The CAHSR Bombshell

The 2012 CAHSR business plan has some bombshell construction cost numbers: the headline number is $98 billion, leading to predictable complaints that the cost has run over by a factor of 3 over the original $33 billion budget of 2008. This is somewhat misleading since it includes inflation, but there’s still a factor-of-2 real cost overrun to investigate: in 2010 dollars the cost is $65 billion, as predicted by CARRD though with a somewhat different distribution of cost overrun among the various segments.

Some of it is scope creep that could be removed later via value engineering, and some is additional delays. The new plan assumes construction will take until 2033, vs. 2020 originally. The one point of light is that the initial construction segment (ICS) from Fresno to Bakersfield is still within budget, giving time to send the people involved in scope creep to early retirement and do the designs better. The biggest cost overruns are on the Peninsula and LA Basin segments, which are now up to $25 billion, about triple the original cost estimate. This already suggests that lack of money is what is causing costs to grow: just as it’s expensive to be poor, so is it expensive for an agency to have no money and drag construction over decades, in many segments.

But it’s not just the delays. The Peninsula blended plan includes many extra features, such as $1.5 billion for 80 km of electrification (in Auckland the same amount of electrification cost $80 million), $1 billion for 10 km of very tall and unnecessary viaducts through downtown San Jose, and $500 million $1.9 billion to tunnel under Millbrae (see update below) in order to preserve BART’s three tracks.

There’s scope creep and there’s scope creep. Sometimes, a project’s costs go up because new features are added that are useful (for example, converting a single-track diesel project into a dual-track electrified light rail, as was done on the LA Blue Line), or that are necessary but were glossed over initially in order to keep cost estimates down. A little bit of the latter kind of scope creep is present in the Central Valley, in the form of more viaducts than originally planned; CARRD’s cost overrun estimate was based entirely on taking CAHSR’s unit costs and applying them to the added features as of 1-2 years ago. But the kind of scope creep we see on the Peninsula is entirely different: they are adding features that are of marginal operational use, and instead exist mainly to reinforce agency turf lines (namely, separation of agencies at San Jose).

My suspicion is that the same is true of the other segments. The fact that a cost overrun was averted on the initial construction segment in the Central Valley, after extensive value-engineering (for example, fewer viaducts), shows that the one segment CAHSR needs to build within budget in order to survive is indeed being built within budget. The other segments, for which the HSR Authority hopes to obtain private and local funding, offer easy opportunities for contractor profiteering: once the initial segment is built, there may well be momentum to complete the system, and the consultants could strong-arm local governments and the federal government to cough up more money. Indeed, no extra features useful to passengers have been added – everything is just about agency turf and more viaducts.

The only places where there could plausibly be an honest overrun, which cannot be eliminated simply by putting adults in charge and going back to older plans, are the mountain crossings. And indeed, the Grapevine alternative, now posited to be $1-4 billion cheaper than the Tehachapis, could resolve the major issue heading south toward the LA Basin. In the north, they keep studying the Altamont overlay with options including one proposed by SETEC that lets trains run at full speed right up until the built-up area of southern Alameda County; together with the Dumbarton water tunnel, it could help the project stay within budget by switching to a superior alternative, and avoid the San Jose viaduct mess entirely.

Although the political supporters of CAHSR tend to discount the Grapevine and be skeptical of switching to Altamont, they are still interested in the option of value-engineering. But it’s stupid to first propose an outrageous plan and then value-engineer it back to the original cost estimate. It offers no political advantages over doing it right the first time, and just breeds justifiable mistrust of the authority. For all I know, there could be a large real overrun that is not the result of agency turf wars.

To make sure people don’t react to the apparent factor-of-three overrun the way they should – i.e. propose to pull the plug unless costs are scaled down to reasonable levels – the 2012 plan includes higher numbers for the cost of doing nothing, i.e. of expanding freeways and airports to provide the same capacity. It was originally $100 billion, and is now $170 billion. This is less self-serving than it seems: the plan assumes a slower buildout and higher inflation, which accounts for most of the difference. But it’s still a backhanded way of trying to force the state to kick more money toward the contractors. If they can slow down airport and freeway construction (thereby increasing the final cost), perhaps they can halt it entirely – fair’s fair.

I’m still optimistic that they could put adults in charge and reduce costs to the original estimate, as they already have in the Central Valley. That is, if the federal government dangles a few billion dollars for the LA-Bakersfield segment and demands even a modicum of accountability, then they will gladly use the money to build a useful initial operable segment and only try to extort the public later. But optimistic and certain are not the same, and it’s an outrage that such a project could cost $65 billion. The tunnel-heavy Shin-Aomori extension of the Tohoku Shinkansen cost $4.6 billion for 82 km, a little more than half the proposed per-km cost of the new business plan – and Japan is a high-construction cost country.

Unless they cut the costs, I don’t see how I can continue to support the project. The initial construction segment, useless as it is on its own, is fine; the question is whether it stakes the territory for a very expensive future extension, or for one with reasonable cost. Since I doubt they’ll be able to get any additional money until they connect to the LA Basin except from the federal government and even then it will be a small number of billions, I think it’s the latter option. But the rest should be scrapped and restarted unless the construction costs drop dramatically. I would peg the maximum that the project can cost before it should be canceled, on the outside, at $60 billion or so in today’s money. This assumes timely construction – waiting decades with rapidly depreciating track hosting limited service makes the situation worse. The only consolation I have is that no matter what, the other projects they could spend the money on if CAHSR is canceled are even worse. And this says more about those other projects than about CAHSR.

Update: here is the cost escalation breakdown. It’s overwhelmingly the addition of new features, i.e. tunnels and viaducts, most of which are unnecessary (though one major issue, additional tunnels from Palmdale to LA, is required due to further study showing the need for more environmental protection). For example, Millbrae gets a gratuitous tunnel, previously estimated at $500 million, now estimated at $1.9 billion (p. 20). Unsurprisingly, SF-SJ has the biggest overrun, a factor of 2.5. Hat-tip goes to Clem for noting the extra cost of Millbrae, which I missed looking at just the business plan.

Update update: the California HSR Authority links rotted away, but were replaced with new ones. The page references remain valid; the reference to the cost in the first link at the beginning of this post is PDF-p. 15, and the reference to the breakdown of cost overrun by segment is in the update link, PDF-pp. 7-10. The cost estimate for the project was since revised down to $53 billion, in 2011 dollars, in the final 2012 business plan (see PDF-p. 23); this is entirely from leaving out the LA-Anaheim and SF-SJ segments for later, which avoids the Millbrae tunnel and other Peninsula luxuries, but does not address the extra costs of going through Palmdale or the cost overrun just south of San Jose.


  1. JJJ

    I continue to disagree with your claim that the initial segment is useless. May I remind you that the entire state of Rhode Island has 1,052,567 people, while Fresno and friends have just about 1 million. So pretty much the same number. If Providence can be so blessed with Acela, Regionals, and MBTA train service, why is Fresno not worthy of hosting the initial segment for valley travel?

    However I do agree that the costs are an issue. That being said, I’d love to see the system be designed in a gold-plated standard, with 150 foot high viaducts (tiny shadows!) and so forth. If only all that money hadnt gone to Iraq.

    I still think that a Fresn-LA HSR train is highly desirable and should be the main focus right now. let the bay area swim in their NIMBYness.

    • Alon Levy

      If they were planning to build a train that only went from Providence to New Haven or Hartford, I’d be equally dismissive. But the MBTA goes to Boston, and Amtrak goes to New York. NY-Providence is roughly comparable to LA-Fresno, and this is indeed a useful train. My only problem is that they’re planning to build Bakersfield-Fresno to overweight FRA standards to cut 45 minutes from the San Joaquins rather than to do whatever they can to get over the Grapevine as soon as humanly possible.

      • John Hupp

        Yeah. I don’t see why they didn’t start by connecting Bakersfield to Los Angeles, given that the San Joaquin already runs, what, twice the speed of the Coast Starlight? Starting with a feeder-less trunk line only serves the purpose of political leverage to build the rest.

        • Nathanael

          The design on the mountain crossings is taking much longer than the design on the Central Valley section. If you think the myriad options in the CV were a lot, well, look at the trouble they’ve been having with the Sylmar-Bakersfield section.

          In other words, it just wasn’t ready when the ARRA money arrived.

      • Nathanael

        “My only problem is that they’re planning to build Bakersfield-Fresno to overweight FRA standards to cut 45 minutes from the San Joaquins”

        “Independent utility” requirement, take it up with the voters. Sigh.

    • anonymouse

      I’d even go so far as to say that Rhode Island is blessed with the Acela only by virtue of its being on the way between New York and Boston. And as far as LA-Fresno goes, I think it makes much more sense to have a fast train for LA-Bakersfield and a slow train for Bakersfield-Fresno than it does to have a fast train from Fresno to Bakersfield, and then a mandatory transfer to a bus that crawls up the Grapevine and then gets stuck in LA traffic. Which is the only realistic option for Bakersfield-LA without a new HSR line.

      • Nathanael

        Everyone intends to connect Bakersfield to LA, but the mountain crossing design is difficult.

        And of course the line isn’t intended to END in Fresno, it’s going to continue to Sacramento (and given that the state capital is there, I fully expect that to happen — only Scott Walker is stupid enough to kill a line to the state capital).

  2. anonymouse

    As far as the costs of Caltrain electrification go, I suspect some of the difference is due to the fact that Caltrain’s costs include rolling stock as well as power and signalling, while Auckland’s costs are $80 million for the traction power system only, and another $90 million for resignalling. Plus, Auckland’s system has more single track, while Caltrain has significant stretches of quad track and big complicated terminal stations. Still, it’s probably about a factor of 5 difference for costs of the infrastructure parts, which is almost certainly a sign that Caltrain is doing something wrong. Hell, I suspect that at Kiwi cost levels, they could have built out electrification using just the money they spent on digging the pedestrian tunnel at Santa Clara. And I’ve heard somewhere that Auckland is also saving a bunch of money by converting their old DMUs into EMUs (or was that Adelaide?). Caltrain could have tried something similar with their rolling stock, or just bought new electric locomotives, or even old electric locomotives from the fleets that Amtrak and NJT will be retiring. Given the sizes of the ALP-44 and AEM-7 fleets, I’m sure Caltrain will have no problem finding spare parts to keep the 20 they need running for quite a long time.

    • Alon Levy

      No, the signaling cost is a separate item – $200 million for making all HSR trains compatible with the CBOSS disaster, in addition to locally-paid costs for trackside CBOSS installation.

      Auckland’s system is on average about double-tracked: 80 km route, 175 km track.

      Auckland is buying new EMUs, at normal (or slightly above-average) cost, coming from on the one hand using narrow gauge and on the other hand shortlisting 11 bids, more than the usual 3-5.

  3. Paulus Magnus

    Yeah, I’ve turned against the project as a result of this. A doubling in price before any construction work, the initial segment is of little to no value, and arguably the most important segment, LA-SD, theoretically would have to wait until 2033 to start but more likely will have been done by the agencies managing LOSSAN already. Any future rail advocacy I have is going to be limited to just freight, Metrolink, and LOSSAN upgrades.

    • Nathanael

      If you think Fresno-Bakersfield is of little or no value, you are simply wrong. LA-centric thinking?

      • Alon Levy

        Fresno-Bakersfield alone is of little value. The cities are small and sprawly, and the distance is well below the optimum for HSR. (Bakersfield-LA is the same distance as Bakersfield-Fresno, but LA is bigger and more traffic-jammed than Fresno, and LA-Bakersfield opens up a semi-reasonable all-rail route from LA to SF with the San Joaquins.)

  4. Joseph E

    I initially got interested in transit back in 2008 because of the HSR ballot initiative, so it is sad to see this happen to the project. I was a big support back then, and I would still support it at the initial cost. But $100 billion is too much. Unless the engineering can be improved to bring the cost back down, I no longer think this would be cost effective. $100 billion spent on local transit in Los Angeles and the Bay Area would be much more valuable.

    • Richard Mlynarik

      $100 billion spent on local transit in Los Angeles and the Bay Area would be much more valuable.

      You do understand that exactly the same mafiosi would be in control, don’t you? It’s not as if there are open markets, or disqualifications based on proven incompetence, or any expectation of cost-effectiveness in regional “transit” scams either. Same house, same call.

      We’re dealing with professional criminal operations, and just changing the funding body makes no difference to them. (In fact, smaller fry are even more readily manipulated.)

      • Anon256

        Design for things like the Expo Line in LA seems relatively reasonable – it seems the “mafiosi” are far worse in the bay area, so maybe spending the money on local transit would mean they only got ~half of it.

      • Nathanael

        Richard, iIt is *not* the same people in LA and the Bay Area. The mafiosi in the Bay Area are clearly much, much worse than the very reasonable folks in LA.

        Pay attention. Design on *every* mass transit project in LA has been reasonable, arguably with the exception of the Orange Line, where it was direct involvement of legislators which prevented the construction of light rail. Costs have been plausible and operations have been good. The main problem has been distant suburbs demanding inappropriately large levels of service.

        Frankly, Richard, you’ve turned into an uninteresting conspiracy theorist who has no understanding of the real world. You can’t tell the difference between a functioning early Tammany Hall and the one which managed to not build the Tweed Courthouse. Please pay attention.

    • Andre Lot

      I think this is the wrong reasoning. Spending billions in transportation infrastructure within each metro (Sacramento, San Diego, L.A. and Bay Area) will not solve the issue of transportation between them, nor will high-speed rail solve the issues of internal commuting within those regions, to a large extent.

      With highways, this usually gets murky because an arterial freeway is used by both long and commute traffic, but with high-speed rail, the distinction of use is easy to be made. Furthermore, there is absolutely no way the private and federal dollars that could be used in CHSR would be steered to yet another light rail project in LA, for instance.

  5. political_i

    As much as I hate to say it, the project management $(*&%ing blew it with PB getting $*(&%ing greedy and now what do we have. A disastorous project in the making. Time to go look at the NEC again. I am quite ashamed of the CAHSRA for basically killing this.

    • Alon Levy

      The NEC is why I said the alternatives are even worse. $3.3 billion in well-spent federal NEC money would do amazing things, but Amtrak is even more incompetent than the California HSRA, insisting on complex urban tunneling everywhere and proposing overbuilt stations.

      • Eric

        How about Midwest HSR then? A system of spokes from Chicago to Milwaukee, St Louis, Indianapolis, Detroit would be much simpler to build, one by one, than CA or NEC. Most of the routes would be through undeveloped flat areas, and the political hurdles would likely be lower.

        • Alon Levy

          Sure, but so far the Midwest HSR project (the real one, not the Amtrak-plus initiative) lives only in proposals, no matter how much business gravitas there is behind them (SNCF, and Siemens/MWHSRA). The same is true of the proposed Dallas-Houston HSR line – there’s a concrete proposal from private investors, but no state proposal that the money could be sent to.

      • anonymouse

        Perhaps Amtrak was just following HSRA’s lead. After all, in the initial round, the California HSR was beating Amtrak, and got some federal funding commitments in preference to the NEC. Everyone was talking about it as the way of the future and how it was one of the best of the projects that were being built (never mind that it hasn’t gotten to that point). So Amtrak figured that they’d also demand some ridiculously expensive urban tunnels, since that was what worked for HSRA.

      • Beta Magellan

        What about basic state-of-good repair improvements from the NEC master plan? Or are those just as overblown as the full-fat HSR proposals?

        • Alon Levy

          Some are crap, some should be modified, some are good. The concept of SOGR for Amtrak is an outrage; this is the company that forced David Gunn out in 2005 for prioritizing maintenance over profitability back when the Bush administration was in charge, and then discovered a maintenance backlog when funding became available for it. But some of the projects, such as constant tension catenary and fixing some of the low bridges in Connecticut, are worth gold; Cos Cob in particular has no ROW-geometric restrictions on speed, but because the bridge is low and unpowered and the track quality in the area is poor, the average speed between the state line and Stamford is by my count the lowest on the NEC away from major urban station areas. Some more projects I don’t know for a fact are crap, though I suspect that by reducing train weight they could squeeze more years and higher speed out of existing infrastructure, for example the Susquehanna bridge and maybe even Portal Bridge.

          • orulz

            Alon, I’d be interested to hear how you would prioritize projects on the NEC. Of course the first improvement should be to revise regulations and allow foreign rolling stock. But I’m talking about the physical plant. What should come first? Where should the first billion go, and the second billion, etc. There’s a lot of improvement proposals out there, but as you mention, Amtrak often seems to make the wrong decision over what should go first. (Harold Interlocking anybody?)

            Complete catenary replacement? B&P Tunnel? Full conversion to 25kv/60hz? Straightening out the Shore Line?

          • Alon Levy

            If the first billion has to be spent on physical plant and not new rolling stock, then a few options are:

            1. As Anonymouse said, Cos Cob and Elizabeth.
            2. Metuchen: it’s not as bad as Elizabeth (current speed limit is 100 mph rather than 55), but it’s in the middle of otherwise-high speed territory, and it’s cheaper to straighten because the track is not on a viaduct.
            3. Full reelectrification of NY-DC.
            4. Partial construction of a bypass of the eastern Shore Line on I-95, from New Haven to Old Saybrook; the Shore Line is slower farther east, but just west of Old Saybrook is the only place where there’s a good opportunity for a track connection, and Old Saybrook-Kingston is about 75 km, more than can be done on a billion.
            5. New Rochelle, including a grade separation between northbound Metro-North and southbound Amtrak.

          • anonymouse

            Well, that’s easy. Replace drawbridges, with high level fixed bridges where possible, and straighten out any particularly nasty curves. I agree that Cos Cob is near the top of the list of drawbridges that need to be replaced, and I’d put Elizabeth at the top of the list for the nasty curves.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Amtrak is run by Congress. If Congress and the White House are held by proto-Teapartiers who worship at the altar of free markets, it’s going to emphasize profits.

            Elizabeth isn’t that far from Newark where everything, except maybe some peak expresses, will be stopping. Elizabeth is going to be very difficult to change for many reasons. It’s in the middle of downtown, it’s teetering on top of a tall viaduct, it’s right where all the radial avenues leading into downtown come together. Stuff happens when you build a railroad through the middle of someplace laid out in the 1600s.

            Replacing Portal gives you much better reliability – a fixed bridge can’t get stuck in the open position. Portal Bridge used to have higher speed limits. Back when the schedule between Newark and New York was 15 minutes, the speed limit was 90. That was before event recorders. 90 was bit slow… when a cab car is in the middle of a train you can see the speedometer….

          • Nathanael

            I suspect Harold Interlocking is because LIRR are a pain in the butt to deal with and simply won’t cooperate with anyone else. They want their own tracks. I don’t know WHY they want their own tracks, but they really really really want their own tracks and they hate sharing.

            Yes, Organization before Electronics before Concrete, but in this case Organization is HARD.

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  7. Danny

    I have been waiting for this day so I could have an “I told you so” moment, and now that it is here I’m just sad. I loved living in CA because of the geography, climate, people, etc. I always had to put up with the terrible government to enjoy it though. But even in the few short years I have been alive, I have experienced a dramatic increase in the incompetence AND malevolence of the government.

    My frustrations have always been blown off as small issues that were unique to business owners: Unemployment insurance costing 600% more than neighboring states, impossible-to-decipher regulations, etc. But now the issues are getting bigger: police systems acting more abusive and totalitarian, cost overruns that are totaling in the tens of billions, as well as unemployment and emigration figures that are consistently the worst in the nation.

    This incompetence is no longer a bug, it is a feature.

    • Andrew in Ezo

      I remember seeing some graffiti off the 405 near Wilshire back in 1992 or so- “LA is the place” with “is” crossed off and replaced with “was”. Same could be said about California now in some respects. I left California in 1994 to seek my fortune elsewhere. After a brief return about nine years ago, I left again, probably permanently. The Golden State is no longer the land of opportunity it once was.

      • Nathanael

        The *US* isn’t the land of opportunity it once was.

        Within the US, California’s actually one of the best choices you could make. (The Pacific Northwest is doing quite well too. Also North Carolina.) If you don’t care about opportunity, New England is quite a nice place for sleepy, genteel decline. There are also a few other bright spots, but in general the US is a mess.

  8. Caelestor

    Something has gone horribly wrong here, and I’m disgusted by PB’s shameless attempts to suck up money. It appears as though they’re trying to go all-in in their attempts to maximize profits.

    One thing has become certain, though: I will likely retract my support for the project in the future (although I’ll tentatively remain cautious for now) unless Altamont is chosen, which should fix the SJ mess. In fact, you might as well just change Phase 1 to Sacramento/Fresno-LA, because $15+ billion on cost increases in the Bay Area is just outrageous. Shame too, because that’s where all the tech jobs are, but do I really want to put up with this for a career?

  9. Tom West

    I find it odd that the initial segment has been carefully planend to ensure the right engineering compromises to bring it budget… and the rest of it seems to have gone down the simple-and-expensive route (6 mile long viaducts!).
    My theory is that the non-initital segments now have a cost estimate that won’t increase, only decrease. By putting out these expensive solutions as the ‘current’ plan, the Authority can use that to leverage compromise along the route… “we can save $1bn if you just let us build this thing at grade”.

    To me, the evidence is that teh Authrouty can push down costs through sensible descisions, and has done where it must.

    The opponents will froth at the costs increases, but they’ve been doing that all along, so I’m not sure that will make much difference.

    • anonymouse

      It’s a gamble, though, because there’s a chance that it will be cancelled entirely. But that doesn’t really matter to the people doing the planning, because they still get paid. I suspect that more than a few of the consultants working on this are never expecting it to actually get built, but they’re more than happy to keep getting paid to make ever more elaborate imaginings of how to spend someone else’s imaginary money to build imaginary trains.

      Also, it seems pretty insane to outsource project management. They’re paying consultants to hire consultants and say how much it’s reasonable to pay consultants, and how much it’s reasonable to pay for construction, since the HSRA itself had, at least until very recently, almost no staff and no expertise in rail construction. The inherent conflicts of interest there are just too glaringly obvious, at least to me.

  10. Beta Magellan

    I find this recent report incredibly dispiriting, especially since, over the past couple of months, it seemed like CAHSR was starting to get its proverbial shit together by value-engineering the CV, reexamining Tejon and looking into a BART/Altamont connection. I’d like to hope that these issues could be addressed fairly quickly, but I’m skeptical because the only thing more dispiriting than the report was the response by HSR advocates and supporters. They have latched onto the $98 billion vs. $170 billion comparison without even thinking about demand-side management as an option and, more worryingly, conflate constructive criticism of CAHSR with outright HSR denialism. Reading a couple of California newspaper articles, the attitude amongst legislators seems to be PB’s plan or nothing—there’s no perceived need to shift amongst supporters to put HSR onto a less costly path because they (1) honestly don’t seem to know that such a path exists and (2) don’t want to be seen as opponents of progress. This is attitude is further promulgated by outfits like CAHSRBlog, which treats every word the authority prints like something off of Moses’s tablets and has lately been going to near-Rovian levels of spin to preserve the project. At this point, HSR in California would be better served by criticism than boosterism, but unlike booster and outright opponents, constructive critics don’t have any sort of coalition backing them up.

  11. Wad

    A bombshell is an understatement. This is fucking Chernobyl.

    CAHSR has made high-speed rail extinct. No American, anywhere, ever, will have high-speed rail. California has said it cannot build high-speed rail for less than $98 billion, and because it set the price this high for one of the strongest ridership networks, it has now made proposals anywhere else out of reach.

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  13. EngineerScotty

    So here’s the question:

    How do We The People (particularly in the US), rein in the corruption and/or incompetence involved in public infrastructure projects? This seems to affect everything–not just alternative transportation, but alternative transportation seems to be disproportionately affected; both because of less institutional skill in designing, building, and managing these sorts of projects, and due to greater political difficulties in getting them built (thus requiring more compromise).

    * Better NIMBY-squashing powers? This doesn’t prevent boondoggles (or overpriced projects) from still being built (see China for plenty of examples), and may result in debacles like the recent Tappan Zee decision.
    * Moving more design work done in-house?
    * Moving more work to the private sector? Both this and the prior bullet assume an agency problem in public-private contracting.
    * Better competitive bidding processes? What if there is only one firm that can do a project?
    * Regulatory reform, particularly around public contracting?
    * Less tolerance for backscratching, patronage, and machine politics from the electorate?
    * Greater involvement of the feds? Less involvement from the feds?
    * A public moratorium on these sorts of projects until contractors say uncle and lower bids?
    * Abandonment of design-build projects?

    I’m certain that the answer, if it exists, is (unfortunately) complicated; and is not to be found among the ideological shibboleths (such as “privatize everything!” from the libertarian crowd, or “who cares how much it costs” from some on the left). But other countries DO manage to build these sorts of projects at far more reasonable prices, and that’s in a labor and regulatory environments typical of the developed world.

    • Richard Mlynarik

      Stop earmarking.

      “Public transportation” projects are treated by the local political establishment and by the lcoal contracting mafiosi purely as cash flows, either inflows from other federal/state/regional taxpayers, or as sucker taxes on local jurisdictions.

      As such, the only thing that matters is disposing of the cash flowing in; there is absolutely no incentive to deliver good projects (as there is never any penalty for failure); and there is active disincentive to control costs, as the contractors and the politicians who represent them (they’re cheap to buy, cheap!!!) will also go to bat for good money after bad — “jobs!”, “it’s too late to turn back!”, “mistakes were made”, “these sort of complications are normal on projects of this size”, etc.

      Only once public transportation projects are judged in terms of the public benefit they deliver to the public against the financial cost they incur to the public is there even a snowball’s chance.

      Projects can’t be too big to fail. Projects must be cancelled when they grossly under-perform in any of schedule, budget, or delivered benefit, and the plug must be pulled early and often and ruthlessly. It only takes a couple rounds of this for the contractors to get a very strong hint that success is better for their business than failure. (The exact opposite economic signal from the one broadcast today.)

      Beyond that, opening up project conception and design to outside (ie qualified people, who by definition do not have English as a first language) and paying any attention to global best practices can only deliver higher quality, vastly high quality, projects at less cost. Ditching “Buy American” for vehicles in particular (which are a small enough cost in the big picture, but can have a catastrophic and multi-decade effect on project functionality and costs, and this applies to buses as much as trains and trams) can’t possibly hurt. But measures such as these, which have huge net positive local economic effect, aren’t even going to be considered as long as the equation of project = earmark is unaddressed.

    • Richard Mlynarik

      PS It’s hard for me to see the dreaded “NIMBYs” as a huge problem. Proponents of projects get upset when somebody gets in the way of their overriding priority of taking cash and building a particular thing; but in an alternate reality USA in which transportation improvements were actively sold in terms of benefit (and associated cost-benefit), local engaged political support comes along for free.

      There will always be uninformed and stupid people who oppose good projects for bad reasons, and there will always be people on whom costs fall disproportionately (though wise and engaged project planning actively addresses this, using the magic of cash compensation, where compensating a few vocal characters is always cheaper than the local cost-through-the-roof practice of engineering around or under them). But if real benefits are being delivered to most of their neighbours, well, they end up being outvoted. Greater good and all.

      This emphatically doesn’t isn’t working in the Caltrain/HSR case, where communities are offered “here’s a Flight Level Zero airline in your back yard, and by the way local train service is going to remain crap, forever, thanks to the brilliant planning of Parsons Transportation Group” and then excoriated as NIMBYs and obstructionists when they don’t drink the Koolaid.

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    • Alon Levy

      Completing the New Haven-Kingston I-95 cutoff, the B&P Tunnels (actually they might need to be done very early because they have one of the sharpest curve radii on the entire line), four-tracking passing segments in Maryland and Massachusetts, cutting off curves on I-95 in Rye and Greenwich (useful for speed, and also a passing segment for Metro-North)…

  19. Nathanael

    I strongly suspect that the two urban sections (Bay Area, LA Basin) will be completely redesigned before they see the light of day.

    If you support the project, and the initial segment gets built, *all* the stars are now aligned to make the next segment the southern mountain crossing. Worry about getting that right (and it does have real and serious technical problems). By the time that hits the San Fernando Valley, things will be different in the LA Basin. I suspect that the LA Union Station reconstruction will be largely done already (using other money), and the LAUS southern approach may well be rebuilt too (so make an effort to get the plans right, right now from LAUS to Fullerton).

    However, the rest of it will probably be untouched, while the political mood within LA will probably be quite different, so it will be time to assess and revise the designs for the LA-Sylmar connection *then*, not earlier.

  20. Pingback: Liberal Radio: Episode 492: Italy and Greece, Keystone Pipeline, Local Elections at Bruno and the Professor
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