On Guard!

Our perspective on the week's most notable San Francisco news

A city renedering of the new Union Square Station; can Muni build this without busting the budget?




While supporters of the controversial Central Subway project — from Mayor Ed Lee and his allies in Chinatown to almost the entire Board of Supervisors — dismiss the growing chorus of critics as everything from ill-informed to racist, they refuse to address the biggest concerns about the project.

In a nutshell, the main concerns center on serious design flaws (such as the lack of direct connections to either Muni or BART), the city's responsibility for any cost overruns on this complex $1.6 billion project, its estimated $15.2 million increase to Muni's already strained annual operating budget (a figure used by the Federal Transportation Administration, well over the local estimate of $1.7 million), and the city's unwillingness to implement its own plans for improving north-south transit service on congested Stockton Street rather than relying solely on such an expensive option for serving Chinatown that doesn't start until 2019.

Judge Quentin Kopp, a longtime former legislator, called this summer's grand jury report, "Central Subway: Too Much Money for Too Little Benefit," the best he's ever read and one that should be heeded. He recently wrote a letter to top state officials urging them to reconsider the $488 million in state funding pledged to the project. As we reported last week, mayoral candidate Dennis Herrera is also challenging a project that he supported before its most recent cost overruns and design changes.

But supporters of the project pushed back hard on Sept. 14, using taunts and emotional rhetoric that avoided addressing the core criticisms. "Beneath the unfounded criticism about costs is actually a disagreement over values. The grand jury report relied upon by critics makes a only brief and superficial criticism about costs," Norman Fong and Mike Casey wrote in an op-ed in last week's Guardian.

Actually, the 56-page grand jury report goes into great detail about why it believes cost overruns are likely, citing the myriad risks from tunneling and SFMTA's administrative shortcomings and history of mismanagement, including on this project's less-complicated first phase, the T-Third line, which was 22 percent over budget and a year and half late in completion. Even with the contingencies built into the Central Subway budget, the report notes that a similar overrun would increase the local share of this project from $124 million to more than $150 million.

Mayor Lee purportedly addressed criticism of the project during the Question Time session in the Sept. 14 Board of Supervisors meeting, prompted by a loaded question from Sup. Sean Elsbernd offering Lee the "opportunity to move beyond the clichés and one-liners of political campaigns."

But Lee's answer was classically political, touting the estimated 30,000 jobs it would create, praising those who have pushed this project since the 1980s, offering optimistic ridership estimates (that exceed current FTA figures by about 9,000 daily riders), and ignoring concerns about whether the city can cover the ever-increasing capital and operating costs.

"Now is the time to support the Central Subway," Lee said, flashing his trademark mustachioed grin.

We called the normally responsive Elsbernd, who prides himself on his fiscal responsibility, twice, to ask about financial concerns surrounding the project and he didn't call back. During their mayoral endorsement interviews with the Guardian last week, we also asked Sups. John Avalos and David Chiu to address how they think the city will be able to afford this project, and neither had good answers about the most substantive issues (listen for yourself to the audio recordings on our Politics blog).