Saturday, October 4, 2008

Metro Gold Line - On Time and Under Budget

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

For some reason, when HSR deniers talk about rail projects, they tend to cherry-pick those that went over budget, like BART to SFO. The underlying reasons for that particular problem are never discussed - instead we're told that rail projects inherently soar over budget, that there's no way to stop it, that the $40 billion estimate for the entire high speed rail project is just not going to be possible.

In reality there are a lot of rail projects around the country that have been delivered on time and under budget. Seattle's Central Link light rail should open as scheduled next summer and is on budget. Here in California, the Metro Gold Line Extension to East LA is on time and under budget. From a Metro press release:

The $899 million project is ahead of schedule, under budget, and has logged 3.4 million hours of construction without a lost time injury, an unprecedented safety record for a major public works project. It should open next summer.

This is an intensive project, including an overpass above the 101 freeway downtown and a tunnel through much of East LA. Overpasses and tunnels are the most susceptible parts of a project to cost overruns, but both Seattle and LA have shown that it's quite possible - even in an era of high inflation - to build these rail projects on time and within the budget.

Still, we're likely to hear HSR deniers doing their best Dr. Evil impressions:

One hundred BILLION dollars! (h/t to Trains Are Awesome for the reference)


Spokker said...

I wouldn't say the tunnel is through "much of East LA."

It's just 1.8 miles worth. Still a good thing!

That the Eastside Extension ended up being light rail is a concession we rail lovers had to make. It was supposed to be an extension of the Red Line. Or maybe it wasn't supposed to, but I know many wanted it to be.

Brian Bundridge said...

Buahaha, that Austin Powers clip is perfect since so many in the No Campaign believes ST Prop 1 is going to be 100 billion dollars

Anonymous said...

An example of what can and should be done in America when it comes to planning and constructing transit projects. Glad to see things can be done right.
Also, the Austin Powers clip was hilarious. Thanks for sharing it. Good analogy.
BTW, I'll be in San Francisco 2m at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival where the Calpirg (UC Berkeley chapter) will be gathering pledges to vote Yes on Prop 1A. I don't listen to bluegrass music, but I know I'll have at least spread the message about HSR.

crzwdjk said...

The Eastside Gold Line tunnel is indeed a wonderful transit construction success story. But it's not the first tunnel that the MTA built, and there were a lot of problems with their first venture, the Red Line, with all sorts of corruption and incompetence and a sinkhole. And I can tell you exactly what changed: the MTA learned from the experience, and became a more mature and competent construction manager. One of my worries about the HSRA is that they have exactly no institutional experience with huge construction projects, and it's hard to get things right, especially on a project of such huge scope. Look at all the problems BART had initially. Or for that matter Central Link, where they had to rework their plan. Relative to the original plan, the line is way over budget, about 4 years late, and reduced in scope. But they learned from their initial mistakes, and made a new plan and budget, which is the budget that they have managed to stick to pretty well, with an intact contingency fund that they intend to roll over to the next project.

Rafael said...

It's good to hear that the Metro Gold Line project is so well managed. Unfortunately, that does not guarantee the HSR project will also be.

The most common reasons for cost escalation are customers (typically, politicians) changing their minds and, poor planning prior to breaking ground. The risks generally rise with project scale and, HSR is the biggest one in the state's history. Breaking it down into segments is a useful first step to getting a handle on the complexity. A second step will involve mapping each segment into even small sub-projects, such as individual overpasses, tunnels etc.

AB 3034 unfortunately does hold the actual appropriations prop 1A funds hostage to the annual brouhaha over the state budget. I have no problem at all with having politicians in Sacramento holding CHSRA financially accountable, my beef is that they failed to divorce that from the budget process. However, given that the state is contributing less than 1/3 of the projected cost of the starter line, Sacramento politicians will have limited opportunity to modify or bloat the project: private investors, who are crucial to getting the system built, will surely negotiate contracts that give them influence commensurate with their investment. Congress may well demand the same. Both of these non-state funding sources will likely insist on disciplined project management. If CHSRA's current board fails to deliver that, its members can and will be replaced.

A more serious concern IMHO is ROW acquisition. The freight railroads - UPRR in particular - are not interested in selling any of their land because they want to retain the option of laying new track at some point in the future. Iff prop 1A passes, California would have a strong case for exercising eminent domain against these railroads, given that they have not submitted any concrete plans of their own. However, railroads are regulated at the national rather than the state level and, Congress will likely be extremely reluctant to support any such action.

Buying land next to the existing ROW will involve thousands of separate contracts and almost certainly, some eminent domain proceedings at the state level. Sometimes, those get tied up in the courts for quite a while, during which time there will be construction cost escalation. California would be well advised to establish a temporary special court to deal with such cases expeditiously.

A separate concern is that some of the larger cities along the route have big plans of their own for the railroads. Fresno wants to shoehorn five tracks plus a road into a corridor 220' wide - though it would really need 250' for that. Los Angeles is mulling run-through tracks south of Union Station and, San Jose and San Francisco also have big plans for their stations. cash-strapped local politicians will undoubtedly want the HSR project to fund a greater share of their expensive dreams than it ought to. The best way to avoid problems down the road is to hash out the architectural and civil engineering interfaces early on, to avoid expensive engineering change orders that would impact HSR construction.

Anonymous said...

Prop 1A on KGO RADIO (ABC) 8:00 PM Sunday 10/05/08 Prop 1A discussion.

Some readers of the blog here might want to listen tonight to KGO at 8:00 PM (810 am radio). I would expect plenty of darts to thrown my way.

Robert you might want to delete this post as being self promotion.

Further information is here

morris brown

Rob Dawg said...

In the interests of honesty please refer to the Metro Gold Line extension as currently on time and very near budget. ($1 million in $900m is a rounding error not a budget overage). The point is the first segment of the line was so over budget that it isn't possible for the entire line to be considered on budget.

Anonymous said...

Rob Dawg,
The statement that "the first segment of the line was so over budget that it isn't possible for the entire line to be considered on budget" doesn't paint the entire picture.

The MTA was attempting to construct the then Blue Line extension to Pasadena in the 1990's. This was back in the day when Red Line subway construction was taking place and rail project overruns were the norm. The "Blue Line" extension was in the same boat. They had only completed about 11% when construction was halted:

This led to the State of California then forming the "Los Angeles Pasadena Blue Line Construction Authority" in October of 1998:

In March of 1999 the authority was given $683 Million to complete construction:

The newly renamed Gold Line was opened in July of 2003. The final cost was $859 Million, which included $220 spent by the MTA and $639 Million by the construction authority:

The $639 Million was $44 Million under the original $683 Million budget. This money was returned to the state, and some of the money was used to fund the ongoing operation of the authority which was attempting to extend the line.

The record of the "Blue Line Construction Authority" was outstanding. This represents the point where LA County rail construction turned the corner from being chronically late and over budget to on time and under budget.

As Robert points out, the Eastside God Line extension is on time and under budget. The Exposition Line is also currently on time and on budget.


Spokker said...

"Some readers of the blog here might want to listen tonight to KGO at 8:00 PM (810 am radio). I would expect plenty of darts to thrown my way."

"Long-time listener, first-time caller. Mr. Brown, I just want to say what a bang up job you're doing on this boondoggle of boondoggles Prop 1A. These scam artists want to take our tax dollars and make developers, construction companies, and themselves rich. I want to urge everyone to vote no on BABABOOEY BABAOOEY BABABOOEY HOWARD STERN'S PENIS BABABOOEY MORRIS YOU SUCK"

Hehe, just kidding. But still, it's Sunday radio. Only people listening will be right-wing wackos. You should have plenty of support tonight.

Anonymous said...

Forum voices high-speed rail pros and cons
Michael Cabanatuan, Chronicle Staff Writer

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Proposition 1A, a $10 billion bond measure to start construction of a statewide high-speed rail system, was hailed as a down payment on a much-needed modern transportation network and condemned as a poorly planned boondoggle in a forum on the ballot measure Friday.

The forum, held at San Francisco's Commonwealth Club and broadcast to a radio audience, featured Quentin Kopp, chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority, which has spent the past 12 years planning the 800-mile railroad, and Adrian Moore, vice president of the Reason Foundation, a libertarian group that is opposing the ballot measure.

Kopp said the plan for high-speed rail, long popular in Europe and Asia, would reduce congestion and pollution, create needed jobs during lean economic times and bring a modern transportation system to accommodate the state's growing population.

"Proposition 1A represents what California always stood for - not just innovation ... but being a leader," he said. "This is our opportunity to say once again that California leads the way, especially in these economic times."

The proposition would authorize the sale of $9.95 billion in bonds. Most of that money - $9 billion - would go toward construction of a high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles or Anaheim - a project estimated to cost $32 billion to $35 billion. Extensions to Sacramento and San Diego would eventually raise the total cost by $10 billion more. The authority is banking on federal grants, local and regional contributions and private investment to cover the remainder of construction costs.

Moore said the proposed rail system, and Proposition 1A, are built on a shaky foundation: ridership and cost estimates his organization believes are overly optimistic. The authority says it expects the system to carry between 65 million and 96 million passengers a year by 2030. Costs, in today's dollars, would be $55 from San Francisco to Los Angeles - a trip that would take about 2 1/2 hours in trains traveling up to 220 mph.

"The High Speed Rail Authority says it is going to build the fastest high-speed train in the world, it's going to carry more passengers than any other high-speed train in the world, and it's going to charge less than any high-speed train in the world," said Moore, who said none of those things are likely.

With the state already facing a $15 billion deficit, Moore said, California can't afford to take on more debt - especially for a project with uncertain financing and a likely need for subsidy. Kopp, who said the high-speed train should turn a profit, said the state can't afford not to build the rail system because it would need to build 12 lanes of freeway between Northern and Southern California and open five new runways to handle the state's expected population growth by 2030.

E-mail Michael Cabanatuan at