NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

San Francisco Subway Plan Flawed and Expensive

August 29, 2011

San Francisco's Chinatown subway project is a case study in government incompetence and wasted taxpayer money, says the Wall Street Journal.

  • Former Mayor Willie Brown sold a half-cent sales tax hike to voters in 2003 to pay for the 1.7-mile line on the pretext that the subway would ease congestion on Chinatown's crowded buses.
  • In 2003, the city estimated the line would cost $647 million, but the latest prediction is $1.6 billion, or nearly $100 million for each tenth of a mile.

Transportation experts say the subway's design is seriously flawed and that improving the existing bus and light-rail service would make more sense.  

  • The subway misses connections with 25 of the 30 light-rail and bus lines that it crosses, and there's no direct connection to the 104-mile Bay Area Rapid Transit line or to the ferry.
  • Commuters will have to travel eight stories underground to catch the train and walk nearly a quarter of a mile to connect to the Market Street light-rail lines -- after riding the subway for only a half mile.
  • Tom Rubin, the former treasurer-controller of Southern California Rapid Transit District, calculates that taking the bus would be five to 10 minutes faster along every segment.

Alas, San Francisco will likely drag national taxpayer money into the bay too.  The city has applied for a multiyear $942 million "full funding grant agreement" from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to cover 60 percent of its capital costs.  In 1964 Congress created a backdoor earmark program called "New Starts" to subsidize local transportation projects.  The FTA rates and recommends projects for grants, and Congress usually rubber-stamps its recommendations.

In January 2010, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood modified the grant criteria by adding environmental and communal benefits and minimizing cost-effectiveness.  The change effectively means that any project can get federal funding as long as its sponsors claim they're moving cars off the road, says the Journal.

Source: "Off the San Francisco Rails," Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2011.

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