A woman heads into the Muni bus area along Fremont Street at Salesforce Transit Center on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Report: New leadership needed to finally bring trains to Salesforce Transit Center

The Bay Area should conduct a national search for new leadership to finally bring trains to the Salesforce Transit Center, a peer review panel of national infrastructure experts has concluded.

While hinted at in previous months, that panel’s findings were made public today and will serve as the jumping off point to ensure the Bay Area’s $6 billion investment in new train infrastructure isn’t derailed.

New leadership would need experience planning and leading “urban rail megaprojects,” the panel found.

“The panel felt very strongly that the project is at high risk of not moving forward unless its governance and oversight management issues are addressed,” John Porcari, one of the peer review panelists, said publicly Tuesday.

There have been far too many public mishaps on the project already, city officials said.

When cracks were found in steel beams supporting the Salesforce Transit Center, it was just the latest roadblock on the project’s troubled road to fruition. The project had already incurred a $260 million construction funding defect in 2016, and a lawsuit from the transit center’s two construction firms, Webcor Builders and Obayashi Corp. to the tune of $150 million.

The new report suggests the project’s leadership shouldn’t get a second crack at the job.

That leadership, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority staff, should only serve as one agency among many in the Bay Area studying and building what is known as the Caltrain Downtown Rail Extension, the peer review panel assembled by consultancy WSP/McKinsey concluded in its newly published report.

The report was presented to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority board on Tuesday, which halted $9.6 million in funding to study the rail extension to hire the peer review panel to conduct this research.

Transit officials and experts said the report may help the Bay Area ensure the next phase of the Salesforce Transit Center is planned and constructed smoothly.

“This is absolutely something that will lead us in the right direction, but the devil is in the details,” said Tilly Chang, executive director of the transportation authority.

Those details may involve working out just how much oversight the Transbay Joint Powers Authority Board of Directors, which is seated by representatives of Bay Area agencies, would ultimately hold over the new leadership of the Downtown Rail Extension project.

It also recommended transit officials start a “two-year work plan,” which may slow the planning process down, to develop “realistic funding assumptions,” resolve lingering questions about the rail extension’s design, refine the project’s governance structure, and transition the project to new leadership.

While that may delay the project, Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who serves as chair of the Transportation Authority board, said it may be necessary to make sure the project is done right.

“We know this project was behind schedule, was vastly over budget, and suffered from a number of construction deficits,” he said at the board meeting Tuesday. But, “the entire underpinning of this discussion and the reason we asked staff to hire this expert panel is we don’t want to repeat those mistakes.”

The panel, seated by transit and major infrastructure project experts from across the United States, and internationally, recommended staff from various Bay Area transit agencies — from Caltrain to Muni — assemble their own specialized staff, and jointly hire new staff, to make the $6 billion downtown rail extension to the Salesforce Transit Center a reality.

That rail service to the Salesforce Transit Center may one day extend down to San Jose and up to Sacramento, and perhaps become a key link for the new second transbay rail crossing for an electrified Caltrain fleet.

At the very least, the project will see newly-electrified Caltrain cars that currently end their run at Fourth and King streets click-clack up Pennsylvania Avenue and into the basement of the transit center.

Isolating the Transbay Joint Powers Authority’s role in the Downtown Rail Extension project is far from a done deal: Transit officials will canvass the boards of various transportation agencies, from Caltrain to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, to ask them to agree to a memorandum of understanding to move forward with the plan.

Mark Zabaneh, the executive director of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, the agency the report recommended not lead the new project, said he had not had an opportunity to review the report in detail.

“We welcome all input that would seek to strengthen the Transbay Joint Powers Authority as well as the delivery of the Downtown Rail Extension to the Bay Area,” Zabaneh said in a statement. “We will fully evaluate the findings of the peer review and we look forward to working with the SFCTA and other partners to build regional support, fund phase 2 and successfully deliver this critical infrastructure project to the City, region and state without delay.”

Though the report recommends the Transbay Joint Powers Authority staff not directly lead phase 2, it did recommend Zabaneh and his team lead the day-to-day operations of the Salesforce Transit Center.

But finding new, regionally-minded leadership to sell the downtown rail extension as a critical link for the Bay Area’s transportation future is key to netting federal funding for the project, the peer review panel found.

“It’s really important to put this project in specific context, this is not a San Francisco project. This is a project with benefit to the region and the nation,” Pocari told the board.

He should know. Pocari served as deputy secretary of transportation in President Barack Obama’s administration, and most is interim executive director of the Gateway Development Corporation, which is building the $12 billion Gateway commuter-rail tunnel under the Hudson River.

While the price tag may not be as high, the Caltrain Downtown Extension will be similarly vital for Bay Area transit.

While creating a multi-region team from Bay Area transit agencies is not a common approach locally, it’s actually an international “best practice,” said Laura Tolkoff, regional planning policy director at SPUR, a local think tank.

An “integrated” approach allows different agencies with different toolsets to combine their specialties, Tolkoff said.

“Where you see it is in places like France, Germany, Canada, places where they do a lot of mega-projects,” Tolkoff said. It can also be a practice the Bay Area uses more, going forward, as regional leaders consider more wide-reaching transit infrastructure.

“Now is the right time to be holding up a mirror and think, how are we going to deliver these projects effectively, on time, and without major defect?” she said.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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