April 17, 2014

Chinatown transit solution is long overdue

Transit riders in Chinatown have waited too long for a solution to the slow and chronically overcrowded trolleys and buses along Stockton Street on the 8X, 30, and 45 lines.

Back in 2002 Muni prepared a Transit Preferential Streets (TPS) plan for its lines along Stockton Street, and these improvements could have been put in place five years ago. The plan includes:

• building sidewalk bulbs at busy transit stops to speed up boarding;

• upgrading traffic lights to allow priority treatment for trolleys and buses through congested intersections;

• extending overhead wires for trolleys out to Marina Boulevard.

The Sierra Club helped bring about this plan. In 2001 the Club became a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit over transit ridership (Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates versus Metropolitan Transportation Commission). Muni was a co-defendant, and in April 2002 agreed to a settlement. The TPS plan was one product of that agreement.

The Central Subway

Muni has an additional plan that would include this same transit corridor, namely the proposed 1.7-mile-long Central Subway. This would be a light-rail line from the Caltrain terminal at Fourth and Townsend Streets, running up Fourth, going underground between Bryant and Harrison Streets, crossing under the existing Market Street rail lines, and then heading up Stockton to a terminus at Washington Street. See map.

There is to be one above-ground station, located between Bryant and Brannan, and three underground stations: one on Fourth Street between Folsom and Howard Streets, another at Stockton and Geary, and the terminus at Washington. There would not be any station at Market Street; the closest connection to the Muni Metro would involve walking 1,000 feet between the Union Square station and the BART/Muni Powell Street station.

The Central Subway is estimated to cost about $1.5 billion: more than $900 million would come from the federal government, and the rest from state, regional, and local sources.

In contrast, Muni estimates the capital cost of the Stockton Street TPS improvements at less than $10 million—less than 1% of the Central Subway. The TPS work could be completed in three years, whereas the Central Subway could not be completed before 2018. Muni notes in its plan that the TPS improvements would be necessary regardless of whether the Central Subway is built.

The Central Subway project has moved through all but one of the required steps for federal funding—but that last step, the Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA), is precarious. When Rep. Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House, the FFGA seemed a foregone conclusion, but in the current House it is questionable if any FFGAs will be issued for new projects in the near future. Despite the uncertainty of full funding, utility relocation work has begun near Union Square.

Muni is also facing billions of dollars of shortfalls in its maintenance and operating funds. Operating and maintaining the Central Subway would increase these shortfalls. In contrast, the TPS improvements along Stockton Street would actually save operating money. The Sierra Club urges Muni to reject any capital investment that will add to its financial shortfalls. Muni should prioritize its capital investments to improve service delivery, increase ridership, and provide the maximum benefit for each dollar invested. The TPS work along Stockton should be at the top of the list. The Club urges Muni to find alternative uses for unspent Central Subway funds.

The Sierra Club’s resolution on these projects is pasted below.

Matt Williams, co-chair, Sierra Club Bay Chapter Transportation Committee

San Francisco Central Subway Resolution

Whereas, the Sierra Club recognizes that Chinatown is a historically underserved part of San Francisco, in terms of park and recreation space, housing, and transportation; and

Whereas, one of the key transit corridors in Chinatown is along Stockton Street between Columbus Avenue and Market Street, with Municipal Railway lines 8X, 30 and 45 providing poor service due to slow and overcrowded coaches; and

Whereas, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), the governing agency of the Municipal Railway, has proposed to build the Central Subway underneath Stockton Street, with a single Chinatown station, at a cost of $1.6 billion, of which more than $900 million is expected to come from the federal government in the form of a “New Starts” grant; and

Whereas, improving transit service along Stockton Street through Chinatown has been a long standing goal of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, several mayors and county supervisors of San Francisco; and

Whereas, revenue service in the Central Subway is not expected to begin before 2018, at the earliest; and

Whereas, the Municipal Railway forecasts it will have significant capital maintenance and operating fund deficits in the years ahead which together amount to billions of dollars; and

Whereas, the Central Subway will add significantly to both capital maintenance and operating fund deficits of the Municipal Railway (Muni); and

Whereas, significant state, regional and local funds through the San Francisco County Transportation Authority that have been allocated to the Central Subway, but not yet spent, could be shifted and used for necessary Muni projects including maintenance; and

Whereas, the Sierra Club is concerned that the New Starts funds may not be provided for many years, if ever, and that service improvements along Stockton Street are needed sooner than 2018 for the benefit of Chinatown residents and others; and

Whereas, passenger trip times from the sidewalks of Chinatown to the important Market Street transit connections will be slower via the Central Subway, compared with the existing congested bus and trolley lines; and

Whereas, the Municipal Railway in February 2002 published “A Vision for Rapid Transit in San Francisco,” an official plan which documented what a high-quality transit system would look like—moving passengers quickly and efficiently with a minimum of waiting; and

Whereas, one of the transit corridors set forth in the plan runs between Stockton/Market to the Presidio through North Beach and the Marina via Stockton Street and which would be improved through the implementation of a “Transit Preferential Streets” (TPS) program; and

Whereas, the Stockton TPS program would include improvements such as traffic signal priority, transit stop respacing and relocation, bus bulbs and an extension of overhead trolley wires to Marina Boulevard, at a cost of $9.1 million and which would be completed in three years; and

Whereas, the Stockton TPS program would reduce travel time along the corridor and increase transit ridership significantly, resulting in an increase in operating efficiency; and

Whereas, “A Vision for Rapid Transit in San Francisco” noted that even if the Central Subway is built, the TPS improvements on Stockton Street “would still be necessary and useful.”

Now, be it therefore Resolved that the Sierra Club:

1. Encourages the Mayor of San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors of San Francisco, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority; Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi; and other elected officials interested in improving transit in Chinatown in a cost effective and timely manner to consider implementing the Transit Preferential Streets program between Market/ Stockton through North Beach and the Marina; and

2. Also encourages the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to pursue alternative uses of the state, regional and local funds programmed to the Central Subway, but not yet spent; and

3. Further encourages the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, in light of Muniʼs projected deficits, reject any proposed transit capital investment that will add to Muniʼs financial operating and maintenance shortfalls; and

4. Requests the SFMTA prioritize its capital investments to improve service delivery, increase ridership and provide the maximum transportation benefit for each dollar invested.

Approved by SF Bay Chapter
May 9, 2011


  1. Jack Lucero Fleck says:

    I find points that I agree with in this article, but I disagree with its opposition to the Central Subway–i.e. the resolution “encourages the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to pursue alternative uses of the state, regional and local funds programmed to the Central Subway, but not yet spent” In other words, the Sierra Club is calling on San Francisco to stop the Central Subway project.

    The Central Subway is the second phase of the Third Street Light Rail project, which had an extensive Environmental Impact Review in the mid 1990s. The first part was completed in 2007 at a cost of $600 million, almost all from local sales taxes. Funding for the second phase, the Central Subway, is based on that $600 milllion local match. I have several objections to the resolution above:

    1. The Central Subway is a commitment to Hunters Point and Chinatown to provide connectivity that did not exist prior to the project. Opposing the project is to renege on commitments that have been made to the African American and Chinese American communities that this line serves.
    2. The project opens up the entire 6 mile corridor for transit oriented development, precisely the type that is needed to combat urban sprawl. Opposing the project would undermine the major urban infill project known as Mission Bay, which depends on good transit connections.
    3. The subway will be able to carry vastly greater numbers of passengers than existing buses, even if service were improved by the addition of signal priority, which I do strongly support. But such improvements are limited since the route crosses major bus lines on Mission, Market, and other streets. Third, Fourth and Stockton Streets, which are part of the route, already have exclusive bus lanes, but are still subject to delays from congestion and long dwell times due to crowded buses. The situation north of Market is even worse, and the prospects of efficient, surface transportation there are extremely limited. It’s important to remember that the surface streets absorbed 100,000 vehicles per day from the old Embarcadero Freeway, which has allowed for the beautification of San Francisco’s waterfront. But the traffic from the old freeway does use these streets; the idea that buses can worm their way through all that congestion as efficiently as a subway is simply wrong.
    4. Buses have long dwell times since they do not have the advantage of multi-door level boarding that light rail and subways do. If all the buses were to be replaced with buses that had these features–i.e. Bus Rapid Transit style buses and boarding platforms–the cost of the project would be well into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and the service would still have all the obstacles that surface transportation has.

    I thnk there are many challenging issues in transportation in San Francisco that the Sierra Club can be part of–BRT style transit improvements on Geary and Van Ness, expanding the bike network, traffic calming, pedestrian safety improvements, managing parking effectively, providing transit signal priority, and many more. Opposing a major transit improvement such as the Central Subway should not be on the Sierra Club’s agenda.

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