City, Feds Dispute Spiraling Cost of San Francisco Subway Project

Visitors to San Francisco's main shopping district, Union Square, can't help but see, smell and hear the massive construction project that could end with a visionary subway, or, as some critics are calling it, "a train to nowhere."

Known as the Central Subway, it's a rail extension less than two miles long, connecting outlying neighborhoods to Union Square and Chinatown.

Voters approved the project in 2003, to replace a freeway damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Back then, the cost was $647 million. Today, the price tag is $1.6 billion, with the lion's share of the funding still to come from the federal government.

In July, San Francisco's Civil Grand Jury concluded the project was poorly designed, won't meet projected ridership levels, and, as the scathing title of its report says, costs "too much money for too little benefit."

At about $1 billion per mile, the Central Subway has become a driving force in Tuesday's mayoral election. Leading contenders like San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi have withdrawn their initial support, calling it "a political hot potato. In these difficult times, the question is, can we afford it?"

On the other side, current frontrunner, Mayor Ed Lee, and candidates like Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, argue the city can't afford to derail the project now.

"We're expected to see traffic in the downtown area double over the next decade and a half," says Chiu. "In order to deal with all of this incredible demand for transit, it's critical that we build this Central Subway to connect different parts of the city."

The public debate in the city could hinge on a policy debate in Washington, D.C., where House lawmakers are considering an appropriations bill that could strip all federal funds from the Central Subway, and leave San Francisco taxpayers millions of dollars in the hole.

Even so, the digging has begun, tunneling is set to start next year, and supporters are hopeful the next mayor will keep the project on track to open in 2018.