San Francisco makes painful budget cuts to cope with next fiscal year’s projected $233 million deficit might well seem like deluded recklessness. However, city officials are insisting that financial commitments already secured from federal, state and regional agencies will deliver all funding needed to start construction on the rail line in two years and complete it by 2016.

The Central Subway will do some valuable things for The City, amplifying public transit convenience and taking more cars off the street. Tourists and conventioneers will ride seamlessly between some of our top attractions. Caltrain terminal commuters will whisk to their Financial District jobs. Citywide access will expand meaningfully for many residents — the underserved people of Chinatown and Hunters Point, sports fans attending AT&T Park games and seasonal shoppers.

Muni estimates that the Central Subway could attract as many as 80,000 riders daily. This is a long-sought project that San Francisco needs to build successfully.

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