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City’s construction boom causes elevator replacement costs to skyrocket at Muni stations, agency says

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Patrons use the MUNI elevator at Van Ness Avenue and Market Street. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

Years ago, wheelchair user Dominika Bednarska was stuck in an elevator at the Van Ness Muni station. “I had to press the alarm to get out,” she said.

With no other alternatives for wheelchair users to access train stations, an elevator breakdown meant going elsewhere. “If that station’s elevator is broken, you have to get to the next one after that,” she said. “There’s not an alternative.”

Bednarska no longer uses Van Ness station.

Now, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is trying to replace the breakdown-prone elevator at Van Ness, but is facing a unique problem.

The City’s construction boom is driving the cost of elevator construction through the roof, the agency said, leading the SFMTA to find no bidders able to affordably replace its ailing lifts.

A San Francisco Examiner review of SFMTA documents shows the problem goes back at least to January.

The problem was again brought to the SFMTA’s Board of Directors’ attention at its May meeting. SFMTA Director of Transit John Haley told the board that elevator construction companies charged more than the agency anticipated.

“It’s not that we’re not getting it right, it’s that the market changes,” Haley said. “The competition is huge with all the building taking place in The City.”

Initially, SFMTA received “high bids” exceeding its budget, and later received no bidders at all.

Since May, Van Ness station’s elevator was out of service at least five times, according to Muni Alerts. Flooding caused the elevator major electrical damage in December 2014, according to reports. As SFMTA sought contractors to replace the elevator in January, staff wrote a report saying the construction boom “has created a huge cost escalation for trades requiring special expertise.”

Those fluctuating values are difficult to quantify, staff wrote, leading to a delay in replacing the elevator.

When contacted about the problem, agency spokesman Paul Rose said the SFMTA is “in the process of finalizing a work plan to fast track elevator work now.”

Elevator construction is on its third round out to bid, he said. Funding has “not been finalized at this point.”

Jessica Lehman, executive director of the advocacy group Senior and Disability Action, said

The City should work to mitigate the impact of a construction boom it helped create.
“We’re building luxury housing people can’t afford, and now because of that, we can’t get our elevators fixed,” she said.

Notably, Mayor Ed Lee called for an unprecedented 30,000 housing units to be rehabilitated or constructed by 2020.

“The City leadership has clearly prioritized development over all else,” Lehman said. “If The City wants to continue giving tax breaks, The City needs to take responsibility for all these impacts.”

“If this means putting more money into elevators, put more money into elevators,” Lehman added.

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