San Francisco's new subway spur is a testament to government inefficiency
San Francisco is a city that has a very comprehensive public transportation system. Above-ground San Francisco Municipal Railroad ("MUNI") buses and streetcars will get you anywhere you need to go in the city. In addition, if you're traveling downtown, there's a MUNI line that runs underground, taking travelers along Market Street, the major downtown thoroughfare. And now there's about to be a new line (maybe): MUNI has announced that it might finally be opening a 1.7-mile-long spur that has already taken ten years to build at a cost of $1.6 billion.
Beginning in 2010, MUNI started preliminary work on a 1.7-mile-long spur that would take workers from the tech-rich SOMA (South of Market) area to Chinatown. Before COVID drained downtown San Francisco (which now has a 31% activity rate, making it the most deserted downtown in America), this was a very heavily trafficked corridor. This meant that expanding the municipal railway system was not a crazy idea back in 2010.
According to Wikipedia, when the idea was first raised in 2000, the estimated cost was $530 million. One year later, it was estimated that it would cost $647 million and be completed in 2009. Although actual construction began in 2012, it was only in 2013 that Tutor Perini, the lowest bidder, was awarded the job. That contract was for $840 million.
Image: Pete Buttigieg and Nancy Pelosi (hiding behind him) celebrate San Francisco's possibly completed new subway line. ABC 7 screen grab.
Building the central line was a big project — boring parallel tunnels for 1.7 miles and building four stations. The estimate for completion was set for 2018 (that is, six years), a reasonable time for a project of that magnitude. The project, of course, instantly went over time and over budget.
The money for the Central Line, by the way, doesn't come primarily from San Franciscans, the ones who will benefit from the 1.7 miles of subway. Instead, and I'm going to quote directly from Wikipedia (footnotes omitted):
The budget to complete the Central Subway is $1.578 billion. The project is funded primarily through the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program. In October 2012, the FTA approved a Full Funding Grant Agreement, the federal commitment of funding through New Starts, for the Central Subway for a total amount of $942.2 million. The Central Subway is also funded by the State of California, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and the City and County of San Francisco.
That's right! Americans generally and Californians more specifically are bearing the brunt of this project.
Well, the Central Subway is finally done (maybe). If it opens in October, as seems to be planned, it will have taken 22 years from the time the idea was first bandied about in 2000 and a decade since ground was first broken in 2012. In addition, the costs overran the original estimates by $1 billion. The breakdown of the cost is that each tenth of a mile for this subway will have cost almost $100 million (that's close to $100,000,000 per tenth of a mile).
Still, who cares about money? Those 1.7 miles are a government program, San Francisco is a Democrat-run city, and this is all about equitable public transportation. It's a bargain compared to the California High-Speed Rail, intended to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles, which will cover 380 miles if it's ever finished. The initial cost estimate was $33 billion, but it's now up to $113 billion, a price that will, I'm sure, continue to grow exponentially. Currently, 119 miles of track are still being built in the Central Valley, constituting a train to nowhere.
Given the Democrats' abiding commitment to expensive transportation projects, it's no surprise that Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of transportation, transported himself from D.C. to San Francisco to join Nancy Pelosi in celebrating this almost-moment (it's still not clear when the Central Line actually opens):
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg were in San Francisco today to check out progress on the long-delayed Central Subway project.
The Muni Metro extension through SOMA, Union Square and Chinatown is still set to serve passengers in the fall.
This is the ride so many have been waiting for. Construction on the Central Subway is nearly done. (Emphasis mine.)
This is how America's bloated, hyper-bureaucratic governments work: slowly and inefficiently. In my own community, I got a notice from my representative that a much-traveled road is a death trap for drivers and pedestrians. Fear not, though — there will be a four- to five-year-long study period to see what can be done about it.
The more money and responsibility that we hand over to the government, the less things get done and the more they cost. We no longer live in the first half of the 20th century, when leaner, more disciplined governments were able to produce rather splendid public works. Instead, we live in a world where it takes ten years and costs $100,000,000 per every tenth of a mile to build a single subway line.