Cost and time overruns on public projects do not matter once the task is done

In a look at the troubled construction of the Salesforce Transit Center in San Francisco, one civil engineer puts the problems in perspective:

Paul Gribbon, a civil engineer who brought Portland, Oregon’s $800 million Big Pipe sewer project in on schedule and within budget, points out that, along with cost and time overruns, there’s another general law regarding megaprojects. “Once it’s up and running, once there’s a shining new bridge or light-rail station, people tend to forget about how much it cost, in all senses of the word.”

If the project eventually gets done and it all works, life moves on and the delays, frustrations, and extra monies fade into the past.

But, such challenges seem to be common in at least a few major American infrastructure projects in recent decades. What could help reduce these odds? Or, are these projects so complex that even a small issue – such as cracked steel beams in San Francisco – can create significant ripple effects and headaches?

My guess is that the civil engineer is correct: after delays and blown budgets, people just want something to work. The frustration during the process will dissipate as the public takes it as normal. They will feel relieved when the troubles are over. Yet, the long-term goal across all these projects should be to continue to seek timeliness and on-budget performance as the size of these projects can influence numerous other civic and municipal priorities as well as create inefficiencies for many.

Adding more context to Americans spending 7% of income on gas

AAA reports on how much Americans spend on gasoline:

Analysts say Americans are now spending 7% of their income on gas, a statistic that is up 1.5% from last year.

If you make $45,000 per year, you’re shelling out over $3,000 just to put gas in your vehicle.

The 7% figure may be interesting in itself but this is a statistic that begs for more background information. Is 7% a lot or a little? Should people be alarmed?

The story already includes two pieces of context:

  1. This is an increase from last year. Generally, people do not want to be paying significantly higher prices year after year. While 1.5% is a low number, drivers would probably not want this number to keep going up.
  2. A slightly lower than average income person or family – the median household income is a bit higher than this – spends over $3,000 on gas. People could read this figure and then think where else that $3,000 could be used.

But, there is more information that could be useful here.

  1. Historically, how much do Americans spend on gasoline? The article includes a one-year trend but how does this look over decades? Are gas prices going up the same way medical costs are going up?
  2. How does this 7% compare to other essential categories of spending such as food (and the groceries vs. eating out breakdown could be interesting) or housing?
  3. What are the total costs of car ownership? Gasoline adds up but vehicle owners also have to factor in maintenance and insurance.
  4. These are average figures for gasoline consumption: how much different will gas costs be for SUV and truck owners (and these are driving the car market) versus small car owners?
  5. How does this compare to gasoline costs in other countries? The rise to 7% may seem like a lot but gasoline costs more in some other industrialized countries and people in other countries drive less than Americans.

While this may be too much to ask for a short news story, gas costs, as well as most other social and economic statistics, are complicated. The numbers do not necessarily interpret themselves. Something going up or down or staying the same is as meaningful as its context and what we make of it.

Living by “a week’s pay for a month’s rent” in the early suburbs

Within a set of observations in Harper’s in 1953 about the new way of life in six mass-produced suburbs, Harry Henderson discusses the financial situation of the new suburbanites:

Henderson1b

Henderson2

Three quick thoughts:

  1. If we still adhered to the guideline of one week’s pay to cover housing, a lot of suburbanites would be in trouble. That rule suggests 20-25% of earnings should be for housing, not 30% which was a more common guideline today. But, with the dearth of affordable housing in many metro areas plus a desire of many suburbanites to be in communities that will help them be successful (i.e. good housing values, high-performing school districts, middle- to upper-class neighbors, a community with a good reputation, etc.).
  2. The desire to achieve the American Dream of owning a home in the suburbs is a powerful one as these residents of mass suburbia were willing to stretch financially – taking on extra work, living with in-laws – to make it happen. I would guess that this is still the case today.
  3. The full article is both an interesting snapshot of suburban life at the beginning of mass suburbia as well as an odd read since it treats suburbia as the exotic. Henderson admits at the beginning that the notes are subjective but they both provide some interesting information as well as provide insights into how outsiders viewed these early suburbs.

Nature, driving, and states closing “old-fashioned” rest stops

When money is tight at the state level, one way to save money is to close highway rest areas:

Cash-strapped transportation agencies are shuttering the old ones to save money, or because they don’t attract enough traffic or are in such bad shape that renovating them is too costly. Or, the stops have been overtaken by tourist information centers, service plazas that take in revenue from gasoline and food sales, or commercial strips off interstate exits.

Florida, Michigan, Ohio and South Dakota are among the states that have closed traditional rest stops in the past two years. And a battle is brewing in Connecticut over a proposal to shut down all seven stops on its interstate highways to save money.

But advocates of maintaining traditional rest areas say even if motorists are offered flashier options for pit stops, the ones that sprung up as highways did are still needed for driver safety and convenience. Some view them as a tranquil, environmentally friendly alternative to crowded service plazas and commercial strips…

But unlike service plazas, rest areas on federal interstate highways are prohibited from selling gasoline or food other than from vending machines, the proceeds of which traditionally go to people who are visually impaired. State transportation departments run the rest areas and are responsible for cleaning and maintaining them. That can take a chunk of their budget, depending on staffing and amenities, officials say.

It almost seems quaint that highway driving should be broken up to stops at state rest areas where drivers can experience nature and rest. Can highways and nature go together, especially on a small patch of green land within earshot of the interstate? Highways can of course be used for pleasurable trips but the majority of highway traffic is likely for practical purposes such as going to work or conducting some kind of personal business. In contrast, given our reliance on the trucking industry, the issue of spaces for truck drivers to stop seems like a bigger deal.

Ultimately, this seems to be about whether Americans deserve to have some spaces in life where commercial interests are severely limited or not allowed. Given the encroachment of economic life into many life domains, this change isn’t too surprising.

The infrastructure devil is in the (financial) details

Here is an interesting argument: generally, people like the idea of improving infrastructure until the details about finances and completing the project come up.

But beyond the potentially divergent approaches looms the question of how the expansion and improvements will be paid for. Abernathy’s colleague Eric Harris Bernstein pointed to an infrastructure proposal released by the Trump campaign in October that would rely on public-private partnerships, tax credits, and other private-sector incentives, which would likely require toll roads and bridges to entice investment. Bernstein characterized this approach as “a huge departure from this sort of populist message Trump ran on.”“They’re talking about having it all be financed by private investment, which is essentially the opposite of targeted [investments],” Abernathy adds. “It’ll go to the communities that have the potential to pay user fees and have the highest profit and ultimately reduce access and equity and basically turn our highway system into a bunch of toll roads.”

Richard Geddes, a professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University and a visiting scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says that there is harmony across the political lines on “the notion that overall spending on infrastructure has been inadequate.” He suggests that the best way forward is to eschew the moonshot in favor of a more “surgical” approach to improving infrastructure quality. “The spending really has to be targeted on better, more efficient maintenance and operation of what we have, plus targeted expansions in the system,” he says. “We’re not going to rebuild the entire highway system, we’re going to add capacity—meaning a lane here, a lane there, expand facilities, particularly in urban areas as people move there.”

To pay for it, Geddes suggests there is some bipartisan consensus  for public-private partnerships, but he also believes the private sector will be instrumental in funding the work ahead. One solution he encourages would include making tax-exempt municipal bonds, which citizens buy to help communities pay for local projects, available to the private companies to incentivize them to renovate infrastructure. Another possibility he offered would be to update the gas-tax system to collect revenue from drivers based on miles traveled rather than gallons purchased, which would generate more revenue from hybrid or electric cars…

Of course, many Democrats and the Roosevelt Institute suggest that some infrastructure projects be financed by tax increases, be it on the wealthy or by closing of corporate loopholes or instating carbon taxes. These suggestions are anathema to Trump and many Republicans, some of whom have vowed not to raise taxes and not increase the debt. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said that she would oppose an infrastructure bill that banked heavily on tax breaks and privatization.

This is where finishing under budget and ahead of schedule would be helpful. I don’t know if there is much hope that any large infrastructure project (especially for the huge projects like major bridges or tunnels) can do this these days.

Perhaps infrastructure could also be a leading indicator in current American society regarding a lessened ability to plan for the long term. Infrastructure is not a very sexy topic yet people will complain vehemently if it ends up falling into disrepair.

The difficulties of projecting costs for big tunnel projects

Cost overruns on big infrastructure projects are common but may be even worse for tunnel projects, as the case of the California high-speed rail project may soon illustrate:

“You have an 80% to 90% probability of a cost overrun on a project like this,” Flyvbjerg said. “Once cost increases start, they are likely to continue.”…

Although some large tunnels have been constructed elsewhere without difficulty, including the 3,399-foot Caldecott Tunnel in the Bay Area, others have encountered costly problems.

The 11-mile East Side Access tunnel in New York City, for example, is 14 years behind schedule, and the tab has grown from $4.3 billion to $10.8 billion. Boston’s 3.5-mile Big Dig was finished in 2007 — nine years behind schedule and at nearly triple the estimated cost.

Digging stopped on the 2-mile Alaskan Way tunnel under Seattle when a boring machine broke down in December 2013 and had to be retrieved for repairs, causing a multiyear delay with an unknown cost overrun.

The bullet train will require about 20 miles of tunnels under the San Gabriel Mountains between Burbank and Palmdale, involving either a single tunnel of 13.8 miles or a series of shorter tunnels.

As many as 16 additional miles of tunnels would stretch under the Tehachapi Mountains from Palmdale to Bakersfield.

All told, this is a major project that might just draw attention from the public and scholars for decades to come. Is it possible to even finish it? What will be the end cost? Will it enhance transportation and life in California? There is a lot at stake here and big costs will not help. From the article, it sounds like part of this is due to falling behind schedule – this adds more money as the project takes more time and costs tend to go up over time – and is also due to the unique geological features of California – fault lines and possible earthquakes – which produce additional complications.

I’ve seen numerous people suggest that projects like these illustrate how difficult it is for the United States of today to complete major projects. This may be needed and/or helpful but a lot of good things have to happen before the line even becomes operational.

Three tips for avoiding turning a $250 million bridge into a $13 billion one

A new book chronicling the long saga of the new Bay Bridge offers these lessons for avoiding massive cost changes/overruns:

Reference other projects. Frick points to a couple ideas for controlling mega-project costs. Scholar Bent Flyvbjerg, who has studied infrastructure cost overruns around the world—and who often boils them down to political deception—has promoted the idea of basing costs on a “reference class” of similar projects already completed. The fear with that is project leaders won’t bother to keep costs down if they know they can hit a certain number, but Frick says that possibility bothers her less than the uncertainty surrounding costs that goes on right now.

Widen early cost ranges. Giving a precise cost number out to multiple decimals, as the state legislature did with its $1.285 billion estimate in 1997, makes the figure seem more scientific and precise than it really is, and creates that much more public frustration when the costs keep rising in the future. “In the early planning stages, ranges in the projects would be really important to provide,” she says.

Track progress more closely. Frick also suggests that officials pay more attention to “transaction cost economics”—an approach that “analyzes project development over time,” she writes, in an effort to identify the precise “political and economic origins” of new costs. This fuller accounting also considers costs that often go overlooked, such as the time and energy that go into public participation. Without better cost estimates, projects will continue to suffer from the type of strategy described to Frick by one senior engineer:

“Basically at the onset of a project I think the higher ups prefer a dollar amount and schedule that doesn’t shock the public.”

Which, as the Bay Area knows, only makes the shock that much worse when it finally arrives.

The typical resident is going to look at this and ask how in the world this was allowed to happen. Large infrastructure projects have a lot of moving pieces but the change in price is still hard to understand. Of course, there may be a political penalty for adhering to this advice – a higher projected cost upfront is likely to limit support. Yet, going with an unreasonably low projection with no cost range borders on dishonesty.

Audits of Chicago budget reveal behind the scenes information about the city

In addition to illustrating Chicago’s difficult financial situation, the 2012 budget audits also contain other interesting information about the city. Here are a few examples with some quick commentary:

The number of “physical arrests” by Chicago Police officers declined again — from 152,740 in 2011 to 145,390 in 2012. That continues a six-year trend that coincides with the hiring slowdown that caused a dramatic decline in the number of police officers. Police made 227,576 arrests in 2006. The number of arrests has been dropping like a rock ever since.

The Chicago Police Department has long argued that it doesn’t measure the success of crime-fighting strategies simply by the number of arrests.

Despite the negative media attention about crime in Chicago, arrests are down. So what has happened: less crimes are being committed? Chicago police have adopted different strategies?

Daily refuse collections declined from 3,983 tons in 2011 year ago to 3,763 in 2012. Last year’s 52-ton increase had reversed a five-year trend. The amount of garbage generated by the 600,000 Chicago households was 4,451 tons a day in 2006 to 4,240 in 2008.

Thanks to last year’s record heat and drought conditions, average daily water consumption rose by 23 million gallons — to 793 million gallons — reversing a steady decline. In 2006, Chicago’s 1.04 million households were guzzling 884.9 million gallons-a-day. Operating revenues in the city’s water fund were up by $122.1 million or 29.6 percent, thanks to Emanuel’s 25 percent increase in water rates.

Interesting contrast: less garbage but more water usage. This highlights the behind the scenes stuff that is essential to city life but doesn’t receive much attention (unlike crime). Over 3,700 tons of garbage a day! Where does it all go?

Chicago’s 165 tax-increment-financing districts had a collective balance of $1.5 billion. Most of that money is uncommitted, fueling an aldermanic demand Emanuel has rejected: to declare a TIF surplus and use the money to reduce some of the 3,000 layoffs at Chicago Public Schools.

TIFs are intended to collect money to help encourage new development. If there is such a surplus in the TIF funds, why aren’t they being used for development?

Chicago’s principal private employers were: J.P. Morgan Chase (8,168 workers); United Airlines (7,521); Accenture LLP (5,590); Northern Trust (5,448); Jewel Foods (4,572) and Ford Motor Co. (4,187). The 2012 city payroll was 33,708 — down from 40,297 in 2006.

An interesting list of companies – I was surprised by Chase leading the way and Ford so high on the list.

There are other interesting pieces of these audits including revenues and passengers at the two airports as well as the value of the city’s historical and art collection (if this figure is correct, nothing near what the city of Detroit controls). Such information not only hints at how the city really works but also provides helpful financial indicators for assessing the current state and future direction of the city.

More California communities looking to outsource certain municipal services

Here is an update on a developing story: more California communities are considering outsourcing municipal services.

The San Bernardino City Council on Monday will consider a recommendation to seek a proposal from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department on what it might cost for a contract. San Bernardino filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection on Aug. 1.

Maywood in 2010 disbanded its police department, which had faced a myriad of lawsuits and reports of excessive force, and enlisted the county to patrol its streets. In an effort to close a $450,000 budget deficit, the city also laid off all its employees and contracted with the neighboring city of Bell to provide public services such as finance, records management and parks and recreation…

The central California cities of San Carlos, Half Moon Bay and Millbrae have also disbanded their police departments and contracted with their county sheriff over the past two years.

Fullerton debated the decision in August, but ultimately decided to stick with its own police officers.

Baldwin Park officials are waiting for the extensive second phase of its study, which could take up to six months, before making their decision on the controversial proposal. Among other things, it will look at the qualifications of Baldwin Park’s police employees and determine whether they would be able to transfer to the Sheriff’s department.

Two responses come to mind:

1. Outsourcing certain services may relieve local budgets but wouldn’t this eventually strain county-level budgets? And if so, won’t there be some way that counties then start asking for more money back from municipalities or individual taxpayers? This would seem to best work with smaller communities, say under 10-20,000 residents, who have to pay a lot just for start-up costs for services like police and whose addition to county rolls wouldn’t be too burdensome.

2. One question residents could ask about outsourcing is whether the level of municipal services will remain the same. Say a community outsources their police services to the county sheriffs; would the county have the same response time and be able to devote the same amount of energy to local issues? I wonder if the real issue in these communities as well as in many American communities is whether local residents will agree to service reductions in order to save money.

 

Charlotte columnist suggests suburbs will face four problems

American suburbs contain the majority of United States residents (and this figure is likely to grow in the latest 2010 Census figures). And yet, there are a lot of questions about what the future of suburbs will be. A columnist/editor in Charlotte suggests suburbs will face four problems in the near future:

Demographics. Population trends favor urban-style, multifamily development. Gen Y’ers have a clear preference, at least for now, for urban living. Meantime, aging boomers will be selling houses and moving to condos or apartments. As illness and infirmity hit, many will have to give up driving. They’ll want walkable neighborhoods.

With the foreclosure crisis, the single-family home market will be sluggish for years. The nation is overbuilt on large-lot suburbia, and underbuilt in cities. The Urban Land Institute’s “Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2011” has this advice to investors: “Avoid commodity, half-finished subdivisions in the suburban outer edge and McMansions; they are so yesterday.”

Fuel prices. Remember when $4-a-gallon gas walloped the economy in 2008? Now, gas prices are over $3 again. Gas prices are likely to keep rising, and already, transportation is the No. 2 cost for average U.S. households. With pay and jobs sinking, more people are likely to want to live where they can drive less.

Carbon footprint. If we’re to avoid creating even more destructive changes in the world’s climate (more droughts, floods, blizzards or heat waves) for our children and grandchildren to live with, more of us will need to live in tight-knit, walkable cities. It turns out city dwellers have a much smaller carbon footprint.

Suburbs on the brink. Although some first-ring suburbs are thriving, others aren’t. Many suburban neighborhoods are seeing rising poverty and crime, dead or dying malls and derelict strip centers and big-box stores. We can’t just abandon them to blight.

These are all possible issues. Some thoughts about each concern:

1. We will have to see what Generation Y and the aging Baby Boomers want in the long term. Will they want to move back to cities or will they be okay with denser suburban development?

2. Fuel prices are up and American driving is down. What happens if most people can access electric cars within 10 years?

3. Carbon footprints – are people convinced that they should change their personal, residential choices based on this evidence? Do Generation Y members choose to live in cities for this reason or for other reasons such as proximity to entertainment and culture.

4. Inner-ring suburbs are experiencing many of the issues that we once thought were limited to cities. Interestingly, a number of these issues are spreading beyond the inner-ring.

The columnist suggests we need to fight the suburban blight, marked by “separate municipalities outside a city, regardless of age or form…development with a specific pattern, typically built after 1945: single-use zones (stores separated from offices and housing, single-family houses apart from apartments); lots a quarter-acre or more; car dependent.”

There are several other issues that many suburban communities face:

5. Budget crunches with the economic crisis leading to a downturn in housing growth. Not much money is coming in and this will lead to cuts in services and amenities.

6. More suburbs reaching build-out and facing questions about whether denser development can fit within a community dominated by single-family homes.

6a. Will American suburbanites want denser development that may threaten their property values?

7. Increasing minority and immigrant populations that challenge the white majority that has dominate American suburban life. Stories like that of a controversy over a proposed mosque in DuPage County could become more common.

8. Of course, lots of empty houses or homes with reduced values (here or here). This limits people’s ability to move, the ability of communities to collect money, and builders and lenders to make money.