Construction work on the Transbay Transit Center, 2017. Photo from Wikimedia commons

The $2.2 billion Transbay Transit Center has long been envisioned as the Grand Central Station of the west — but is presently referred to derisively as San Francisco’s billion-dollar bus stop after structural problems shut it down shortly after its 2018 opening. This morning, its board voted to extend and increase the contract for its longtime program manager, URS Corporation. 

By a 6-1 vote of the Transbay Joint Power Authority Board of Directors, with only Matt Haney dissenting, the board picked up an option to extend URS’ present agreement through June of 2024, and to increase its budget by $14.6 million to a max of $50.6 million. 

“They’ve been working on this project for a while, and some things have not gone well,” Haney noted prior to the vote. 

URS has served as program manager/program control (PMPC) for the transbay project since 2004. After a lengthy and torturous gestation highlighted by serious delays and massive cost overruns, the city’s glitterati assembled in August 2018 for the gala opening of the “Salesforce Transit Center.”  

Within weeks, however, maintenance workers found serious cracks in steel beams at the multi-billion-dollar SoMa edifice, and it was closed for the better part of a year, edging out Millenium Tower to become San Francisco’s most expensive metaphor.

In contrast to these proceedings, today’s Transbay Joint Powers Authority virtual meeting was a brisk affair. 

Only Haney, the Board of Supervisors’ representative on the TJPA board, expressed any qualms about Item No. 11. 

He asked if there were any metrics to gauge the quality of work URS has performed in its lengthy tenure. 

TJPA executive director Mark Zabaneh simply stated “this particular team is very well qualified. What hindered this project was lack of funding.” 

No metrics were proffered. 

Haney also asked why this contract hadn’t been put out to bid in an open process, and why it was being extended a full four years. 

Zabaneh countered that if the contract was terminated, but not extended, “we’d lose a lot of historical knowledge of the project and delay work three to six months.” 

And yet, a photograph purportedly taken at the 2018 Construction Management Association of America dinner obtained by Mission Local reveals a slide stating that Requests for Proposals would soon be issued, as the current project manager — URS — was set to “transition out.” 

This August 2018 photo indicates that RFPs would soon be issued to replace the Transbay Center’s present project manager — but that has not happened. Today, that company’s contract was extended.

Weeks after that August 2018 dinner, cracks would be revealed and the project would be sidetracked for many months. 

Those RFPs were apparently never issued — and, following today’s 6-1 vote, URS is not set to transition out until 2024. 

Regarding Zabaneh’s claim that shifting away the contract would lead to a loss of “historical knowledge,” a subsequent public commenter calling into today’s meeting noted that the engineer serving as URS’ Transbay Project Manager since 2013 in March left the company — which is true

Messages left for Zabaneh and TJPA spokeswoman Christine Falvey have not yet been returned. 

Following today’s meeting, Haney expressed frustration with the pro-forma nature of the vote and the “cozy relationships” of the individuals and entities working on the project. 

“Anybody with common sense can determine there have been huge issues with the project thus far,” Haney said. “There should be a higher level of scrutiny around these contracts.” 

Haney noted that, considering charges that former TJPA Board of Directors president Mohammed Nuru attempted to use the position to steer business to his preferred contractors, this scrutiny would apply to more than construction decisions. 

“There should be greater effort to make sure everything is being done with more transparency,” Haney said. “The consequences of mismanagement or failure on this project are huge. Let’s make sure we get it right.” 

Update, 6:20 p.m.: TJPA Executive Director Mark Zabaneh sent the following statement:

The TJPA is focused on moving Phase 2 forward with the highest level of collaboration with our regional partners and transparency with the public.  We fully evaluated our needs moving forward in the most responsible and transparent manner and believe extending this contract accomplishes that. The TJPA structures is contracts with options like this to provide us the opportunity to thoroughly evaluate the performance of the contractor as we go along, make changes as needed and to have regular public disclosures. We will continue to keep our board and the public updated on our progress.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. “What hindered this project was lack of funding.”

    I understand that scope creep, unforeseen issues, etc. occur with every project, especially ones this large. But didn’t URS accept the contract knowing the compensation involved at that time? There are currently seven agreement amendments that increased the budget from the initial $21.7m to $35.9m, with an eighth set to increase the budget by another $14.6m for a new total budget ceiling of $50.6m. Effectively doubling their initial contract budget ceiling. So how can lack of funding be the nominal excuse and not something likw mismanagement of whatever?

  2. Thanks for this article. It would have been helpful if the other Transbay Joint Power Authority Board of Directors were named. Of course, I can look it up, however, naming them in the context of the 6-1 vote and apparent lack of accountability would provide additional insight to all readers.