Here’s why Muni wants another $400 million to fix SF transit

In hindsight, the still-unopened Central Subway was a peculiar place to meet Jeffrey Tumlin, director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, to hear his pitch on why voters should back Prop. A on the June 7 ballot.

That’s because the stunning, yet stunningly expensive and delayed subway line that critics say wasn’t necessary is a far different project than what the $400 million in bond money would do. Prop. A is a back-to-basics measure to fix crumbling infrastructure, make public transit more efficient and create streets safer.

But talking about Prop. A while getting a sneak peek at the Central Subway was actually instructive when it comes the current state of the SFMTA. It’s an agency in which a couple of wildly over-budget projects, including the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit lanes, consumed the agency’s money, time and attention while the everyday infrastructure was left to deteriorate.

Soon, you’ll be able to ride the 1.7 mile Central Subway line dotted with gorgeous public art and sleek glass elevators, giving the impression our transit system is first class. What riders can’t see is that the control system powering the trains in the old-school Market Street subway lines that connect to the Central Subway is still loaded on floppy disks.

Jeffrey Tumlin, director of transportation for the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, gives a tour of the newly constructed Central Subway Muni station at Union Square.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

“Really?” I asked Tumlin, thinking he was joking about the floppy disks. He was not.

By the time the Central Subway opens “sometime this fall” — as specific as Tumlin would get — it’ll be more than three years late and about 20% over its projected $1.6 billion budget, costing more than $1 billion per mile.

So hearing his reasoning for why the SFMTA requires even more money was a little jarring, but if riders want a more reliable, up-to-date public transit system, they don’t have a choice. We need a top-notch transit system to truly flourish, get people out of their cars and help combat climate change. Plus, Muni is in dire financial shape, has many job vacancies, has a ridership that’s only rebounded to half its pre-pandemic levels, and much of its infrastructure is about as current as an aol.com email address.

That last part is where the bond money will be useful, and it’s replacing Muni bond money that’s sun-setting anyway so taxes won’t change.

The information booth of the newly constructed Central Subway Muni station at Union Square.

The information booth of the newly constructed Central Subway Muni station at Union Square.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

“We’re facing decades of deferred maintenance,” Tumlin said as we talked on a platform bench. “Those repairs need to happen for service that’s fast, frequent and reliable.”

Tumlin said it’s totally fair to demand better from the SFMTA than the notoriously long, expensive, bungled Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project and the Central Subway — and that the agency has done extensive audits of both projects and has learned from its mistakes. For example, he said, allotting just a 5% plan in a budget for major projects wasn’t realistic.

Besides, he noted, this round of bond money isn’t about the big projects anyway.

“It’s about a thousand small improvements — making the traffic signals work, getting the pavement right, making our rail lines faster and more frequent,” Tumlin said.

An art installation titled “Lucy in the Sky” hangs above the entrance to the newly constructed Central Subway Muni Station at Union Square.

An art installation titled “Lucy in the Sky” hangs above the entrance to the newly constructed Central Subway Muni Station at Union Square.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

The money would repair the agency’s aging bus yards, update traffic signals to give buses priority and add dedicated transit lanes — with the hope of drawing riders back to the system. It would also banish those floppy disks for a modern train control system.

Much of the bond money will go to desperately needed improvements to make our streets safer for pedestrians. Despite San Francisco’s professed commitment to ending traffic deaths by 2024, its Vision Zero plan continues to be a major disappointment. Drivers have killed six pedestrians in recent weeks, bringing this year’s total to 10 people ranging in age from 31 to 84.

If the carnage continues at this rate, 2022 will be the deadliest year for pedestrians in San Francisco since before Vision Zero started in 2014.

Brian Haagsman, Vision Zero organizer for the pedestrian nonprofit Walk SF, said basic improvements are long overdue, such as updating 50-year-old traffic signals that have no capacity to tell pedestrians how long they have to cross the street and no audible indications for blind people. The bond would also pay to widen sidewalks, make curb cuts and remove corner parking spaces to make pedestrians more visible at intersections.

A train tunnel under construction at the new Central Subway Muni Station platform at Union Square.

A train tunnel under construction at the new Central Subway Muni Station platform at Union Square.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

While it’s clear that Prop. A would make city streets safer and help the city’s transit system get back on track, what’s less clear is how the Central Subway will fit into the city’s transportation future. Tumlin said the project is “the most complex” one ever tackled by Muni.

It’ll be interesting to see whether ridership comes close to the projections made years before the pandemic emptied out the downtown core.

The subway allows people one, quick ride from Visitacion Valley to Chinatown, two centers of the city’s Chinese community, entering a tunnel at Brannan Street and passing through three new underground stations at Moscone Center, Union Square and Chinatown. The Union Square Station connects to the Powell Street Station with a long walkway, allowing Bart and Muni riders to transfer and head north to Chinatown or south to Chase Center and beyond.

It’s also an engineering marvel. Workers had to dig 160 feet to carve a path under the already-existing Bart and Muni lines, and the escalators go farther down than any west of the Mississippi, according to Tumlin.

Artwork depicting topical geography of San Francisco covers the plaza above the newly constructed Central Subway Muni Station at Union Square.

Artwork depicting topical geography of San Francisco covers the plaza above the newly constructed Central Subway Muni Station at Union Square.

Jessica Christian/The Chronicle

Gorgeous public art dots the entire station. My favorite was “Lucy in the Sky,” light panels that hang from the ceiling and randomly change colors like some kind of public transit mood ring. But will the stunning design and seamless travel be enough to lure riders?

That’s just one of the urgent questions Tumlin faces as he tries to steady the agency.

Asked whether he still likes his job — the one he took shortly before the pandemic that sent Muni literally off the rails — Tumlin gave a knowing smile.

“Some days, I wonder about that,” he said. “But all in all, I couldn’t wish for a better job.”

Heather Knight is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: hknight@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @hknightsf

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