Clang, Clang, Clang Went the New Subway

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

Smoke screen alert!

When our mayor churns hoopla, you can bet he's obscuring a problem. In early 2004, when deep-pocket opponents crushed the mayor's pet housing initiative and began preparing a recall drive, Gavin Newsom announced he'd perform marriage ceremonies for homosexuals. He became a national celebrity, and the recall problem went away. When cops under his charge were flummoxed by a surge in ghetto murders last year, Newsom announced a crackdown on bawdy police videos. The murder problem, too, seemed to dissipate in a fog of media narrative that suggested the mayor was sternly dealing with his police force.

Last week Newsom alerted the press that he was personally conducting undercover sleuth work to examine pilferage on cable cars. Multiple stories in the San Francisco Chronicle gave the story a beginning, in which the mayor announced his investigation; a middle, in which cable car operators were labeled thieves; and an end, in which the mayor sought to mend fences with insulted brakemen.

Problem solved!

But for readers trying to make sense of San Francisco government, the question became, "Which problem?" Here's a place to start: This media fable was about the rail cars. Could that mean the agency that runs them is fraught with problems?

Indeed, the city's Municipal Transportation Agency, whose board of directors is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Board of Supervisors, is now in the middle of a fiscal crisis involving the planned Central Subway from the Giants' ballpark to Chinatown. Rather than taking Muni's fiscal problems by the reins, as the media stunt seemed to imply, Newsom-influenced minions have taken pains to obscure a crisis in which the subway project's cost has inflated from $500 million in the late 1990s to a current $1.5 billion.

City-contracted engineers, it turns out, had previously overlooked expenses such as building air ducts to keep passengers from suffocating. Revised estimates -- which now include once-overlooked costs such as the air ducts, buying land along the route, and financing expenses -- have seen the project double in price just since December 2003. Now, the proposed subway is on the verge of collapsing under its own fiscal weight.

Speaking of weight, this project's a porker. According to a 1998 Muni report, by 2015 the Central Subway project would increase transit ridership along its route by 5 percent over existing bus service. That's a cost of $213,000 up front per additional rider, not counting a $4 million-per-year total increase in operating costs over the current bus service.

This cost explosion might give the mayor political cover to kill or significantly revise this wasteful project and create a chance to build something better. Such a move would benefit from mayoral leadership. But that would require first acknowledging a problem exists -- not exactly this politician's forte.

Rather than publicly addressing the matter, the mayor's minions have done everything in their power to divert attention from the Central Subway cost explosion, which insiders have known about for months, but which were only publicly acknowledged last Thursday in response to my questions. Muni quietly halted work on the Central Subway last summer. Without making any announcements, it has re-begun the design process to figure out ways to cheapen the subway proposal to the point that federal officials might provide subsidies.

"We're in the process of doing value engineering to do cost savings," says acting Municipal Transportation Agency Director Stuart Sunshine. "Once we have decided what the project will look like, we will come forward to the granting agencies to see if they're still supportive of it."

In 2003 the Board of Supervisors approved a five-year, $30 million contract to an engineering consortium to design the Central Subway.

The money will now presumably be spent on "value engineering," wonk-speak for dumbing down. This includes shrinking the size of train stations and making the light trolleys run aboveground through South of Market, thus shortening the expensive tunnel tube. San Francisco is supposedly in line for as much as $500 million in federal funding for the project. But this money hinges on the subway being financially feasible.

And the notion that the aforementioned subtle measures might turn back cost escalations that lately have proceeded at a rate of about $100 million per month seems optimistic.

Another option under study would somehow mash together San Francisco's various near-death transit project proposals, such as the Transbay Terminal -- a $2.7 billion project for which there's likewise no clear funding plan in sight -- and plans for electrified Caltrain cars that would go from the ballpark to downtown.

"I am interested in pursuing continued research into whether it makes sense to co-locate the Central Subway with electrified Caltrain, in the same tube, which may be the only thing that allows these projects to prosper," says Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin.

Failing that, monumental transit projects that have occupied millions of dollars in engineer and bureaucrat hours may crumble to dust during Mayor Gavin Newsom's watch.

Meanwhile, the already-built Municipal Railway bus system is running a multimillion-dollar operating deficit that analysts say has set in motion a cycle of reduced service, increased fares, and further reduced service.

Does this mean it's time for our mayor to initiate a public discussion about our imperiled municipal transport system, then actually do something about it?

Hardly.

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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