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Central Subway problems persist

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A man walks through a narrow corridor, past construction for the Central Subway, along Stockton Street in Chinatown on Nov. 28, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Have you ever wondered how the Central Subway project, a 1.7-mile rail extension of Muni’s Third Street line from Fourth and King to Chinatown, managed to get so bollixed up? Here’s a brief history of what happened:

At the end of 2017, it was announced the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Central Subway manager, John Funghi, was leaving his post for the $1.6 billion project to work on Caltrain electrification. His departure came shortly after Tutor-Perini, the station contractor, released a report Nov. 1, 2017, showing that the project is more than two years behind schedule and burdened with more than 1,300 construction contractor claims outstanding — only 73 of which had at that time been addressed by the SFMTA — leaving the remaining 94 percent awaiting “processing.”

As things stand, the trains won’t be rolling into Chinatown before Spring 2021, at least 29 months behind schedule.

The true extent of the project’s construction cost and delay problems are now revealed: The Tutor-Perini report submitted to Supervisor Aaron Peskin lays out the problems in detail and asks Peskin, who is also chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, to help resolve the hundreds if not thousands of outstanding issues between it and the SFMTA. In view of the many months of the Federal Transportation Administration’s Project Oversight Reports repeatedly warning of unfilled SFMTA positions and other staffing problems, and of accumulating contractor claims and accruing project delays, this came as no great surprise.

Yet, as recently as three months ago, the leadership of the SFMTA was still contending that, although the actions of the contractor had delayed things by nine months, the project was still within budget. That was before the 1,300 claims came to light; it is now clear the project is both way behind schedule and way over budget. From what has been revealed to date, it appears that because of a “head-in-the-sand” response to serious Central Subway design and construction problems, the ultimate cost of the project has increased substantially, thereby placing the SFMTA and San Francisco taxpayers in financial jeopardy.

When a project turns sour, as the Central Subway project most certainly has, municipal sponsors sometimes try to blame the problems on the construction contractor. In this case, however, it appears the contractor has the better of the argument: When a construction contractor submits a false, inflated or unjustified claim, alert sponsors summarily reject it, as they should. On the other hand, when sponsors make design mistakes or otherwise cause unanticipated construction delays and cost overruns, especially if they result from sloppy administration, judges will almost always place the responsibility for the resulting extra costs squarely on the sponsor, as they should.

The problems with the Central Subway started way back in 2007, when the SFMTA began to frantically oversell its overpriced, marginally beneficial project to unsuspecting politicians and the public. In rosy-sounding statements issued between March 3, 2007, and Dec. 8, 2010, various SFMTA spokespeople put the anticipated Central Subway 2030 ridership between 76,000 riders a day and 93,000 riders a day. That was false. During that same time period, in reports being quietly sent to the FTA, the SFMTA was showing a 2030 anticipated daily ridership in the 41,450 to 42,200 range, with only about 5,000 new riders a day. We were also told trip times would be drastically cut — which was also not true — and that Muni’s operating costs would drop by a startling $23.9 million a year. In a 2012 report to the FTA, after the project had received all its necessary local approvals, the actual impact on Muni’s annual operating costs was quietly revealed as being $15.2 million a year added, as opposed to the much-ballyhooed $23.9 million a year saved — a spread of almost $40 million a year.

In addition to these wildly varying claims about the benefits of the project, a number of flaws in the conceptual design were described and made public in public hearings dating back to Fall 2008. Included were the selection of a very deep subway that greatly increased costs and precluded an effective transfer connection between the Central Subway and the Market Street subways, the lack of consideration given to placing the Stockton Street trolley buses as well as the light-rail vehicles in the subway (as is successfully done in Seattle), and the shortsighted decision to accommodate only two-car “trains.”

These early findings were subsequently agreed to and repeated by members of the U.S. Congress, as well as by Quentin Kopp, Dennis Herrera, Aaron Peskin, the Sierra Club, San Francisco Tomorrow, the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, assorted news publications and many other organizations and individuals. They were further confirmed in a San Francisco Civil Grand Jury Report on July 7, 2011.

On May 28, 2013, Peskin sent a letter to SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin citing the agency’s lack of experience in managing such a large and complex engineering project and warning that the assigned Central Subway project manager lacked the qualifications and experience to do the job. By 2013, it had become clear that the SFMTA’s Central Subway was heading toward serious financial and transit operating difficulties.

Some readers will remember hearing that the construction of the Central Subway would hardly be noticed: “We’ll be underground and out of sight.” Ask the residents and shoppers of Chinatown and Union Square how well that worked out.

As indicated, the Central Subway project has had design and management problems from the outset. Recent disclosures show the SFMTA has been in a state of denial about the extent of the project’s budgetary and scheduling problems for many months and that, consequently, the SFMTA and taxpayers of San Francisco are now vulnerable to major financial loss. For the SFMTA’s Central Subway project, the chickens have come home to roost.

Gerald Cauthen represents SaveMuni, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization created to help find ways of improving Muni and the other transit services leading into and serving San Francisco.

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