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Central Subway likely to be delayed yet again, federal monitor says

People on a tour walk through the northbound tunnel of the Central Subway on Monday, May 18, 2015 in San Francisco, Calif. (Photo By Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

The city’s official Sept. 9 date for moving people from SoMa to Chinatown on a new central subway transit line is a long shot given potential delays that include a possible shortage of equipment for overhead tram cables, water leakage and an incomplete signal network, according to a monitor assigned to track the project for the federal government.

Current cost estimates of nearly $2 billion, meanwhile, are unrealistic and “unacceptable” because the city’s transit agency is not taking into account possible overruns stemming from any delays, according to a January report from the monitor that has not previously been publicized.

A fresh delay would be the latest in a long series of expensive postponements afflicting a project that was already four and a half years late. Cost estimates of $1.891 billion, which the report said are already out of date, are $313 million more than the amount the city agreed to with the federal government.

This is a gap city officials may need to close using local funds, said Gerald Cauthen, a civil engineering consultant who during the 1980s managed installing parts of the light rail system tunnel that now runs under Market Street.

Cauthen says a September boarding date is wildly optimistic given the fact that subway systems must go through extensive testing before opening to the public, and that such tests invariably reveal unexpected problems.

“That testing doesn’t go without difficulty. You always have issues,” Cauthen said. “I don’t see how they could finish by September.”

An SF Municipal Transportation Agency spokesperson did not comment on the monitor’s report or possible delays.

Once complete, the extension of the city’s light-rail line will traverse four new stations, traveling under the BART tunnel and Union Square, before arriving in Chinatown.

Kenneth Harrington, a San Francisco attorney who has analyzed the report and other Central Subway documents, said he doesn’t expect the system to open to the public until at least December. Costs, too, will continue inflating.

“When you get all the costs, which are not listed as part of the project but incurred because of the project, it will be $2.1 billion,” he said.

The transit plan has been plagued from the beginning by the fact it filled no pressing transit need but instead amounted to a deal involving the late Chinatown community leader Rose Pak and former mayor Willie Brown aimed at bringing a benefit to Chinatown constituents.

Critics including transit activist David Schonbrunn have said this has long meant the city needed to exaggerate the project’s efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and other metrics in order to coax funds out of federal and California agencies.

“I call it the perpetual motion machine,” Schonbrunn said. “It seems like they want to keep building this thing forever.”

Update - An SFMTA official responded to the Standard saying: We have not changed our revenue service target date, and are still firmly on track for a Fall 2022 launch. The January PMOC report notes that there are technical challenges remaining, but we remain laser-focused on the finish line and have been testing systems and our trains since September 2021. We are confident about a Fall 2022 completion.