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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Central Subway Critics: Costly Boondoggle Can Still Be Stopped

Posted By on Wed, May 2, 2012 at 3:48 PM

click to enlarge Saw it coming...
  • Saw it coming...

For some reason we'll never know, ardent foes of the Central Subway chose, today, to hold a press conference in a children's playground. Attendees sat on slides and sidestepped miniature tricycles.

But there was no playing around. And the Central Subway is not a project that will be paid for in play money. The price tag currently stands at some $1.58 billion. Yesterday, the Municipal Transportation Agency Board bandied about the idea of taking out scores of millions of dollars in revenue bonds -- astoundingly, the total hasn't been determined -- to toss onto that pile.

When you're discussing projects funded by overlapping federal, state, and local agencies and the logistics of rail travel, things get complicated. Fast. But the subway critics' message was uncomplicated: The train has not yet left the station. The Central Subway, they say, is not a done deal. 

"This is not inevitable," says former Supervisor Aaron Peskin. "It's predicated on receipt of $942 million from Congress. And Congress has yet to appropriate those funds."

In fact, added Judge Quentin Kopp, also a former supervisor and state senator, "The Federal Transportation Authority was supposedly scheduled to approve [the Central Subway funding] last February. They still haven't and won't even consider doing it for another month."

In order for Muni to receive its pile of federal money, a number of conditions must be met beforehand, the presenters noted. Among them: 

  • The local and state matching funds must be in place;

  • Muni must commit to maintaining its pre-2010 service levels in order to receive hefty federal funding to greatly expand the system;

Yesterday's move to take out revenue bonds makes condition No. 1 shaky. While Muni sold the idea as a "reassurance" to the feds because of uncertainty when $61 million in state High-Speed Rail (HSR) funds would be coming San Francisco's way, it's more a question of if the money is available. Quite likely it isn't: Gov. Jerry Brown specifically vetoed allocations of Proposition 1A funding to the Central Subway because he said the project wasn't related to High-Speed Rail. The money to service these bonds -- millions every year -- would come right out of Muni's operating budget. "In order to have revenue bonds, you have to have a source of revenue," notes Peskin. "And that source is the fares we all pay."

The money put into handling these bonds is money Muni isn't putting into maintaining its existing service -- which becomes pertinent to condition No. 2. To his credit, new Muni chief Ed Reiskin has been up front about Muni's service reductions and budget cuts -- though his term "right-sizing" is a bit euphemistic. Muni is already missing dozens of runs every day -- and will have to maintain a much larger system in the event the Central Subway becomes a reality. Muni's current estimates are that the Central Subway will add some $15 million yearly to its operating and maintenance budget -- and that doesn't include servicing the potential bonds.

Finally, notes transit expert and former Muni engineer Jerry Cauthen, Muni and the FTA have entered into paradoxical territory. The FTA is supposedly "reassured" the necessary matching funds necessary for Condition No. 1 are in place via Muni taking out revenue bonds. But by putting millions into those bonds and siphoning money away from the existing system, Muni is violating Condition No. 2 by degrading service.

Incidentally, Cauthen pointed out, ridership projections for the subway have dropped from around 100,000 a day to 35,100, per Muni's latest numbers. And that 35,100 total assumes future CalTrain riders will transfer onto the Central Subway from Fourth and King -- which, per the current plan, they won't need to do in order to get downtown.

"I am a former supporter of the Central Subway," notes Peskin. "I voted in favor of that project when it was a mere $647 million project before becoming a $1.58 billion project. I voted for the project when it had a much higher estimate of ridership, there would be connectivity with the underground on Market Street, and with High-Speed Rail. None of these things has come to pass.

"Let's be clear," he continued. "The Federal Transportation Authority knows this project is a boondoggle. ... Many city leaders and experts know that. Now is the time for us to stand up and say this is wrong and it's not too late."

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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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