The passage of the long awaited federal infrastructure bill with $45.5 billion earmarked for California comes as welcome news. (While this may sound like a large sum, it isn’t. With only $9.45 billion of this amount earmarked for transportation statewide, there is none to be wasted)
For this and other reasons it is necessary to make optimal use of the transportation resources we have, which tend to be scarce most of the time. Making this happen will take effective regional leadership as well as commitment on the part of transit agencies, local politicians, regional and State officials to ensure that incoming transportation funds are always intelligently distributed and prudently spent.
This will take some important changes to the current way of doing things. The boat needs leveling:
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For starters, local politicians must stop putting “bringing home the bacon” above all other considerations. This widespread practice is perhaps understandable. Who wouldn’t want to be able to tell his or her constituents that they were getting their “fair share” of the regional pot of transportation money? But what sometimes gets overlooked is that transportation systems and land use development patterns affect the entire region and that, viewed in this light, some projects are simply more prudent and justifiable than others. For this reason there needs to be informed and independent ways of evaluating the usefulness of proposed projects, regardless of whose political district they are in.
Capital funding often gets diverted in other equally unproductive ways. Going forward, funding authorities will need to challenge both ill-conceived projects as well as projects whose sponsors do not display a strong ability to manage their undertakings effectively from start to finish.
Given the pandemic, initiating a capital project, or continuing to advance one based upon past conditions, could easily be the very worst thing to do. Plans must be altered when necessary to fit new conditions, even if it means changing course and writing off past expenditures. Each on-going and contemplated project should be evaluated in terms of today’s conditions.
Proposed projects should be independently analyzed and evaluated by small but highly-qualified groups of professionals.
Questions and considerations:
Will the project improve mobility in the Bay Area? How will it affect its surroundings?
Does a candidate project meet its objectives efficiently? Is it cost-effective?
Is it supported pursuant to an objective analysis of the viable alternatives?
Is the project’s administrative and management team comprised of experienced and otherwise qualified individuals capable of staying on schedule and holding the line on costs?
Does the sponsoring agency have the ability to recognize when it needs help and, when necessary, to bring in qualified outside experts?
Does the sponsoring agency have the perspicacity and courage to admit error and quickly shift gears when necessary?
When federal funds are involved, it is essential that the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration play a much stronger project oversight role than they have in recent decades. For this to occur, these oversight agencies must be given the resources and authority they need to closely monitor capital programs under their jurisdiction, and intervene when and as necessary. It is well within the federal government’s purview to ensure that its federal grants are managed and spent wisely. On November 8, 2021 BATWG expressed this need in a letter to DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Others are encouraged to do likewise.
With the right project controls in place, the people of the Bay Area are much more likely to experience significant benefits for their transportation dollars spent.