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Civil Grand Jury takes aim at delays, deficiencies in Van Ness Improvement Project

A report released Monday by a San Francisco Civil Grand Jury takes aim at the lengthy delays and deficiencies in construction of the Van Ness Improvement Project, the bus rapid transit system that will run down the center of Van Ness Avenue between Mission and Lombard streets.

The jury, consisting of 19 residents chosen by the San Francisco Superior Court, looked into why the new system is taking so long to complete. The project broke ground in March 2017, but not before years of planning, design and public outreach meetings. Since then, the project has been riddled with numerous delays, largely due to underground utility issues.

While the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has functioned as the project lead, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission performed work to replace the water main and sewer system, and overhaul the emergency fire fighting system before surface work could be done.

While digging along Van Ness Avenue, crews encountered abandoned utilities they were unprepared for, project manager Peter Gabancho told city supervisors in 2018

In the report, the jury report criticized the SFMTA for not adequately assessing underground utilities during planning and design phases, which could have provided the agency with a more accurate project completion timeline and helped avoid cost overruns. The report said the agency could have used potholing, radar and surface inspections to identify the areas of concern.

Potholing is a method of creating a series of holes to help identify utility locations and gauge accuracy of the maps given to crews. The report said the SFPUC requested “exploratory potholing” prior to construction, but it did not occur during the planning phase.

The SFMTA eventually used ground-penetrating radar, but only after work was in progress and utility maps were found to be inaccurate.

It was also suggested the agency could have completed simple surface inspections by walking up and down the project area and comparing utility indicators, like manhole covers and/or removable plates, to the current utility map.

Van Ness BRT groundbreaking
Jerold Chinn/SFBay Construction crews start digging dirt in the median on Van Ness Avenue between Grove and McAllister streets.

The report said:

“Extensive assessment of the utility map during the planning process, using any method, would have yielded a more accurate project plan.”

Additionally, the jury focused on the project’s contractor and management bidding process for the contractor and management of the project.

In conclusion, the jury found that the project, which has been closely watched by the public, may result in a loss of confidence in the SFMTA. The report said:

“It is understandable that a project of this magnitude and complexity would take many years to plan and construct. But the missteps during the planning and preconstruction phases that eventually impacted construction adversely affected users of the roadway as well as residents and businesses along the corridor.”

While it’s too late to correct some of the issues now, the report said The City should take steps to ensure similar mistakes are not made in the future.

In a statement, SFMTA spokesperson Erica Kato said the agency appreciated the findings and input provided by Civil Grand Jury’s report and said several issues raised have also been identified in prior internal audits. She said the agency will incorporate the lessons learned into planning of other capital projects.

However, Kato added that the report failed to “properly reflect the roles and responsibilities of a Construction Management General Contractor on a capital construction project as complex as the Van Ness Improvement Project.”

In a blog post on the SFMTA website, the agency said the project is “near completion,” with service expected to be running early next year. The original project projection had penned late 2019 for the start of revenue service.

The full jury report can be accessed online.

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