Commentary: Quentin L. Kopp

Citizen Zeal Must Not Rest

By Quentin L. Kopp

In June 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his original rough draft of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

As San Franciscans observe the 256th anniversary of the country’s declaration of our independence from British rule, we give thanks for the successful recall of Chesa Boudin from district attorney status, the defeat of a Board of Supervisors’ ballot measure to diminish our authority to remove a non-performing public official from office, the repeal of a 1932 ordinance conferring a trash collection monopoly on Recology’s predecessors – thus enabling next month a law requiring competitive, open bidding for such public contract, and ignominious defeat of a $400 million general obligation bond which, with interest over 30 years, would have cost taxpayers $1.005 billion! 

However, citizen zeal must not rest. The recalled Boudin had already, before the June 7 election, filed a declaration of intent to run this November for district attorney. The Chronicle and City Hall will assist. SFMTA is stealthily planning to resubmit its rejected Proposition A again to voters next year. Let’s examine why that effort must be thwarted. 

San Franciscans will regret that SFMTA management and other city officials ignored two reports in 2011 that, if followed, would have saved hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that have been, and will be, spent on an essentially useless transportation project. I’m referring to the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report regarding the Central Subway Project, issued in July 2011, and the CGR Consultants report, issued in November 2011, regarding Muni’s track record on completion of transportation projects. 

The Grand Jury report, titled “Too Much Money for Too Little Benefit,” urged the City to either redesign the project or abandon it, finding it had serious design flaws which were likely to incur massive cost overruns, would generate an anemic ridership and create a serious drain on Muni’s operating budget. 

As I informed readers in May, the CGR Consultants report, commissioned by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, found that Muni had never completed a project on time or within budget. Regarding the Central Subway Project, the firm projected a final cost exceeding $2 billion! 

Muni rejected the findings in those reports, insisting such project would be delivered on time (December, 2018), within budget ($1.6 billion), would reduce its yearly operating budget by $23.9 million and would attract ridership of 95,000 per day. In addition, the project team was “proud” to claim it has procured the majority of the funding for the project from federal and state governments and the city’s contribution would be a “mere” $125 million. 

Fast forward to the present: the project is more than three-and-a-half-years late and still doesn’t have a firm opening date; it is currently $350 million over budget (making city taxpayers contribution $475 million); Muni now admits it will increase, rather than decrease, its operating budget in the amount of $15.1 million per year and its ridership projection is now 40,000 passengers per day, not 95,000. The cost overruns have been covered by diversion of funds from other projects (thus, Proposition A’s general obligation bond was needed to pay for the Central Subway!) for $400 million. It’s believed that current ridership estimate is vastly overstated because of the design flaws pointed out by the Grand Jury – the fact that transfers between the Central Subway and BART and the Muni light rail lines will involve a walk of nearly four football fields in length which, according to a Muni study, will take a healthy and motivated passenger 7.2 minutes to complete. 

Unfortunately, virtually all the individuals (three mayors, three Muni general managers, a number of SFMTA board members, plus some Board of Supervisors’ members and the subway project manager) who saddled taxpayers with this obscenely costly and essentially useless boondoggle are gone – so they’ll never be compelled to answer questions as to why they ignored the Civil Grand Jury findings and CGR Consultants. There is, however, one exception – the executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, who engineered and executed a scheme whereby the project received nearly $500 million in state bond money, including $61.3 million of high-speed rail connectivity funds for a project that wouldn’t connect to high-speed rail. That person retired from the MTC in 2019 but is now a board member of the SFMTA. Don’t trust SFMTA! 

While discussing transportation, don’t expect the California High-Speed Rail Project to end in redemption of promises to voters. Taxpayer money from the 2008 state general obligation bond proceeds ($9.95 billion) has been wasted on proposed diesel (not electric) operation from Coachella to Wascoe (not Merced to Bakersfield). Bridges and viaducts are under construction, but no track has been built over the 171 miles of the route during 14 years of voter (and taxpayer) authorization. Promised private investment never occurred. The cost estimate for hypothetical electrified tracks from San Francisco to Anaheim is now $105 billion. Only $4.2 billion of authorized bond money remains and the legislature opposes Gov. Gavin Newsom’s January 2022 request to issue such bonds. As the San Jose Mercury News observed on Jan. 30: “That’s not what Californians approved in 2008.” Bent Flyvberg, an expert in large projects at the University of Oxford, opined last spring: “This project is going to the graveyard of famous boondoggles.” 

I conclude with Jefferson’s March 31, 1809, letter to the citizens of Washington County, Maryland: “If in my retirement to the humble station of a private citizen, I am accompanied with the esteem and approbation of my fellow citizens, trophies obtained by the blood stained steel, or the tattered flags of the tented field, will never be envied. The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.” 

Quentin L. Kopp is a former San Francisco supervisor, state senator, member of the SF Ethics Commission and retired judge.

1 reply »

  1. “Don’t trust SFMTA” – boy, did you nail it. I’m glad that voters are finally waking up, this agency needs to be reigned in and held accountable. It also needs to stop telling folks how to commute, and focus on getting the commute more efficient for all types of vehicles. Electrify instead of eliminate cars. Oh, and how about MUNI sets an example by taking its buses off diesel fuel . . . by its own admission, the buses will not be battery-ready until 2040. 2040! Shameful. This pathetic excuse for an organization has been clogging the roads for its own vehicles, let alone everybody else’s, but just wants folks to keep paying up for its misguided and poorly implemented strategies. Nope. I vote, and I am eagerly awaiting more changes that will put all of us on a more reasonable, honest, and efficient road forward. Thanks Quentin.


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