Why the Bay Area can’t do big transportation projects
When it comes to building large transportation projects on time and on budget, the Bay Area has a miserable record.
In 1998, Caltrans estimated that a new eastern span of the Bay Bridge would cost $ 1.4 billion and take four years to build. The actual cost was $ 6.4 billion; plagued by design controversies, brittle steel rods and more, the project lasted 11 years.
The Transbay Transit Center in downtown San Francisco cost nearly twice as much as its original budget and opened two years late, then had to close for another nine months to repair cracked steel beams that were no longer available. were not built according to code.
Construction on the BART service extension project in downtown San Jose has not yet started, but its price has risen twice in the past three years, reaching $ 6.9 billion, while that its scheduled opening date has moved back three to four years.
And earlier this month, Caltrain officials announced that their work to electrify the railroad’s peninsula corridor would take two years longer than expected at an additional cost of more than $ 300 million.
Now, with Washington lawmakers announcing a deal for a huge increase in federal infrastructure spending, and Bay Area officials considering the next big round of “mega-projects” – including a second BART transbay hit, the extension of the Caltrain service in downtown San Francisco and a long list of other plans which one estimate could total $ 100 billion – there is growing pressure for us to take our action.
“We can’t afford to build $ 100 billion in new megaprojects without doing something different,” said Laura Tolkoff, director of transportation policy for the urbanism think tank SPUR.
SPUR and the Bay Area Council, a group of companies, have each published proposals These last months which aim to speed up construction and present a more precise idea of ââthe cost of projects. Gwen Litvak, the council’s senior vice president of public policy, said reforms will be needed if Bay Area leaders want the public to support future projects.
“Voters are smart – they remember if you said it was going to be done in five years and it took 15,” Litvak said.
The high cost of transportation projects is not unique to the Bay Area. It’s a national problem, with the United States often spend a lot more per mile of new metro construction, for example, than other countries around the world.
“Not a lot of places anywhere are doing great things well,” said Randy Rentschler, spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
“But,” Rentschler added, “the Bay Area is doing worse.”
Take the South Bay BART extension at four six-mile stations, for example. The design of its 4.7-mile tunnel under downtown San JosÃ© is based on a construction method pioneered in Barcelona and intended to reduce costs and minimize street-level disruption during construction.
The Spanish project cost less than $ 250 million per mile, according to SPUR. The BART extension is expected to cost well over $ 1 billion per mile.
The extension also illustrates what Tolkoff and Rentschler say is a key challenge that makes construction in the Bay Area particularly difficult: the fragmentation of a region of nine counties and 101 cities with more than two dozen transport agencies. public, which means that projects often face scrutiny from multiple levels of government.
The San Jose metro is being built by a transit agency, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, but will be operated by another, BART, which has led to years of feuds between the two over plans for the project.
This dynamic also limits our ability to learn from experience.
âEvery project is really prone to ‘first time’ errors,â Tolkoff said.
At present, construction crews are completing work on the Central Subway delay and over budget to bring rail service from Caltrain station south of Market to Chinatown. In the coming years, construction of the South Bay BART extension will begin.
Sometime after that, crews will extend rail lines through downtown San Francisco to the basement of the Transbay Transit Center, and BART hopes to build its second transbay tube.
Each is a massive, complicated and expensive undertaking. And each is run by a different agency that has never built anything of this scale or difficulty before.
Rentschler noted that it’s different in Chicago, for example, where a single agency oversees a sprawling network of train and bus lines. The Chicago Transit Authority is now working on a $ 2.1 billion in modernization train lines on the city’s north side, the first part of which is expected to be completed on time later this year.
Tolkoff and Litvak focused on similar solutions to our construction problems.
SPUR proposed to create a new entity, called Infrastructure Bay Area, which would be responsible for the planning and execution of large projects throughout the region. The Bay Area Council recommends launching a regional agency made up of engineers and economists who could assess projects and come up with independent estimates of their cost – the infrastructure equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office.
A more experienced infrastructure agency would be less susceptible to “optimism bias,” said Tolkoff, describing the tendency of less experienced planners to underestimate the costs and risks of large projects. When unexpected problems arise during construction or planning, which they invariably do, the public is frustrated as schedules slip and the price goes up.
âWhen you have an agency that has done these projects over and over again, they are able to verify reality,â Tolkoff said, âand set more realistic expectationsâ.
The two groups also called for improving the process of selecting construction companies that build large projects, which Litvak said “is the reason many of these projects go wrong.”
Public procurement laws require agencies to choose the lowest responsible bidder on a project. But Litvak said the criteria should be broadened to include factors like the risks in each bidder’s plans or what they would mean for future maintenance costs, rather than “just compete with the low.”
And to address another factor that makes construction difficult in the Bay Area, SPUR wants to streamline California Environmental Quality Act reviews for transit projects, saying the law can ironically delay construction of infrastructure. buses and railways that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. .
In the world of public transport, there are signs that the people in charge of these projects are listening.
A public transport agency working group trained to help the Bay Area recover from the pandemic and create a more cohesive public transport system is considering the creation of a region-wide ‘grid manager’ who could take on tasks such as creating coherent maps, synchronizing schedules, simplifying tariffs and, perhaps, planning and carrying out mega-projects. A consultant hired by the task force is expected to study these ideas over the next few months.
Large infrastructure projects are incredibly difficult to achieve, Litvak and Tolkoff warned, so none of the ideas for improving them in the Bay Area are likely to be a quick fix. But we need to improve ourselves in their construction if we are to create a better transportation network than the traffic congested one we have now.
âWe’re still going to have projects that take a long time,â Litvak said. âThe goal is to be much more efficient. “