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SFMTA head defends choice of contractor in Twin Peaks tunnel death

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A construction worker rides on top of materials being transported out of the Twin Peaks Tunnel during construction. Muni is blaming delays on damage done by the contractor on the project. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

In his first public comments since a steel beam killed a worker in the Twin Peaks Tunnel, the embattled director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency on Tuesday defended the decision to hire the company involved.

SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin has been under fire for not independently verifying the safety record of Oakland-based Shimmick Construction before awarding the company a $40 million contract to rehabilitate the tunnel.

SEE RELATED: SFMTA head hangs on to his job, avoids firing —for now

The company told the SFMTA last November that it had not been cited for a serious and willful violation in a decade when, in fact, the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration had cited it for three such violations in 2011.

Questions remain around whether Shimmick Construction was legally required to disclose the citations, which are under litigation in Sacramento Superior Court. But Reiskin said Tuesday that even if the SFMTA had reviewed the safety record, “It’s not clear that they would have been disqualified from this work.”

SEE RELATED: Contractor in SF Muni tunnel death had record of safety violations

“They’re a very reputable firm,” Reiskin told reporters Tuesday at City Hall. “The company is one that is very well known, has done a lot of work for us including very recently. We’ve never had issues with them.”

The San Francisco Examiner helped uncover the violations after the death of 51-year-old Patrick Ricketts, a signal technician for Shimmick Construction. Ricketts died after a temporary beam erected to seismically support the archway of the 100-year-old tunnel fell and struck him Aug. 10, according to Reiskin.

A review of OSHA records showed that the company had been cited for nearly 50 violations in California since 2008, including citations related to the death of a forklift worker in 2016. The serious and willful citations, all three stemming from two cases in Southern California in 2011, were affirmed on appeal.

The news prompted Mayor London Breed to send Reiskin a letter Monday that suggested his job could be on the line unless he improved Muni service and the vetting process for contractors bidding on multi-million dollar projects.

The SFMTA did not follow up after Shimmick Construction answered “no” when asked in a pre-bid questionnaire, “In the past ten years, has the Potential Bidder (or if a joint venture partnership, has any member of the partnership) been cited for any serious and willful safety violations by Cal/OSHA?”

Shimmick Construction has since defended the response in a statement in which spokesperson John Gallagher said, “Safety is core to everything we do and our response to the pre-qualification for the Twin Peaks Tunnel project is accurate.”

Reiskin said at the SFMTA Board of Directors meeting Tuesday that in response to the criticism the agency will independently verify the safety history of bidders and “impose additional qualifications and criteria during the bidding process.”

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to Google somebody and find out that they’ve had some violations,” SFMTA Director Art Torres told Reiskin.

In an interview with the Examiner, Garrett Brown, a retired field compliance inspector for Cal/OSHA in Oakland, criticized Shimmick Construction for providing the SFMTA with an “untruthful” answer.

SEE RELATED: Checkered past of contractor in SF Muni tunnel death raises ‘red flag’

“Shimmick just flat out lied that they have not been issued citations,” said Brown, who described Shimmick as a “bad actor” known to “cut corners.”

Brown also blasted Muni for not vetting the contractor.

“This has real health and safety implications for the workforce because it [encourages] Shimmick and others like them to cut corners as bidders for these jobs,” Brown said.

Brown suggested that the SFMTA ask potential bidders a tighter question such as, “Has your company or joint venture ever been issued a citation from Cal/OSHA? If so, provide a copy of the citation(s) issued to the company/joint venture and tell us what is the status of any appeal of these citation(s).”

Shimmick Construction, together with its business partner Con-Quest Joint Venture, was the only bidder for the Twin Peaks Tunnel project when the SFMTA awarded the contract to them in February 2018.

SFMTA records show the agency advertised the project for bids two times before awarding the contract to Shimmick Construction on the third attempt.

“The agency believes that if the project were put out to bid a fourth time, there is a significant risk that no contractor would bid at all,” SFMTA staff wrote in documents previously presented to the Board of Directors.

In April 2016, the SFMTA awarded the contract to another bidder over Shimmick Construction, but scheduling issues that would have “severely” impacted transit service prompted the agency to terminate the contract.

In 2015, the SFMTA solicited the first three bids for the project but decided to start the process over when one of the bidders pulled out over “clerical errors.”

There have also been suggestions that the workers may have been on a time crunch when Ricketts died.

A friend of Ricketts told the Examiner his wife worried about the workers finishing the job on time after her husband’s death.

In the contract Shimmick Construction signed, the SFMTA noted that time was of the essence.

Construction on the tunnel is expected to be completed by Aug. 25, despite the death prompting workers to halt construction for a day while Cal-OSHA and the San Francisco Police Department investigated the scene.

“Knock on wood, we are currently on track to resume normal operations this weekend,” Reiskin said.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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