Many San Franciscans will be surprised to learn that Muni is planning to build a subway under parts of Fourth and Stockton Streets. The price tag would be enormous – $1.4 billion for a little more than a mile of subway extending from Bryant to about Washington Street. If constructed this stretch would probably become infamous as having the highest per mile cost of any subway in the world. Because Muni has foreshortened the stations in a desperate attempt to cut costs, it would probably also end up having the lowest capacity of any subway in the world. What’s going on here? Why we are doing this and what we are getting for our money? Here are some of the questions in need of answers before any more commitments to this project are made.

Are we getting what we voted for? When San Franciscans voted for Proposition K the measure included money for a Central Subway; “central” because the subway was to accommodate both the Fourth/Stockton Street line and a future Geary line. However Muni’s current design would prevent the use of the subway for a future Geary line, thereby calling into question the basis on which the project was sold to the voters. What effect would the Central Subway as now conceived have on the cost of a future Geary line?

Could Muni afford to operate this subway without cutting service to other neighborhoods? Normally, capital investment is used to improve efficiency. Not this time. In this case the $1.4 billion investment would actually increase Muni’s annual operating costs. A few months ago, in its report “Muni’s Billion Dollar Problem”, SPUR detailed how Muni’s chronic fiscal problems are resulting from excessive operating costs coupled with inadequate operating funds. SPUR called for immediate action to cut costs and increase revenues. Instead of responding positively to the SPUR report Muni is pushing ahead with a project that would dig Muni’s fiscal hole even deeper.

Would Other Neighborhoods benefit from the subway? Because of the heavy traffic in North Beach and Chinatown, Muni Bus Lines 30 and 45 are notoriously slow and unreliable. Yet despite the expenditure of $1.4 billion for a subway leading into their part of San Francisco, the Marina, Russian Hill and Cow Hollow neighborhoods would receive no benefits. On the contrary it appears that the subway would actually degrade service on Lines 30 and 45.

And what about the Bay View/Hunters Point /Visitation Valley Neighborhoods? When the new Third Street light rail line line opens next year, it will convey the residents of Southeast San Francisco directly into the Market Street subway, thus giving them access to many important downtown destinations. The new line will also provide convenient transfers to other Muni Metro lines and to BART, thereby providing fast access to East Bay job opportunities. However if the Central Subway is built, the direct service along Market Street would be replaced with a line to Chinatown featuring a relatively inconvenient transfer to the Market Street systems. For example, if a Bayview resident wanted to use BART, he or she would need to ride the light rail train to Macy’s and then walk back to the Powell Street Station. For the residents of Southeast San Francisco, the Central Subway waters down a long promised transit improvement.

Other unanswered questions abound, among them the adequacy and accuracy of both the ridership projections and the cost estimate.

Before plowing ahead with what appears to be an unusually ill conceived public venture, let’s at least get the facts straight. City Hall should convene a blue ribbon panel and charge it with examining all financial, technical and other aspects of the Project. In view of the bad advice so often given by so-called experts (“get rid of the streetcars and trolleybuses”, “abandon the cable cars”, “build a freeway through Golden Gate Park”, “rebuild the Embarcadero Freeway”, “shorten the subway stations”, etc.), it is essential that this panel be comprised of both proponents and skeptics so as to give San Franciscans a reasonable chance of determining whether Muni’s Central Subway Project is a boon or a boondoggle.

In Washington they talk of ending the sorry recent history stained by the wasting billions of public dollars on wasteful pork barrel projects. If allowed to proceed the Central Subway could later become the Alaskan Bridge of San Francisco. It’s time to take another look.