Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - November 12, 2010

Board of Contributors: A tale of two projects

by Gordon Lewin

It was the best of planning. It was the worst of planning. One plan would replace an elevated expressway with a tunnel. The other would build an elevated railway where the citizens wanted a tunnel. Boston's Big Dig. Our own high-speed rail. One a road and the other rails, separated by a continent and a decade.

Yet these two massive public-works projects confront the same existential question: "Does it make sense to spend so much money on one project when there are so many other pressing needs?"

I worked in Boston in the transportation field during the years when the Big Dig was planned. I was never assigned to the project, but did share an office with the woman who headed citizen-outreach for the Big Dig feasibility study.

The Big Dig was the vision of Gov. Mike Dukakis' Transportation Secretary, MIT-trained engineer Fred Salvucci. In the early 1970s he had been active in a highway revolt that stopped two expressways from plowing through neighborhoods.

His battles with the highway department provided Salvucci with key insights on how not to build a big public works project. If the highway department did top-down planning, with perfunctory public hearings on final plans, Salvucci worked from the bottom-up.

He saw citizen participation as intelligence gathering. He did not wait for public hearings. Neighborhood and group meetings with outreach staff were held during a project's conceptual design.

"All politics is local," the late House Speaker (and Bostonian) Tip O'Neill once remarked. Salvucci understood he needed a big tent of support for a project vulnerable to being called too expensive.

What a contrast to our high-speed-rail controversy.

I do not recall the authority appearing before Peninsula city councils prior to the bond initiative to describe the details of an elevated rail line. Nor do I believe the authority asked local officials, before or after the election, what would be required to get local buy-in. I know many officials were surprised by the authority's belated revelations this year of what design they had in mind for the Peninsula.

So why are authority leaders taken aback by opposition from cities? Not only did they not ask, they didn't do their homework: In the 1970s, the Southern Pacific Railroad wanted to abandon its commuter service between San Francisco and San Jose. BART was prepared to build an elevated line down the same corridor. But cities rebelled against the line and the development pressures that would have come with it. So we are served by Caltrain, a publicly operated commuter line.

There are larger lessons to learn from the Big Dig: Even a well-planned project does not mean a well-executed one or one that can ultimately be justified. The Big Dig controversy began as costs mounted; long after Salvucci retired. After completion, the controversy turned to scandal as construction defects were discovered. In the end, Parsons Brinkerhoff, the lead engineering firm, paid more than $400 million in fines with its partner, Bechtel.

Parsons Brinkerhoff is planning California's high-speed rail.

The lesson of the Big Dig was probably in mind this week when New Jersey's Governor Chris Christie killed a $10 billion plan to build a new rail tunnel into Manhattan.

This is the new reality of state government. High-speed-rail bonds were authorized by voters when we thought the sky's the limit. In today's more sober world, high-speed rail is vulnerable to the argument that it is something we cannot afford. If we need to create construction jobs why not fix broken things — of which there are plenty — before building shiny new things?

Spending $43 billion (the current estimate) on one high-speed-rail project has the risk profile of putting your retirement savings in a start-up airline that intends to go head-to-head with United and Southwest airlines on day one.

Do you think that United and Southwest are going to cede market share to high-speed rail without a fight?.That means high-speed rail will not come close to covering the $1 billion in annual operating costs, let alone its estimated $650 million in annual bond payments.

If the feds fail to come up with the additional $34 billion to complete the line then taxpayers will be asked to do so. It will be argued: "Why not complete that which has been started?"

If California taxpayers paid for everything, payments would be more than $3 billion per year for 30 years, about 4 percent of the state's deficit-ridden budget, not including cost overruns or operating losses.

I would like the authority to suggest which schools and state parks should be closed, how many police officers and social workers fired, and how many miles of road left unpaved for 30 years to pay for their dream.

We recently learned that the authority will build the Merced-Bakersfield segment first using federal economic-stimulus money. No trains will run on it — until more track is built later.

With a Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the new Transportation Committee chair will be John Mica of Florida, who has indicated a top priority of his will be switching high-speed-rail funds to where the population density is highest — the Northeast Corridor of Washington to Boston.

I wouldn't be surprised if our Central Valley "train tracks to nowhere" is at the top of his cut list.

Gordon Lewin is co-author of "Marketing Public Transportation: A Strategic Approach." He served eight years on the Sequoia Union High School District board. He can be e-mailed at Gordon992@comcast.net.

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