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Central Subway: Muni's Drilling Plan Strains Credulity 

Wednesday, Feb 27 2013

When news broke that the city is holding the bag for the tens of millions of dollars the America's Cup Organizing Committee hasn't raised, Supervisor John Avalos gave an impassioned lamentation. "I was fucking played. All the members of the Board of Supervisors were fucking played," he wailed. "I am totally fucking ashamed."

This showed remarkable candor — but not remarkable foresight. Every city official tasked with adding numbers and looking at contracts had warned of this exact scenario. SF Weekly and other newspapers had done the same, repeatedly, in 2010, 2011, 2012, and this year too. Decision-makers may or may not have been played, but they were certainly informed.

One can only predict the impassioned lamentations due to be inspired by the Central Subway. Over the past decade, a bevy of reports and articles have revealed the bizarre logistics for the proposed Muni line to Chinatown — and, potentially, beyond — could actually reduce passengers' ability to get to their desired destinations in a timely fashion. In that time, the project's price tag has jumped from around $647 million to some $1.6 billion, while anticipated daily ridership dropped from 100,000 to an optimistic 2012 estimate of 35,100. In 2007, Muni reported that the subway would be a net gain, reducing Muni's operating and maintenance expenses by $23.9 million. In 2010, that number was glumly revised: The subway is now expected to eat $15.2 million in yearly O&M costs — siphoning resources away from a perpetually underfunded system.

Last year the Wall Street Journal labeled the subway "a case study in government incompetence and wasted taxpayer money." So, decision-makers have been informed. And we're building this thing anyway.

The most recent twist in the Central Subway saga is a plan rapidly wending its way through the city's approval process: to unearth two tunnel boring machines via the carcass of North Beach's derelict Pagoda Palace theater, some 2,000 feet beyond the future Chinatown station. In December, this extraction was priced as adding $3 million to project costs. Earlier this month it was estimated as an $8 million job; it now stands at $9.15 million. It warrants mentioning that this money is not derived from the federal manna funding much of the Central Subway endeavor. This wad hails from Muni's own kitty — "reserve funds, fund balance, and operating savings."

That's not the only shaky proposition. Lawrence Karp, a consulting geotechnical engineer hired by opponents of the Central Subway, submitted several reports claiming attempts to excavate beneath the Pagoda Palace will be a complex and dodgy fiasco. In a Feb. 13 memo, John Funghi, Muni's Central Subway project director, chided Karp for providing "incorrect information" about the proposed Pagoda dig, and "misrepresenting" the impacts of the construction. Karp testily notes that his "incorrect information" was pulled straight from a Planning Department addendum for the project, and backed down from none of his disturbing written claims.

"If an old man is crossing the street and you hit him with your car, you can't say 'he was old, he was gonna die anyway,'" Karp says. "So when you go and excavate underneath buildings that are 100 years old, on sand, with very high water tables — there is virtually no chance those buildings won't be damaged." Asked if the costs will exceed the $9.15 million in local funds Muni is now ponying up, he says, "That's sort of obvious."

What's less obvious, at least on one level, is why the tunnel-boring machines will be unearthed from North Beach while the final designed and funded station is way back in Chinatown. Muni has offered a bevy of explanations as to why the most expedient plan is to bore a pair of 2,000-foot tunnels — estimated cost: $70-plus million — to retrieve a pair of machines with a resale value Funghi has tabbed at $4.4 million.

Extracting the machines by crane at the Chinatown station, described in the project's Environmental Impact Report as a two-week job, is now infeasible, reports Muni. The boring machines will be so deep, says spokesman Paul Rose, that digging down to retrieve them would be time-consuming and expensive. Funghi has said that digging sideways out of the tunnel right-of-way and abandoning the machines underground would entail "significant environmental work," "approval by the property owners ... and appropriate compensation." But it seems there's plenty of all that at the Pagoda Palace, too.

The concept of digging an additional few thousand feet for the sake of extracting boring machines puzzled experienced engineers. "It's surprising to me it would be worth taking them out," says Douglas Hamilton, the engineering geologist for the Devil's Slide project. Why not, he asks, simply mothball the machines at a point in Chinatown past where future trains will go? Why not bury them beneath the right-of-way? Or why not scrap them and haul out the pieces the way they came in? Rose notes "the new machines that were manufactured for the Central Subway were not built to be subsequently dismantled." Perhaps that was a mistake. Or perhaps not. Because this way Muni gets to dig its long-desired tunnel into North Beach.

While the final funded stop is in Chinatown, Muni has the feds' blessing to dig into North Beach — provided it does so "for construction purposes" related to the current (funded) phase of the project. Digging the tunnels as a means of extracting the boring machines is considered "for construction purposes." But extending subway service to North Beach and, eventually, Fisherman's Wharf is Muni's ultimate goal — and no one is ignoring this elephant in the tunnel. In 2007, Funghi told the Examiner that a tunnel to North Beach "would lay the groundwork for a future phase three of this project." This month, he wrote in a memo, "given that the city has pursued and achieved funding approvals to extend the tunnel to Columbus Avenue, doing so as part of the current project would be more cost effective than doing so in the future."

Boring on ahead to North Beach simply because it's easier to do so with federal funding — while "establishing the groundwork" for the unstudied and unfunded next phase of the Central Subway — is a dicey proposition: Looking at the big picture, it may even be a good idea to put upward of $70 million into a North Beach tunnel on the feds' dime. But it strains credulity to couch this — as Muni does — as the most expedient way to get $4.4 million worth of equipment out of the earth.

How to spend the feds' money is not an entirely trivial matter. If the Central Subway goes over budget, the additional dollars will be pried from local sources. An audit by the firm CGR Management Consultants pegged the likelihood of the Central Subway coming in on budget at 30 percent.

That report was requested by the Board of Supervisors, and delivered to them — in 2011. They are informed.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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