Who Do Consultants Work For Building Rail Projects ? By Noel T. Braymer

Construction costs in the United States are much higher than in most developed countries. Much of this is due to politics. Developers and contractors lobby for projects including public works projects built with public money. Large corporations dominate the construction business for major projects which have many contacts with Government at all levels. The primary consultant for the California High Speed Rail Project is now under suspension while under an ethics investigation. 

There are question of conflicts of interest in the way this company was doing business. The company in question is now called WSP. Likely most people have never heard of it. Just recently it was called WSP and Parsons Brinckerhoff. Parsons Brinkerhoff has been the main consultant of the California High Speed Rail Project from its beginning. It has been involved in big expensive projects all around the world. Many of these have had major cost overruns too.

One of the biggest “goofs” at the start of the California High Speed Rail Project was the assumption by the consultants that the UP would have no problems allowing use of their right of way in the San Joaquin Valley for High Speed Rail construction. Using the UP would have been much faster and cheaper for building High Speed Rail since there would be much less need to condemn land and clear it. But the UP made it very clear in 2009 that they had no interest in allowing HSR construction on their property. The result for the HSR alignment was  the CAHSRA was forced to use parts of the BNSF right of way and condemn much more private property than had been budgeted. Only later did the UP agree to allow some use of their right of way in places like downtown Fresno, but by then the damage had been done.

Much of what we have learned how California High Speed Rail was managed or mismanaged has come from an audit done by the California State Auditor at the request of the State Legislature. What it found was much of the work and oversight for the project was not being done by either the few State Employees or the consultants for the High Speed Rail project. This resulted in project delays and cost overruns with little paperwork to justify the cost overruns. Frankly there is little incentive for consultants to finish their work on time or on budgets. The longer the job lasts the more money the consultants get paid in many cases. There is also the question of the learning curve. Once something has been built once or twice, it gets easier and faster to build and at less cost. Anytime something new is planned there are more risks and probable problems. 

This could be seen in the construction of the Red Line, the first rapid transit subway built in Los Angeles County. There were so many problems, accidents and cost overruns when it was built in the 1990’s that for a short time the County of Los Angeles outlawed the construction of future subway tunnels. After a few years this ban was lifted and many more miles of tunneling have since been built with far fewer problems than those experienced by the Red Line construction. In the case of the Red Line, Parsons Brinkerhoff was a long time consultant for that project and  other earlier attempts to build “rapid transit” in Los Angeles.

Ideally such projects should be planned and built by contractors with experience building such projects. Such companies exist and are helping build some of the High Speed Rail projects in the San Joaquin Valley outside of the area in the Fresno Metro area which is where most of the early construction was built and were many of the problems happened. Cost overruns are not unique to rail projects. The new bridge between San Francisco and Oakland replacing the old Bay Bridge cost billions of dollars. Estimated to cost a billion dollars, it went 600 percent over budget. In the case of the one northbound 10 mile car pool lane on the 405 over the Sepulveda Pass, it cost just over a billion dollars and had little impact in reducing traffic. That comes to 100 million dollars a mile for one lane.

Also there has been talk about letting “private enterprise” take over projects such as High Speed Rail. Virgin Trains USA is such a private company. Their services are less ambitious than most High Speed Rail projects. Traveling at speeds no higher than 125 miles per hour with diesel powered trains is a big improvement over most current rail passenger services in this country. But it doesn’t compare to most successful High Speed Rail services which often go 170 miles an hour or more on electrified railroads. But for Virgin Trains USA, having friendly relations with local governments is central to building the new railroads it needs to serve major corridors.

In many cases Virgin will need to build these new railroads on rights of way on publicly owned land. Recently Virgin Trains USA  announced a 2 year delay starting the construction of a new passenger railroad on the I-15 from Las Vegas. The reason was Virgin Trains USA was hoping to get a tax break from the State of Nevada to help pay for its construction but wasn’t successful doing so this year.

Economic reality is finally coming now to LA Metro. After years of planning LA Metro finally came out with a more realistic proposals for run-through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station. LA Metro has dropped its highly unpopular and expensive new concourse built above the train tracks which would need many elevators and escalators and would have been an eyesore to boot. What is planned now is to widen the station’s current pedestrian tunnel from 30 feet to 140 feet. This will make getting around Union Station easier with more open space for more food and retail outlets. What was also deleted  to save money was the plan to build a loop track on the south end of the station across the 101 freeway to create a  semi-circle around Union Station. 

This will result in losing some future direct connections with run through service between some Metrolink lines. This project now looks like it will be built in increments on something of a pay as you go basis. 

The current plan is to start with one set of double tracked run through tracks at the south side of the station. Additional tracks will be added as funding becomes available.


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