Adding a Subway to San Francisco

By Tina Adams

For one of the wealthiest cities in the world, San Francisco has surprisingly inadequate public transportation. Mayor Ed Lee noted that improving the city’s “notoriously late and overcrowded public transit system” is his top priority.[1] Although the SF Muni does millions of rides per year, it is the slowest transit system in America, averaging about 8 mph.[2] The system is above ground and must deal with traffic and many traffic lights.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there is a plan to create the Muni Central Subway (CS), which runs 1.7 miles from the Caltrain station to Chinatown. The CS corridor has some of the highest commuter traffic in the city. I was shocked, however, at the projected cost of $1.6 billion for the line.[3] Per mile this is 1.7 times higher than the highest metro cost we saw in the Bogota case (for the London extension). This perhaps showcases why it is better for a city to build subways while it is transitioning from a developing to developed economy, since costs appear to grow astronomically with development due to high property values and contractor costs. The new Muni Chinatown station alone will likely cost over $300M.[4]

Before this class I would have said unequivocally that the CS is a godsend. Now I wonder both whether the project is in fact worth it and whether it was funded in the appropriate manner. The CS reduces rider time in the corridor from 20min to 8min for the expected 65,000 customers per day.[5] While it will provide a quicker connection between Caltrain and BART, the CS’s short length leaves commuters with the same problem as before: they have to transfer between 3 different transit systems to get to work! In the Bogota case we discussed the problems associated with implementing multiple types of transit in one city. No exception here. CS comes with large and complex transfer stations, meaning that the 12 minutes saved in high-speed rail may easily be lost in transfers. In my mind a better solution would have been a longer line to lesson the need for transfers. A longer line may also have gotten better economies of scale, thereby reducing the cost per mile.

Of course the question remains, could a longer line have been funded? I believe so. The CS is currently funded by about $1 Billion in federal funds, which took over 4 years to procure.[6] Additional funding is coming from state and city coiffeurs. I believe a more substantial project could have been undertaken through a public private partnership. CS is widely touted as an “economic engine” for the city, connecting major job and retail centers and bringing SF closer to businesses in the Peninsula.  Given this, many corporations are set to benefit from a more substantial subway system. A longer line could be funded by bringing corporations into the fold through a consortium similar to what we saw in the Poland case.