Caltrain to Sacramento? BART considering standard-gauge rail for 2nd Bay Crossing but Downtown Extension on hold for governance review

In November, BART announced the next steps to explore a second Transbay rail crossing. The news that you might have seen is that the study, starting in mid-2019, will compare options for the broad-gauge tracks that only BART uses in the state, and the standard-gauge tracks used by Caltrain, Amtrak/Capitol Corridor, and High Speed Rail.

A benefit of the standard gauge option would be providing a one seat ride from San Francisco, the Peninsula and Silicon Valley to Sacramento and the Central Valley, and get more use from the state’s investments in a statewide rail network.   Benefits of a BART option would be providing greater redundancy and reliability in case of service disruption and increasing maintenance windows.

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Meanwhile, though, San Francisco’s key components of a potential future megaregional rail connection are on hold.  Following the discovery of cracks in a steel beam in the Transbay Terminal,the terminal has been closed since the cracks were discovered in September, and there is no schedule yet to reopen while the cause of the structural problem is being reviewed.

And the next phase of the project to provide train service to the terminal – more detailed design of the Downtown Extension Pennsylvania Ave tunnel – have been put on on pause by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority pending a review of the project’s governance and best practices for project delivery.  That study is scheduled to wrap up in May.

Is this the right study to fix the Transbay/Downtown Extension project?

But the scope of this study seems both too big and too small to address the issues with the Transbay and Downtown Extension project.  On the one hand, the management and board of the Transbay Joint Powers Authority were both changed after long delays in the Phase 1 project to create the terminal. The management and board leading the TJPA are not the same crew that made the decisions regarding the construction of the terminal.  On the other hand, any study that’s looking at how to fix a one-off agency working on a single megaproject may be looking at the problem at too small a scale. The Transbay Terminal/DTX project is only one of many megaprojects in the Bay Area that consistently run into trouble with cost over runs and delays.

An SF Chronicle Op-Ed by Gabe Metcalf and Ratna Amin of SPUR suggests that the solution to the problems in delivering big capital projects is larger than the City and County of San Francisco can take on by itself. Because of the fragmentation in the Bay Area’s transportation system, each big project is taken on with a one-off organization, and the region as a whole doesn’t build expertise to manage megaprojects.

We believe that one of the problems that underlie the Bay Area’s repeated failures of project delivery is the fact that so many public agencies mobilize to deliver a single project. San Francisco Muni is building its first subway in 40 years. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission rebuilt a span of the Bay Bridge one time. Caltrain is electrifying its system once. And in the case at hand, the Transbay Joint Powers Authority was set up to deliver just one piece of infrastructure. These are all great projects. But the many, many lessons that each of these agencies learns the hard way through its experience are not getting translated into improved performance in project delivery next time because there is no next time.

We hope that the study of the challenges with the Transbay Terminal project can provide impetus to look at the bigger problems with Bay Area megaprojects, while making recommendations allowing this important project to keep moving forward in the meantime.