Major infrastructure projects are necessary for the Bay Area to address climate change and keep its growing population moving
When the newly opened Salesforce Transit Center closed to repair cracked steel beams in September 2018, local-news junkies and transportation boosters felt a sense of deja vu. The steel beam situation was eerily similar to the saga of the defective “steel rods” on the eastern span of the Bay Bridge, which needed structural reinforcement just as the new bridge was about to open. Both projects shared another defect: ballooning budgets that bore no resemblance to initial estimates.
These recurring difficulties with the Bay Area’s megaprojects have become the stuff of negative headlines around the country, and are seized upon as ammunition by opponents of visionary infrastructure projects. But a frank reckoning with the state of megaproject delivery in the Bay Area is just as important for supporters of mass transit and green infrastructure as it is for the naysayers. With even more (and more complex) projects on the horizon—including the high-speed rail, which will connect LA with SF via the Central Valley, and a second Transbay Tube—the Bay Area needs to get megaproject delivery back on track.
Curbed SF spoke to experts in this field to better understand where the Bay Area’s megaprojects have gone wrong, and what they can do differently in the future. It all starts with extensive preplanning, according to Karen Trapenberg Frick, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote Remaking the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge about the arduous replacement of the eastern span.
“As soon as we’re angling for the first dollar, when this thing’s real, we need to establish independent external peer review,” she says. With both the Salesforce Transit Center and the Bay Bridge, comprehensive, external oversight only came after major problems were detected. Planning and peer review can also help with budgeting and project management. Experts should be in the room with planners and policymakers, telling them, “These projects are hard, they take a long time, they’re going to cost more than we think,” says Trapenberg Frick.
These steps are necessary to combat “optimism bias,” an actual transportation policy term describing the belief that nothing will go wrong in a project, or that it will somehow be exceptional, achieving cost savings that no comparable project has ever achieved. The eastern span of the Bay Bridge underwent a remarkable journey of budget inflation, with estimates growing from $250 million in 1995 to more than $6 billion upon completion.
Cost estimates for the Salesforce Transit Center increased from an initial rate of $1.6 billion to about $2.2 billion. These fungible numbers have a huge impact on the public’s faith in government, says Trapenberg Frick, making it more difficult to get approval for future megaprojects.
Cost overruns can also lead to delays: Projects often need to stop work as they search for new funding sources or deal with litigation against their own contractors. Both of these problems struck San Francisco’s Central Subway, forcing Chinatown merchants and residents to endure street-level construction years longer than planned. A better approach, according to Trapenberg Frick, would be to start project planning with cost estimate ranges that account for the uncertainty inherent in megaprojects.
Inaccurate cost estimates are partly a symptom of megaproject costs themselves. Infrastructure construction costs in America “are going through a crisis right now,” says Jonathan English, a doctoral candidate in urban planning at Columbia University and a transportation policy writer. San Francisco’s Central Subway cost about $920 million per mile, while most subways in Europe and Japan cost between $200 million and $500 million, according to an analysis by transportation researcher Alon Levy.
There are a number of complex factors behind these cost discrepancies, says English, including America’s “oligopoly” of sophisticated construction firms, and a confusing patchwork of funding streams and public works agencies. Salesforce Transit Center, Caltrain Electrification, and BART to San Jose, for example, have all been complicated by the number of public agencies involved in their delivery.
But one of the root causes of high costs, and one of the easiest to remedy, is the lack of megaproject expertise. English cautions American transit planners, “Don’t, unless absolutely necessary, try to invent anything new. Look at what is being done in other places where costs are low and performance is high, and just copy it.”
Bay Area projects have a mixed record on this front. As part of its electrification plan, Caltrain got a special waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration to use lightweight, electric European train sets that can provide rapid-transit-style service. But instead of using the standard European signaling system, Caltrain tried to build a highly unique signaling system, only to give up on it and revert to proven technology. Likewise, BART’s San Jose extension plans to use a single bore tunneling method, developed in Spain, that allows stations to be built inside the envelope of the tunnel by stacking the platforms for each direction one on top of the other, which can produce significant cost savings.
But BART is planning to deviate from the Spanish model, using a single-bore tunnel that can accommodate single-level stations, thus making it one of the widest transit tunnels ever constructed. To avoid these potential over-complications and extra costs, English recommends hiring experts directly from major rail-building countries to design our systems.
Additionally, the expertise developed from our own projects needs to be cultivated, and passed on to the next project, according to Trapenberg Frick. She envisions a “megaproject regional authority, whose job is to learn from other megaprojects and learn from the ones we’re doing while we’re in place doing them.” The Bay Area’s unparalleled ecosystem of universities and tech companies could become a part of this effort.
The second phase of the Salesforce Transit Center—which will connect its basement train station to Caltrain’s existing terminus at Fourth and King via an underground tunnel—could be an opportunity to experiment with some of these ideas. The Downtown Extension, as the project is known, was the subject of an expert panel, in which Trapenberg Frick took part, that has recommended the creation of a new Integrated Project Team, to better coordinate among agencies and stakeholders, and to provide another layer of oversight to the planning and budgeting process. The IPT would be specifically tasked with articulating the importance of this project to the public as well as state and national leaders, while proactively planning how it will fit in to the larger regional transportation network, including a second Transbay Tube.
While certainly “mega,” the Downtown Extension is just one critical piece of a rapidly expanding, green mass-transit network. As soon as November 2020, Bay Area voters will weigh in on a transportation “mega-measure,” known as FASTER Bay Area, that will provide funding for the region’s most ambitious projects. Gaining voters’ support for the initiative will require convincing them that public officials can create a new megaproject culture in which budgets and timelines are met, and each successive project makes the next one easier.