SFMTA head says ‘culture of fear’ at agency contributed to series of botched capital projects

Supervisors lay into agency leadership after revelation that Twin Peaks Tunnel requires partial redo

San Francisco supervisors scolded Municipal Transportation Agency leadership Tuesday, after they learned the $52 million upgrade of the century-old Twin Peaks Tunnel would have to be partially redone.

SFMTA’s director of transit, Julie Kirschbaum, revealed that aging ballast rock — which stabilizes the track, allows trains to move through safely and creates effective drainage — was supposed to be swapped out in 2018 under the original project contract but was actually reused.

She said the decision was made jointly, largely in the field, by agency staff and contractors. However it is now causing potential problems with track stability.

Rectifying it will cost “tens of millions of dollars,” she told the County Transportation Authority board, on which the 11 members of the Board of Supervisors sit, calling the result an “unacceptable” outcome that reveals a number of process errors that need to be addressed moving forward.

Conciliation aside, the supervisors did not relent.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin ticked off the major SFMTA projects that have been botched, delayed, over-budget or, at times, all three, in just the last few years: the Central Subway, which now won’t open to revenue service until Spring 2022; the “screw-up” that was the Muni Rail relaunch in August; the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit Project; and, now, the Twin Peaks Tunnel.

“You’re out of excuses,” he said, later adding “the merry go-round has got to stop.”

Jeffrey Tumlin, who took charge of the transit agency in November last year after the Twin Peaks Tunnel project was completed, said he was working with his fellow executive team, including Kirschbaum and Tom Maguire, the director of sustainable streets, to provide employees down the chain of command with more support to feel comfortable coming forward with potential problems.

He pointed to a “culture of fear at the agency” as a significant reason why the capital projects have consistently not gone according to plan.

“This is something I’m working very hard to correct,” he said.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman asked staff to walk the board through who is responsible for potentially risky decisions like that of the ballast in the Twin Peaks Tunnel and the agency’s retroactive look-back process, ultimately boiling much of it down “to an accountability problem.”

Mandelman called it “extraordinary” that The City seems “unable to deliver a transportation-related capital project. “We can’t continue like this,” he said.

Tumlin responded with his intent to help employees not just identify problems, but also have the curiosity and confidence to come forward with solutions and consider the consequences of inaction.

“Employees are afraid to diagnose the problem and elevate it because they’re afraid it might make us look bad,” Tumlin said. “Well, nothing makes us look worse than failing to deliver service or delivering a project on time.”

Though SFMTA officials took the brunt of Tuesday’s beating, two contractors were also implicated in the debacle: Shimmick Construction out of Oakland and Con-Quest Contractors out of San Francisco.

Staff told the SFMTA board meeting in October, when it first revealed the Twin Peaks Tunnel ballast was going to have to be largely replaced after the botched original round of repairs, that the agency was in talks with the City Attorney’s Office about possible recourse.

The issues with ballast were not the only problems to occur during the Twin Peaks Tunnel project. One worker was killed on the project when a crane operator knocked over a steel beam, prompting Cal-OSHA to later fine the contractor $65,000. The Examiner reported that the contractor, Shimmick Construction, had failed to disclose previous safety violations to city officials while bidding for the project, prompting Mayor London Breed to order transit officials to revise policies around vetting contracts.

The project also combined with an agency-wide operator shortage to create widespread bus service gaps that transit officials did not disclose to riders or top city officials until they were revealed by reporting in the Examiner and Mission Local.

For his part, Tumlin remained confident the transit agency could bounce back and apply the lessons it’s learned from other initiatives during the COVID-19 emergency response to capital projects.

He praised the SFMTA for what he described as a revamped approach that has made the agency “the best in its industry” at delivering “small and midsize projects,” a process he hopes to replicate to overhaul the agency’s tarnished capital projects legacy.

“While I inherited a lot of these problems, I am now responsible for these problems and for rebuilding our approach,” Tumlin said.

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