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

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.

Then came the gerrymander.

After the city decided not to rebuild the Embarcadero Freeway following the 1989 earthquake, Chinatown leaders began to view the Central Subway proposal as a form of payback that would bring commuters and shoppers into the heart of Chinatown, so shopkeepers would get back the business they believed was lost when the freeway came down. Union Square merchants, meanwhile, wanted to push the line a block west, so it could serve conventioneers who wanted to shop but didn't want to make the four-block walk from Moscone Center.

And so it was that in 1998 Willie Brown and his allies began to see the long-dormant Central Subway as less a planner's dream, and more an interest-group bargaining chip. The mayor successfully lobbied for Central Subway funds in Washington and Sacramento.

And at last week's meeting of the Third Street Rail Citizen's Advisory Group, where Muni officials unveiled detailed drawings of the proposed Central Subway, engineers described a tunnel that would make the difficult trip from the Mission and Third streets station to Stockton Street by curving to the right just before crossing Market, then making a 90-degree left turn west on Geary, then sharply doubling to the right in a "z" turn at Stockton, before heading north toward Clay Street.

Project engineers say this sharp zigzag would cause Muni trains to slow to a walking speed of 7 mph, creating routine, severe bottlenecks. If the Central Subway eventually forms the spine of a completed San Francisco rail transit network envisioned by planners, this bottleneck could potentially stall trains from the Richmond District to Visitacion Valley, and from North Beach to Ocean Beach. As a solution, engineers are considering straightening the zigzag by boring a hole deep into the earth underneath the Market Street BART tunnel. Engineers at last week's meeting refused to speculate how much more this deep dig would cost. (Because Kearny adjoins Third Street at a mild, 45-degree angle crossing Market, the previous design would have avoided these engineering problems altogether.)

There's another problem with the Stockton Street route: Because the lane is unusually narrow and lined with ancient, delicate buildings, engineers face a difficult challenge designing a Clay Street entrance that allows for aboveground pedestrian and auto traffic, while leaving historic buildings unharmed.

Consulting engineers will spend the next few months conducting preliminary design studies that will reveal exactly how daunting or expensive the current design may or may not be. This raises the question: If the Stockton Street design proves too costly or impractical, will planners reconsider the old Kearny Street design? They will not, says Sue Olive, manager for the Third Street light-rail project.

The political decision to run the tunnel up Stockton Street has already been made, she says, and engineers will design around it.

It was a different sort of interest-group battle that shaped the Central Subway gerrymander's southern tail. As with the line's northern snout, understanding the southern gerrymander requires a bit of history – but this time, it's bureaucratic history.

Over many years, Muni and the Department of Parking and Traffic fought block-by-block battles over whether to facilitate the flow of transit vehicles or cars. The city's charter requires that transit receive preference, but the DPT's traffic engineers, trained in the art of increasing the number of cars per minute flowing along streets, resisted. This friction created repeated jurisdictional battles involving Muni, the DPT, the Planning Department, the Redevelopment Agency, the Department of Public Works, and other agencies. As a result of Proposition E, passed in 1999, Muni and the DPT were merged last summer under a new Municipal Transportation Authority, promising a new era of transit harmony. But old war wounds remain, one of them being a bizarre split of the Central Subway system into two separate north- and southbound lines, one-fifth of a mile apart.

Heading south from the proposed Third and Mission streets station, the Central Subway tunnel would split at Harrison Street, with the southbound tunnel veering west to Fourth Street. The two, separated tunnels would emerge onto street level between Bryant and Brannan streets, and continue to King Street. The southbound line would stop near the Caltrain station on Fourth Street. The northbound line would stop 400 yards away in front of the Giants' ballpark.

Project engineer John Thomas told me the split-track design will preserve current automobile traffic patterns on Third and Fourth streets, which he described as "important arteries."

Thomas acknowledged that having a quarter-mile of busy streets separating two halves of the southern station at King Street will likely create passenger confusion. Splitting the tunnel 400 yards apart will add about 5 percent to the project's cost, or about $30 million, give or take a few million, he said. And to bring the two lines together so they can continue south toward the Bayview, this automobile-friendly compromise design calls for a horridly slow series of 90-degree "z" turns that, like the zigzag at Stockton and Market, will create transit-rage-inducing commuter bottlenecks.

Putting north- and southbound lines in a single Third and King streets station would eliminate confusion. Running the line one block down the middle of Third Street, with traffic traveling in the same direction as train cars on either side, would result in a system faster, cheaper, more efficient, and easier to understand than the current design. But it might hinder automobile traffic.

Critics describe the trade-off as absurd. Spending tens of millions of dollars to preserve automobile traffic flow as part of a project created specifically to reduce traffic flow is preposterous, they say. And the split station isn't just confusing; it's downright dangerous.

"It separates itself. It makes odd turns. Its southbound line is blocked to the east. Its portals are separated. It's just ridiculous," says Tom Radulovich, a BART director who has been involved in local funding efforts for the Central Subway.

"I told them I'd save them millions of dollars by buying them a can of paint to re-stripe Third Street. The offer's still open."

When first confronted with the Central Subway gerrymander, our new mayor should remember the tale of the hardware merchant, the tunnel, and the Oakland curve. When engineers were planning BART tracks underneath Oakland city streets, a hardware store owner feared it would harm his business. He protested, he earned a following, and BART brass avoided the store by curving the tracks at the center of the line between the 12th Street City Center Station, the Lake Merritt Station, and the West Oakland Station. The hardware store didn't last to see the BART line completed. But to this day the tight "u" curve there creates the slowest point in the BART network, causing delays systemwide.

Future San Francisco generations will not remember Willie Brown's 1998 efforts to retain his mayorship and maintain control of the Board of Supervisors by courting power brokers in Chinatown and Union Square. They won't recall the internecine war between DPT bureaucrats and Muni planners, and they won't care which way traffic flowed on the southernmost block of Third Street in 2004.

But they might trade stories about the times when Muni froze, thanks to the Market-Geary-Stockton bottleneck, or the times when passengers attempting to navigate the weirdly bifurcated Muni station on King Street were hit by cars.

But then again, they might not, if a newly minted San Francisco mayor has the courage to fulfill campaign promises, and to spend some political capital quickly, and where it will do the most good.

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