By Jacob Bourne, Contributing Writer and Photographer
IBEW Local 6 has a 117 year history of illuminating San Francisco's built environment. Now a group of the union's electricians has gone underground as work on the Central Subway project speeds up. The project, with an estimated cost of $1.5 billion, is geared to bolster transit connectivity by adding about 1.7 miles of MUNI subway tunnel with four new stations along the way. Led by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the Central Subway will provide much needed transit access for the rapidly growing population in the city's southeastern neighborhoods. The project will give residents of these neighborhoods and the region's commuters better access to Downtown, South of Market and Chinatown through new stations at Fourth and Brannan Streets, Fourth and Folsom Streets, Union Square, and Stockton and Washington Streets.
Crew members have been spending their days trekking more than 100 feet below Union Square's flocking shoppers and tourists to install all of the electrical infrastructure needed for the project. The darkness and heavy air offer little relief from the hot summer days at the surface. Although workers refer to the Central Subway as "the big hole in the ground" during more challenging moments, for them the light at the end of the tunnel is the sense of pride that comes with the territory of building such a vital part of the city's transportation framework.
–Voices From the Union–
General Foreman, Abbett Electric
It's a monumental project. There hasn't been anything built like this since BART and that was over 40 years ago. It's a good project to be on; it's a challenging schedule. It's also a challenge to dig into an old city; you run into a lot of abandoned sewers. There was one area where we had to go underneath a gas transmission line that feeds half of Downtown San Francisco. We had to have proper shoring for safety, and people from PG&E were there watching us.
The tunnel work we're doing involves all the DC power for the LRV trains. We're also doing the tunnel lighting, telephones and tunnel security. The other end of the job on Fourth Street is going to tie into the T Line at Fourth and King, so we've been doing the traction power duct bank for that. Work will be ramping up more in the next year.
I've been with Local 6 for 10 years. The trade was destined for me because my father repaired electronics. He had his own shop repairing TVs and other electronics. My cousin was also part of a union in Contra Costa County. I love this work and wouldn't trade it for anything.
I had never worked on a rail system before – that's what makes this project so interesting. Sometimes you get burnt out working on standard buildings over and over again. This is good work where you can really show your skills. I've also worked on other different projects like the Bay Bridge and hospitals.
I want to be able to tell my daughter that I worked on this project and feel proud. It's important to take pride in the work you do. I wouldn't trade working as an electrician for anything; this is where it's at for me.
General Foreman, Fisk Electric
This is unique; it's one of a kind. I've worked on the MUNI Twin Peaks Tunnel that's dirty and as old as can be. This is brand new and state of the art. There's nothing else like it. This is all brand new, clean work, and with advancements in technology, it's very different from the old way of doing things.
I've been with the Local since 1979. I've seen some of the older guys retire and I even retired once and came back. I've been back a bit over four years and it's nice meeting some of the new guys coming into the trade and teaching them stuff – seeing old friends I haven't seen for years. It's a great trade. I have a lot of fun doing this and couldn't think of doing anything else. It's been a great career.
Foreman, Inside Wireman
I've been with Local 6 for almost twenty years, so all the guys know me and know my skills. I got started in '99 as Ron's apprentice. I was born and raised in the city, bought a house here and had my kids here. Once my kids are grown up a bit it will be kinda cool for them to say that their dad built this.
It's a huge project, so you have to be able to look at the big picture and the little pictures all at the same time. Right now we're building racks for the pipelines that go from station to station. I'm involved in all aspects of the project from bringing in the big power, to safety, lighting and controls.
Foreman, Fisk Electric
Right now we're in the bottom section of the subway installing all our conduits that go in the bottom of the concrete. The next step will be another platform level above and continuing onward. When it's finished it will look like Powell Station but with even fancier finishes and lighting. It will be a showplace station.
The biggest challenge is the schedule because the whole job is dependent on the schedule for each trade. So if anyone falls behind, it's going to affect all the other trades. I've heard it'll be completed in early 2019, but it may end up being a bit behind.
I've been with Local 6 for a couple years. I had been working on the Salesforce Tower before this, which was another great job. Our foreman, Ron, is very understanding and a good guy. It's a great project to be working on, and the only real challenge is hiking up and down from the tunnel.
We're working on laying out the PVC conduits. It's over a mile and a half long length of tunnel from one area to the next. This is the first subway tunnel I've worked on and it will be nice when I'm taking the train someday to say that I was part of this. It's a really good experience.