People often wonder how the Bay Area, so full of highly-educated and talented individuals, finds it so difficult to develop cost-effective public infrastructure projects in a timely manner. Some think this is because of corruption. Others say it’s because of incompetence. With excellent input from experts Alan Pisarski, Bent Flyvbjerg and Darlene Gee, HNTB Senior Vice President, BATWG offers a less accusatory set of explanations:
The Projects: Large engineering project are inherently complicated, requiring thousands of planning, design and inter-agency decisions. As well documented by Bent Flyvbjerg, budget and scheduling problems are common in all large projects throughout the world.
Qualifications: Inexperienced and in some cases unqualified individuals without any training or even orientation are randomly picked to sit on powerful boards and commissions that control millions and sometimes billions of dollars. Insufficiently educated on the importance of their new function, many policy-makers remain confused about regional priorities and overly susceptible to parochial priorities, developers, unions and other outside pressure groups. This sorry practice must end. Qualifications and experience are of critical importance, and every incoming Board member should well understand both the objectives of the new agency and the kinds of decision he or she will be called upon to make. To ensure this result, it is essential that the appointing decisions are made thoughtfully and that incoming new members receive intensive training and orientation.
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Securing Help When Needed: Darlene Gee reminds us that an agency who may be very adept at carrying out its ordinary function, say operating a reliable rail service, sometimes feels it necessary to tackle a large infrastructure improvement of the type that comes along only once in a generation, a task it is simply not equipped to handle. In such cases it is essential that the agency secure expert advice at every step along the way, from early planning through engineering design construction, operations, testing and startup. In such situations there should be no hesitation to retain carefully selected outside consultants when and as necessary. Given the substandard manner in which many infrastructure projects in the Bay Area have been administered, another approach as suggested by Ms. Gee would be to set up a regional Agency for Infrastructure Development (AID) to plan, design and build large public under the general supervision of the sponsoring agency or agencies.
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Eliminating the False Starts: In any event it is essential that proposed public projects be thoroughly reviewed and analyzed by a group of objective experts very early in the game. As Bent Flyvbjerg has emphasized, an outside look at large projects is needed, in part to identify and counteract local biases of one kind or another that tend to degrade the quality and usefulness of large projects. Such analyses would necessarily identify the objectives of the project, ascertain whether or not they were the right objectives and evaluate alternative ways of meeting the need. Needless to add, an outside objective group would also need to closely examine whether or not the public benefits of a prospective project would be sufficient to justify its capital and future operating costs. In other words a coldly objective expert analysis including all the factors listed above must be completed early enough to head off any big and expensive mistakes in the making.
COVID and its Aftermath: When Alan Pisarski addressed BATWG on October 21, 2021, he outlined the changes that would be necessary because of the COVID pandemic and its aftermath.
Here are his timely thoughts about the inevitable changes that will come because of COVID. He emphasized that because of today’s uncertainties the dogged determination of some agencies to proceed assuming that everything would soon “get back to “normal” is most unwise.
Instead he says that the “emphasis should be on restoring and modernizing existing systems, as opposed to major expansions and massive new systems”. He goes on to say that the COVID pandemic is remaking transportation demand, for commuters, households and freight logistics. While being willing to accept clear and verifiable capacity needs, “we must place a hold on transportation expansion investments, at least until the dust settles”, and that there needs to be a “strong focus on private sector solutions….” To meet the transportation needs of lower-income populations he encourages the use of buses, vans and jitneys. And finally he would place a high priority on determining the long term impact of the work-at-home trend, noting that by 2017 the number of those working at home had already exceeded the number of those riding transit.
If agencies with large projects on their hands are willing to be realistic, infrastructure development in the Bay Area can get better.