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Muni to pull $26 million from pedestrian safety projects for bus yard improvements

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After being criticized for not using $500 million in voter-approved funds to improve transit service, the SFMTA will now direct some of those funds to projects that are shovel-ready. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency isn’t spending its voter-approved bond money fast enough, so it’s redirecting funding to Muni projects that are ready to go — right now.

Nearly $26 million in bond money that will not be immediately spent on some portions of the “Muni Forward” program to boost bus and train service, the Better Market Street project and other pedestrian safety projects will instead flow to Muni facility improvements.

That’s the upshot of a tussle between the agency that runs Muni and the Board of Supervisors, which criticized the agency previously for not spending its 2014 voter-approved $500 million in bond funding fast enough.

Fast forward to Tuesday’s SFMTA Board of Directors meeting, and directors approved pulling $26 million in bond money from projects that are taking longer than expected to come to fruition, and instead spending that funding on projects that are shovel-ready.

“The cash flows haven’t moved forward as rapidly as we anticipated,” Monique Webster, an SFMTA planner, said at the meeting Tuesday.

Many of those Muni projects were delayed as communities — and some members of the Board of Supervisors — called for more public input to reshape them. Some of those delayed projects include Better Market Street, a plan to make Market street a robust public space with urban plazas, and pedestrian and bicycle safety upgrades.

As the Examiner previously reported, three years after voters passed a $500 million transportation bond funded through property taxes the SFMTA has spent just $12 million, or 2 percent of the bond.

Bonds are given to agencies for spending in increments, called “issuances,” in which only a certain amount may be spent a time — so $26 million of an overall $66 million issuance may be redirected.

Now that funding will be spent on multiple bus and train facility projects, which SFMTA staff wrote are “in need of immediate cash flow to begin construction,” including its Burke Facility, a track extension for Muni Metro East, and underground storage tanks replacements at a bus facility near Fisherman’s Wharf.

At the SFMTA board meeting, Director Malcolm Heinicke said this was not about pulling money from projects, but redirecting funding.

“The reality is that’s not a policy directive,” he said, “but a matter of spending the money we have.”

Funding for a Caltrain communications system project related to the system’s electrification may also be reallocated, as well — though that decision has not yet been made.

“The cash flow needs for the [communications] project are currently uncertain,” SFMTA staff wrote in its report to the board, adding that if the Caltrain project cannot spend down the $7.8 million in time, that funding will be reallocated to Muni Facility Improvements, Caltrain electrification itself or another project included within the bond program.

“With each passing day the value of this money goes down while the cost of construction goes up,” Board of Supervisors President London Breed said in an April Board of Supervisors hearing. “We made promises to voters in 2014.”

At the April hearing, SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin laid out the challenges of allocating the funds.

“The big error that I made in putting the package for this first issuance was mis-estimating the amount of community process time it would take in order to deliver that first round of Muni Forward projects. That is really what is dragging down the spending,” Reiskin said at the hearing.

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