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Jul
2021
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Why the Bay Area can’t get big transportation projects right

When it comes to building big transportation projects on time and on budget, the Bay Area has a miserable track 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 initial budget and opened two years behind schedule — then had to close for another nine months to repair cracked steel beams that were not built to code.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – July 1: Though buses are not yet servicing the Salesforce Transit Center, the main lobby reopens, Monday, July 1, 2019, after being closed last September when cracks were found in the structural beams of the $2 billion facility. (Karl Mondon/Staff Archives) 

Construction has not yet begun on the project extending BART service through downtown San Jose, but its price tag has risen twice over the last three years, to $6.9 billion, while its projected opening date has slipped by three to four years.

And earlier this month, Caltrain officials announced their work to electrify the railroad’s Peninsula corridor would take two years longer than expected at an extra cost of more than $300 million.

Now, with lawmakers in Washington announcing a deal for a huge increase in federal infrastructure spending, and officials in the Bay Area eyeing the next big round of “mega-projects” — including a second transbay BART tube, the extension of Caltrain service into downtown San Francisco and a long list of other plans that by one estimate could total $100 billion — there is mounting pressure to get our act together.

“We cannot afford to build $100 billion worth of new mega-projects without doing something differently,” said Laura Tolkoff, transportation policy director for the urban planning think tank SPUR.

SPUR and the Bay Area Council, a business group, have each released proposals in recent months that aim to speed up construction and present a more accurate sense of what projects will cost. Gwen Litvak, the council’s senior vice president of public policy, said reforms will be necessary if Bay Area leaders want the public to support future projects.

“Voters are smart — they remember if you said this was going to get done in five years and it’s taken 15,” Litvak said.

The high cost of transportation projects is not unique to the Bay Area. It’s a nationwide problem, with the United States frequently spending far more per mile of new subway construction, for instance, than other countries around the world.

“Not a whole lot of places anywhere are doing big things well,” said Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

“But,” Rentschler added, “the Bay Area is doing it worse.”

Take the six-mile, four-station South Bay BART extension, for instance. The design for its 4.7-mile tunnel beneath downtown San Jose is based