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Documented true facts on the Central Subway

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Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, 10th edition, defines boondoggle as “a wasteful or impractical project or activity often involving graft.” In one of the most remarkable and distorting set of glittering generalities in contemporary local public affairs, Steve Falk, president of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, in an Oct. 6 op-ed tries to justify the Central Subway project on the ground it would create construction jobs and put money in businesses.

He doesn’t tell us that most of those big businesses are headquartered elsewhere. He claims the project has been “politicized in the heated mayoral race.” He purports “to set the record straight.” Well, let’s do so.

If it weren’t for the unappreciated San Francisco civil grand jury’s June 11 report, titled “Central Subway: Too Much Money for Too Little Benefit,” and the unsung and uncompensated efforts of citizens Howard Wong, Gerald Cauthen, Aaron Peskin (two-term Board of Supervisors president), Jake McGoldrick (eight-year Board of Supervisors member), the Sierra Club, Save Muni and now others, this scandalous project would never have been the subject of mayoral candidate debate.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera, former Supervisor Tony Hall and Green Party member Terri Baum have unmistakably declared the project should be scrapped in favor of a more effective, considerably less expensive plan, which the appointed mayor never even knew about when first questioned this month. Public-Defender Jeff Adachi recommends thorough, public reexamination of this disgraceful, political waste of taxpayer money.

Falk mischaracterizes the Central Subway as a “fully funded $1.6 billion project.” It is not fully funded. The major source, the Federal Transit Administration, supposedly will supply $983.2 million, or 62 percent, of the June estimated total cost of $1.6 billion. For the record, in 2003, the estimated project cost was $648 million by 2004, it was $763 million by 2006, it was $994 million for a 1.7-mile project.

Omitted from Falk’s false rhetoric is that FTA final approval as part of its so-called New Starts program has yet to occur. Moreover, any FTA approval must thereafter be approved by both houses of the U.S. Congress, and on Sept. 8, 2011, an appropriations bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives; its effect will strip all federal funds from the Central Subway project.

Falk then talks of where the Central Subway will go, but not where it will not go. It will not go to the Market Street Subway System. The Central Subway’s Union Square stop is about 1000 feet from the BART and Muni subway stops. It also manages to miss connections with 25 of the 30 east-west bus and rail lines it crosses, thereby making connections to most of Twin Peaks longer and less convenient. And because it arbitrarily ends at Stockton and Washington streets, the subway would extend neither to the nine populous residential and commercial districts to the north and west of Chinatown, nor the northerly two-thirds of Chinatown itself.

Falk asserts the Central Subway would “provide direct, rapid transit from the Bayview, Mission Bay and South of Market areas to The City’s dense downtown core and Chinatown.” That’s untrue. The trip from the Bayview would continue to be virtually all by surface light rail, a service that today is slow and unreliable. “Direct service to the downtown core”? Also untrue. Union Square isn’t the downtown core — it’s our shopping center, featuring high-priced retail stores unlikely to be patronized by Chinatown or southeast San Francisco residents. And, “service to Chinatown”? Misleading. Chinatown extends at least as far north today as Greenwich Street, eight blocks past the end of the vaunted subway.

Next, Falk repeats The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s exaggerated contention that by 2030, “the new rail line will accommodate 43,700 daily riders in its opening year and more than 65,000 in 2030.” But here’s the rub: The SFMTA representations of 65,000 one-way riders includes ridership of the already completed and paid-for Third Street line; and according to reports The SFMTA filed officially with the FTA, by 2030, the Central Subway would carry only 35,100 one-way riders daily, of whom but 4,800 would be new Muni riders. If Caltrain is extended to First and Mission streets, Central Subway ridership is projected by The SFMTA to decline by another 8,000 or more riders per day. These are The SFMTA data, not political campaign talk. These are reasons Messrs. Peskin and McGoldrick, who approved the proposed project eight years ago as Supervisors, and the Sierra Club, which did likewise, now loudly proclaim opposition to an excruciatingly flawed project.

So, San Francisco City Hall is now poised to spend over $100,000 in capital for each daily rider added by the subway and force Muni to suffer $15,200,000 more a year in operating costs to its 2011-12 estimated $23,000,000 deficit. What Falk doesn’t tell readers is that Muni promulgated in 2002 a “transit-preferential streets” program, which included for Stockton Street traffic signal priority, transit-stop respacing and relocation, bus bulbs, and an extension of overhead trolley wires to Marina Boulevard, at a three-year completion cost of only $9,100,000.

Finally, Falk refuses to note that under applicable federal law and contractual requirements, San Francisco taxpayers will be responsible for all further cost increases of the project beyond the approximate $1 billion-per-mile current price tag.

In sum, Central Subway represents a garish, highly overpriced “loser” that if opened by 2018 (which it won’t) will fail to provide enough in transportation benefits to justify exorbitant cost and its baleful effect upon Muni operating expenses. Heed the facts, not the downtown propaganda.

Quentin L. Kopp is a retired Superior Court judge, a former state senator and San Francisco Board of Supervisors member.