A man walks by the fenced-off Muni Bay at Salesforce Transit Center on Friday, June 28, 2019. The center, which has been shuttered since last September, is set to reopen on Monday, July 1. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

While Salesforce Transit Center reopens, SF looks at replacing its leadership

Cracked steel beams supporting the Salesforce Transit Center’s third-floor bus deck led to the building’s temporary closure in September last year.

But even as officials prepare to reopen the $2.2 billion center on July 1 after months of repairs, cracks are widening elsewhere this time, in the center’s leadership.

Political and transit officials are awaiting the results of a peer review report examining potential changes in the management of the transit center needed to successfully bring long-promised rail service from the Peninsula to San Francisco’s downtown and beyond. While no specific proposals are on the table yet, officials in the past have publicly discussed replacing the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, which managed the transit center project, wholesale.

The analysis, which will be presented to the board in late July, was called for by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, chair of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority board.

“If we spend more time on this now, we will collectively save hours of heartache over the next many years,” Peskin said at the transportation authority’s regular meeting June 25. “We’re invested in comprehensively getting this right.”

The transit center, which opened in August last year, is intended to serve as Phase 1 of a rail service expansion that will benefit the entire Bay Area.

A planned $6 billion second phase in the project, known as the Caltrain Downtown Extension, will bring newly-electrified Caltrain cars that currently end their run at Fourth and King streets up Pennsylvania Avenue and into the basement of the transit center.

For now, the center serves only buses and those cavernous rail tunnels lay empty, waiting.

The panel of transportation experts from across the United States conducting the review for the SFCTA is intended to help San Francisco craft its sales pitch for the Caltrain-focused rail expansion, billing it as a grand project playing a key role in the Bay Area’s economic future.

But in an initial presentation on June 25, the panel argued that the project is being undersold to the public.

Even though it only spans a few San Francisco neighborhoods — from Mission Bay to South of Market — it’s actually a vital link in the Bay Area’s transit future, the panel argued.

It may even one day be a stop for the much-anticipated second transbay rail crossing, a future BART hub or a station for Capitol Corridor trains linking San Francisco to Sacramento, ferrying millions of future commuters further out into the Bay Area’s fringes than is possible today.

That expanded rail capacity is sorely needed even now, as anyone who commutes on congested roadways or packed BART cars would attest. And in 50 years the region’s population is set to increase again by many millions.

“The (name) ‘downtown extension’ doesn’t get to the benefit of what this project can accomplish and the benefit value to the larger region,” said John D. Porcari, one of the peer review panel members, at the transportation authority meeting.

One of the panel’s recommendations, then, is to rename and re-brand the project in a way that broadcasts this significance to those who will ultimately decide to fund it.

That funding is far from guaranteed.

‘Someone to knock heads together’

To transit officials, insiders and citizen watchdogs, that scope also highlights the need to ensure Phase 2’s leadership is up to the task of politically wrangling stakeholders from Sacramento to Washington D.C., where the downtown extension will compete with projects across California and the nation for scarce grant funding.

“You need leadership, someone to stand up and knock heads together,” said Gerald Cauthen, a retired civil engineer from consultancy Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, Inc.

Cauthen has long played a citizen watchdog role on the downtown extension project because he has a personal and professional stake. Prior to his retirement in 2004, he helped craft the earliest studies into the extension. Now in his spare time, he lambasts San Francisco officials for dragging their feet on a project that started in the mid-1990s.

When he and other planners first sketched out early versions of the downtown extension, Cauthen’s hair sported waves of brown and gray. Now as he stands at podiums in sparsely-attended City Hall meetings, urging city leaders to finally, finally hammer down steel tracks under the Salesforce Transit Center, his hair is snowy white.

“I won’t say Peskin is wrong to have a look” at the project’s leadership, Cauthen said. To finally move the project forward, “they need someone with authority and influence.”

That said, he also worries the effort will further delay the downtown extension’s construction.

“I think it’s completely cocked-up,” he said.

But if no one intervenes and the project remains on autopilot, Phase 2 will be led by the Transbay Joint Powers Authority, the same body that marshaled the Salesforce Transit Center to a bumpy completion.

Not everyone is so sure that’s a good idea.

Different skills needed

The transportation authority’s peer review panel members understand projects of this scale because they’ve been involved in such endeavors themselves.

Porcari currently serves as interim executive director of the Gateway Development Corporation, which is building the $12 billion Gateway commuter-rail tunnel under the Hudson River. It’s seen as an important link in East Coast transit infrastructure, on the scale of BART here in the Bay Area.

He also served as deputy secretary of transportation in President Barack Obama’s administration. It’s that same national perspective Porcari brought when describing the need for prominent leadership on the downtown extension project in an interview with the San Francisco Examiner Thursday.

“If you think of the rail program as the foundational connective element of the region, of rail service eventually from Sacramento to Gilroy, including the Bay Area at its core, it really argues for the extraordinary project and financial building skills that some of the biggest projects in the world have required,” Porcari said.

“The sum of the technical and organizational skills necessary for the rail portion, Phase 2, are different than Phase 1,” he added.

‘A lack of confidence’

Infamously, the construction of the Salesforce Transit Center first encountered problems far before anyone began worrying about steel beams.

In 2016, a purported $260 million construction deficit grabbed headlines and led the late Mayor Ed Lee to replace former Joint Powers Authority Executive Director Maria Ayerdi-Kaplan. The current executive director, Mark Zabaneh, has presided over the discovery of the cracked steel beams and other design flaws that led to the replacement of the transit center’s rooftop park walkway and reported vacancies throughout the transit center’s planned retail spaces.

Adding to TJPA’s woes, the transit center’s two construction firms, Webcor Builders and Obayashi Corp., filed suit against the agency for $150 million, citing design and planning mistakes, in October last year.

Pointing to these and other “failures,” in October last year the transportation authority suspended $9.6 million aimed at TJPA’s future rail planning.

“From this board at least, or this body, there has been a lack of confidence on a wider scale,” former Supervisor Katy Tang said at the time.

Tang, Peskin and their fellow supervisors said The City must research alternatives to the TJPA’s leadership in order to restore faith in its ability, or a future organization’s ability, to build rail under and to the Salesforce Transit Center.

“Those have been the vexing questions everyone has danced around,” Peskin said, at the June 25 transportation authority meeting. “This is very important.”

‘Strengthen the team’

While the peer review panel deliberates on TJPA’s future, Zabaneh, the organization’s executive director, has created a peer review panel of his own.

That panel was led by the American Public Transportation Association, a body formed of state and local transportation agencies. In its final report on TJPA’s organizational challenges and the Caltrain Downtown Extension Phase 2, it recommended expanding the size of TJPA itself.

Right now, much of the TJPA’s key work depends on outside consultants, the transportation association said, a vexing problem for the start of Phase 2 when new consultants are expected to be selected.

Years of knowledge and experience may vanish.

“A 10-year multi billion-dollar program needs a robust in-house management organization,” the transportation association’s panel wrote. It recommended TJPA hire more personnel to lend stability to the organization.

That was music to Zabaneh’s ears; at the transportation authority on June 25, he said that expanding the TJPA’s staff, rather than eliminating or reorganizing the agency, may be the best way to secure the downtown extension’s future.

“I do want to emphasize the best way to move forward is to strengthen the TJPA, strengthen the team,” he told Peskin publicly. Many of the agency’s woes began before his tenure, he added.

To the Examiner, Zabaneh said “The TJPA is a well-rounded, collaborative body with a deep well of expertise and a strong vision to effectively lead and deliver Phase 2 of the Transbay Program/Downtown Extension Project. This is the sole purpose of the TJPA and its mission, vision and goal.”

While Zabaneh’s panel concluded the stewards of the Salesforce Transit Center should be bolstered, the conclusions of the transportation authority’s peer review panel have yet to be revealed.

Expected to debut July 23, the panel’s report could spur action from San Francisco officials that will shape the future of the Bay Area’s transit for years to come.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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