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Why the new mayor should spend his political honeymoon taking the doggle out of a boondoggle known as the Central Subway

Wednesday, Dec 10 2003
Because my deadline required writing this column last week, I had no way of knowing how Tuesday's mayoral election turned out. But I had a dream. In it, hundreds of thousands of idealists spilled into Market Street Wednesday morning, obscuring asphalt from the Embarcadero to the Castro. They swelled into side streets, chanted, and sang.

In my dream, though I couldn't make out exactly who the new mayor was, the ending was happy. Our mayor entered office with a boulevard-ful of political capital he desperately, urgently needed to perform the task ahead of him.

Both Matt Gonzalez and Gavin Newsom promised during their campaigns to improve public integrity, make city departments function efficiently, ease our housing shortage, improve transit, bolster education, address homelessness, and, in a theme underlying all these pledges, hew government waste.

But accomplishing these goals requires that the mayor ride roughshod over the mutual-benefit associations formed among the interest groups, bureaucratic cliques, and petty power brokers who thrive in the San Francisco status quo.

The new mayor needs to fire incompetent department heads, request the resignations of patronage-based commission appointees, and cancel or retrieve from the drawing board billions of dollars' worth of ill-wrought projects and plans. In doing so he'll endure charges of racism, authoritarianism, anti-unionism, anti-neighborhoodism. To reach all his goals, the new mayor would need a Fort Knox full of political capital.

But whoever is elected will certainly have enough in his political wallet to stop the city from throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into a dysfunctional hole in the ground.

The first and most costly item on the aforementioned interest-group-offending list will be on the mayor's desk the moment he opens his office door. Last Thursday, consulting engineers for the San Francisco Municipal Railway unveiled more detailed plans for a 15-block subway tunnel connecting the Giants' ballpark to Chinatown. It is expected to cost – gulp – nearly $700 million.

The subway extension is the end result of years of deal-making among warring bureaucrats, merchants, neighborhood activists, transit planners, and engineers. Because of its management-by-committee roots, the current, jury-rigged design represents an awful series of compromises. It would create a subway that is slower, shorter, and more confusing, and that serves fewer people with fewer stations, at potentially much greater cost, than the less politicized version originally envisioned by transit planners. Making things worse, the construction will be overseen by a fractured transit agency staffed near the top by recently hired, and absurdly unqualified, mayoral appointees.

Revisiting this ill-fated design will anger Muni bureaucrats: Their success is measured in projects completed, regardless of cost and efficiency, and they believe that any design change could delay construction. Reconsidering this subterranean boondoggle-in-the-making will stir resentment among Chinatown power brokers, who consider the project their own private patrimony; anger Union Square merchants, who believe the subway will fatten profit margins; and be resisted by the Department of Parking and Traffic, a rump agency that under law is supposed to help make public transit more efficient, and in practice has done exactly the opposite. And firing Willie Brown's recent hires atop the DPT and the Municipal Railway will spark charges of racism; both men are African-Americans with limited relevant job experience.

If he's true to his promises, our next mayor's honeymoon will be marked by upheaval, acrimony, and ruthlessness. But if he puts the misconceived Central Subway on track, San Franciscans will ultimately love him for it.

There are plenty of critics who say the Central Subway shouldn't be built at all – at least not until more urgent transit projects are completed. The same money could be used to transport far more people by building, to name one example, bus rapid transit on Geary, Van Ness, Mission, and other corridors. With the potential for more federal and state transit dollars dwindling daily, critics fear this subway project will suck up all available transport money for years to come.

In a realistic, political sense, though, it doesn't seem like there's a way to turn back. In February, Willie Brown convinced Nancy Pelosi to put money for initial Central Subway engineering studies into a federal transportation bill. And the project received top priority in the language of Proposition K, a renewal of the local transit sales tax approved by voters earlier this year. Since the Central Subway can't be killed, all that's left is to hope for the best possible project.

Last Thursday, though, Muni engineers presented a transit version of the gerrymander, a strangely shaped political animal born of factional dispute. When Congress gerrymanders, voters and congresspeople of one party give their opponents the shaft. When Muni gerrymanders, transit riders wind about the city, often moving slower than they could by walking and sometimes waiting, stalled entirely, in railway shafts.

To understand how the current, convoluted design was established, and why it's probably going to cost more, and function more poorly, than backers claim, it's useful to consider the Central Subway line in two portions. To the north, starting at Mission and Third streets, and ending at a station at the corner of Clay and Stockton streets, there's a five-block engineering nightmare created to placate Chinatown power broker Rose Pak. To the south, continuing from Third and Mission to King Street, where the train weirdly forks into two north- and southbound stations about a quarter-mile apart, there's an urban design disaster created to assuage myopic bureaucrats.

Early plans for a Central Subway, first proposed during the 1970s, had the line beginning on King Street, going north on Third Street, crossing Market, and turning obliquely right up Kearny, a relatively wide street of paved-over earth lined with modern buildings. Planners favored this design because at the Kearny and Clay station's west edge it would serve Chinatown, home to the city's most enthusiastic transit users. To the east, it would serve the Financial District, workplace to hundreds of thousands of riders, many of whom, planners hoped, would live in new apartments slated for SOMA, China Basin, and the Central Waterfront and new housing developments in Bayview-Hunters Point, which would be served by the Third Street light-rail line now under construction. The idea was to allow for the construction of thousands of units of workforce housing to the south of downtown, while reducing traffic congestion.

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Matt Smith


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