Friday, January 26, 2007

The boondoggle in SF

The Silicon Valley isn't the only area run by subway delusionals, San Francisco also has its share of delusionals when it comes to the Central Subway project. The project is estimated to cost $1.4 billion for 1.7 mile of new rail. In some ways it makes the San Jose BART project look like a bargain.

The Central Subway was supposed to be a new spine connecting light rail lines from Chinatown, the Richmond, and the Bay View districts, similar to the existing Market Street Subway. Although a good concept, the project as currently planned would fail to meet much of its transportation objectives with short platforms and inconvenient connection to other transit lines on Market Street. Nonetheless, the project has its share of supporters. They claim, not so much that this project actually improve transportation in a cost effective manner, but in some magical way the project would benefit local businesses and residents and it has the support from the community.

What this means is that the Central Subway, like the BART project, has been hijacked by non-transit advocates to waste valuable transit funds for soft non-transportation benefits.

Despite its problems, the Central Subway can still receive federal funding, especially considering that Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, represents the district where the project lies.

The moment of truth for the Central Subway would likely depend on the success or failure of the T-Third Street line, which opened for weekend service on January 13 until April, when full weekday service commences. The T line, primarily a surface light rail line, has experienced long delays and huge cost overruns. The T line has the support from the African American community in the Bay View and its leaders believe that the T line would be the key to revitalize the neighborhood. However, riders have reported that the T line is slower than the parallel bus service, despite traffic signal priority and exclusive right-of-way available most of the corridor.


Anonymous said...

Has this probably-suburban blogger ever ridden Muni's 30 - Stockton trolleybus, and specifically, the segment between Union Square and Chinatown? He should try it. He'll find out real fast why the Central Subway is necessary. Mid-day bus frequencies of 4 to 5 minutes, constant crush loads on 60-foot articulated buses, and hordes of grocery-bag laden senior citizens forcing their way through the back doors to get the last standing spots in the step-wells, are realities that simply don't occur in VTA-land. The Central Subway is a textbook subway application: it's a short, very-very-high-density corridor.

And trust me, its San Francisco-based detractors don't know what they're talking about either. Their transit-riding habits are more like those of failed supervisorial candidate Alicia Becerril, who, around the time of the Muni meltdown, was quoted as saying that she loved Muni. Each day she would ride the Market Street Subway reverse-commute, three stops, from her apartment in the Golden Gateway complex to her office at City Hall!

As for the T - Third, has this blogger ever set foot in the predominantly African American neighborhood served by the new line? Picture postcards don't show that part of SF. Fake cable car tourbuses don't stop there. It is isolated, destitute, and lacking in basic city services. It was high time that some capital be invested there, and that the neighborhood be linked with the rest of the city (and with the budding UCSF/Mission Bay campus along the way).

I myself was a regular rider of the 15 - Third bus when I first moved to San Francisco. It was no picnic. I'd rate it one notch below VTA's Route 22. T - Third light rail service will definitely be an improvement over 15 - Third bus service.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anonymous. Most people who talk about boondoggles in regards to these projects have no idea what they are talking about. As Anonymous states, the 30 (Referred to locally as the dirty 30)and 45 routes on Stockton are like sardine tins. This project has some hangups such as it should go further north but its definitely needed.

Jamison said...

The shortening of the Central Subway platforms will not effect service. The platforms will still be long enough to run two-car trains. This is the same as if you said shorting the Market Street tunnels would reduce service, because the extra space is unused.

As for usefulness of the Central Subway itself, if you look deeper there just being a lot of riders between Chinatown and Union Square you'd see that the long and short 30 lines and the 45 are used as shuttles to Union Square and Market Street. That's where most of the Chinese-American riders transfer to other lines. The Central Subway won't improve that, getting in and out of the subway station could be more troublesome for some riders.

For the Chinese-American riders in Visitacion Valley who the Central Supposed to help, the T-Third Street line will be a longer trip that using the 9X. When the T-Third Street line open April 7, the 9X will become a full time line, along with extensions to the wharves and to City College.

As for everyone else, the Central Subway would mean reductions in service, because the T-Third Street will be redirected to use the Central Subway instead of Market Street. The effect of that is less service through the Market Street tunnel to Castro.

Over the next 12 years, San Franciscan's are going to get used to the "temporary routing" and come to depend on direct service from Third Street to Embarcadero and Montgomery Stations.

The busses probably won't be any less crowded since the 30 short line (the long articulated busses run only between Van Ness/North Point and Caltrain) will be cut as well.

That last one will hurt the 30 riders who live between Chinatown and Northpoint, without anything in exchange.

Anonymous said...

Jamison wrote: "As for everyone else, the Central Subway would mean reductions in service, because the T-Third Street will be redirected to use the Central Subway instead of Market Street. The effect of that is less service through the Market Street tunnel to Castro."

The truth is that there are all sorts of options for operating the original, recent, and planned segments of San Francisco's light rail network. We shouldn't presuppose the frequency or routing of any of the line designations.

Out of curiosity, what are your Muni commuting habits? My guess -- from clues available online -- is that you do Castro to Caltrain on the Metro. That is forward-commute, at least between Castro and Embarcadero, but it's a light rail journey and it's on the core segment of the network, so it's still closer to Alicia Becerril's experience (an amusing historic point, mentioned above) than to the experience of people who ride the 15, 30, or 45 twice a day.

accountablevta said...

I've ridden the 15, 30, 45, and 9X before. It is true that it is very crowded between Market Street and Chinatown (on the 15, 30, and 45). The problem with the Central Subway is whether it will be a viable alternative to the buses for most riders to make that a cost-effective transit enhancement.

If the subway is built and the buses were as crowded as before, with the subway lightly-used, then the Central Subway would be a waste of money.

In order for the Central Subway to be a viable alternative, the service would have to operate very frequently and easy to access. Remember, riders have to make a determination of whether to stand at the bus stop or go underground for the train, they can't wait at one place and take either the train or the bus depending on which shows up first. If Muni can't design and commit such an operation for the subway, then riders likely won't change behavior until bus services were deliberately reduced to boost rail ridership.

The opening of the T-Third line will be significant. With the full time operation of the 9X, Visitacion Valley riders will have a choice between the T and the 9X. At that time, the riders will vote by their feet.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a balanced response, accountablevta. Now, how about a post on the VTA cake procurement ( and -- for laughs, see pages 16 and 17)? Sometimes I find myself playing devil's advocate here, but this case, well, um, takes the cake! Even I have to admit that it's a boondoggle!

Jamison said...

"The truth is that there are all sorts of options for operating the original, recent, and planned segments of San Francisco's light rail network."

Very true, except they are incredibly stubbornness on this being this exact routing, but the options are also limited by the available fleet size. Right now the 122 (out of 151) vehicles required for T-Third Street service hasn't even been reached and another cost cutting measure is to cut out the additional vehicle order. That leaves no other option than rerouting the T-Third Street through the new subway.

"In order for the Central Subway to be a viable alternative, the service would have to operate very frequently and easy to access."

In other words, that means spending more money to run subway service at a higher frequency in order to convince bus riders to switch to another service that is even more expensive to operate. There is also a delay added traveling from the surface down to the subway. The estimate I heard was 5-10 minutes and the transfer from Union Square to Powell Street where someone would have to take the escalator up three stories to the concourse, out of the faregates and through the pedestrian tunnel several hundred feet to Powell Station where the rider would have to enter the faregates again, down the stairs and another several hundred feet to the outbound boarding area.

As for my commute, I take the KLM from Castro to Powell where I transfer to the 30/45 to Brannan. This is where I get to see, on a daily basis, the 30/45 busses nearly empty out at Fourth & Market.

There actually does seem to be a large reverse commute ridership out of Chinatown, but few are probably doing the reverse commute and instead are coming from Chinatown, North Beach or further to transfer or walk the rest of the way to work, most likely a little further towards the financial district.

The busses are even more crowded busses in the evening as I walk back up Fourth Street (it's more convenient to walk than take the 30/45 back up to Market) where Fourth & Market is again a major transfer point for those disembarking from the 30/45 to transfer to the Market Street subway (mainly the L line) or the 9X, 9AX and 9BX lines.