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.