The Bay Bridge Fiasco — Wasted Money And Time On Another Public Mega-Project

140529_SF_OAK_BayBridge-BrookeDuthiePhoto-0708My UC Berkeley colleague Karen Trapenberg Frick released a new book detailing the grim recent history of the effort to rebuild the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.  I’m looking forward to reading it, but in the meantime, Eric Jaffe over at CityLab took detailed notes on the cost overruns in particular:

After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that rocked the Bay Area, officials got serious about rebuilding the vulnerable Bay Bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland. The first cost estimates, released in 1995, figured both east and west spans of the bridge could be upgraded for a cuddly $250 million. By the time the new east span opened in September 2013 the price tag for that span alone had reached a reported $6.5 billion, with a B. Just your run-of-the-mill rise of 2,500 percent.

UC Berkeley planning scholar Karen Trapenberg Frick meticulously chronicles the reconstructed bridge in a new book, Remaking the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. With Frick and her book as guide, CityLab tracked bridge expenses over time to get some sense of how the project that Herbert Hoover once called “the greatest bridge yet constructed in the world” became yet another example of a major public works project in which the cost ended outrageously higher than it began—and some ideas for what to do about it.

The tale sounds like a sad addition to the growing legion of public infrastructure megaprojects that succumb to huge cost overruns and endless delay. Given that our economic, quality-of-life and environmental challenges will require some major public infrastructure projects, from rail transit to high speed rail, it is critical that policy makers figure out how build these things well, quickly, and cheaply.

Frick offers some suggestions in her book, such as basing project cost estimates on other similar projects that have been completed around the world, widening early cost ranges rather than giving a specific estimate, and ensuring that public officials track progress more closely. I offer some additional ideas in this report and op-ed.

Let’s hope there’s some accountability from this story as well as meaningful reforms going forward.  We can’t afford another messed up process like this one in California.


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