SAN FRANCISCO – After a decade of construction and nearly 4 years of delay, the San Francisco Central Subway project will finally enter service on Saturday, limited as it is.
The partial opening of the subway may be great news for many people in the city, but it raises many questions about whether the payoff will be worth it.
“It’s nice, huh,” AA Bakery & Cafe Henry Chen asked as he prepares buns with an improvised skill that only comes after many years of practice. “So it seems easy.”
Very little has come easy for Chen, the bakery owner, and everyone else in Stockton & Washington in recent years, but the saga is finally coming to an end.
“12 years of construction,” he explained. “But exciting, you know? We see the opening as good news.”
That is a part of the story; a project that has taken a long time, but the Central Metro is really a series of stories. Some of them go back to the past. Others will stay in San Francisco for years to come. A critical starting point for the Central Subway story, however, is the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It rocked the region and delivered what then-mayor Art Agnos called the opportunity of a lifetime for him.
“San Francisco doesn’t want to be walled off on or off its coast,” Agnos declared when announcing the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway.
“When the freeway was no longer going to be restored, Rose went crazy,” former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown said this week. “And she really pushed and pushed and pushed.”
Chinatown activist and legendary political powerhouse Rose Pak wanted something in return for her lost business with the freeway. So was there any particular conversation that sold the subway idea?
“No,” Brown scoffed. “I had conversations with Rose every day about the subway. I don’t remember any specific discussions, except knowing that I had to make sure that this project would be finished at least in my lifetime.”
It would take years, but in 2007 the project had enough momentum and funding that it would be hard to stop.
“That’s the cheapest billion dollars you’ll ever spend in transit,” an advocate opined at the time.
That was despite big questions about cost and return on investment.
“All that money,” supervisor Sean Elsbernd worried in 2007. “How many people are you going to serve? Does it take a second to serve you? And is that the right priority?”
Work began in 2010. The tunnel excavation began at the end of 2013 and setbacks were not long in coming. There were disputes with contractors over the railroad’s steel. Disagreements on construction deadlines. Delays in the excavation of the Chinatown station. As for the original subway champion, she wouldn’t have the chance to see her project completed.
“Rose was probably the most powerful poor person in the history of San Francisco,” Agnos said in 2016.
“She left us in 2016,” Brown said. “Six years later, we are about to inaugurate the Central Metro”.
“The architecture is exquisite,” Howard Wong says of the north end of the new line.
As an architect, Howard Wong is impressed with Chinatown’s Rose Pak Station, but as a transit advocate with Rescue Muni, he has opposed this subway from the start. The argument then, and now, is that price will outweigh performance.
“As the cost of the central subway increased, several things were removed,” Wong explained. “The moving sidewalks between Powell Street and Union Square. And also the length of the platforms, which were shortened from four to five cars to two cars.”
And that, critics say, will limit capacity forever, especially if the system stretches north.
“The central subway was, in many ways, a political project,” Wong said before the opening. “In lieu of a transit planning project.”
“If the station opens soon, it will bring more business to Chinatown,” said Wang, owner of Yummy Dim across the street from the station. “And it will help businesses a lot.”
Therefore, businesses here are delighted at the opportunity to receive more visitors, directly from the Moscone Center. But all the questions about the cost, and what the riders and the city actually get for it, aren’t going away, at least not anytime soon. That story will continue and will be pending any discussion of the next big project, no matter what it is.
For more information on Central Subway’s first weekend of service, visit the SFMTA website.