SFMTA board scrutinizes Van Ness BRT spending

Proposed contract modification would allocate $2.6 million for pedestrian monitors

By this time next year, “we will be watching the paint dry” on the long awaited Van Ness Avenue Bus Rapid Transit build, Peter Gabancho, project manager, told the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors this week.

But not without at least a small fight over $2.6 million dollars first.

SFMTA asked the board to approve a contract modification to allot roughly $2.6 million to pay for additional pedestrian monitors, employees who man crosswalks and intersections to ensure people don’t wander into the construction site.

Though the budget already accounted for four “flaggers,” employees who control traffic near the construction sites, the contractor, Walsh Construction Company II, LLC, reported “it became apparent that, at times, the level of pedestrian traffic along Van Ness exceeded the level that the flaggers could comfortably control,” according to the staff report.

Fundamentally, it’s a safety concern for construction crews and residents traveling along the corridor, Gabancho said, pointing to the “tens of millions” of dollars the budget provides for traffic control, of which these additional pedestrian monitor are a part.

This money would first backpay funds already spent and invoiced by Walsh from February 2018 to May 2020 in response to reports of pedestrians ignoring or not understanding existing signage near the construction site. It would also cover the estimated cost of these monitors for the duration of construction, estimated to be next year.

Moving forward, the contractor would be required to ask for approval to employ pedestrian monitors, and the SFMTA must sign off on that request before the money can actually be spent.

What concerned some members of the board, though, was that the SFMTA owes money to the contractor for money it already spent without approval.

Director Sharon Lai questioned the wisdom in “back payments,” pressed staff when they couldn’t produce an exact number for what had already been billed and said this problem was emblematic of many challenges faced by the agency with its contract process.

The Van Ness Corridor Improvement Project was billed as a high-minded effort to decrease Muni travel times with transit-only lanes, improved transit reliability, upgraded sewer and water facilities, enhanced pedestrian safety and beautification efforts for one of The City’s central corridors.

The latest sign of progress was the pouring of red concrete along the street last month, which will be the foundation for the bus rapid-transit lanes down the center of Van Ness Avenue.

Four years into what was supposed to be a three-year project, though, the red lanes were another example of the lengthening timeline for completion — it’s now projected for early 2022 — and ballooning costs.

Board members took out much of their pent up frustration Tuesday on this $2.6 million line item, or around 1 percent of the entire project budget.

With Lai largely leading the charge, members board challenged staff for more specificity on the back pay totals, questioned the decision to include a “cushion” in the dollar request given the agency’s budget crisis and asked for details about how the team arrived at its cost estimate.

They were largely disappointed with the answers.

“I think we should get better staff work so we can proceed through these items on a rapid basis,” Director Steve Heminger said. “But with every question, we got more questions […] I certainly hope we can get better presentations in the future.”

The board also asked for assurances that the delays, which the SFMTA has attributed to issues including unexpected encounters with abandoned gas lines underground during the utility upgrade work, wouldn’t continue over the next 12 months.

Gabancho said he “fully expects” for the construction to be completed by the end of next year because the work now is focused mostly on surface-level changes that are less likely to encounter unexpected obstacles.

After construction, there will be driver training and touch-ups before it can open for revenue service.

The $2.6 million in question would come from the construction contract’s contingency fund, so approval wouldn’t be creating any new expenditures for the project or growing the budget. Simply put, it would just reallocate the money between line items.

In response to board concerns about runaway contractor fees, Gabancho emphasized the team had negotiated the original request down from $9 million to the proposed $2.6 million and highlighted the process put in place to ensure SFMTA signed off on every additional body hired as a pedestrian monitor.

Lai said she found the use of contingency funds for this purpose “concerning” and alerted staff she planned to scrutinize contracts much more carefully moving forward given the current budget environment, perhaps a sign of what’s to come as the board identifies every possible savings in order to avoid mass layoffs.

Ultimately, staff recommended the agenda item be continued to another meeting when they could return with a more thorough presentation that better responded to the board’s questions.

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