WALL STREET JOURNAL
Off the San Francisco Rails
Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but the politicians who contrived the city's Chinatown subway project must have left their brains somewhere else. The subway is a case study in government incompetence and wasted taxpayer money.
P.S. The Obama Administration is all for it.
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, but he was more interested in obtaining the political support of Chinatown's power brokers. 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.
The city's metro system, which is already running $150 million operating deficits, isn't likely to have the money to keep the subway running in any case. Last month the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury, a watchdog group, warned that the subway's costs "could stretch the existing maintenance environment [of the metro system] to the breaking point" and will defer the purchase of a new communications system.
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% of its capital costs. In 1964 Congress created a back-door 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.
"Measuring only cost and how fast a project can move the most people the greatest distance simply misses the boat," Mr. LaHood wrote in January 2010 on his Fast Lane blog. "Look, everywhere I go, people tell me they want better transportation in their communities. They want the opportunity to leave their cars behind . . . And to enjoy clean, green neighborhoods. The old way of doing things just doesn't value what people want." We're told Mr. LaHood is smarter than he sounds.
The FTA has given the Chinatown subway one of its highest project ratings, which virtually assures a full funding grant agreement. Once the city receives such an agreement, the feds are obligated to provide whatever funds they promise. The FTA won't approve the agreements until the fall, so there's still hope that someone wises up and nixes the project. Oh, and if Congress is looking for discretionary programs to cut, New Starts would be a good start.