Clang, Clang, Clang Went the New Subway

The billion-dollar Central Subway transportation plan may collapse under its own expanding weight


It was time for Newsom to launch a Muni-themed smoke screen, so that problems might quietly fester for as long as possible without the mayor having to publicly address them.

It may seem comic that engineers would massively underestimate a subway's cost by omitting air ducts. But this may not have been a bad thing.

The Central Subway has been the bane of transit-policy wonks and some Muni insiders since it arose during the mid-1990s as the result of a political deal between former Mayor Willie Brown and Chinatown power broker Rose Pak. Chinatown merchants had been angered when the 1989 earthquake permanently removed the Embarcadero Freeway, causing them to fear that fewer people would go to Chinatown. The Central Subway plan was supposed to assuage these feelings, and keep the Chinese vote in Brown's camp. From a people-moved-per-dollar standpoint, however, it has always been a horrible use of taxpayer money. Transit planners and advocates have pointed out since the subway was first announced that it would have been far more expedient in terms of swiftening trips for the maximum number of commuters to use the same money for a trolley line along Geary Boulevard between downtown and the Richmond District, the largest San Francisco bedroom district not served by rail.

The unpopularity of the Central Subway project and its mammoth cost problems, combined with its Willie Brown- era political strings, seem to have turned this into San Francisco's version of Area 51, the alleged Pentagon desert space-alien lab.

"For most squirrelly interaction with the public, that project wins," says Tom Radulovich, a member of the board of directors of Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and executive director of the nonprofit transit advocacy group Transportation for a Livable City. "They're very double-talky and political. It seems like powerful constituencies are telling them what to do, and they do it."

However problematic the Central Subway may have been, the logic of federal transit subsidies says that once started, it's hard for Muni to turn back on even the most wasteful transit and freeway projects.

For one thing, obtaining federal money involves a long, cumbersome bureaucratic process. Diverting money to another project means going to the back of the line.

"The feds need to know that no matter what, the project can be delivered. And the process is quite rigid," says Randy Rentschler, a lobbyist for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which coordinates transport projects over the greater San Francisco Bay Area. S.F. Muni is "in the final stages of the process to get a full funding grant agreement. You have to get the project through an environmental document, then you engineer the project, you get blueprints drawn."

Yet now, MTA Director Sunshine says, estimated costs have risen so high that engineers are backtracking to square one. This may be a long "final stage."

"We are mindful of any cost-effectiveness concerns" the Federal Transit Administration may have, Sunshine says. "That's why we're taking time through value engineering and industry peer review to come up with a better project."

Might this mean asking San Francisco taxpayers to cough up millions more dollars, if the feds aren't willing to foot enough of the bill?

"If we need to look for more money, as far as the analysis goes, we might come up with that," says Sunshine, employing bureaucrat-speak to mean: "We may have to pass the hat."

This warrants serious public discussion as to whether it's worth spending hundreds of millions in local tax dollars on a wildly overbudget, minimally effective transit project, or using the money on something else.

Judging from Gavin Newsom's bizarre Muni Railway-themed smoke screen last week, this is a conversation our mayor would rather avoid.

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