A construction worker rides on top of materials being transported out of the Twin Peaks Tunnel as work continues at West Portal Station on Thursday, August 16, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SFMTA’s poor track record on capital projects risks losing ‘public trust’

Supervisors say cost overruns and delays could jeapordize future ballot revenue measures

Some San Francisco supervisors are worried that The City’s transit agency has lost the public’s trust.

They point to a City Controller’s audit of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, released in February, that concluded poor internal and inter-agency communication, inadequate project management processes and a lack of accountability or consistency has cost The City millions of dollars and nearly two years in capital project delays.

“These are the things that really erode public trust,” Supervisor Connie Chan said at the County Transportation Authority Meeting on April 13. “We need to do better, and we need to do better immediately and now.”

Without the confidence of the public, supervisors fear voters will be less willing to vote in favor of likely upcoming ballot measures that would help to fund SFMTA.

Both the reauthorization of Proposition K, a half-cent sales tax designed to fund transit-related capital projects, and a separate measure that would provide a stable source of funding for SFMTA’s operating budget are currently under consideration for the 2022 ballot.

“We have got to bust out some moves before we go to the voters,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said, noting he’d want to see “punctuated, marked improvement” in SFMTA’s capital project delivery before asking for more funding from residents.

Officials from SFMTA say they’re on track to demonstrate that kind of progress.

Of the City Controller’s 16 recommendations, SFMTA has already successfully implemented five, according to acting Chief Financial Officer Jonathan Rewers. The agency has committed to completing “most” of the remaining 11 within the next two years.

These efforts include creation of more clear definitions for budget management; setting rigorous standards around preliminary engineering reports and contractor safety assessments; developing more accurate cost and timeline estimates; improved accountability; and work on the part of the Project Management Office to develop training to improve communication and collaboration among employees.

“When the MTA is unsuccessful at delivering projects, it absolutely does impact the public with regard to service and the safety of our streets,” Rewers said, noting there is “definitely work to be done.”

Key to that work will be creating an environment in which employees at every level feel comfortable pointing out areas of concern, empowered to suggest solutions and motivated to avoid consequences that could result from inaction.

As recently as last fall when it was revealed that the $52 million upgrade to the Twin Peaks Tunnel would have to be partially redone, SFMTA leadership blamed a “culture of fear at the agency” for why capital projects consistently have not gone according to plan.

“I take the need to communicate internally very seriously, and there’s specific training we’ll do around that because some of it is very technical, but it’s also very cultural,” Tom Maguire, who runs the Streets Division at SFMTA, said to the supervisors. “We need a culture of collaboration.”

Supervisors also asked the agency to bring back a more robust explanation of SFMTA’s organizational chart and its plans for leveraging the resources and expertise its employees provide.

Seventh in a series of divisional audits at the SFMTA, the City Controller’s report focused specifically on the agency’s capital improvement programs by evaluating four projects: the Twin Peaks Tunnel Trackway Improvement; Green Light Rail Center Track Replacement; UCSF Platform and Track Improvement; and 5-Fulton Outer Route Fast Track Transit Enhancements.

All were found to have been hampered by cost overruns and delays.

The Twin Peaks Tunnel required $523,000 in change orders and a potential $3 to $9 million cost increase that could have been avoided had SFMTA sufficiently communicated the need to test for and remove hazardous materials.

Similarly, poor communication with the Public Works Department yielded a 1.7-year project delay and $23,000 in change order costs for the 5-Fulton project.

“By no means are we trying to suggest that we’re done or that we have this all figured out, Maguire said. “It’s a work in progress.”

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