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Central Subway three years behind, budget runs over by $55 million

The completion timeline for San Francisco’s $1.6 billion Central Subway Project has been pushed out yet again, with revenue service not expected to be up and running until June 2021. The transit agency must now find ways to ensure funding is available for the duration of construction.

Nadeem Tahir took time since he came on board as the project’s permanent program director in July to assess the already delayed and overrun project’s status and remaining scope of work. Tahir presented his findings to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors Tuesday and outlined a new tentative schedule and funding suggestions.

Directors approved a Tutor Perini contract modification that alters the tentative schedule and settles $32 million in delayed claims caused by unforeseen site conditions and design changes demanded by transit planners. The $32 million will come out of the project’s contingency fund, which will now shrink to $15 million, Tahir said.

Jerold Chinn/SFBay Construction crew members work inside an elevator shaft inside the Muni Union Square station in San Francisco, on Thursday, July 25, 2019.

Nahir said paying the contractor for delayed costs will improve the strained relationship between the SFMTA and Tutor Perini. Nahir said:

“It allows us to work cooperatively in partnership and commits the contractor to finish the job.”

But the $32 million on its own does not get the project to the finish line. When probed for a total “ballpark” figure, SFMTA Acting Director Tom Maguire estimated the years-late project would require an additional $70 million to cover continuing claims, ongoing labor and non-construction costs. With only $15 million left in the Central Subway’s budget, SFMTA may have to dig into other rainy day or project funds for about $55 million.

The modified contract will help mitigate lost time by allowing other contractors — train control and radio systems — to work inside the subway system alongside Tutor Perini during completion of construction.

The SFMTA board first awarded Tutor Perini the contract in 2013 to build the 1.7-mile subway, which when finished will connect the T-Third line to Union Square, Moscone Center and Chinatown. The system was then expected to be complete by the end of June 2018 but is now three years behind schedule.

Tahir said delays stemmed in part from excavation methods used to limit the amount of street construction activity in the dense Chinatown neighborhood, adding that mining from below is most difficult.

Aaron Levy-Wolins/SFBay A wheelbarrow filled with dirt and rock rests at the Central Subway construction site in Chinatown in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, April 3, 2018.

A number of unexpected conditions, including tougher soil than planners originally anticipated, compounded issues and further delayed the project.

Steve Heminger, of the SFMTA board, saw the addition of a station plaza and elevator, requested after construction had already begun, as a major contributing factor.

Heminger said:

“That’s the culprit, it seems to me.”

Both Maguire and Tahir agreed that the design changes impacted the project schedule.

Jerold Chinn/SFBay Construction crew members head down to the subway platform of the Muni Union Square station in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, July 25, 2019.

It has been suggested that stations be opened separately as some are nearer completion than others, but Maguire said it was best for the transit agency to test the subway system as a whole.

Although no one was thrilled with news of the extended timeline and budget impact, Heminger did appreciate Tahir’s transparency.

Heminger said:

“No one likes overruns. No one likes delays. But what they like even less are overruns when you don’t tell them they’re there and delays when you don’t disclose them. I view the action today as the act of coming clean on what the finish line is going to look like.”

Chinatown community members are especially disappointed with the project’s delay. Jason Chommanard, representing Chinatown Transportation Research and Improvement Project, suggested the SFMTA board needs to identify ways to help Chinatown residents and merchants impacted by the construction.

Central Subway
<a>SFMTA</a>/Flickr A portion of the cavern that will become the Central Subway is seen in this underground photo on May 2, 2017.

Chommanard said:

“One of the strategies we want to see implemented is the creation of a shuttle bus program connecting neighborhoods with a high Asian population, such as the Richmond, Sunset, Bayview, Visitacion Valley to Chinatown, especially on the weekends.”

He added:

“Let’s make it easier for people to get to their medical appointments, to visit their grandparents and to go back home with groceries.”

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