gavel.jpgIn response to recent criticism lobbed at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Central Subway project, agency leadership and engineers said today that the project has a legacy of broad support and is on the cusp of securing final federal funding.

Two months ago, a San Francisco Civil Grand Jury released a report calling for overhaul of the project, which the report alleged was inefficiently designed and would stress system-wide service.

“We certainly welcome the scrutiny and oversight,” SFMTA Executive Director Ed Reiskin said at a media availability at the project’s South of Market headquarters this morning.

Reiskin said that the feedback allows the engineers and project managers to revisit how they got to where they are.

“We are pleased with the progress that’s been made so far,” Reiskin said.

This morning SFMTA officials and members of the Chamber of Commerce emphasized that the project would link neighborhoods and create construction jobs for local workers.

The Central Subway project will create a new branch of the San Francisco Municipal Railway’s T-Third line. It is designed to run north along Fourth Street from Brannan Street before going underground at Interstate Highway 80, with stops at Moscone Center, Union Square and Chinatown.

“For a major construction project in San Francisco, the project has received an incredibly wide range of support” across several administrations and several boards of supervisors, Reiskin said.

Senior project manager John Funghi said that the civil grand jury report had good intentions but that its findings were taken out of context.

“It was a different project; it was a different alignment,” he said. The report scrutinized several alignments that were under consideration during early design phases, but Funghi said that some of those had not yet been subjected to environmental review.

The project has received nearly $96 million in federal funding, including $20 million secured in June from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration. The project received the award through the FTA’s New Starts program, which considers rapid rail, light rail, commuter rail, and bus rapid transit projects, among other fixed guideway systems.

According to budget projections from June, federal money will pay for $983.2 million of the project’s total $1.578 billion cost. State and local contributions are $471.1 million and $123.9 million, respectively.

The SFMTA expects to submit its final application to the FTA by Sept. 19, Reiskin said, after which it would undergo federal administrative review of an “indeterminate length” before being subjected to a 60-day Congressional review.

The agency could secure final funding from the FTA as soon as early next year, Reiskin said.

Officials said the recent FTA funding award gives them reason for great optimism in submitting their final application.

“It signals a vote of confidence that (the FTA is) comfortable so far,” Reiskin said.

Final approval would grant the project “approval to begin the heavy construction,” Reiskin said.

Meanwhile, the project has been making steady progress and in June the board awarded what Reiskin said was one of its most crucial contracts.

The board approved a $233.6 million tunneling contract to the lowest bidder, Barnard Impregilo Healy, a Montana-based contractor that will develop about 8,240 feet of concrete tunnels using two tunnel-boring machines, Muni officials said.

Reiskin and others noted that the tunneling contract bid came in $13 million below estimated costs. Funghi said that performance is a “good indication” that other future contracts will be under estimate as well.

The project is expected to generate approximately 30,000 construction jobs, MTA Vice Chair Jerry Lee said.

Local business leaders speaking at this morning’s meeting noted that the light-rail extension would be pivotal in ensuring the health of the city’s economic center and its most densely populated neighborhoods.

Chamber of Commerce Vice President Jim Lazarus said that he has been “a strong supporter of this project since day one,” partly because it will pass through the heart of the financial district.

Despite “efforts just because of a mayor’s race to politicize the project,” Lazarus said that the project “is worth every penny at every level of government that taxpayers are putting into it.”

Lazarus and others said that the Central Subway as designed will only be the starting point of expansions that future generations in a changed San Francisco may choose to build.

According to Reiskin, demographers have indicated that the Bay Area population will grow by about a million people in coming decades, with San Francisco bearing the brunt of that growth.

Planning in recent decades had focused on the city’s eastern and southeastern neighborhoods between Visitacion Valley, Hunters Point, Mission Bay and Chinatown, he said.

The projected growth, he said, is expected to make already dense neighborhoods even denser and that the Central Subway is crucial to moving people in and around those areas.

“It goes a long way to providing the additional capacity,” Funghi said.

The Central Subway and the T-Third line are projected to carry a combined 65,000 passengers daily when the line goes into operation sometime in 2019. Funghi said the Central Subway is expected to be Muni’s “workhorse,” carrying some 40,000 riders daily.

The project was designed to enable flexibility in designing future modifications and expansions, he said, noting that “it is being designed so as not to preclude a connection” to envisioned light-rail lines, such as one that could run along Geary Boulevard.

Several other Bay Area transit projects have applied for funding through the New Starts or Small Starts programs, according to the Federal Transit Administration’s website.

Oakland’s and San Francisco’s bus rapid transit projects are also seeking funding through the program.

Patricia Decker, Bay City News

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