Central subway becomes issue in mayor's race


The central subway -- for years, one of those San Francisco projects that almost everyone in local politics supported -- has suddenly become a major issue in the mayor's race.

After a blistering civil grand jury report (PDF) saying that the project has become too expensive and will take cash away from Muni's other priorities, some city officials and transit activists, including those who once were backers of the subway, are now saying it's time to call the whole thing off.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera was the first major candidate out of the box to denounce the project, telling the Chronicle that the subway has "ceased to be a prudent investment" and that it's time to pull the plug. It's likely that Herrera will continue to push Mayor Ed Lee on the cost of the project and its transit value, and the other candidates will have to figure out where to go.

There's no question -- this is an expensive proposition, $1.6 billion for a 1.7-mile line. Most of the financing is also federal and state money, meaning San Francisco's only on the hook for a little more than $100 million -- as long as the construction comes in at or under budget.

And powerful players like AECOM stand to make huge amounts of money off the deal.

At the same time, almost all of Chinatown is united behind it. "The community has been working on this for a long time. It's the first thing we've all worked on together," Rev. Norman Fong, who is about to take over as director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, told me. Supporters of the subway started some 20 years ago, and collected 20,000 signatures supporting a new transit option in a community where the vast majority of residents are transit-reliant. A delegation of seniors and tenant leaders went to Washington, D.C. to lobby for it. "And everyone in town signed off on it in 2008, when the cost was $1.2 billion," Fong said.

It makes for strange politics -- most of the same people who are really pushing the central subway are trying to stop state Sen. Leland Yee from becoming mayor -- but Yee is also a strong proponent of the subway. David Chiu is, also, telling me that the grand jury just "rehashed arguments that we've heard before" and that there's "enormous funding from the federal government."

I have yet to hear from John Avalos, but this one is not going away.  


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