San Francisco needs the Central Subway. The project, which just landed a critical $942 million grant from the federal government, is the second phase of the T-Third Street route, a 5.1-mile light-rail line that has opened up the southeastern neighborhoods to new business opportunities. In the process, it has given those neighborhoods a critical link to downtown.
The Central Subway will extend Muni’s T-Third line 1.7 miles through South of Market, travel through downtown and terminate in Chinatown. Critics of the plan point to high costs and low ridership projections. The ridership numbers they use are 35,000 daily riders by 2020 — but that is just for the 1.7-mile section. The true ridership numbers we should be looking at are for the entire T-Third line. Those figures, which are much healthier, suggest that about 65,000 people per day will be riding the T-Third by 2030.
The cost is $1.6 billion for the 1.7 miles, surely a princely sum. But the line will tie together some of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in San Francisco with the densest community on the West Coast. Aside from putting hard numbers on this type of public infrastructure project, residents also should weigh the ultimate benefits to The City — benefits that the project’s vocal opponents seem to discount.
With the federal contribution announced Thursday, the project is now fully funded. And work is already under way to prepare for the massive boring machine that will drill the new subway tunnel. It is therefore perplexing that at the same time the project earned the final dollars to make this decadelong process a certainty, opponents announced they will go to the ballot to ask voters to derail it. Opponents say they will craft an ordinance designed to trump all local, state and federal approvals that the project has received.
San Francisco has a transit-first policy, and building the Central Subway will help The City more effectively handle the growth that is projected over the next few decades. Opponents of the project say small changes to bus lines can improve service. But that is shortsighted, since the narrow streets through downtown and Chinatown do not have the capacity for exponential growth, while the new subway will give the transit system room to grow. No one has proposed truly viable options for future transit options if the Central Subway is not built.
Ideally, this quixotic notion of trying to kill the Central Subway will not even make it to the ballot. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which operates Muni, already has invested $242 million into the project and our elected leaders have worked tirelessly to secure federal funding at a time when every public-works project is being scrutinized in Washington, D.C., by fiscal conservatives.
But if the idea does reach voters, we hope San Franciscans will not be swayed by shortsighted reasoning and instead be smart enough to see how this project will be beneficial to all of The City and people who live and work here.