Government Botches Another Big California Transportation Project
About once a month, I travel by Amtrak to Emeryville, and then by shuttle bus across the bay, for events or meetings at PRI’s San Francisco headquarters.
Usually, I take the shuttle bus that stops in front of the Hyatt Regency at the Embarcadero Center, which is about a 10-minute walk to our office. Some days, especially if I come later in the day, I must take a shuttle that drops passengers at the temporary Transbay station. It’s only a 15-minute walk to our office, but a rough crowd populates the station and the vicinity.
That’s why I was so excited to hear about the August opening of the new Salesforce Transit Center, or the permanent new Transbay station. It is an impressive structure featuring a rooftop park and other cool features. Eventually, it’s supposed to connect Muni and Amtrak buses, Caltrain service and – if it ever gets built – high-speed rail.
Like most big government transportation projects, it was significantly over budget – the $2.3 billion project cost double the $1.189 billion it was estimated to cost in 2008.
The project opened in August to much fanfare. Local and state politicians, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, showed up for the opening to pat themselves on the back.
Turns out they were a bit premature in popping the champagne corks. The transportation hub was closed last Tuesday – and buses rerouted back to the temporary Transbay station, after two major cracks were found in structural steel beams that support the project. The station will be closed at least through the first week of October as engineers do a full inspection and recommend a remedy.
This latest snafu begs the question – can government ever get it right on major transportation projects?
Consider the following recent (and sadly ongoing) examples of botched projects:
- The new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, a $6.3 billion project which opened in 2014 at 2500% cost overrun over initial estimates of $250 million, suffered from bolt failures and rust and cracks were found in critical tower rods. After repair, the project was opened to the public. I still hold my breath every time I drive over the bridge into San Francisco.
- The oft-criticized high-speed rail “train to nowhere,” which as PRI’s Kerry Jackson has written, started as a $33 billion project, then ballooned to $117 billion, and now as settled in at a $98 billion cost projection. There’s no realistic path forward for how the project will secure the private financing needed to complete the project. It’s not high-speed rail anymore. Outside the rest of a $10 billion bond approved in 2008 and ongoing infusion of Cap-and-Trade dollars.
- Last summer, Caltrans had to scrape and redo a resurfacing project on Highway 50 in Downtown Sacramento because the original project failed. The $15 to $18 million-dollar repair project cost three times as much as the original project ($5 million).
These ongoing transportation snafus couldn’t come at a worse time for advocates of keeping last year’s gas tax increase in place. When deciding how to vote on Proposition 6 this November, many Californians will surely ask, “Can we really trust Sacramento to spend our gas tax dollars wisely and efficiently?”
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s communications director.