Guest Commentary: Central Subway Problems Bode Badly for Future of SF Transit

Bad management and bad decisions made years-long delays and cost overruns inevitable

The Central Subway subway construction near Yerba Buena. The project is years behind schedule--and nobody should be surprised about that, given management blunders, says guest commentator Gerald Cauthen. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
The Central Subway subway construction near Yerba Buena. The project is years behind schedule--and nobody should be surprised about that, given management blunders, says guest commentator Gerald Cauthen. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

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John Funghi, it was announced at the end of 2017, was leaving his post heading up the $1.6 billion Central Subway project to work on Caltrain electrification. His departure came shortly after Tutor-Perini, the prime contractor on the Central Subway, a 1.7 mile extension of the Muni T Third line from the Caltrain Station at Fourth and King, to Chinatown, released a report that shows the project is more than two years behind schedule. Trains aren’t now supposed to roll to Chinatown until the Spring of 2021, when original projections were for service to start last year.

Just three months ago, SFMTA argued that the project was delayed only nine months and that it was still “within budget.” They blamed the contractor for delays. It now appears that the project, according to the SF Chronicle, is also tens of millions over budget.

All of which is symptomatic of a project that was overly complex, oversold, and badly managed from the start.

It was back in 2007 that the SFMTA began to aggressively sell the Central Subway. In San Francisco, the agency was promoting ridership figures up to 93,000, as reported in the SF Examiner; meanwhile, they were telling the Feds far less. SFMTA’s New Starts Report submitted to the federal government showed the combined 2030 ridership of the subway and the existing T Line as being only 64,620 riders a day, with the subway itself generating 42,400 riders a day (Source EIR Table 3-9). The agency claimed trip times would be drastically cut, but improvements to the Stockton Street bus could have reduced trip times from Chinatown to Market Street and Caltrain for a tiny fraction of the cost. Operating costs were also far higher than the agency originally presented (in fact, they originally argued that it would cut operating costs).

Then there’s the question as to why the SFMTA only looked at using an expensive and complex deep-bore subway, which means tunneling deep underground and necessitates the construction of giant underground station mezzanines and huge holes, such as in the lead image and the photo near the bottom. The promise was that deep-tunnel boring would be out of sight and would avoid disruption to local businesses and residents. But that didn’t materialize. In fact, the city is now on the hook to compensate businesses along the route from the very disruptions that deep-bore subway digging was supposed to avoid.

Cut-and-cover construction, in which the city cuts a trench in the street and then covers it up (which is how the New York subway and many subways overseas were built) plus more of the line running on the surface, could have made for a much simpler design. There is even room to run trains in a shallow subway where it crossed Market Street, in the space between BART and the Muni tunnels, instead of diving deep underneath both train systems. The train also could have run farther on the surface on 4th street, instead of going underground at Bryant. But none of these options were looked at in the original, legally mandated alternatives analysis, which studied some zigzag routes that were obviously designed to be rejected in favor of the current design. In other words, the Central Subway was designed in a backroom deal, without an appropriate alternatives analysis as assigned by California law. The priority was apparently to avoid losing any surface street to automobiles.

But even the overly complex design doesn’t explain the extent of the delays.

On November 1, 2017, Tutor-Perini, the Central Subway construction contractor, asked San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, Chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, to help resolve the hundreds of outstanding issues between it and the SFMTA. Because of the lack of details in the designs, the construction contractor issued over 4,000 “requests for information.” That can be something very simple–for example, the plans might say, “Use a tile floor covering” on the mezzanines. And the contractor might ask, “Do you want granite or marble?” Some of the issues are far more complicated and expensive, but in any case, they have to be resolved in days or weeks, not months, or the project spins out of control.

But SFMTA let a backlog of information requests develop. The delays started to cost the contractor money, so they also filed claims for additional funds–then these got delayed too. Out of 1,300 construction-contractor claims filed, only 73 had been addressed by the SFMTA, with the remaining 94 percent “waiting to be processed.” The contractor also reported that the project is 29 months behind schedule, compared to the SFMTA’s claim of only nine months of delay.

The Central Subway required huge excavations for a very short subway line. Photo: SFMTA
The Central Subway required huge and complex station excavations for a very short subway line. Photo: SFMTA

As someone who has worked on large construction projects, it’s not unusual for there to be claims for additional compensation. To continue the tile example, if the SFMTA specifies a more expensive type of tile, or delays answering a question for so long the prime contractor has to pay workers to sit around and wait–then the prime contractor requests compensation for the additional costs. The problem is, it’s essential to respond to these claims immediately by paying or rejecting them. But SFMTA doesn’t have experienced staff to make decisions on the spot. Delays pile up the costs because contractors lose subcontractors who have to move on to other construction gigs. On a badly managed project, especially huge ones with thousands of claims and requests for information, minor delays quickly snowball.

When a project such as the Central Subway turns sour, municipal agencies sometimes try to blame the construction contractor. True, when a contractor submits a false or inflated or unjustified claim, alert owners summarily reject it, as they should. When, on the other hand, owners, meaning the SFMTA, make design mistakes or otherwise cause construction delays and overruns by dithering and sloppiness, it then ends up in court: judges will almost always place the responsibility for the resulting extra costs squarely on the owner, as they should.

And in this case, ultimately, that means the taxpayer.

The lessons here are to keep projects simple, do an alternatives analysis of proper, viable alternatives with realistic outcomes and projections, and get qualified staff in place to properly manage the project in detail, right on site. Qualified staff means people who are capable of making decisions and getting claims sorted quickly and definitively. Right now, managers and directors dither, let delays and cost overruns get out of control, and then they move on to new agencies and projects, leaving the taxpayers to clean up the mess. Until San Francisco solves these problems, we can kiss any vision of a greatly expanded transit system goodbye.

Gerald Cauthen is co-founder of the Bay Area Transportation Working Group and SaveMuni. He has managed the design and construction of Muni, San Francisco Water Department and Hetch Hetchy infrastructure projects.


  • Javí M

    Why a deep subway? Cars.

  • crazyvag

    Well, without the subway you’re going to be subject to pedestrian crossings and also more stops. At some point you won’t be much better than the bus.

  • Carlos Goldstein

    I work for a transit agency in the Bay Area, not Muni. The best decision management can make is no decision. If it can be delayed and pushed on to someone else and have someone else make a decision, that’s good. Then when something goes wrong it’s their problem. When something goes wrong we hire a high priced consultant to tell us what to do. These are people who are paid well to make decisions but play the blame it on someone else game. Is it any wonder a project takes three times as long and costs at least twice as much?
    Also management never rides a bus, so how do they know other than to hire a high priced consultant?

  • keenplanner

    This sounds almost exactly like the airport BART extension project. Tutor knows how to work the system, obviously. Was Willie Brown involved in this project too?

  • mx

    Tutor has been pulling these shenanigans for years (see, for instance: The city spent years suing them the firm over their work at SFO, with the contractor ultimately paying $19 million to settle racketeering and fraud charges. And here we go again.

    That’s not to say that SFMTA management hasn’t atrociously mismanaged this project by failing to make necessary decisions and supervise their contractor, but at some point, why do we keep hiring the same people over and over again expecting different results?

  • angermuller

    There’s obviously a lot of room to critique the Central Subway and its progress (no project of this scale is without controversy) but most of this article is misleading or purely gratuitous for the sake of making an argument. The other thing worth noting is the author and the organizations he is affiliated with have a history of contrarian thinking on transit projects in the region. Nothing new and definitely not productive.

    In terms of the points brought up above; 1) “Cut and cover” is highly disruptive, nearly as expensive and often runs over schedule. 2) So-called deep boring is necessary because of geology, the depth of intersecting subway lines and utilities. 3) Running the line above ground isn’t feasible for a majority of the line the rest is currently already high congestion or projected to be in coming years around Moscone / “Cultural District” and ending in highest density neighborhood in the city, Chinatown. 4) The public outcry is what impeded the line’s extension into North Beach, complicates designs as well as approvals (not to say the GOV isn’t slow and inefficient as well).

  • gb52

    There are two things this commentary argues and ignores at the same time. Arguing for the entire alignment to be cut and cover means that the localized impacts of station construction get extended to the entire stretch from the embarcadero to chinatown. Every intersection and building plus a major overall that literally divides powell station into two.

    The alternative that has always been the cheapest is to BAN cars from stockton and from 4th street to allow for free movement of trains or buses, but since we are opposed to creating transit streets and continue to have poor compliance of transit lanes, the expensive but desired solution of building a subway comes to light.

    Lastly, this again is only phase II and the connection to north beach and beyond is when the VALUE of this subway really comes into play. We all wanted it to be built at the same time, it would have been cheaper, but at the same time there were so many lawsuits and we reluctantly fund infrastructure, so really we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot.

    People need to provide constructive input to get these projects done and done right.

  • Granger103

    Cut and cover construction disrupts streets during the excavation period, after which the construction is decked over and the streets put back into operation during the entire time the underground work is going on. In the Central Subway’s case Stockton Street has resembled a war zone for years.

  • Granger103

    A shallow north-south subway crossing Market above the Muni Metro level would not have cut the Powell station in two. If you don’t believe it go down and look.

  • Granger103

    Yes, very much so.

  • Granger103

    According to the EIR the Central Subway will have almost no impact on Stockton Street traffic. With or without a Central Subway steps to streamline the Stockton Street bus operation are long overdue.

  • angermuller

    You’re correct. But consider the fact that the excavation and cap/decking are commonly delayed (e.g. Market Street cut and cover project for BART (1970s) nearly bankrupt the entire thoroughfare via repeated delays).

    I totally get what you’re saying, but can’t imagine that it’s anymore effective than tunneling in terms of mitigating noise, pollution, congestion, relative cost or ultimately, chaos.

  • angermuller

    I’m not a geologist nor do I work for the SF utilities commission, but I can guarantee that if Central Subway’s crossing depth was as shallow as you suggest you’d have to wiggle through water, sewer, power, tree roots and building foundations.

    And, if you do go down and look, you’ll notice that it’s nowhere near the height/depth needed to run the massive tube itself.

  • Gale Connor

    As someone who will use the central subway, I am as disappointed
    by the cost overruns and delays as anyone. But I am baffled by the suggestion that cut
    and cover would have been less disruptive than deep boring. Cut and cover was
    used for the Stockton Street leg of the project, resulting in a road closure
    that is coming up on its 6th year anniversary.

    Cut and cover for the construction of BART decimated Market
    Street retail, leaving in its wake a swath of urban blight that persisted for

  • Delicasea

    All true but finding qualified help in this competitive bay are construction boom is tough as finding school teachers. Also with the expense of living here people will go work elsewhere. The project was understaffed from the beginning. Easy to blame the SFMTA but Tutor has a history of exorbitant unsubstantiated claims. Look at what happened at SFO? It is truly a bad design especially Union Square. What’s funny to me was the news conferences and John Funghi self promoting himself to Caltrain by reporting the project being ahead of schedule and within budget! What ever happened to a Captain going down with the sinking ship?

  • Richard

    It would have disrupted businesses the same or more, but it would have cost considerably less.

    Still not as bad as the NY 2nd street subway.


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