When Bay Area transportation agencies don’t come clean, transit riders, tax payers and the region at large all get hurt. Government agencies have gotten into the bad habit of keeping everything secret that would in any way embarrass or otherwise reflect badly on them. As a result all we get these days in a timely manner are rosy projections and other good news. Here are seven flagrant Bay Area examples of what happens when secrets preempt forthrightness:
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In December of 2017 the Santa Clara VTA projected in the draft EIR that its BART Phase II San Jose extension would cost $4.7 billion. In May of 2020 we learned, long after the fact, that the VTA’s figure had jumped by $2.2 billion to $6.9 billion. Then, last fall, the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) rejected the VTA’s $6.9 billion total as being grossly understated and declared that what the VTA was planning to build would cost at least $9.15 billion. After vigorously denying the FTA’s figure for six months and steadfastly continuing with its deep and hugely overpriced 48-foot diameter tunnel, the VTA owned up. According to the San Jose Mercury News (April 26, 2022) the VTA has belatedly accepted the FTA’s $9.15 figure and is now fixated on finding the extra $1.66 billion in local funding needed to meet the FTA’s local match requirement. Breaking News! May 5, 2022: Mercury reports that Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose has now finally called for an objective analysis of the VTA’s design.
BART’s “Link 21” team has spent $42 million since the Link 21 project started 33 months ago. Yet so far the team and its consultants have revealed little of consequence about the results of their work. Instead we’ve seen a series of “reports” and presentations elucidating elaborate attempts to “find out what the public wants” coupled with a plethora of repetitious descriptions of goals, objectives, local history, the weather, northern California geography, planning perspectives and process.
As another example of non-transparency, at the April 21, 2022 BART Board meeting, six of the nine Board members unaccountably voted to deny their own State-appointed Inspector General the right to speak. So much for transparency.
SMART has turned summersaults to avoid admitting that its operating costs are now so far out of line with its ridership that every train rider currently gets subsidized to the tune of well over $50 per one way ride. The Marin/Sonoma County transportation sales tax measure failed badly in 2020, and will fail again unless SMART’s performance drastically improves.
Doyle Drive in the Presidio of San Francisco started out in 2003 as a routine seismic upgrade of two sections of Caltrans viaduct, slated to cost $420 million. However San Francisco’s then small but ambitious SF County Transportation Agency (CTA) soon got into the act, with the result that the scope of the project began to expand. And expand. By the time construction had started, costs had ballooned to over $1 billion and from then on it became increasingly difficult to obtain forthright cost information. When the CTA inevitably ran out of money and had to borrow from the construction contractor, costs jumped again. It is doubtful that today anyone knows the full cost of the Doyle Drive project, which ended up including not only extensive delay costs but also years of interest and extra profit paid to the contractor. All told the cost of the project reached at least $2 billion, a 476% increase from what the San Francisco voters approved in 2003.
The Caltrain Electrification project was initiated by a federal Full Funding Grant Agreement (FFGA) between the Federal Transportation Administration and the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board executed on May 23, 2017 with an agreed upon total price of $1.93 billion. The project report in May of 2021 showed a price of $1.98 billion, modestly above what had been agreed to four years earlier. But the May budget report was grossly understated. By the time the December 2021 report was issued just seven months later, everyone was stunned to learn that the price had somehow rocketed to $2.44 billion, an increase of $460 million. No indication of a significant budget problem for 55 months and then a $460 million hit, partly because of a nearly four year slip in schedule.
As recently as September 2018, the SFMTA was contending that its Central Subway would be completed by the end of that year at the federally-established budget of $1.578 billion. That turned out to be a grotesquely inaccurate statement. Today costs are $353 million over budget and rising, and people won’t be riding Central Subway trains before the end of this year at the earliest, also four years behind schedule.
Can public trust in government return? Yes, but government will have to earn it.