Here’s the latest news about the proposed Richmond Pulse project: The expected cost of the project, which would extend Bus Rapid Transit service along 7.6 miles of Richmond’s Broad Street, has just increased by $11 million.
In other words, the contract to design and build the project came in 32% higher than estimated. “Unfortunately, there are estimates, and then there’s the market,” remarked Jennifer Mitchell, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, according to Robert Zullo writing in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The price does include a $3.5 million bonus for completing the project on time.
It’s not clear where the state will find the extra money. But it’s clear from Zullo’s article that the money will be found, and that the state will cover it. The federal government has promised $25 million, the city $7.6 million and Henrico County $400,000. The total project, which includes the purchase of natural gas-powered buses and the removal of 300 parking spaces, originally had been estimated to cost $50 million.
Bacon’s bottom line: This sort of thing happens with such regularity that it is entirely predictable.
Step 1: Create a low ball estimate for a transportation project.
Step 2: Generate a lot of support based on that low ball estimate, and work the project through the elaborate, years-long approval process, creating enough commitment and buy-in from stakeholders that backing out would seem unthinkable.
Step 3: Put out the project for bids, discover the real price of the project, and fund the inevitable shortfall with money from somewhere.
Step 4: Never, ever admit to taxpayers the way the game works.
I support mass transit (though only under the right conditions, not as a universal proposition) as an integral part of a well-functioning transportation system. I have seen this Lucy-pulling-away-the-football-from-Charlie-Brown scenario play out so many times now that I have no faith whatsoever in official cost estimates. If mass transit advocates want to win the trust of taxpayers and gain broader political support, they need to stop this travesty.
I have reached the point where I assume cost estimates are low, the only question being by how much and whether the underestimate was the result of deliberate subterfuge — nod, nod, wink, wink, Mr. Consultant, give us an estimate we can sell to the public — or just systemic incompetence.
Once upon a time, road-and-highway cost projections were equally unreliable, but the Virginia Department of Transportation has done a better job of delivering projects on budget and on time in recent years. As for ridership and traffic projects, I distrust them all equally, whether for roads or transit. Political elites and business leaders continually lament the sorry state of Virginia’s infrastructure. Maybe they could gain political support for more investment if they did a better job of winning the public’s trust.
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