The old women with striped jute sacks carrying dried fish and Chinese trinkets, and the young students trying to get to and from schools across the city cheered when they learned a subway line would finally reach their community.
The proposed 1.7-mile light rail would run from Chinatown to the main train station in the downtown South of Market neighborhood, where the San Francisco Giants play ball. Initial federal funding of $41 million was awarded and construction has started for the stop at the Union Square shopping district.
But the Central Subway is mired in political debate over its $1.6 billion price tag, perceived poor connections and the shortness of the proposed line some have dubbed the "Subway to Nowhere." Though the project bubbled under the surface for many years, it's become a key issue in the upcoming mayoral campaign.
While President Barack Obama is calling on Congress to approve $50 billion for long-delayed transportation projects, several mayoral candidates want San Franciscans to suspend the next leg of the first new subway line in 30 years.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera, Public Defender Jeff Adachi and former City Supervisor Tony Hall - all of whom hope to be elected mayor in November - say the cost overruns are not worth the burden on an already financially strained subway system. Herrera, a top mayoral contender who initially voted in favor of the subway, noted that the estimated cost for the five-stop line has ballooned from $647 million in 2003 to more than double that.
Herrera raised the specter of Boston's "Big Dig," a network of highway tunnels ridiculed for costing billions more than anticipated and troubled by multiple water leaks and a fatal ceiling collapse.
"Fiascos aren't born that way. They typically grow from the seeds of worthy ideas," Herrera said in a 10-page policy brief, calling on the city to abort the project and noting the $315,660 per new rider would be the highest in the nation.
After a seven-month investigation, the San Francisco civil grand jury in July recommended the project be scrapped. The court-appointed panel concluded the project would add to the Municipal Transportation Agency's operating deficit and could affect the maintenance of other lines.
Proponents insist the Central Subway is key to the future of Chinatown, where residents and businesses rely heavily on public transportation. The $233.5 million contract for the tunneling portion of the project was awarded and the notice to proceed was issued this week, said John Funghi, program manager for the subway.
"It will be the most heavily used line in our system, a true workhorse," said Funghi. "I think candidates are using the project as a means to differentiate themselves and get some media time. They have twisted the facts and have published these documents that are just flat wrong."
Mayor Ed Lee says similar concerns were once raised about the city's beloved Golden Gate Bridge.
"There are people who say not now, not yet; but now is the time to seize this opportunity for our city," Lee said recently on the steps of City Hall, flanked by dozens of union workers and elderly Chinatown residents.
The economy of the oldest and largest Chinatown in the nation has stagnated since the city demolished the Embarcadero Freeway after the 1989 earthquake, eliminating the main off-ramp into the shopping and tourism district.
With Asian-Americans comprising about 20 percent of the city's electorate, it's risky to alienate voters in Chinatown.
"I don't see how you get to winning without some slice of that vote," said Corey Cook, an associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. "This is such diverse city, it's not as if you would look at that and say, `That's OK, I'll just compete for the other 80 percent.' There is no other 80 percent."
There are more than a dozen candidates running for mayor of the City by the Bay and, for the most part, they get along and have the same politics. "This is getting caught up in mayoral politics," Cook said. "This is really the first issue where you start to see mayoral candidates trying to differentiate themselves."
Nearly 70 percent of the residents who live along the proposed subway don't own cars; many are low-income, elderly residents. Only two public bus lines run through Chinatown and most residents can't afford the $6 fare to take the iconic cable cars that clang along the city's undulating hills.
Lee is the first Chinese-American mayor of a city where nearly one-third of its 815,000 population is Asian. He insists the Central Subway would provide some 33,000 jobs and bristles at the sobriquet, "Subway to Nowhere."
"I don't think Chinatown is nowhere," Lee sniffed. "All of a sudden it's under politically motivated attacks in Washington D.C. and here at home. We have to turn back the Tea Party attack on San Francisco."
The subway flap comes as the Republican-controlled House Appropriations subcommittee on transportation considers a bill that would block federal dollars for transit projects that require more than 50 percent in federal funding.
The city is asking for another $942 million from the feds for the line that would carry 65,000 riders a day if opened as planned in 2019. The final documents will be submitted to the Federal Transportation Agency on Monday.
The Democratic Party's leader in the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, whose San Francisco district includes Chinatown, is a strong subway backer. "Leader Pelosi will work with the Senate to ensure that Central Subway and other vital initiatives in San Francisco have the funding needed to carry out their mission," said Carlos Sanchez, a spokesman for Pelosi.
While the debate is played out at City Hall and in Congress, Asian-Americans living in the city's most densely populated neighborhood fear their two-decade wait for a modern transport machine is in jeopardy.
"I'm scared to death it's going to become a political football," said the Rev. Norman Fong, a Presbyterian minister and incoming director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. "We were so happy that America finally listened - and cared for once. And now we want to reject almost a billion dollars? Are we crazy"