The SFMTA brass got a talking-to from the Board of Supervisors this week about their inability to complete big projects on time and on budget — and the scolding came after the revelation that the Twin Peaks Tunnel improvement project that was completed last year actually involved a shortcut that now will need to be fixed at great expense.

The shortcut involved the reuse of old ballast rock — a type of large gravel typically used beneath train tracks both to stabilize them and provide drainage — when the project had originally called for the rock to be replaced. As the Examiner reports following a Tuesday meeting of the County Transportation Authority board on which all 11 of the San Francisco supervisors sit.

The $52 million tunnel project was completed in January 2019 following multiple closures that shut down K-, L-, and M-line rail service for two months the previous summer. According to SFMTA Director of Transit Julie Kirschbaum, the decision to reuse the ballast rock was made in the field by SFMTA staff and contractors — and it was a wrong decision made potentially in order to save time and keep the project on schedule.

Kirschbaum said the old ballast rock was now causing potential problems for the tracks, and replacing it will now cost "tens of millions of dollars."

SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin, who joined the agency last fall after this project was complete, told the supervisors that a "culture of fear" at the SFMTA was partly to blame. And that employees had perhaps not called out potential problems with decisions like this one because "Employees are afraid to diagnose the problem and elevate it because they’re afraid it might make us look bad," and project delays are frequently a cause for bad press for the agency.

He also said that the city may have some recourse in coming after the contractors involved, Oakland-based Shimmick Construction out of Oakland and SF-based Con-Quest Contractors.

But, as the Examiner reports, multiple supervisors excoriated Tumlin and the other officials present given the parade of failures with big projects in recent years — not the least of which is the long-delayed and over-budget Central Subway, and the ridiculous Van Ness BRT boondoggle.

Just last week we learned of yet another delay in the Central Subway project that pushes its public opening into 2022.

"You’re out of excuses," said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, adding, "the merry go-round has got to stop."

The SFMTA is in serious trouble in the coming years without more federal stimulus funds coming its way, solely because it will have well over a year without much fare-paying ridership by the time the pandemic is over. And in the midst of the pandemic, as the agency attempted to reopen the light-rail system in late August, another blunder was revealed that has led to the entire system being offline through the end of this year and possibly beyond. That blunder had to do with faulty metal splices — possibly the fault of a vendor — that had been installed throughout the system and were leading to failures in overhead cables and service outages.

Tumlin acknowledged this week that he had "inherited a lot of these problems," and he pledged to be "responsible for these problems and for rebuilding our approach."

Photo courtesy of the SFMTA