Central Subway gravy train shows how City Hall works

Board President David Chiu (center, at a Central Subway rally last year) and Mayor Ed Lee are supporters of the project.

Despite its skyrocketing cost, inefficient design, and a growing chorus of criticism – ranging from a Wall Street Journal editorial today to an op-ed in the SF Chronicle last week – the Central Subway project continues to move forward for one simple reason: rich and powerful people want it to happen, whether it makes sense or not, because it benefits them directly.

“The subway is a case study in government incompetence and wasted taxpayer money,” the Wall Street Journal wrote in a “Review & Outlook” piece today (full text below), but it was only partially correct. The Central Subway is actually a case study in how things get done at City Hall, and how connected contractors and their political patrons make off with that taxpayer money.

“San Francisco is embarking on a Big Dig of the West, and unless our local leadership applies the brakes soon, the damage to our transit systems will be all but guaranteed. I urge local and national leaders to recognize what is obvious and stop this train to nowhere,” former San Francisco Transportation Agency Chair Jake McGoldrick wrote in his Aug. 18 op-ed.

But that isn't likely to happen, given the political dynamics that have taken root at City Hall this year. Remember, this project was the result of a mutually beneficial deal that then-Mayor Willie Brown cut with Chinatown power broker Rose Pak back in 2003 (when the project was estimated at $648 million, before it ballooned to its current price tag of $1.6 billion).

This was the same duo that engineered the appointment of Ed Lee as interim mayor earlier this year and then pushed him to break his word and run to retain control of Room 200, as well as pressuring David Chiu into being the swing vote to give Lee that job and secretly backing Jane Kim's run for the Board of Supervisors. All are big supporters of the Central Subway project, despite all the experts calling it an wasteful boondoggle that will be the most expensive 1.7-mile piece of track ever built in this country.

But the opinion of fiscal and transportation policy experts matters little in a town that is once again being governed by shameless power brokers. Hell, Brown even uses his weekly column in the Chronicle to confirm his weekly breakfast date (every Monday at the St. Regis Hotel) with his “friend” and client Jack Baylis, a top executive at AECOM, the main contractor for the Central Subway, as well as the America's Cup, Transbay Terminal, the rebuild of the city's sewer system, and all the other most lucrative city contracts.

In turn, AECOM kicks down contracts and payouts to a network of political supporters that will ensure that the project gets built, such as Chinatown Community Development Center, which signed an $810,000 contract in December to support the Central Subway in unspecified ways right before CCDC and its director Gordon Chin provided crucial support for getting Lee into the Mayor's Office, where he can ensure the Central Subway project remains on track.

Yes, it's just that crass and obvious. And it isn't even about politics. Hell, Baylis is a Republican from Los Angeles, despite his meddling in San Francisco's political affairs by sponsoring the Alliance for Jobs and Sustainable Growth and other groups that will be doing independent expenditures on behalf of Lee this fall, trying to tell us that “it's all about civility.”

No, it's about money and it's about power, straight up. The Central Subway is really more of a gravy train than a sensible transit project, but that's just how business is being done at City Hall these days.

One of the people who has long criticized the project – noting how Chinatown would be served far better with surface transit options, at a fraction of the cost – is Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and an elected BART board member. He was heartened to see so many more voices – from the editorials to a recent Civil Grand Jury report to internal audits in the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which will lose money operating the new system – echoing his concerns.

“There are more people who seem to be sharing my thoughts,” Radulovich said. “It would be good to have a civic debate on this.”

But he's not confident that will happen, despite the fresh wave of concerns. “There's a lot of stuff that looks like planning that has gone into justifying this,” he said. “When the political culture of City Hall and the planning culture come together, this is what you get.”


Full text of WSJ article:

Off the San Francisco Rails

Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but the politicians who contrived the city's Chinatown subway project must have left their brains somewhere else. The subway is a case study in government incompetence and wasted taxpayer money.

P.S. The Obama Administration is all for it.

Former Mayor Willie Brown sold a half-cent sales tax hike to voters in 2003 to pay for the 1.7-mile line on the pretext that the subway would ease congestion on Chinatown's crowded buses, but he was more interested in obtaining the political support of Chinatown's power brokers. In 2003, the city estimated the line would cost $647 million, but the latest prediction is $1.6 billion, or nearly $100 million for each tenth of a mile.

Transportation experts say the subway's design is seriously flawed and that improving the existing bus and light-rail service would make more sense. The subway misses connections with 25 of the 30 light-rail and bus lines that it crosses, and there's no direct connection to the 104-mile Bay Area Rapid Transit line or to the ferry.

Commuters will have to travel eight stories underground to catch the train and walk nearly a quarter of a mile to connect to the Market Street light-rail lines—after riding the subway for only a half mile. Tom Rubin, the former treasurer-controller of Southern California Rapid Transit District, calculates that taking the bus would be five to 10 minutes faster along every segment.

The city's metro system, which is already running $150 million operating deficits, isn't likely to have the money to keep the subway running in any case. Last month the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury, a watchdog group, warned that the subway's costs "could stretch the existing maintenance environment [of the metro system] to the breaking point" and will defer the purchase of a new communications system.

Alas, San Francisco will likely drag national taxpayer money into the bay too. The city has applied for a multiyear $942 million "full funding grant agreement" from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to cover 60% of its capital costs. In 1964 Congress created a back-door earmark program called "New Starts" to subsidize local transportation projects. The FTA rates and recommends projects for grants, and Congress usually rubber-stamps its recommendations.

In January 2010, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood modified the grant criteria by adding environmental and communal benefits and minimizing cost-effectiveness. The change effectively means that any project can get federal funding as long as its sponsors claim they're moving cars off the road.

"Measuring only cost and how fast a project can move the most people the greatest distance simply misses the boat," Mr. LaHood wrote in January 2010 on his Fast Lane blog. "Look, everywhere I go, people tell me they want better transportation in their communities. They want the opportunity to leave their cars behind . . . And to enjoy clean, green neighborhoods. The old way of doing things just doesn't value what people want." We're told Mr. LaHood is smarter than he sounds.

The FTA has given the Chinatown subway one of its highest project ratings, which virtually assures a full funding grant agreement. Once the city receives such an agreement, the feds are obligated to provide whatever funds they promise. The FTA won't approve the agreements until the fall, so there's still hope that someone wises up and nixes the project. Oh, and if Congress is looking for discretionary programs to cut, New Starts would be a good start.


My favorite part is the giant increase in cost - and no one blinks an eye. But's it's okay because it's a waste of federal and state money too. Sold to San Franciscans at a fraudulent cost estimate, it wouldn't surprise me if it went up another $1 billion before all is said and done.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 23, 2011 @ 8:36 pm

I have a very hard time understanding how anyone can support the central subway project. It's a boondoggle, is already way over cost, and was too expensive to begin with. It's also like the bridge to nowhere; are there really that many people who are having a hard time getting to Caltrain? And I don't get the argument that it was a deal struck with Chinatown so that Chinatown wouldn't oppose the take-down of the Embarcadero freeway. Since when does a neighborhood get to have that leverage?

Posted by The Commish on Aug. 24, 2011 @ 9:39 am

The problem with the Central Subway is not that it's racist.

It's that we can't afford to run it. Funding is limited and there are so many projects that would make more sense.

(1) Build a subway underneath Columbus downtown and ending at the Transbay Terminal, to bring commuters to work and connect that part of the city with mass transit

(2) BRT on Geary

(3) Implement the Transit Efficiency Plan

Posted by Guest on Aug. 24, 2011 @ 10:15 am

Boondoggle has to be the most overused hyperbole in the entire SF anti-anything lexicon.
I am generally for anything in this town, which is referred to as a boondoggle by more than three people.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 24, 2011 @ 10:15 am

The Big Dig was originally estimated to cost $2.8 Billion but wound up costing $22 billion. As far as I'm concerned, that is the really plan Willie Brown and Jack Baylis discuss over breakfast every Monday. $22 billion is a lot of money for some lucky construction company.....


"The Big Dig was the most expensive highway project in the U.S. and was plagued by escalating costs, scheduling overruns, leaks, design flaws, charges of poor execution and use of substandard materials, criminal arrests,[2][3] and even four deaths.[4] The project was scheduled to be completed in 1998[5]at an estimated cost of $2.8 billion (in 1982 dollars, US$6.0 billion adjusted for inflation as of 2006).[6] The project was not completed, however, until December of 2007, at a cost of over $14.6 billion ($8.08 billion in 1982 dollars)[6]as of 2006.[7] The Boston Globe estimated that the project will ultimately cost $22 billion, including interest..."

Posted by Guest on Aug. 24, 2011 @ 10:28 am

The same clowns in Washington in charge of the Big Dig are in charge of the SF Central Subway.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 24, 2011 @ 10:29 am

Proponents are right that at $1.6 billion it is still not a bad deal, but the plan is to have it balloon to $22 Billion and Jack Baylis can sail off into the sunset on the Forbes List.....

Posted by Guest on Aug. 24, 2011 @ 10:32 am

Sound familiar?


"In addition to these political and financial difficulties, the project faced several environmental and engineering obstacles.
The downtown area through which the tunnels were to be dug was largely landfill, and included existing subway lines as well as innumerable pipes and utility lines that would have to be replaced or moved. Tunnel workers encountered many unexpected geological and archaeological barriers, ranging from glacial debris to foundations of buried houses and a number of sunken ships lying within the reclaimed land."

Posted by Guest on Aug. 24, 2011 @ 10:34 am

The same people who orchestrated the 'caretaker' mayor with broken promises not to run and a shady campaign to 'convince' him to run are now in control of a construction project that has eerie parallels to a project in Boston that suffered truly outrageous cost over runs.

With this crew, you absolutely have to get everything in writing.......

Posted by Guest on Aug. 24, 2011 @ 11:05 am

This City will be bankrupt in 15 years.

Posted by Guest on Aug. 24, 2011 @ 11:24 am

At a stroke, the unaffordable pension obligations could be unilaterally revoked and re-negotiated, restrictive employment and working practices contracts could be torn up, and we'd get a fresh start to fix what is breaking and strangling the City - excessive wages, benefits and entitlements.

Even New York City went through something approaching bankruptcy back in the 1970's and came back stronger. Orange County much more recently, and is still a delightful and affluent place.

Closer to home, Vallejo has already filed BK and Oakland has seriously considered the possibility.

There are worse things that could happen to SF, like NOT addressing the structural fiscal problems.

Posted by PaulT on Aug. 24, 2011 @ 11:47 am

Agree PT - bankruptcy is your friend.

You have to luv the crooked Lee putting up a phony pension reform plan coupled with a pothole tax and a sales tax on the poor.

See's today's Exam for City pothole waste- what a great job Ed Lee was doin as City admin and head of DPW!

Stop the junta!

Posted by Guest on Aug. 24, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

I think this would be an ideal alternative. Monorail! Yes....monorail!


Posted by Guest on Aug. 24, 2011 @ 8:39 pm

Before it even got started. It's not workable.

Posted by Right on Sister Snapples on Aug. 25, 2011 @ 10:21 am

OK, everyone, I just deleted a bunch of comments from this thread because people on both sides were getting way too personal and off-topic. Please try to deal with the issues and points that people are raising. You can be as strident as you'd like, just don't pollute what has otherwise been a decent discussion with nasty side arguments.

Posted by steven on Aug. 25, 2011 @ 4:29 pm

Finally someone is acting like a grownup.

Posted by Right on Sister Snapples on Aug. 25, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

The more their comments disappear, the more likely they take their antagonistic right wing act somewhere else!

Posted by Guest on Aug. 25, 2011 @ 5:32 pm

Teach these crooks a lesson!

Posted by Tami on Aug. 30, 2011 @ 5:28 pm

Everyone's missing a big point here. The claim of Pak et al is that the CS is important to connect the Chinatown community with Chinese-American communities in the southeast corner of town (e.g. Vis Valley, etc.) Problem is, it won't. Muni has made it clear they will NOT eliminate the 8X Express bus that now connects those two communities directly via the freeway. It's faster than the T/Subway would be, and it DOESN'T go through Bayview. Yes, cry racism or whatever you want to; it's clear that given any alternative at all, through-riders are not taking the T through the middle of the Bayview.

What IS happening, of course, is that gentrification is extending southward along the T, through Mission Bay and Dogpatch. Just a little rezoning immediately south of Islais Creek and it'll jump the channel, too.

For the Chinatown residents/shoppers wanting to reach the Richmond, which has a far larger Chinese-American population than Vis Valley, the subway will make little sense as a connector, because of the lonnnng treck from the street to the platform in Chinatown, coupled with the resurfacing process at Union Square to catch the 38. It'll take people about a day to realize that their current ride, the 30/45 to Union Square, is a better connector.

Muni knows all of this, of course, but as has been said so many times, the fix is in on this turkey, and every other proposed Muni capital project (Geary & Van Ness Busways, etc.) will get screwed because of it, once the actual costs surface -- which are well beyond the current estimate.

Whether or not Peskin/Herrera, etc. were in Pak's pocket before, I don't care. At least they're finally being intellectually honest on this and coming out against it, even if it's because she schnockered them by backing Ed Lee.

It's really not too late to stop this thing, folks. The House Republicans could well make this their "Bridge to Nowhere" poster child this fall, and like that bridge in Alaska, it won't stand up to scrutiny once a light is shined on it.

BTW, anybody read FTA Admin Peter Rogoff's response to the Journal Editorial today. So lame. We should build it because "people want choices in transportation." Well, hey, I'd like a direct bridge from Alameda to San Bruno, too, so get on that, wouldya, Pete? Really, if that letter is the best defense FTA can make of the project, it may be in more trouble than some think,

Posted by Guest on Sep. 03, 2011 @ 2:00 pm