The mess on Van Ness: New report sheds light on SF’s biggest traffic hassle

‘It is extraordinary that this city seems unable to deliver a transportation-related capital project’

If you want to show up on time for wherever you’re going, don’t take Van Ness Avenue.

That’s been the mantra of many San Franciscans for the better part of the last five years, as one of The City’s primary thoroughfares has become an unwieldy maze of detours, construction materials and confusing street signage. Drivers lay on their horns in a futile attempt to spur the surrounding gridlock forward, while transit riders sit idly in the same congestion.

“It is extraordinary that this city seems unable to deliver a transportation-related capital project,” said Supervisor Rafael Mandelman at a County Transportation Authority meeting, back in November 2020.

When the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency sold the public on the idea of a massive improvement project on Van Ness, they billed it as a surefire way to transform and revitalize a prominent north-south corridor plagued by congestion and slow transit times.

Now, nearly 18 years since the residents voted to allocate tax dollars towards bus rapid transit on Van Ness; eight years after the Board of Supervisors approved the project; five years since construction started, and three years later than the projected completion date, the public still hasn’t been able to reap the benefits of the two-decades-old promise.

City transit officials have repeatedly attributed the delays and ballooning costs on the Van Ness Avenue Project to unexpected conditions underground that required the removal of century-old infrastructure.

But a recent report from the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury concludes these failures could have been largely mitigated if not for organizational shortcomings and negligence in the steps before construction.

“These missed opportunities impacted the construction phase adversely, to the point that The City was unable to manage the project effectively after ground was broken,” the report states.

The project, which includes San Francisco’s first bus rapid transit route to speed up Muni, refurbished medians and sidewalks, corridor-wide beautification and pedestrian safety measures along the two-mile roadway, is now expected to open for service early next year.

In the interim, nearby businesses continue to struggle, Muni remains slower than it should be and public frustration persists.

Based on extensive review of documents and interviews with city officials and non-city employees, the Grand Jury concluded that SFMTA fell short in three main ways:

— It did not adequately analyze the infrastructure below the ground.

— It selected a contractor, Walsh Construction, that was cheaper but not the most technically qualified

— It didn’t adequately share cost and responsibility between the various stakeholders required to effectively pull off such a complex project.

The result? A total mess on Van Ness, the report concludes.

RedConcrete

SFMTA pushes back on the Grand Jury’s finding that blame for the project’s egregious delays and 12 percent budget overrun should fall squarely on the transit agency’s shoulders.

“The report tells a one-sided story with little emphasis on the contractor’s role and responsibilities,” said spokesperson Erica Kato. “Multiple key issues in the report […] have all been the subject of contractor claims which were resolved in a way that acknowledged shared responsibility between the SFMTA and the contractor.”

She also emphasized that above-ground work is tracking on time and within the budget.

That’s not to say the SFMTA has shirked all wrongdoing in this bungled effort.

The agency has accepted responsibility for letting runaway contractor fees balloon the initiative’s $309 million budget; acknowledged its lack of transparency, and implemented changes in project management style to add more personnel on the ground.

But the report calls out another concerning result of the botched execution on Van Ness Avenue, one that’s far less tangible but arguably more concerning than any line item on a budget: the loss of the public’s trust and confidence.

Without that, SFMTA risks losing broad backing for funding toward capital investments, the willingness of residents to ride the transit system and, perhaps most pressingly, the support of voters to approve a likely ballot measure in 2022 that would fund the transit agency.

“We all want to see transit get faster and better in The City, but we’ve all seen that The City has a perennial problem when delivering major capital projects,” said Simone Manganelli, a member of the Civil Grand Jury. “We were trying to look for best practices and common-sense improvements that will streamline city operations during these large projects.”

According to Kato, many of the 11 recommendations put forth by the Grand Jury are already under way at the agency, in part due to their appearance in previous audits and reviews.

She points to Geary Boulevard as a counterpoint, where SFMTA has been able to deliver a project on time and within the budget for a fraction of the cost of comparable work on Van Ness Avenue.

Both projects had to grapple with upgrades to fix 100-year-old water and sewer infrastructure. But the placement of transit-only lanes on the curbside of Geary negated the need to entirely replace the sewer alignment deep underground. It also allowed SFMTA to do spot pedestrian safety treatments such as extended sidewalks and bulb-outs rather than replace and improve the median along the entire roadway.

The Grand Jury report recommends additional measures to improve performance, including adoption of a policy that would require The City to provide an itemized assessment of risk and possible solutions; mandatory measures to explore the underground infrastructure as part of the design process, and the use of an in-person liaison to facilitate work on-the-ground for any project.

SFMTA did not comment on whether it would work to implement these recommendations specifically, but did say it would respond to the Grand Jury with its plans to incorporate the report’s findings into future work.

Still, whether this vision of the SFMTA as an efficient, expedient, transparent agency capable of reliably delivering capital projects as promised remains to be seen.

Kato said the transit agency plans “to further explain the SFMTA’s perspective and to outline how the SFMTA will apply lessons learned to deliver successful projects now and in the future.”

cgraf@sfexaminer.com

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