The Back Story: BART
As a Board Member of the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), I don’t purport to speak for the agency. On several occasions, I’ve publicly criticized VTA, to urge a much more aggressive transformation of a costly, underperforming light rail system, and to reign in unsustainable budgetary decisions. But misleading conclusions have emerged from the latest controversy over the cost and construction schedule of the second phase of the BART project, a project that would extend BART service from the recently-completed Berryessa station in North San Jose to stations at Little Portugal in East San Jose, Downtown, Diridon Station, and Santa Clara. This controversy–and this project — deserves a deeper dive.
Here’s the skinny: it is very likely that the construction of this BART extension will take longer than the planned 2030 ribbon-cutting, and it is certain that it will cost significantly more than the $6.9 billion previously projected by VTA’s engineers.
How much more? We can’t know for sure–yet. We do know that every major transit project in the U.S. is enduring ballooning construction costs — including Caltrain’s electrification project–stemming from supply chain disruptions, construction labor shortages, and a massive ramp-up in federal infrastructure spending since the pandemic.
A May 2021 risk assessment of the BART project by the Federal Transit Administration projected some high-end ranges for the additional cost and delay: as much as $2.2 billion more (for a total of $9.1 billion), and an additional four years. You can read more about that review here. VTA staff disagreed with various elements of the FTA’s review, but after consulting with private-sector contractors bidding on the project, the agency added another 10 months to the projected construction schedule. VTA also admitted that it expects additional cost escalation–but not as much as as the “high-end” FTA range would suggest.
Who’s right: the VTA, or FTA? The answer is likely “neither.” Each agency necessarily relies on assumptions to arrive at projections. The best assumptions in any projection are always wrong — they’re just off by less than worse assumptions. We’ll know the actual cost when the bids come back from the companies bidding to build the project. Yes, we should expect that the cost will significantly exceed $6.9 billion.
There’s an essential point that is often overlooked here, though: the VTA Board cannot commit public dollars on construction until those bids are made public. At that time, everyone–and particularly the taxpaying public– will know what the project will cost. In the meantime, we only have estimates.
We should also refrain from jumping to conclusions not supported by the data. Assertions by some that the FTA report was a “scathing” indictment of the BART project appear overwrought. Within weeks of its report, the same FTA announced a willingness to fund up to $2.3 billion of the BART project in San Jose. That’s not a small point, either: the BART project prevailed as the first and only transit project in the entire nation to secure approval under the FTA’s Expedited Project Delivery program, despite robust competition from Seattle and many other cities. If the FTA didn’t like the project, or thought VTA couldn’t competently build it, the FTA wouldn’t have already allocated $225 million of the $2.3 billion for it. The FTA simply asserted VTA should increase its budget and schedule estimates.
In its funding process for transit projects, the FTA routinely identifies areas of concern in project cost and schedule, as here. More than a decade ago, for example, the FTA urged VTA to increase the agency’s estimate for the cost of its BART Phase I project, which brought BART to North San Jose in 2020. Despite two years of delay, that project ran $90 million under budget.
Several advocates and commentators have seized on one design element–the single bore tunnel–as the source of the problem. They urge the VTA to halt the process, select a dual-bore tunnel option, and then proceed. Citing the FTA report, they have asserted that the VTA’s decision to use a deep, single-bore tunneling method–rather than the conventional dual bore tunnel–constitutes a key driver of cost, risk, and delay.
Here’s the problem with that assertion: the FTA never said that. No where in its 145-page report does the FTA ever identify the single-bore design as a source of cost or delay. Although it evaluated the tunnel design for risk, it clearly omits the single-bore from its list of “high risk” elements in the project (see pages 4–4 and 4–7 of that report here).
Indeed, there are many advantages to the proposed subway tunnel design over conventional dual-bore construction. The single-bore method avoids opening a giant trench in the Downtown that would cause years-long construction-related disruption to our city; for reference, ask denizens of 1970’s San Francisco about the open-heart surgery on Market Street, and the decades that neighborhood has taken to recover. A single-bore design also reduces the risk of tunnel collapse during construction, as posed by the more than thirty cross-passages required with a dual-bore tunnel. Barcelona implemented this construction method successfully years ago, and precisely the FTA’s interest in seeing this innovative approach introduced to North America helped the VTA’s BART project to prevail in a nation-wide competition for funding.
Another problem with “switching horses” on tunnel design is the delay and cost of indecision. A dual-bore tunnel would require another two to three years in redesign, environmental study, and clearance. If you’re trying to reduce costs on a major construction project, delay is not your friend. The resulting project would almost certainly cost more, take longer to build, and be more disruptive to our city.
Some have criticized the VTA for declining to release the FTA report to the public sooner. Yet within weeks of the report, companies were bidding on the largest portion of the BART construction contract–the tunneling and trackwork. Releasing the FTA report publicly would cost taxpayers hundreds of millions, because it would give all of the competing companies reason to pad their bids when they read the FTA’s basis for a sky-high price range. Courts routinely exempt public agencies from such disclosures during an active procurement of a contract, to avoid undermining the efforts of public agencies to conserve taxpayer dollars through competitive bidding.
VTA has plenty of heavy lifting ahead, to address the inflationary pressures on this BART extension and to get construction underway, as do many other transit agencies with big projects, like Caltrain. VTA must do so transparently, to be sure. But indecision can be the great driver of cost in all governmental activity, though that burden on our taxpayers never earns a headline. Let’s agree to build BART safely, transparently, and cost-effectively– but then let’s actually get it built.