Central Subway Critics: Costly Boondoggle Can Still Be Stopped

Saw it coming...
For some reason we'll never know, ardent foes of the Central Subway chose, today, to hold a press conference in a children's playground. Attendees sat on slides and sidestepped miniature tricycles.

But there was no playing around. And the Central Subway is not a project that will be paid for in play money. The price tag currently stands at some $1.58 billion. Yesterday, the Municipal Transportation Agency Board bandied about the idea of taking out scores of millions of dollars in revenue bonds -- astoundingly, the total hasn't been determined -- to toss onto that pile.

When you're discussing projects funded by overlapping federal, state, and local agencies and the logistics of rail travel, things get complicated. Fast. But the subway critics' message was uncomplicated: The train has not yet left the station. The Central Subway, they say, is not a done deal. 

"This is not inevitable," says former Supervisor Aaron Peskin. "It's predicated on receipt of $942 million from Congress. And Congress has yet to appropriate those funds."

In fact, added Judge Quentin Kopp, also a former supervisor and state senator, "The Federal Transportation Authority was supposedly scheduled to approve [the Central Subway funding] last February. They still haven't and won't even consider doing it for another month."

In order for Muni to receive its pile of federal money, a number of conditions must be met beforehand, the presenters noted. Among them: 

  • The local and state matching funds must be in place;

  • Muni must commit to maintaining its pre-2010 service levels in order to receive hefty federal funding to greatly expand the system;

Yesterday's move to take out revenue bonds makes condition No. 1 shaky. While Muni sold the idea as a "reassurance" to the feds because of uncertainty when $61 million in state High-Speed Rail (HSR) funds would be coming San Francisco's way, it's more a question of if the money is available. Quite likely it isn't: Gov. Jerry Brown specifically vetoed allocations of Proposition 1A funding to the Central Subway because he said the project wasn't related to High-Speed Rail. The money to service these bonds -- millions every year -- would come right out of Muni's operating budget. "In order to have revenue bonds, you have to have a source of revenue," notes Peskin. "And that source is the fares we all pay."

The money put into handling these bonds is money Muni isn't putting into maintaining its existing service -- which becomes pertinent to condition No. 2. To his credit, new Muni chief Ed Reiskin has been up front about Muni's service reductions and budget cuts -- though his term "right-sizing" is a bit euphemistic. Muni is already missing dozens of runs every day -- and will have to maintain a much larger system in the event the Central Subway becomes a reality. Muni's current estimates are that the Central Subway will add some $15 million yearly to its operating and maintenance budget -- and that doesn't include servicing the potential bonds.

Finally, notes transit expert and former Muni engineer Jerry Cauthen, Muni and the FTA have entered into paradoxical territory. The FTA is supposedly "reassured" the necessary matching funds necessary for Condition No. 1 are in place via Muni taking out revenue bonds. But by putting millions into those bonds and siphoning money away from the existing system, Muni is violating Condition No. 2 by degrading service.

Incidentally, Cauthen pointed out, ridership projections for the subway have dropped from around 100,000 a day to 35,100, per Muni's latest numbers. And that 35,100 total assumes future CalTrain riders will transfer onto the Central Subway from Fourth and King -- which, per the current plan, they won't need to do in order to get downtown.

"I am a former supporter of the Central Subway," notes Peskin. "I voted in favor of that project when it was a mere $647 million project before becoming a $1.58 billion project. I voted for the project when it had a much higher estimate of ridership, there would be connectivity with the underground on Market Street, and with High-Speed Rail. None of these things has come to pass.

"Let's be clear," he continued. "The Federal Transportation Authority knows this project is a boondoggle. ... Many city leaders and experts know that. Now is the time for us to stand up and say this is wrong and it's not too late."

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Arron Peskin is against new development and infrastructure improvements in San Francisco, what a shock!

This is the same group of yahoo's who fight every job creating tax base increasing proposal to redevelop piers, expand transit, tear down rotted out movie theaters, or lease empty store fronts to 'chain' businesses.

It always amazes me who people jump up and down about how transit spending is a 'boondoggle' before it is built but once it's up and running how quickly it becomes indispensable.  Residents of Chicago and NYC don't go around complaining about the 'boondoggle' of the El or subways. 

In fact, once the transit option is completed, homes and business pace with convenient access to transit command premiums.


People in SF have to realize this cold fact: Nancy Pelosi is no longer Speaker, and the GOP majority could give a rat's backside what Willie Brown and the local Democratic Establishment thinks about this project. Anyone who thinks they won't take shots at this project, a billion dollar, 1.3 mile subway, is insane. Why not? It's a poorly managed project that was just proposed so Willie could  get re-elected in the 1990s, and once people saw "free money" coming to SF, they couldn't say no and come up with a better way to improve Muni. 

Also, any talk of "future expansion" is talk about something that is made of pure hot air. Does anyone REALLY think the Church and the telegraph hill dwellers will allow a tunnel to be bored out under their precious property? There is no money appropriated for this and even if this thing is built THAT EXPANSION WILL NEVER HAPPEN. Period. End of Story.

SF needs to hold off on the bong hits and realize some real world facts for a change and bake decisions based on reality, not on loopy ideals that mean nothing in the real world.


Sure it's overpriced and kind of a mess, but at this point we've already gone so far that it doesn't make much sense to stop.

At least there are aspects to the project that make sense, in particular the prospects for future expansion to the North and West of the Chinatown tunnel.

Rob Anderson
Rob Anderson

The backers of ruinously expensive projects like the Central Subway and high-speed rail are counting on this attitude expressed by Eric, that their project/projects can't be cancelled now, that it's too late, that all the money already spent will be wasted!

See "Megaprojects and Risk" a book that shows how developers and boosters of megaprojects game the system and how they lie to do it:

"Cost underestimation and overrun cannot be explained by error and seem to be best explained by strategic misrepresentation, namely lying, with a view to getting projects started." (page 16)http://district5diary.blogspot...

Rob Anderson
Rob Anderson

It won't be stopped, because it's important to the Democratic Party and the unions---even bad projects create jobs---to keep it going, not to mention that there's not a single supervisor in dissent on the issue. San Francisco's politics are based entirely on a GroupThink mentality on the important issues---Muni, the Central Subway, "smart[sic] growth," and anti-carism and the Bicycle Plan. 


Mind-bending boondoggle out of City Hall. Political pork for insiders at the expense of long-suffering Muni riders. You can try putting lipstick on a pig but guess what, it's still a pig. This plan is nuts and it must and can be stopped.

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