The Caltrain 25th Avenue Grade Separation Project has overrun construction costs of $25.9 million, forcing the city of San Mateo to allocate an extra $2.1 million to finish the project and request more funding from the San Mateo County Transportation Authority.
The project is around 85% finished, and the $25.9 million will ensure the project’s completion in September. Most of the $25.9 million total cost overrun is due to the relocation of a gas line and two fiber optic lines after the start of construction. San Mateo is the sponsor of the overall project, but Caltrain has handled the construction and financial overview of the project.
San Mateo will pay $2.1 million of the $25.9 million total, which it will take from city traffic impact fees. The City Council approved the appropriation at its Jan. 4 meeting. The city hopes the remaining $23.8 million will come from the San Mateo County Transportation Authority, which will vote on the issue Thursday, Jan. 7. Because San Mateo did not allocate the $2.1 million in its original budget, it will have to take money out of future city projects or delay future projects, according to City Manager Drew Corbett.
Councilwoman Diane Papan said while the city wasn’t at fault for the unfortunate situation, she supported allocating the $2.1 million due to the regional implications for San Mateo, Foster City and other areas. The project is expected to improve connections between the east and west sides of San Mateo, reduce traffic congestion and create new grade-separated crossings at 25th, 28th and 31st avenues. It would also relocate the Hillsdale station and the existing Caltrain parking track at the Bay Meadows station.
“It can’t be underscored the importance of the project. So I am willing to make this additional contribution, notwithstanding that it puts us in the hole further because we are at the eleventh hour right now, and if we don’t get this project done, we will be stuck with just some holes in the ground at this point. So it’s important to the city, it’s important to the region, and I’m willing to do it because we are at the eleventh hour,” Papan said.
Councilwoman Amourence Lee also supported allocating an additional $2.1 million to the project.
“I very begrudgingly approve this move. I think it shows a good faith effort of us coming to the table again. It’s hard to do that when we are already in the red, and we know it will take years to get back in the black, but I think it’s worth doing that, and I think it positions us well to make this ask,” Lee said.
News of the increase in project costs surprised city staff and the City Council when informed in December. San Mateo Mayor Eric Rodriguez said the city could have prepared better for cutting costs and long-term plans if Caltrain had informed the city earlier. A project analysis from Caltrain earlier in 2020 on construction progress identified the increased costs to complete the project. Caltrain spokesman Dan Lieberman said by email that while Caltrain held biweekly briefings with city staff throughout the project, the full extent of the delays and associated costs caused by the various utility issues was determined recently.
The city is hoping the Transportation Authority will pay the rest of the $23.8 million overrun costs. San Mateo Councilman Joe Goethals said if the city doesn’t get the money, it couldn’t finish certain aspects of the project.
“It’s absolutely critical that we get this funding. If the TA doesn’t come through with the money, we’re going to be right back here at our next meeting going into the project and figuring out what parts we don’t want anymore,” Goethals said.
San Mateo will send representatives from the City Council to the TA meeting on Thursday to support extra funding approval. According to the Transportation Authority’s agenda, there is enough available funding to accommodate the $23.8 million request through Measure A funding. SMCTA staff have recommended that the board of the SMCTA appropriate funding for the project. The Transportation Authority oversees and allocates the portion of the county’s sales tax revenue dedicated to transportation.
The total initial project cost in 2017 was $180 million, with San Mateo responsible for $12 million. The current total project cost has now increased to $205.9 million, with the city’s total contribution to the project at $14.1 million.
A Caltrain update on the 25th Avenue Grade Separation Project at the City Council meeting said the project is close to completion. Work at the Hillsdale Station is ongoing, with the station expected to be open in the spring. Road work on 28th Avenue is expected to finish this month, while road work on 25th Avenue and 31st Avenue will finish in June and September, respectively. Caltrain originally expected to complete the project in January 2020. Construction challenges have occurred because of COVID-19, contaminated soil and utility relocation. Additional risks that might affect project completion include digging at 25th Avenue and 31st Avenue, COVID-19 impacts, soil contamination and utility issues.
San Mateo and Caltrain want to complete the 25th Avenue Grade Separation Project before the JPB Electrification Project finishes in 2022. Completing the 25th Avenue Project after the JPB Electrification Project would increase the total project cost to $247.9 million, $42 million above the now $205.9 million costs. Lieberman said it would be cost-effective to finish the project before the JPB Electrification Project finishes because the construction methodology required once the corridor is electrified is more costly.
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