Thanks to voters who have raised taxes on themselves to fund transportation projects, California can expect to benefit from a robust capital program in the years to come. But the degree to which mass transit and rail will play a major role remains a subject of lively debate among industry pundits.

Dan Richard, outgoing chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, made a continuing case for the $77-billion project currently under construction in the Central Valley to attendees of a conference last month, “The Future of Transportation,” at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

“The problem here is a lack of imagination,” not funding, he said. “We are going to have 50 million people living in California off an infrastructure that was built when there were 15 million.”

Richard reflected on lessons learned from the controversial project. For example, “We wrote engineering goals into the bond measure, and the standards became the basis for lawsuits,” said Richard. “Transit is really a land-use issue, and we had no authority over land use.”

Roadwork Ahead

High-speed rail or not, there will be plenty of other transportation work in the years ahead. The California Dept. of Transportation is rolling out a $54-billion, 10-year program, buoyed by a recent successful gas tax increase that adds $2 billion, said Laurie Berman, Caltrans director. About 65% will be for state of good repair, and the rest for new construction, she said.

Stephen Mikesell, who authored a book on the old and new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridges, cautioned against unrealistic initial cost estimates and making political vs. technical decisions on megaprojects. Noting the new Bay Bridge, he said, “it’s hard to believe people misjudged the cost by 650%.”

Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president in 1988, reflected on his involvement in creating the T subway in Boston.

Noting its current terrible on-time performance and a 1-mile gap between two stations, unaddressed because of a lack of funding, he asked, “What the  hell is wrong with us?”