Governmental Transparency: Gone like the DoDo Bird?

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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San Jose Mercury, Spur and Bay Council Weigh In

While each of these organizations has its own focus, all seem to agree that major changes in travel habits have occurred and also that how, or if, things will get back to “normal” is far from assured:

Changing Travel Patterns: On February 20, 2022 the San Jose Mercury reminded us of how the popularity of stay-at-home work was cutting into transit ridership. The article focused on COVID’s effects on transit travel which were, and continue to be, devastating. However, something else is going on. It’s more than just changes in commuting. Many types of trips, including auto trips, have been affected by factors other than the pandemic. Zoom meetings are easier and less time-consuming than traveling to public hearings, club get-togethers, advocacy group meetings, business meetings, seminars, workshops and adult education classes. Watching one’s favorite movie at home often beats going to the cinema. And there’s a growing tendency to acquire desired products including well-prepared meals on line rather than driving miles in search of the right retailer. It appears that technology and changes in lifestyle are affecting travel, even as the effects of COVID wane.

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Faster, Better, more Cost-Effective

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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Ten Behavioral Biases in Project Planning and Management: An Overview by Bent Flyvbjerg ¹ ²

1 University of Oxford, Oxford, UK   2 IT University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark

Bent Flyvbjerg is among the world’s foremost analysts of public project planning and management shortcomings. His research shows persuasively that there are multiple, repeated behaviors that have consistently resulted in high public works project cost overruns, demand estimate shortfalls and benefit overstatements. He has compiled a comprehensive history of over 2,000 projects on which he bases his findings and conclusions.

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Does this Research Lead to Action?

Using the incoming federal and State funds effectively to step up the pace of improving the non-automotive forms of transportation and taking other steps to improve air quality will require hard and in some cases controversial decisions, followed by well- lead and well-coordinated implementation programs. Here are excerpts from a letter that BATWG sent on December 19th to the California Air Resources Board expressing concern over a common public agency preference for studying a problem rather than addressing it.

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