Central Subway, Muni / SFMTA, San Francisco

MTA Board Selects Central Subway Alignment

Pro-subway badge typically worn
by Chinatown project supporters.

The agenda of this afternoon’s MTA Board meeting included the Central Subway project, and, unsurprisingly, the Board voted 6-0 in support of the current locally preferred alternative, Alignment 3B. (See this earlier post for more details about 3B and all the other alignments under consideration.) Alignment 3B includes four new stations: a surface station at 4th/Brannan, and three subway stations at Moscone, Union Square/Market Street, and Chinatown. Trains would run on the surface of 4th Street between King and Bryant Streets, north of the existing T-Third station at King, with the subway portal located underneath Interstate 80. Although the possibility of running trains in mixed flow with autos between King Street and the portal was considered, the Board correctly approved the semi-exclusive alternative, which separates train and auto traffic on the surface of 4th Street.

The Board’s vote signals its desire to move forward with this incarnation of the project, but it does not seal the deal. The MTA must now prepare a final impact report incorporating responses to the public commentary it has obtained via community presentations. That report will be submitted to the FTA, which has already given the Central Subway project an approving medium-high rating. The FTA will evaluate the report and is expected to issue a Record of Decision later this fall, with construction targeted to begin in 2010.

The Board’s unanimous vote notwithstanding, several imperfections and cloudy issues remain with this project, which have been discussed here on this blog in the past. Simulations suggest that transferring between the proposed Union Square/Market Street platform and the existing platform at Powell — a crucial transfer that would be required of all T-Third riders wanting to take BART or any other Muni Metro line — could require a whopping four-and-a-half minutes. The MTA is investigating the use of moving walkways to improve the transfer, but it is the deep Central Subway tunnel, combined with distance between the platforms, that poses the problem. Another issue is the fact that the Chinatown and Moscone stations are currently planned to have only a single off-street entrance, rather than multiple entrances on both sides of the street.

One last point that has proved to be problematic for both the Citizens’ Advisory Council and various Chinatown community organizations is that although subway stations were once planned to be 250 feet long to accommodate the eventual operation of three-car trains, platform lengths were reduced to 200 feet to cut costs. Because 200 feet can only accommodate two-car trains, there has been another push to investigate platforms that are 225-230 feet long — the bare minimum needed to accommodate three-car trains; but the $40 million (at least) extra needed to carry out the additional excavation is not currently available. Even if the Central Subway were built with longer platforms, the current surface stations along the T-Third only support two-car service. A short line three-car service could be investigated, but the question remains if future demand will really require that the whole line be reconfigured.

The Board’s vote today brings us one step closer to the conclusion of the environmental review period. Of course, we will continue to follow the progress of the subway as noteworthy developments occur.



14 thoughts on “MTA Board Selects Central Subway Alignment

  1. 6-O for inadequate platforms, entries, and/exits, and a mserable transfer at what will be the most used station; what a mess. the whole thing should be scrapped. Make a system inconvenient enough it will be shunned;

    Posted by david vartanoff | 19 February 2008, 6:33 pm
  2. You might want to check this out as well. It’s the 2009 FTA document for the Central Subway.


    Posted by The Overhead Wire | 19 February 2008, 9:00 pm
  3. Yeah, I’ve read through that report. Clearly there are differing perspectives on what constitutes “cost-effective.”

    But note:
    For example, there was no discussion of the effects to CalTrain users, who would likely constitute a major market for the project.
    Try this on for size: (1) the N-Judah and express buses will still provide more direct FiDi access than the T-Third; and (2) when/if Caltrain terminates at Transbay, it’ll be a moot point in any case.

    It is unclear from SFMTA’s “case” why the proposed project is better than any other potential major transit investment to address transportation needs in the corridor.

    Posted by Eric | 19 February 2008, 9:13 pm
  4. Does this mean the end of the 30 Stockton and 45 Stockton put-putting their way down Chinatown? LOL.

    Posted by NorthBeach | 19 February 2008, 10:13 pm
  5. I wouldn’t take much stock in the making the case section in that the FTA has taken to trashing every rail project that comes along.

    Posted by The Overhead Wire | 19 February 2008, 11:11 pm
  6. An anti-rail bias may well be the motivation behind this comment, but the FTA, perhaps inadvertently, hit on a valid point. The Caltrain analysis is inadequate, particularly in its willingness to shrug off the fact that the DTX two blocks away would render this alignment redundant for regional commuters.

    Posted by Eric | 19 February 2008, 11:37 pm
  7. Far be it from me to defend the Central Subway, but DTX will serve a different market (the FiDi, not Union Square).

    I hadn’t seen the 4 1/2-minute figure. I take it that’s an average? There is one easy way Muni could mitigate, if only slightly: move the outbound boarding area at Powell to mid-platform, opposite inbound boarding.

    And as long as I’m defending the CS (WTF? I guess if it’s a fait accompli, may as well just accept it), pushing it a block farther north is a bigger deal than the distance (~300′) would suggest. That cuts the walk from the busiest corner in Chinatown (Stockton and Pacific) by a third and goes a long way toward closing the psychological gap between the subway and North Beach.

    Posted by Steve | 20 February 2008, 12:14 pm
  8. Steve, are you feeling under the weather today? ;-)

    DTX serves a different market, and the projections weren’t all that clear on how many riders are going where, but the figures definitely include riders who would switch over to Caltrain if the extension is built. Not to mention the fact that many people bound for SoMa or Union Square (once DTX is built) would rather just pay one fare and walk.

    I’m not sure if they’ve considered moving the Powell boarding zone, but hopefully they have, as it’s the obvious way to help at least a little bit.

    I agree that moving the Chinatown station a block north (and also introducing the surface station at Brannan) were both good moves.

    Posted by Eric | 20 February 2008, 1:28 pm
  9. Oh, I’m sure there would be some, I just doubt it would be very many. What DTX will cannibalize is the N-Judah extension.

    I agree re: 4th & Brannan. Putting the portal under the freeway was by and large a good move, although I worry about the 4th Street off-ramp.

    Posted by Steve | 20 February 2008, 1:49 pm
  10. Oh, I think it’s basically a given that DTX will severely cut down on N ridership in this stretch, but what I’m more interested in is seeing the extent to which people would be willing to walk from the DTX to destinations that the MTA assumes that riders will use the CS to access (i.e. not FiDi as much).

    The MTA predicts that 89% of the activity at the 4th/King platform will be connected to Caltrain transfers, so unlike the other stations, we’re looking at a regional ridership. These riders will have already paid (or will pay) Caltrain fare, and so I wonder how many people would rather pay just one fare and just walk further? For many destinations, particularly those just east of the CS alignment, the walk would be about 10 minutes from either Transbay or 4th/King Caltrain stations. Is that just close enough to encourage skipping the T altogether?

    This will likely depend on how well the T is operated, and maybe I’m inserting my own sort of frugal bias here. I don’t really know one way or the other, but I would like to see some honest projections.

    This is yet another reason why the viability of this project only increases as it is extended into and past Washington Square. The destinations currently served by the CS are geographically close enough to each other that the time savings just aren’t that apparent.

    Posted by Eric | 20 February 2008, 3:02 pm
  11. It’s a good point. I just checked, and 1st and Mish to …

    3rd & Howard, 2400′
    Stockton & Post, 3200′

    10 mins, more or less — the most conservative rule of thumb for the distance most folks will talk to/from a train station. I know I’d certainly walk rather than transfer and pay a separate fare. You may be right.

    Posted by Steve | 20 February 2008, 5:30 pm
  12. I think that Muni should consider a shallower construction method. The station at Market Street should be located just above the current Muni Metro station as opposed to several stories underground. The faregates could be located in the platform level, as they do in many of the New York subway stations. I’m also ticked that the capacity will be very limited due to the shortened platform. We are planning for the future and having short platforms sounds like a bad idea. It will cost millions to extend platforms later, and adding extra trains will just cause congestion. Also, how much is the extension down 4th Street needed? The bus lanes seem to be pretty effective with the extra wide one-way street. Perhaps the subway could just end at Market, and the money saved can be used to build an extension to North Beach.

    Posted by Alex | 25 February 2008, 7:06 pm
  13. w00t! finally! now if they just discontinue the T for the time being and replace it with the 15 and restore the T when the central subway opens…

    Posted by Whole Wheat Toast | 21 March 2008, 5:38 pm
  14. Funny you should suggest that, Whole Wheat Toast. As I am reading your comment, I am sitting in a coffee shop after having just gotten kicked off the T due to a malfunction. Allegedly, bus substitution is on the way. It’s been about 15 minutes since that promise was hastily offered, and no bus has yet materialized.

    EDIT #1: Just three minutes after posting this comment, a bus arrived! Not great, but not bad; it remains to be seen how often buses will arrive until trains can run normally again.

    EDIT #2: Nine minutes after posting the last edit, a replacement bus arrives at the same time as the train. My cynicism is unwarranted!

    Posted by Eric | 22 March 2008, 4:03 pm

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