Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Central Subway project cooks the books

Photo by Mike Koozmin

From the beginning of last week's story (Covering Their Tracks) in the SF Weekly:

LaVonda Atkinson laughs bitterly, shakes her head, and grins. "Your article"---the article you're now reading---"is gonna get me fired." It is, after all, dangerous to stand in the path of a train. That's especially so in the case of Muni's long-gestating Central Subway project: a $1.6 billion, 1.7-mile extension to Chinatown and eventually, if vocal civic boosters get their way, along to Fisherman's Wharf for millions, if not billions, more. The Central Subway is a transit line. But it's also a monument to the coercive role of politics in the realm of transit planning. It's a pet project of the city's most powerful influence-peddlers, virtually every electable politician, and our federal representatives in Washington, D.C., disseminating largesse back to the home front. Atkinson is the project's cost engineer. It's her job to ensure the numbers add up. They don't.

Not surprising that the folks building the Central Subway are cooking the books as they go along, since Save Muni---not cited in the article---has been documenting the project's many problems and deceptions from the start. It's an obviously flawed oversight approach that makes the project's cost engineer risk getting fired for blowing the whistle or have to go along with a dishonest practice.

As documented in Megaprojects and Risk, advocates of big projects get them approved by lying in the beginning about the cost and benefits of projects:

Martin Wachs interviewed public officials, consultants and planners who had been involved in transit planning cases in the US. He found that a pattern of highly misleading forecasts of costs and patronage could not be explained by technical issues and were best explained by lying. In case after case, planners, engineers and economists told Wachs that they had to "cook" forecasts in order to produce numbers that would satisfy their superiors and get projects started, whether or not the numbers could be justified on technical grounds...(pages 46, 47, emphasis added).

The authors also find this pattern in large projects in Europe and the rest of the world. Chapter two of the book, "A calamitous history of cost overruns," makes for sobering reading about what routinely happens after the construction of big projects begins, which is why it's important to stop these boondoggles before they get started.

On the Central Subway, Aaron Peskin, Jake McGoldrick, Tom Radulovich, and Dennis Herrera all oppose the Central Subway project now, but the first three supported the project in its crucial gestation period. (And Peskin and Herrera were accused by Rose Pak of being anti-Chinese racists after they came out against the project!) The unions support the project, because even dumb projects create jobs.

The prose in the Weekly story reads like a teenager's first attempt at writing---or "Writing"---for the school paper. Muni doesn't "sign" a contract; it "inks" it. Muni didn't "buy" or just "get" a computer program; it "acquired" it. The feds don't just "read" contracts; they "peruse" them. "Prior" is chosen instead of "before," and "subsequent" gets used before "after." A schedule is not "completed"; it has to be "finalized." There are "myriad" line items, when "many" would have been enough. A mere "letter" is transformed into a "missive." And "luxuriate" is used incorrectly instead of "linger."

The SF Weekly deserves credit for opposing the Central Project early on.

Of course the Board of Lemmings unanimously supports the Central Subway project.

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