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Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit construction delayed another 5 months

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A construction worker drops gravel into a trench with a backhoe as construction continues on the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit project on Monday, April 23, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The Van Ness Improvement Project will see an additional five-month delay after crews encountered unexpected old city infrastructure under the street.

The discovery is forcing construction crews to dig “by hand” to circumvent that infrastructure, according to city officials.

The latest delay — on a project that was already at least a year behind schedule, depending who is counting— means drivers fed up navigating the maze of construction on Van Ness Avenue and transit riders looking forward to a swifter No. 47 or 49 bus ride will have to wait even longer.

“A delay of almost a year is just not okay,” said Rachel Hyden, executive director of the San Francisco Transit Riders advocacy group, in a statement. “There seems to be something very broken in either estimating project timelines, or in executing projects, or in knowing what utility infrastructure exists beneath our streets, or all of the above. This is a chronic issue across the city; it happens with every project.”

The $316 million project would create center-median bus stops along Van Ness and depressed center lanes for buses only, allowing Muni and other buses to load and offload passengers much like trains, far faster and more efficiently than they do now. To prepare for the project, left turns were barred along Van Ness.

But the project isn’t limited to improving buses. Due to a city policy that urges city agencies to coordinate on a single dig instead of excavating a street multiple times, the SFPUC is also conducting extensive utility upgrades while SFMTA creates its new bus infrastructure. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission call these efforts “parallel projects.”

Delays were also reported last year on the project. In October 2017 the San Francisco Examiner first reported a nearly two-year delay of the effort to speed up buses on Van Ness, drawing criticism from members of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority board, who are members of the Board of Supervisors.

“What I’m really pissed off about today is we’re reading this in the newspaper, and you’re not coming to us,” then-supervisor and now Mayor Mark Farrell told transportation staffers at the authority’s meeting in October last year. Farrell did not respond Monday with an updated comment by press time.

The two agencies dispute whether the project was delayed by two years, however. Though multiple project schedules extending back to at least 2013 reviewed by the Examiner show that the agencies initially planned to have Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit rolling on the corridor in “early 2018,” they now insist the project is delayed only 320 days, just short of a year.

That’s because the SFMTA and SFPUC are counting from when the SFMTA Board of Directors approved construction for the project, when the projected rollout date was late 2019.

Whether or not the public agrees with MTA’s first projected roll-out date, or its second, pushed-back date, however, either way the project is late, again.

The SFMTA attributed the first delay to wet weather, which impacted construction. Now the culprit is old city infrastructure unearthed in the dig, according to SFMTA.

“These are utilities that are abandoned in the work site and are in conflict with the project alignment,” SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato wrote in a statement. “These delay construction because the abandoned utility has to be carefully excavated by hand. Hand excavation takes more time.”

But it only gets more complicated after that, the agency wrote.

“Once excavated, the type of utility has to be identified, and when possible, the utility owner is notified, then resolution of the conflict is coordinated,” Kato added.

SFMTA and SFPUC have been “working closely” with contractor Walsh Construction to “accelerate work” by streamlining traffic control plan approvals and sewer and water reconnection approvals, according to transportation authority agenda documents.

The new rollout date for Van Ness BRT rollout is estimated under “current projections” to be fall 2020, according to agenda documents.

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