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Downbound train: Federal money headed for light rail line that’s heading nowhere

A planned billion-dollar-a-mile San Francisco light rail spur, to be built almost exclusively with federal dollars, should be scrapped, according to a stinging report from a civil grand jury which found the project wildly overpriced and hugely flawed, according to reporting by Rachel Gordon of the San Francisco Chronicle, Will Reisman of the San Francisco Examiner and in an un-bylined story on KTVU.

The report bashes the project’s inflating price tag, which has ballooned from $648 million eight years ago to $1.6 billion — this still one year before any construction even starts.

The utility of the project is also being questioned.  The proposed system will not provide a direct transfer with San Francisco’s existing Market Street underground light rail lines or to the regional commuter system known as BART. While serving the city’s densely populated Chinatown district, the project skips the city’s financial district — the main destination for most of the region’s office workers.

In a more comprehensive Chronicle blog post from Gordon, it was revealed that local officials are awaiting a decision on $966 million in new federal funding, atop the $96 million already provided. If anything, the project is something of a west coast equivalent of the questionable SunRail project in Florida, as exposed by Eric Lipton in the June 27th edition of The New York Times.

Momentum for the San Francisco rail spur arose from a post ‘89-earthquake deal between officials and pressure groups who wanted a quake-injured waterfront freeway demolished instead of repaired and strengthened, and the city’s powerful Chinatown political leaders who demanded it be retained, fearing the loss of easy access would irreparably damage business.

It’s exactly these types of projects that undermine the public’s faith in government at all levels. San Francisco’s notoriously undependable public transit system clearly can’t efficiently operate the system it already has. And as long as the federal government is paying for the lion’s share, local officials, in Florida or California, have little incentive to insist that money be allocated for projects providing real and convenient service to actual passengers, rather than paybacks to campaign contributors.

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