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San Francisco needs a transit savior. Can Secretary Pete deliver?

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks to press regarding the Rose Pak station progress and the state of federal public transit funding at Central Subway Project Chinatown Station Plaza, at Stockton and Washington Street on Thursday, September 8, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

As the Central Subway saga nears a close, local transit leaders all but rolled out the red carpet for U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg in the hopes of convincing him and the rest of the federal government that San Francisco is worth investing in. 

“We are already thinking about what’s next,” Mayor London Breed said at an event welcoming Buttigieg and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the soon-to-open Central Subway. “You do so much for San Francisco, and we give you love—and just like family, what have you done for me lately, what can you do for me next?”

With the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) headed for the deep red—the agency is expecting a $76 million deficit by 2025—it’s grown more dependent on federal money as it struggles to regain ridership in the aftermath of Covid. In the case of large-scale infrastructure projects like the Central Subway, the agency relies almost exclusively on federal funds from grants. 

At Thursday’s event, Buttigieg celebrated President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, as a source of more funding for projects like the Central Subway, and a recent federal grant that gives $23 million to upgrade Howard Street with a protected bike lane and pedestrian safety improvements. Buttigieg said that supporting local transit agencies with federal money is an economic and climate necessity, and suggested that delays on major projects are par for the course. 

"We feel the expectation and the pressure to deliver everything we’re funding on time, on budget and on task," Buttigieg said. "But one of my favorite things about transportation projects is that good ones make skeptics into believers."

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg chats with Mayor London Breed at Central Subway Project Chinatown Station Plaza, at Stockton and Washington Street on Thursday, September 8, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

As of last week, the city took over ownership and operations of the Central Subway and is testing it for a planned opening this fall. But Jeffrey Tumlin, the transportation director at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, is still hesitant to give a firm opening date, saying he wants to wait until the agency has made more progress on training staff and testing the system’s response to disruptions, delays and emergencies before confirming a final date. 

After multiple delays, the subway’s opening date was thrown into additional uncertainty this summer after a fire broke out at the planned Yerba Buena/Moscone station. Earlier this year, a report from a federal monitor found the project over budget and under completed.

The subway extension project is the latest in a line of large infrastructure projects that have gone awry for the agency in both budget and timeline, most of which use federal funds. The Central Subway project, which used nearly $1 billion in federal money, is about 20% over budget, Tumlin said at an SFMTA board meeting on Tuesday. 

Federal dollars make up 15% of the city’s transit budget and are becoming increasingly important as the agency’s parking and fare revenue took a massive hit during the pandemic. In the face of a coming fiscal cliff, the agency has been using the $1.3 billion in federal relief it has received throughout the pandemic to paper over losses.

The $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed late last year, includes $6.5 billion for transportation grant programs for which local governments can apply. One of those programs is the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) Grant, which is funding the Howard Street upgrades. 

On Thursday, Breed said that the next two items on her transit wish list are updating Muni rail and starting construction on a tunnel to connect Caltrain to the Salesforce Transit Center, which she called critical to downtown.

“Yes, Secretary, we have applied for a federal grant to help fund that critical project,” Breed said. “But welcome to San Francisco.”