csub.jpgA controversial civil grand jury report calling for the overhaul of San Francisco’s Central Subway project was discussed at a crowded Board of Supervisors committee meeting today.

The report, released in July by the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury, called the $1.6 billion project “breathtakingly expensive” and inefficiently designed.

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

The subway is scheduled to be operational in 2019.

The civil grand jury concluded in its report that the current design of the project lacks connectivity to the rest of the Muni system–noting a 1,000-foot underground trek commuters will have to make to Muni Metro service on Market Street–and that costs will affect current Muni operations already strained by budget deficits.

The board’s Government Audit and Oversight Committee discussed the report at City Hall today, where dozens of people came to spoke both in favor and against the project.

Attendees included members of the grand jury, a panel picked to investigate the city’s government.

“It is a hugely expensive system that is being implemented by an organization that doesn’t have a good record of bringing projects in on time or on budget,” said Bob Perry, one of the grand jurors.

“In our opinion it has several major design flaws, adds to the cost of a system that’s already underfunded, and provides at best marginal improvements to the system,” Perry said. “To allow this project to go forward as currently defined would be doing a major disservice to the city of San Francisco.”

Muni executive director Ed Reiskin defended the project, saying the region is expected to grow by a million people in the next generation and the Central Subway “is critical to accommodate that growth.”

Reiskin said the questions brought up by the report “have been asked and answered through environmental review” years ago and said “we’re at a stage in this process where we need to move forward as a city.”

He cited the tens of thousands of jobs the project will bring to the city, and said despite the current economic climate, “today’s operational challenges are not a reason to not invest in the future of San Francisco.”

Bob Feinbaum, a member of the group Save Muni, said “this project has been sold on false premises,” primarily what his group has called an overly optimistic ridership estimate.

Jose Luis Moscovich, executive director of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, defended the estimates, saying the project is using “the best ridership demand models” and officials “are fully confident that those ridership estimates will materialize.”

The federal government is funding nearly $1 billion of the project and Moscovich said “if this project were to be canceled, there would be no way to redirect the funds that are expected to come.”

The three-member board committee all expressed support for the project, although Supervisor Mark Farrell said he was “a little bit surprised” that Muni was non-responsive to some of the questions brought up by the civil grand jury.

The committee ultimately was tasked at the end of the meeting with deciding whether to approve a resolution urging the mayor to implement certain findings and recommendations from the report.

The resolution did not directly address the Central Subway project, but called, among other things, for an independent auditor to evaluate Muni’s finances.

The committee declined to include that recommendation in the resolution, which was then unanimously passed and sent to the full board for approval.

Dan McMenamin, Bay City News

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