01/19/2012 03:10 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2012

San Francisco Central Subway 'Letter of Non Prejudice' Marks A Major Step Forward For Controversial Project (Photos)

San Francisco's controversial Central Subway project moved one step closer to completion this week when the city got a crucial okay from the federal government.

Speaking in Washington, D.C., while attending the U.S. Conference of Mayors, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said the city received a "Letter of Non Prejudice" from the Department of Transportation allowing the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to dig an enormous hole near the intersection of Fourth and Bryant streets and lower a giant tunnel boring machine into the ground.


That machine, one of two leased from the Italy-Montana joint venture Barnard Impregilo Healy for $233.6 million, will be used to create a tunnel for the subway stretching from the Caltrain station near AT&T Park all the way to Chinatown.

The federal government is expected to pay for close to $1 billion of the project's $1.6 billion overall tab. The city has applied for Washington's portion of the funding but has yet to actually receive the money. Lee told the San Francisco Chronicle this week's announcement is "a good sign that the final grant agreement is on its way."

SFMTA officials expect to secure a binding commitment from Washington sometime soon.

"If they're going to allow us to spend another $50 million to dig a big hole in the ground, you'd think they'd be confident in our ability to secure funding to finish the project," SFMTA chief Ed Reiskin told the San Francisco Examiner.

The Central Subway has been controversial from its inception; however, criticism of a 1.7-mile extension of the T-Third Muni line only reached a fever pitch during last year's mayoral election when Ed Lee's opponents painted the project as a needlessly expensive boondoggle.

Critics, such as members of the Civil Grand Jury that released a report last year slamming the project, note the Central Subway is now expected to cost more than twice the $650 million figure originally floated to San Francisco voters when they approved a half-cent sales tax to cover the city's portion of the project's costs in 2003.

The Central Subway isn't only new line Muni is planning on introducing in the coming years. The agency is in the process of creating a new E line running from the SoMa Caltrain station, down the Embarcadero and all the way though to Fort Mason on a currently unused section of streetcar track.

SFMTA initially hoped to roll out the full line in time for the 2013 America's Cup; however, the extension to Fort Mason won't be ready by then, so the line will only travel as far as Fisherman's Wharf during for the world-famous sailing competition.

Check out this slideshow of pics from SFMTA showing what the Central Subway is going to look like:



Central Subway Project