Subway Daze

BART fears city subway project poses danger to busy downtown S.F. station.

There's more trouble on the tracks for the city's proposed $1.3 billion Central Subway project. BART officials are hopping mad because San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) engineers appear not to have considered groundwater damage and potential safety hazards to the Powell Street station when they begin to dig the new subway tunnel beneath it.

"This oversight could cost tens of millions of dollars to mitigate," BART board member Tom Radulovich says. "The MTA has been irresponsible in the way they have addressed impacts on the BART system. We absolutely have to have a guarantee that this project will be 100 percent safe."

The Central Subway line will run for 16 blocks between AT&T Park and Washington and Stockton streets, with a grand total of four stops. The MTA estimates the line will have more than 100,000 daily riders by 2030, though that number is a little hard to fathom, considering about 800,000 daily riders currently use Muni's 80 routes.

The project was pushed by Chinatown leaders who thought they would lose business when the Embarcadero freeway was torn down after the 1989 earthquake. Although those fears were never realized, it gained momentum despite its seemingly impractical and short route, which is scheduled to go online in 2016.

The subway project, originally estimated to cost $500 million, has been beset by sloppy planning. In 2006, SF Weekly columnist Matt Smith reported that city-contracted engineers had overlooked expenses such as including air ducts to keep passengers from suffocating. Now BART officials say the MTA has not considered the ramifications of digging the new tunnel about six feet below Powell station (which is about 95 feet below street level and about 60 feet below the groundwater table). They say the displacement of groundwater during construction could cause the entire station to sag, leak, flood, or worse. Currently, BART pumps thousands of gallons of groundwater out of the station daily.

When the MTA failed to address the problems in the project's environmental impact report last December, BART officials fired off a letter to the San Francisco Planning Department outlining seven engineering obstacles the MTA had apparently not considered, including whether construction would disrupt BART service or possibly require Powell station to temporarily close. According to the letter, there are also no plans for asbestos abatement when the MTA modifies existing underground structures.

MTA and BART engineers have quietly met 12 times since then to discuss the potential problems. BART spokesman Linton Johnson and MTA spokesman Judson True both say the meetings have been productive and that specific plans to solve the problems will be included in the final environmental impact report, which the Federal Transportation Administration is expected to approve in the fall.

But taxpayers should be wary. Central Subway project manager John Funghi says there is no estimate of how much it will cost to safely tunnel under BART. In fact, he says the only available estimate is the project's total price tag of $1.3 billion, which everyone knows will skyrocket faster than you can say "take the damn bus."

 
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