Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Central Subway: The Grand Jury's failure of nerve

It's a lot smarter than its dumb report last year on the Bicycle Plan, but in its report on the Central Subway, the Grand Jury announces on page one that it's politically spineless: "The project will proceed." Right. Wouldn't want to upset anyone in the City Family by recommending that the costly boondoggle be abandoned.

The report precedes that statement of surrender with a falsehood in the first sentence: "The Central Subway project is ambitious, complex, breathtakingly expensive and very controversial." What controversy? Except for the folks at Save Muni and an occasional blog post by yours truly, there's been no criticism in the local media, including the tame so-called alternative media.

Some other tidbits in the report: "Fare box collections account for only 23% of Muni’s revenue" (page 6). If New York can cover more than 50% of its costs at the farebox, why can't the city do a lot better? Either its fare-collecting system is terrible, or its overhead is bloated, probably both.

"[I]t is worth noting that if the Central Subway project goes over its [construction]budget, neither federal nor state funds will be made available for cost increases. San Francisco will be liable for any cost overruns" (page 17). "If the Central Subway project ends up requiring the same 22% contingency as the T-Third[Street] project, that amounts to an extra $26,598,366." The state and the feds are paying for most of the construction costs, but they won't pay for the inevitable construction overruns. (That's also true of another big boondoggle, the California High-Speed Rail Project. No matter how much the feds provide to build the system, state taxpayers will be on the hook for the inevitable construction cost overruns on that awful project. The Governors of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin understood that when they rejected federal high-speed rail money.)

Suspicions are confirmed with a quotation from an independent study---commissioned by the MTA---of the Central Subway design:

"Very broadly, what is the role of capital investment in a transit system? It should represent either an opportunity to reduce operating expenses, or represent the most efficient way to bring better service to additional markets. As proposed, this project does not appear to do that---it promises to combine high capital costs with higher operating costs, and...does not, apparently, effectively meet the market needs in the corridor it is intended to serve" (page 33). LTK Engineering Services, “Review of Central Subway Alternatives Project Report,” April 27, 2006

That is, the MTA has known since 2006 that the Central Subway won't improve the system and won't lower operating expenses, which will be an added to Muni's chronic deficit when the project is completed.

Hey, otherwise it's a great project! The Grand Jury says "it will proceed"! It's "too costly to stop" now! This is how supporters of these boondoggles proceed: Start out by low-balling construction costs and over-estimating ridership and benefits. Once millions have been invested, the project has too much political momentum to be stopped.

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