Caltrain is working to electrify its system. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF lawmakers warn Caltrain to come clean on electrification project delays

Caltrain officials took a drubbing from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, after a construction contractor warned a long-awaited electrification project might be delayed as long as a year.

The work to electrify Caltrain is part of a $2.26 billion suite of upgrades to the system and could bring increased transit service to the Peninsula. Transit officials view the project as vital to helping the commutes of 1.2 million new residents projected to live along the train system’s route by 2040.

But that project may be a year late, warned contractor Balfour Beatty Infrastructure, with construction complete in April 2022.

That caution came in a report to the San Francisco County Transportation Authority board, whose members are also the Board of Supervisors, which they discussed with Caltrain officials Tuesday.

Caltrain, however, maintains that it will debut its electrification system on time. Supervisor Sandra Fewer pushed Caltrain Electrification Project Director John Funghi on Tuesday for answers.

“Why the discrepancy? And who is right?” she asked.

Funghi said Caltrain denied requests by Balfour Beatty Infrastructure to extend its contract deadlines. Instead, transit officials offer “assistance” to help them “be successful,” Funghi said.

“We are enforcing the terms of the contract,” he said.

Balfour Beatty Infrastructure was awarded the $697 million contract to build out Caltrain’s electrification system in 2017. The contractor told Caltrain officials it encountered underground utilities that weren’t on county plans, said Funghi.

A report to the transportation authority board shows progress to help Balfour Beatty Infrastructure’s electrification work has fluctuated: production “improved” in recent months, but production was “back down” again afterward, according to a transportation authority agenda document.

Importantly, before joining Caltrain in 2017, Funghi led another billion-dollar-plus transit construction effort: The Central Subway.

The Central Subway has seen its own delays, with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency declaring it officially three years late in an announcement this month.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin told Funghi he did not want Caltrain to repeat the mistakes SFMTA made on the Central Subway project. Importantly, he recalled, a federal oversight monitor repeatedly warned of delays to Central Subway construction that Muni denied, then years later admitted, eroding public trust.

“I know it’s a sensitive topic,” Peskin told Funghi and other Caltrain leaders. But, “the best policy any agency can have in the delivery of very complex capital projects is to be honest and forthright with the public and decision makers.”

“It’s better than ripping the bandaid off at the end,” Peskin added.

A similar federal oversight monitor report also warned of delays to the Caltrain electrification project.

Consequently, the Federal Transit Administration will host workshops between late September and October this year to review the project’s status and give its own input on the electrification project timeline.

While Caltrain may seem like a far-flung worry for those commuting from the East Bay, or who commute by car or Muni in San Francisco, the system’s electrification may prove to be a key component of Bay Area-wide public transit, transit officials have said.

One day, those electric trains may zoom into the Salesforce Transit Center, which currently hosts only buses, and sometime within the next century those trains may connect to a new underwater transbay tube alongside BART. Those plans are all twinkles in transit planners’ eyes, for now, but the foundations for that future are being laid now.

This debriefing was key, then, as the transportation authority weighs multiple future efforts: How much, and when, to fund further Caltrain initiatives, and how to proceed with reshaping Caltrain’s leadership structure as the agency grows in ridership.

The transportation authority has committed $41 million to the electrification project so far.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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