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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

SF’s Transit Project Delays and Waste Are Laid Bare on ‘Better’ Market Street

The money isn’t there for a dramatic transformation of the city’s backbone, our transit agency says. When it comes to doing big things, though, SFMTA has deeper problems.


The Frisc

Next month, a once-ambitious plan to radically remake Market Street, now kneecapped by fears of a COVID budget crunch, will come under the scrutiny of the SF Board of Supervisors.

But the hearing, slated for late June, won’t just be about finding more dollars, or salvaging what one transit official called a “once in a generation” redesign through the heart of the city. What takes place could shed light on a much deeper problem: the cost overruns and disheartening delays that often tie up parts of the city during transit projects like the Central Subway line to Chinatown, so far three and a half years late and $240 million over budget; and the Twin Peaks tunnel fiasco, in which a 2.2-mile track replacement was botched.

Even if federal rescue dollars can patch the city’s transit budget, its long-term woes won’t be fixed without overhauls, as a recent scathing audit of the SF Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) made clear.

A microscope is now on the Market Street project, 10 years in the making and slated to break ground this year. Though the Department of Public Works nominally leads the coalition of agencies on the project, SFMTA has been out front presenting the controversial changes and budget woes, and taking fire from the Board of Supervisors and bike and pedestrian advocates.

Doubts about Better Market Street are now inseparable from a much larger question: Can our transit agency get its act together?

From cheers to jeers

When the Better Market Street plans were approved in October 2019, a crowd of pedestrian and bike advocates roared with applause outside City Hall at the promise of wider sidewalks, a new sidewalk-level bike lane, a ban on cars, utilities moved underground, and a faster ride for 200 buses per hour during peak times.

The plan is the latest in the city’s seemingly eternal quest to restore a sense of common purpose to Market Street; in a town of neighborhoods, Market is meant to be a public space for all San Franciscans. Instead of a thoroughfare to avoid unless necessary, it would be a street for safe, efficient travel and a destination where residents could live and linger. Mayor London Breed recently unveiled a new safety plan for the area too, emphasizing Market Street’s essential role in the social and economic livelihood of the city.

But in October 2020, many elements of the original Better Market plan were stripped from the project, like the custom bike lane. It seemed COVID would crush the city budget, and the proposed changes were to save $63 million on phase one of the project, from 5th to 8th Street, set to break ground this year.

Now, it proposes what are essentially infrastructure upgrades. The SF Bike Coalition and other critics cried foul. During the pandemic, the agency had already spent money on large highway construction projects, and the truncated Market Street plan seemed “rushed and shortsighted” — even with a still-hefty $111 million budget left for 5th to 8th Street alone.

Even more frustrating, just before the plan was scaled back last fall, SFMTA was already reporting it would cost an extra $15 million — and it wasn’t even close to breaking ground.

The city’s budget crunch is suddenly less dire, at least in the short term, thanks to federal stimulus dollars. The latest citywide projection: a $157 million surplus for the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30. (SFMTA is using $127 million in stimulus funds to balance its budget, according to the latest analysis.)

But it won’t matter how much money SFMTA has to spend, because poor communication, bad priorities, and a dysfunctional bureaucracy have repeatedly fed cost overruns and delays, according to an audit released in February by the Office of the Controller — in effect, City Hall’s fiscal watchdog.

The audit is the latest of the agency’s headaches in recent years: sexual harassment scandals that led to resignations and firings, budget woes, driver shortages, and, just after Mayor Breed appointed Jeffrey Tumlin in December 2019 as the new executive director, the existential threat brought on by COVID.

Last month, in a grilling at the April 13th SF County Transportation Authority board meeting, transit officials did not dispute any of the audit’s findings and promised they were well on their way to fixing the problems. But just like the competing street grids that collide at Market Street, the once-ambitious plan to overhaul Market and the controller’s report are meeting at odd angles.

Though everyone from SF transit officials to elected officeholders to city residents want improvements, there’s little indication of progress, which leaves Better Market Street as both an example of the agency’s dysfunctional project delivery process, and a test as to whether they can fix it.

Waste of time and money

In the long history of big civil projects, these numbers don’t immediately jump off the page: 1.7 years of delay and $9 million in cost overruns. According to the controller’s audit, that’s how much time and money the SFMTA wasted per project, across four projects from 2016 to 2020, because of flaws in SFMTA’s “collaboration, communication, and decision-making framework.”

That might sound dull and bureaucratic, but those problems have consequences in wasted taxpayer money and lost commuter time.

The four major projects were the closure and renovation of the Twin Peaks Tunnel; extensive upgrades at the light rail maintenance yard near Balboa Park, construction of a new T Third line platform at UCSF Mission Bay, and new traffic signals and curb extensions to accelerate a section of the 5 Fulton bus route.

Most egregious was the Twin Peaks Tunnel, which carries the K, L, M, and T lines from Castro Street Station to West Portal Station. After replacing the track, the agency had to rip it up and do it again because they reused the tunnel’s century-old track ballast without cleaning it first.

Here’s a summary of several of the audit’s findings. Some are startling, like improper vetting of safety records, while others are more technical.

Accountability and communication: According to the audit, different divisions within the agency weren’t communicating, sharing key documents, or including staff with necessary expertise in project decisions. The audit laid blame on both employees and management, citing both “consistent absenteeism” and “a lack of empowerment” as key factors. One example: SFMTA knew about hazardous materials in the Twin Peaks Tunnel but didn’t “effectively and fully communicate” the need for testing and removal, which led to the do-over, part of the $35 million cost overrun and delay of more than a year.

Contractor vetting: For three of the projects in the audit, SFMTA “did not include or consider safety history” when awarding contracts. A key contract in the Twin Peaks Tunnel work went to a company with a record of safety violations. Halfway through the project, in August 2018, a construction worker died after being hit by a steel beam.

Bad budgeting: SFMTA’s engineering and cost estimates were missing key elements and didn’t budget for worst-case scenarios and other risks, according to the audit. The agency has software to help with these estimates but didn’t use it, and employees doing the work had insufficient knowledge and training, according to the audit.

Repeating mistakes: SFMTA doesn’t track data that other major transit agencies use to avoid repeat mistakes, according to the audit. For example, SFMTA can’t say how many capital projects start on time, finish on time, or stay on budget. SFMTA also doesn’t analyze “change orders” — contractual changes to the scope, budget, or duration of a project — to look for patterns of inefficiency. (The audit came out right around the time when the SFMTA board approved $147 million in change orders for the Central Subway project, now set for completion two years after its initial deadline.)

As a point of comparison, Los Angeles County’s transportation agency Metro tracks capital projects via monthly reports that compare a project’s actual timeline and budget to the original plans, and highlights upcoming milestones for the next six months.

Learning best practices from other agencies in the United States and beyond would seem to be a no-brainer. France, for example, often builds projects larger than SF’s Central Subway at a fraction of the cost, says NYU Marron Institute fellow and transportation researcher Alon Levy. But expertise from other cities and states is “disrespected in the United States,” says Levy, who adds SFMTA’s insularity prevents it from learning quickly from its mistakes.

Nobody does it better?

In the April Transit Authority board meeting, there was no discussion of learning from other cities. In an interview after the meeting, Sup. Rafael Mandelman told The Frisc he has spoken with the county transportation authority’s executive director, Tilly Chang, about doing outside evaluations.

(SF’s 11 supervisors also serve as the county’s transit board; Mandelman is the transit board chair.)

‘They’ve suggested [the first phase of Better Market Street] could be a two- to four-year project. What about the rest?’ — Sup. Rafael Mandelman

There was plenty of pointed talk, however, about learning from other agencies within San Francisco. Sup. Aaron Peskin, a frequent critic of SFMTA and the transit board’s vice chair, went as far as to suggest that it should hand over some of its duties to the SF Public Utilities Commission.

The controller’s audit made many recommendations to improve SFMTA; stripping responsibility was not one of them.

There’s a recent precedent of angry supervisors busting up a beleaguered agency. Last year, a board majority put Proposition B on the ballot to split the Department of Public Works in two. It passed handily.

Asked about SFMTA reform after the meeting, Mandelman was critical of the agency’s track record and said, “Is there some way that we can use knowledge and competence and skills from one department in another? Those are the kinds of questions I would like to figure out.”

Stephanie Wagner, president of a civil engineering firm that often works on LA Metro projects, says shifting responsibility would be an extreme response to the audit. “A public utility agency does not have the structural and rail knowledge including all the laws, regulations and history to manage a transportation agency,” she notes. “The best course may be to restructure the [SF]MTA to address the audit deficiencies, and that begins with strong leadership and commitment.”

In the April meeting, SFMTA officials said the agency has been working to fix systemic problems for some time, well before the audit was released, and they’re seeing results. “At the agency we focus on constant improvement,” Jonathan Rewers, SFMTA’s acting chief financial officer, said multiple times.

Market value

When Better Market Street was approved in 2019, the finish line for the entire project was set for 2025. Now, the project’s website doesn’t offer a completion date, only an estimate for the end of phase one — the stretch of Market between 5th and 8th Streets.

There’s no better bellwether for the entire project. “They’ve suggested it could be a two- to four-year project,” says Mandelman. ”What about the rest?”

San Franciscans want an answer, too. From 2015 through 2019, there were 4 fatal crashes involving pedestrians or bicyclists on the stretch of Market Street in question, and dozens of injury collisions. More delays mean more injuries and deaths.

There’s another toll beyond the deaths, injuries, and wasted money. Small businesses along Market Street, already suffering a severe decrease in revenue with the disappearance of office workers, will face inevitable disruption with construction at their doorsteps. Once a project starts, it needs to finish as fast as possible to minimize their pain.

At next month’s Transportation Authority board meeting, the supervisors will review phase one of Better Market Street and revisit the audit, according to a Mandelman aide. It’s an opportunity to figure out whether the project’s pandemic setbacks have only been a temporary speed bump or a permanent roadblock. Sure, if money is suddenly available again — and if SFMTA’s promised reforms are indeed taking hold — Better Market Street could once again be its best self. But momentum is heading in the wrong direction.

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based writer covering cannabis, tech, and local news. See more of her work here.

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