10/11/2012 05:01 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2012

Central Subway Lawsuit Over Union Square Station Threatens To Derail Project Once And For All (PHOTOS)

San Francisco's $1.6 billion Central Subway project has been the source of heated controversy since it was given its first approvals over a decade ago. Now, a local public transportation reform group called Save Muni has filed suit to block the project, claiming the proposed station currently under construction below Union Square violates the city charter.

The group, Save Muni, argues in its suit that section 4.113 of the charter prohibits non-recreational use of the park without first gaining approval from the voters; therefore, the entrance into the Union Square station would be a violation of the law. The suit seeks to require that the station either be moved or subjected to a public vote.


"The project has moved forward in accordance with all laws," SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose told the San Francisco Chronicle, "and will enhance our public transportation systems, significantly improve mobility for thousands and help alleviate congestion."

City Attorney Dennis Herrera, himself a strong critic of the Central Subway project, argued that a legal precedent dating from the early 1980s permitting manhole covers in city parks as long as they "do not destroy or substantially impair use of property for park uses" would allow a station in Union Square.

In September, the city's Recreation and Parks Commission unanimously approved a design for the Union Square station that kept the requirements of the 1981 opinion in mind.

Save Muni's deeper concerns, which echo those of many SFMTA critics, is that the construction and upkeep of the 1.7 mile extension of the T-Third line from SoMa and into Chinatown will divert much needed funds from the rest of the city's transit system.

"We've always felt that the SFMTA's grant application has been based on falsified numbers that inflate the importance of the project," said Save Muni spokesman Howard Wong explained to the San Francisco Examiner. "The Central Subway will ultimately end up degrading the rest of the Muni system."

This suit comes right as the federal government looks to finally come through with the long-expected $942 million in funding for the project, money that the plaintiffs hope never gets delivered.

"Since Muni cannot ignore the City Charter, urges the agency to refrain from spending any federal funds on the project until it has a legally approved plan," wrote Save Muni in statement announcing the lawsuit. "Any and all federal funds spent on an unapproved project are at risk to being returned to the federal government."

In addition to filing the suit, Save Muni is working towards placing a measure on next year's ballot that would halt the project entirely.

Save Muni isn't the only group to attempt to block the Central Subway. A coalition of North Beach merchants calling themselves Save North Beach also filed suit over the impacts the construction would have on the neighborhood. SFMTA has said the disruptions in North Beach would only last for a year or so; however, some in the area fear they could last for far longer.

"The idea that any neighborhood would be subject to a construction site for seven years in the heart of its commercial district without actually building something-- we are just a site, with no subway stop-- is anathema to anyone who loves San Francisco," said Save North Beach Founding Director Marc Bruno in a statement.

Save North Beach also seeks financial compensation from the city for the potential loss of business revenue that construction in the tourist-friendly hub would displace. The group's suit demands a new environmental impact report on the effect the project will have on the neighborhood.

SFMTA hopes to complete the Central Subway project by 2017.

Check out this slideshow of images from SFMTA showing what the Central Subway will look like:

Central Subway Project

UPDATE: Mayor Lee announced Thursday that the SFMTA officially secured $942.2 million in federal funding to move forward with the Central Subway project.