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Big Central Subway Dig to Start This Year

Contractor wins $233 million bid to bore a tunnel from SoMa to Chinatown

It's pricey, politically juiced, and by the end of the year, it will dig up a lot of dirt.

It is the Central Subway construction project.

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board took big step toward building the subway that will run between Chinatown and the South of Market area. The agency awarded a $233.6 million contract to Barnard Impregilo Healy — a joint venture between Italian and Montana-based construction companies — to dig the tunnel through which the subway trains will travel.

The SFMTA estimates the entire project will cost $1.6 billion. The transit agency is depending on $942 million in funding from the federal government. It has already received $96 million, but the bulk of the money has yet to receive final approval from the feds.

A group called Save Muni has branded the project a boondoggle. Howard Wong, a North Beach architect and member of the group, said that the SFMTA should have all the cash in the bank before going ahead  — and besides, he said, the money for the project could be better spent.

“The Central Subway’s budget has diverted funding from existing and future citywide Muni needs,” Wong said in an email. “Muni service has been cut, fares and fees increased and infrastructure allowed to deteriorate.”

Chinatown power broker Rose Pak, one of the project's biggest supporters, has repeatedly said that the subway has been a long time coming for Chinatown residents, who crowd on the slow-moving 30-Stockton bus line to get downtown.

Carter Rohan, the SFMTA's deputy executive director, said that if the subway project doesn’t move forward, taxpayers in cars and buses in downtown San Francisco won’t be able to move at all, because the streets will be so congested. “This city is headed in that direction,” he said.

The project would extend Third Street light rail service to a station at Fourth and Brannan streets. From there, trains would run underground, stopping at new stations at Moscone Center and Union Square before arriving in Chinatown. The line is expected to carry 65,000 passengers daily by 2030.

Dan Schall, a vice president at Barnard Construction, one of the companies that won the bid, said digging will begin in late 2011 and be finished in three years. More than a thousand loads of dirt will have to be removed from under the streets of San Francisco to dig 8,240 feet of tunnels.

As part of the contract, Barnard Impregilo Healy will purchase two brand-new tunnel boring machines — giant cylindrical contraptions with a bunch of drills on one end. The cost for the two freshly made machines is $36 million, according to the contract.

Rohan said the machines new, rather than leasing old ones, because of the “specific size” of the tunnels and because the machines are made to drill through particular types of materials.

Although Schall offered that San Francisco could keep the new boring machines after the project was finished — for a price — Rohan laughed and said that the city wouldn’t be taking that option.

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