The Canary is Dead: With the Central Subway Project, the Only Way Out is Through

News that the Transbay Terminal is something like $300 million over budget should not come as a shock to anyone. We always knew the initial estimate was way under the real cost. Just like we never had a real cost for the Central Subway or the Bay Bridge or any other massive construction project. So get off it. In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.
— Willie Brown, San Francisco Chronicle, July 28

You fucked up: You trusted us! Hey, make the best of it!
— Otter, Animal House, 1978

Losing by less is the new winning. Keeping your job is the new raise. And being honest about your dishonesty is the new truthfulness. We laugh so as not to cry.

There's plenty in the Chronicle these days to make you laugh or cry. But nothing induces the urge to house-train a puppy quite like the ongoing platform provided to former Mayor Brown, who ridicules the public for believing him while he admits lowballing projects covered with his fingerprints — by billions.

Drastically underestimating capital project costs likely goes back to the days of Stonehenge. Robert Moses raised it to an art form in New York City, severely underpricing the costs of major transit plans, then hanging the partially completed projects around politicians' necks — forcing them to either admit they'd been hoodwinked into wasting millions or funnel millions more toward finishing the job.

That's not new. But brazenly admitting your behavior in the newspaper of record is. Moses is remembered as the soulless hyena who bulldozed thriving swaths of New York, with dubious benefits. San Francisco's movers and shakers may be remembered differently — especially if newspapers passively allow them to write their own histories.

But, hey, like the man said, let's get off it. We fucked up! We trusted them. Now it's time to make the best of it.

At times, it's difficult to remember that voters approved the Central Subway. That's because the project, a 1.7-mile extension of the T-line running from SoMa to Chinatown, as described in Proposition K of 2003, hardly resembles its current iteration. A $647 million budget has swelled to some $1.6 billion. An estimated daily ridership exceeding 100,000 is now pegged at 35,100.

But if misery loves company, we've got both. A recent U.S. Department of Transportation study of 10 major rail projects revealed an average cost-per-passenger 500 percent higher than the initial figures used to sell the idea. “It is certainly possible,” the study concludes, “that decision-makers acting on more accurate forecasts of costs and future ridership … would have selected projects other than those reviewed here.”

It is certainly possible. But, that assumes decision-makers believed those initial estimates. It also assumes the true goal of the project wasn't to “start digging a hole and make it so big, there's no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

Well, that's depressing. Kinda makes you want to sit down and ponder the state of things. And, in the future Union Square/Market Street station, you'll have opportunities to do just that. Sorry, there's not going to be a moving walkway transporting you the thousand feet from the future station to the regular Muni lines at Powell. Instead, per Muni memos, there will be “public benches along the concourse for the comfort of the elderly and other patrons.”

A map and chart obtained from Muni via a public records request breaks down this journey into what may well be the world's longest transfer — from Union Square/Market Street to Powell.

Heading from the new to the old requires a walk of 114 feet, leading to a 63-foot ascent on an escalator. Then there's a 541-foot stroll on the concourse, followed by a 21-foot descent on a stairway. Finally, you'll amble 219 more feet to reach Powell and, hopefully, be handed a small cup of Gatorade to sip or pour over your head — 85 feet higher and 1,018 feet away from whence you began.

This trip, Muni calculated, will take an able-bodied person seven minutes and six seconds. In publicity materials, however, Muni has offered the svelter estimate of four minutes, 48 seconds — but perhaps this is just a down payment on a longer walk.

Those not in triathlon shape, of course, will take longer — hence the benches. Those unable to negotiate stairs are in for an excursion. So, thank God for art.

“We have the ability to have retail and incorporate art to make that an enjoyable, beautiful walk,” Central Subway project director John Funghi said at a 2007 forum. Well, they'll certainly have plenty of wall space.

Finding artists to decorate the Central Subway project has been a project of its own. In 2011, a furor erupted when it was revealed that sculptor Tom Otterness — recipient of a $750,000 contract to create art for San Francisco General Hospital and the Central Subway — shot a dog to death on film as a work of “art” in 1977.

This just isn't a San Francisco aesthetic. Following public outcry, Otterness lost his Central Subway commission.

In San Francisco, you can ram through a logistically nightmarish transit project of questionable worth even as the estimated ridership and price tags cross each other headed in the wrong directions. But you're not going to decorate it with the work of someone who did something awful to a dog in the 1970s.

Fair enough. But at least foot-sore Central Subway patrons resting on benches could have consoled themselves by noting the artwork in front of them certainly wasn't the worst Otterness could do.

And then they could get up and keep walking. After all, “the idea is to get going.”

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