San Francisco

Dennis Herrera Slams Central Subway Project He Previously Supported

"Fiascos aren't born that way," wrote Dennis Herrera. "They typically grow from the seeds of worthy ideas and their laudable promise is betrayed in subtle increments."

So begins the mayoral hopeful's very public apology for once supporting the Central Subway.

The project, which would connect Muni's T-Third line to Chinatown and includes stations at Moscone Center and Union Square, was approved by voters in 2003, but has since run into stiff opposition spanning the political spectrum.

Initially pegged at $647 million, the subway's construction costs have since more than doubled to approximately $1.6 billion. As that figure has crept ever skyward, an increasing number of the project's original supporters have begun to backtrack on some of their initial enthusiasm.

In an issue paper posted on his campaign website, the City Attorney explains his initial support for the project:

The Central Subway began with wholly worthwhile goals…[and] it enjoyed widespread support from public officials—myself included—who argued that it was a prudent investment.

It reflected an environmental imperative for the 21st Century cities to facilitate greater economic development and jobs in urban centers, to increase housing density along transit corridors, and to reverse the negative ecological impacts of decades of suburban sprawl.

Herrera's paper goes on to cite two independent reports released over the past few years highly critical of the Central Subway that were key factors in his decision to withdraw his support from the project.

A 2007 SFMTA-commissioned report found the Central Subway plan to be expensive and inefficient. The report's author, Tom Matoff wrote that the subway "might actually worsen travel conditions for some customers, without a compensating improvement." Matoff, who once served as Muni's Planning Director, added, "It does the market needs of the corridor it is intended to serve."

Earlier this year, a Civil Grand Jury tasked with evaluating the project released another report slamming the plan after seven months of deliberation. Entitled Central Subway: Too Much Money For Too Little Benefit, their report concluded the project needed a massive redesign in order to become a functional and cost-effective part of San Francisco's transit system.

Herrera's major qualm with the subway, in addition to the ever-increasing sunk cost of actually getting the thing built, is the fear that the new line would further stretch Muni's already thin operating budget by an unmanageable degree. He also expressed concern that, as designed, the subway will have poor integration with the rest of the city's transit grid—for example, passengers would have to walk underground for the length of three city blocks to get from the Muni station at Union Square to the BART station at Powell and Market streets.

Herrera, who served in the Department of Transportation under the Clinton Administration, isn't the only public figure to have very publically changed their minds about the Central Subway in recent weeks. Former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin and former Supervisor Jake McGoldrick, both of whom previously supported the construction, have since blasted the project citing reasons similar to those given by Herrera.

Chinatown leaders, who have pushed hard for the Central Subway, pledged to punish Herrera for his attacks on the Central Subway. The Bay Citizen reports:

"Through history, any politician, when they are running for office, will choose a minority, a soft spot, and attack to get more votes," said Stephen Lee, the leader of the Lee Family Association, which still boasts 10,000 members in San Francisco with the last name Lee — including the mayor.

"I want to tell Dennis Herrera that today, the Chinese in San Francisco is not a weak spot," Lee added to murmurs of approval and applause. "I want to make sure that he is not going to get elected."

The view that Herrera's newfound opposition to the Central Subway is largely political likely has at least some truth to it.

Mayor Lee is one of the city's most prominent supporters of the Central Subway and Chinatown power broker Rose Pak, who was instrumental in both Lee's appointment and making the Central Subway a reality, has been hung like an albatross around Lee's neck by candidates like Herrera looking to impugn Lee's ethics at a time when the mayor holds a commanding lead in the polls. By drawing negative attention to the increasingly unpopular Central Subway, it thereby brings more attention to the connection between Lee and Pak that's often viewed as unsavory.

Even with this newfound pressure, the mayor is still standing strong in his support for the subway.

In a Thursday morning statement praising President Obama's new jobs plan, Lee held up the Central Subway as an example of the type of job-creating infrastructure project that's integral to ensuring the nation's economic wellbeing.

SFMTA officials are similarly standing firmly behind their signature project. In a release sent out earlier this week, the agency insisted that the project's recent receipt of $20 million in new federal funds demonstrates the project's inherent worthiness.

"The completion of the T-Third light rail project with the Central Subway represents an investment in the future of San Francisco," said SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin. "The SFMTA and its City partners are committed to working with communities from the Bay View to SoMa to Chinatown to ensure that gridlock does not paralyze the City’s economic growth."

Joining Reiskin in noting that a study by the American Public Transportation Institute estimated that 30,000 new jobs are created for every $1 billion spent on transportation projects were representatives from business groups such as the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and Union Square Business Improvement District.

“Economic growth does not happen by accident," said Chamber of Commerce Vice President Jim Lazarus. "A great workforce and the right policies bring businesses to the City; well-planned infrastructure makes it possible for them to thrive here."

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