This is Part 4 of a five post series on the Central Subway project. Click here to navigate the table of contents for these posts.
In the last few posts, we introduced the Central Subway project and its potential alignments and stations. The MTA is fond of explaining why San Francisco so desperately needs the Central Subway, and the offered justification goes down the standard checklist of factors that usually come into play when rail upgrades are studied, notably: (1) faster, more reliable, and more comfortable service; (2) potential to increase ridership and decrease congestion; and (3) land use potential. However, this is an expensive investment: $648 million for the initial operating segment, and $1.2-1.4 billion for the subway tunnel. Are we getting our money’s worth? The purpose of this post is to highlight some of the potential difficulties with the Central Subway:
- Chinatown Stub End: An often-noted problem with the Central Subway is the unnatural terminus in Chinatown. Although the 30 and 45 lines tend to empty out after leaving Chinatown and moving on to North Beach, the subway would enjoy better ridership with even just a one-stop extension into North Beach. As it stands, the Central Subway covers the minimum distance necessary to help relieve sardine-can loads on the 30 and 45 lines (between Market Street and Columbus Avenue), but it fails to address the rest of the corridor.
- Inconvenient Transfer at Market Street: The Union Square/Market Street Station will be the crucial transfer point between the T-Third and all of the BART and Muni trains that operate in the Market Street subway. Under Alternative 3B, the MTA projects that by the year 2030, anywhere from 9,500 to 12,300 riders will transfer every day between Union Square/Market Street and Powell Street Stations, but the transfer will not be as clean and direct as it should be. As I remarked in the last post, the Union Square/Market Street Station will be centered at O’Farrell/Stockton, but the station will be considerably longer than its 200-foot platform in order to facilitate transfers. However, the distance between the T-Third platform and nearby transfer points is nontrivial, whether it is Powell Station to the south, or the 38-Geary to the north. Combined with the depth of this station (about 90-100 feet below ground), walking and riding escalators and elevators to execute what should be an easy, direct transfer will actually require a nontrivial chunk of time, a burden which is especially difficult for the elderly and disabled to bear. In the end, whatever time savings you gain by riding the subway might be lost while getting to and from the deep tunnel. In addition, there is no easy transfer between paid fare zones. A transfer from the T-Third to another Muni Metro line requires exiting the fare zone at Union Square/Market Street and subsequently re-entering the fare zone at Powell. This is counterintuitive because the entire trip is carried out within the Muni Metro system. In short, the entire design of this crucial transfer point was not thought out carefully, and the difficult transfer actually degrades the connection between downtown and the Third Street corridor. Under the current configuration, T-Third riders have full access to Market Street. Under the Central Subway configuration, T-Third riders may access all of Market Street, but only via this inelegant transfer.
- Exaggerated Ridership Projections? According to MTA projections, just shy of 100,000 people will ride the T-Third daily by 2030, after the Central Subway has been in operation for 14 years. Of those, 2/3 would be riding the full long line, and 1/3 would ride the short loop between Chinatown and Mariposa. Without having full detail on the models it is difficult to know for sure, but I think there are good reasons to be suspicious of these projections, in part because any such projection will be based on yet more projections about the growth of jobs and population that will occur in Mission Bay and on Third Street in general. In addition, MTA has predicted that by 2030, as many as 89% of riders at the 4th/King station will be using that station to make a transfer to Caltrain — in other words, over 17,000 rides daily. However, the ridership projections for the T-Third do not take into the account the plan to extend Caltrain to the new Transbay Transit Center. It is very fair to say that once Caltrain directly serves downtown, a significant number of people who now transfer to Muni Metro at Mission Bay will simply stay put and ride Caltrain to its new terminus at Transbay. Assuming that funding is obtained to carry out the Caltrain downtown extension, the T-Third ridership projections are artificially buoyed by at least this one significant factor, but really, the numbers are quite high in general. The 2030 projection for just the T-Third line is over 60-70% of the total Muni Metro and F-line ridership in 2007. Even in 2030, in which year the MTA projects that there will be over 320,000 rail line riders daily, the T-Third alone would account for over 30% of the total Muni rail ridership.
- Continued Use of High-Floor LRVs: The Central Subway has been designed under the assumption that Muni will continue to use its bulky, high-floor Breda cars, despite an increasing trend across the United States to use low-floor vehicles for new light rail projects. High-floor cars complicate and slow down service, while making the system inaccessible to the disabled except at certain locations. A universal system-wide conversion from high-floor to low-floor is admittedly a large proposition, but it is a poor idea to pour more money and resources into building new infrastructure for high-floor vehicles, when a long-term goal should be to convert Muni Metro into a universally low-floor system.
- A Rat at 4th and King: You don’t need to tell any Mission Bay rider or resident what a mess the intersection of 4th and King turned into after the T-Third was launched in April. The intersection of 4th and King features a mass of transportation alternatives: entry onto and exit off of Interstate 280, the terminus of the Caltrain commuter rail line, frequent heavy pedestrian activity due to its proximity to the ballpark, the crossing of two surface light rail lines, and median rail stations forcing dozens of people to cross intersections unsafely in order to rush to meet their trains. Faulty signal “priority” forced crush-loaded trains to wait for literally minutes on end while single-occupancy autos sped with relative ease onto and off of the freeway. As the interests of pedestrians, transit riders, and drivers competed, this intersection quickly became one of the most dangerous and poorly managed intersections in the city shortly after the T-Third launch, and the best solution was constant human supervision of the intersection. T-Third trains currently turn from 4th onto King, but when the Central Subway opens, they will cross the whole width of King Street when moving north or south on 4th Street. The MTA plans to operate both a short line and a long line on the T-Third track; while the long line would travel the entire distance between Chinatown and Bayshore, the short line would turn around at Mariposa, providing additional service to downtown, South of Market, and Mission Bay. At peak, both lines might run on 5-minute headways, with the possibility of adding another short loop for peak trips. In other words, the planned headways are actually quite short, which will likely cause trains to bunch up once they emerge from the tunnel. According to one version of Alternative 3B, the trains would run in mixed flow with automobiles on 4th between Brannan and King, creating further potential for backup and bunching. Moreover, by 2016, the E-Embarcadero line will be in operation, terminating at 4th and King, and the N-Judah will run all the way to Mariposa Station. With this increase in rail activity, and no promise on the horizon to execute any substantial upgrade to the traffic signals, it does not seem like we are out of the water yet on the 4th/King issue.
- The 9X Factor: One of the primary motivations behind the Central Subway is to provide a rail link between Visitacion Valley and Chinatown, a key component of the “Connecting People, Connecting Communities” slogan for the T-Third. Still, we should not forget that these two neighborhoods are already connected via the 9X, a popular express bus that runs locally on both ends of the line but uses Highway 101 for the middle portion. How will the T fare, when compared to the 9X? Understanding that Muni schedules should be taken with a barrel (or so) of salt, let’s take a quick glance at them in any case, just to have a basis for comparison. A trip from Washington/Stockton to Bayshore/Arleta on the 9X (this trip covers almost all of the future T-Third route) takes roughly 35-40 minutes, depending on the time of day. According to the current schedule, a T-Third trip from 4th/King to Arleta takes about 28 minutes. The MTA projects that under Alternative 3B, trains traveling in the Central Subway would take 6.3 minutes to travel from Chinatown to 4th/King. Even if we assume there is no delay at 4th/King station (which is unlikely, for reasons explained above), the trip from Chinatown to Arleta on the T would take about 35 minutes. Even a small delay would push the trip over 35 minutes, and riders may still have to spend additional time walking to and from a T station, while the 9X bus has more stops and provides more direct service; in that sense, the 9X could actually be more convenient than the T. In the final analysis, T-Third trains, even using a Central Subway, will prove no faster than the 9X bus. The difference, of course, is that we will have spent $2 billion to build the whole T line, with no time savings for the Visitacion Valley rider market that was especially singled out as benefiting from this project.
Even if we assume that the travel time and ridership projections are correct, and that the project will be completed with no cost overruns — flying in the face of past experience that advises us to consider all of the above very cautiously — even then, the $2 billion total cost for the T-Third initial operating segment and the Central Subway extension is disproportionately high, compared to the service it offers, especially considering its problems and limitations. In some sense, Chinatown looks like a textbook case for a subway, since it is a dense, heavily trafficked neighborhood with so much surface street congestion that buses running in mixed flow are simply not doing the job, but that does not mean that this particular subway is the answer.
The Central Subway is clearly expensive, and the price tag is often dismissed by project supporters because half of the funds are of federal origin. But the mere existence of federal matching funds does not, on its own, turn a flawed project into a good project. If we are going to invest $1.2-1.4 billion in a subway tunnel, we should be as certain as we can be that the money spent is a valuable investment that will offer great returns in the future. In particular, we should be certain that this investment presents the opportunity to reduce operating costs and to increase the efficiency and quality of service. What we have here, though, is an expensive project that does not increase efficiency, nor does it effectively address the needs of riders in the corridor. As much as we are told to believe that the Central Subway will deliver long-overdue transit improvements, its numerous built-in flaws cast doubt on these claims.