Muni Money: Caltrain Connection Could Fund Central Subway

A disconnect over the meaning of the term "connectivity" is at the heart of the latest debate over Muni's Central Subway project. But it's more than semantics at stake. If Muni loses its argument, it also loses out on $61 million in state funds — and would have to resort to debt financing to make up the shortfall.

Muni's hopes to use state Proposition 1A funding to fill that hole were quashed when Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the expenditure last year. Prop. 1A allots state dollars to local transit projects providing connectivity to California's still-mostly hypothetical high-speed rail system. Brown, however, denied Muni's grant application because a direct connection between the rail system and the proposed Central Subway was notably absent in the California High Speed Rail Authority's business plan.

Earlier this month, Muni appealed to the state once more, submitting a revised grant proposal in hopes of landing that $61 million. In doing so, Muni requests connectivity dollars — even if conventional definitions of connectivity aren't precisely met. "So long as Fourth and King remains open as an interim or permanent HSR station," the Muni proposal claims, the Central Subway will offer a direct connection.

Of course, the $61 million question is, will Fourth and King become a stop for high-speed trains? The California High Speed Rail Authority's revised business plan states that high-speed trains on the Caltrain corridor will only serve the stop "if necessary." Although the agency says that it does not expect to use the station, if demand or ridership increases by 2050, Fourth and King would serve as an overflow stop.

Central Subway critics lambasted the notion of pulling in high-speed trains at Fourth and King, given that the planned Transbay Terminal Center — the end of the high-speed rail line — is just a mile away at First and Mission. "They're asking for an advance of that money long before knowing if there's actually going to be a connection," says transit expert Jerry Cauthen, a former Muni engineer. Muni officials, meanwhile, insist that the Fourth and King stop will remain a connection point between the high speed rail and the future Central Subway. If so, San Francisco might just have another anomaly to add to its list of oddities; most high speed rail stops are plotted at least 15 miles apart.

If Muni's pleas for state dollars fail again — or if high-speed rail never comes to fruition — there is a backup plan. The agency is considering taking out bonds to finance the shortfall — the servicing of which figures to cost millions per year. That could cause a serious disconnect on Muni's balance book.

 
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Matt Spencer
Matt Spencer

These funds were a terrible idea in the first place. It took years and years (and years) of politicking to get the HSR bonds placed on the ballot. Supposedly the planners for HSR had to agree to a $1 billion payoff to all of the existing state rail systems in order to buy their silence, so of the $10 billion for the bonds, only $9 billion even goes to HSR at all, the other $1 billion is to be spread out about 8 other agencies such as Muni, BART, etc. based on a formula that compares each agency's size/ridership. The money was described as being for "connectivity" but there were not rules describing what that meant so it was basically a slush fund for each agency to apply to their pet projects and they didn't have to have anything to do with HSR up until Jerry took office.

So all of these other transit systems are blatantly skimming off of the top of the HSR bonds and some of the projects they want to spend the money on are exactly what you would expect - projects that would not get voter approval in their own right, so they use money that was sold to voters as being for one thing and then re-route it to something unpopular like a light rail line that is all of ~1.5 miles long at best with a whopping four stations that still clocks in at $1.6 billion with costs still rising.

Worst of all, it's not like the HSR line is all paid for either - even with strong future federal assistance, the state and local governments will have to come up with more money down the road if HSR is ever going to be completed as envisioned, so giving away $1 billion of bond money now, that will be financed and cost the state closer to $2 billion over 30 years, is pretty ridiculous - and sooner or later people are going to get wise to it and that will only hurt HSR and voter confidence in any large infrastructure project so it's shooting yourself in the foot. Sometimes it seems like Jerry is the only adult in the room.

MrEricSir
MrEricSir

Finally, we'll have a subway line that connects Chinatown to absolutely nowhere!

e_dog
e_dog

Any time there's a surprise involving the Central Subway, it confirms the notion that it's a bad idea. Pull the plug.

 
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