A San Francisco bus lane project that cost the city over $300 million got even more expensive this past week when transit bosses approved a $5.1 million cost hike.
The Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit lanes—in operation for 16 months now—were already three years behind schedule and $35 million over budget.
But the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency voted Sept. 5 to increase the cost of the deal with the main contractor, Walsh Construction, from roughly $222 million to over $227 million, due to a claim from the company regarding delays and added staffing costs. Walsh did not respond to requests for comment.
Walsh worked with the city for a year to design the bus lanes and plan their construction, then spent the next six years building them.
The project involves two bus-only lanes allowing the 49 Muni bus and Golden Gate Transit buses to run faster along the north-south route through the heart of the city. The project also replaced water and sewer lines beneath Van Ness—which ran up the costs.
An underground mapping snafu in the project's early phases gave incorrect information on the infrastructure beneath Van Ness Avenue, causing delays that left streets and sidewalks torn up, reducing the flow of potential customers and enraging businesses along the corridor.
The $200 million-plus Walsh contract is just a part of the total $346 million cost announced in April 2022 when the lanes opened. The transit agency has not provided an updated total cost for the bus lane project.
The approval brings the cost of work on the Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit lanes by Walsh Construction up to $227,624,722 and 12 cents.
“This claim rolled up delays, extra work, a long laundry list of issues that the contractor had on the project,” Van Ness Bus Rapid Transit's project manager, Peter Gabancho, said during the Sept. 5 board meeting.
One line from the Walsh claim shared with The Standard by the SFMTA says the construction company took on higher staffing costs to address “SFMTA-caused impacts.”
The SFMTA did not share further details on the delays Walsh claims the agency caused, only saying in an email “the settlement represents a fair and reasonable allocation of responsibility.”
‘What Lies Beneath’
In a 2021 report—named in part “What Lies Beneath”—San Francisco’s Civil Grand Jury found the project took so long to build due to poor city planning early on in the project.
The report recommends all city departments have a policy to map out the underground of any work site during the planning phase to prevent any possible issues that could cause costly delays.
“It’s clear that the city has to revamp the way they work with their contractors,” said Simone Manganelli, the civil grand jury 2021-22 chairperson.
Despite the huge costs and delays in getting the bus lanes up and running, Gabancho said weekday rides on Muni are up to 30%, or 15 minutes, faster than before.
The bus lanes have also tripled ridership on the 90 San Bruno Owl night line, which runs from Visitacion Valley to Fort Mason from midnight to 5 a.m, Gabancho said.
“There have been a lot of challenges on this project; we’re all familiar with those,” SFMTA Board of Directors chair Amanda Eaken said at the meeting. “But those time savings are an incredible validation of the premise of bus rapid transit.”
Dylan Fabris, communications director at advocacy group San Francisco Transit Riders, believes the bus lanes are worth every penny and thinks the state should provide more funding for similar infrastructure.
“To fight climate change, we need to get people out of cars,” Fabris said. “These improvements could maybe get someone on the bus for the first time.”
The Standard spoke with more than a dozen passengers riding the 49 bus along Van Ness, the majority of whom said they felt the cost was worth it given the time saved.
“It’s a lot easier to get through, without all the traffic in the way,” San Francisco dog walker Erin Rubin said.
Esmeralda Celis said the city should have used the millions spent on the bus lanes to address other problems, especially around public education.
“I don’t think it’s worth it,” said Celis, who has three school-age children in San Francisco public schools. “We could be investing in schools and paying teachers better.”