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Walters: Is Bay Bridge a harbinger of fiascoes to come?

  • (ERIC RISBERG / Associated Press)

If, and when, the Legislature ever bestirs itself to really find out how the Bay Bridge project became an embarrassing debacle, it should begin with listening to Bent Flyvbjerg.

Why? Because he's the world's foremost authority on why big infrastructure projects often wind up like the Bay Bridge - way over budget, way behind schedule and plagued by defects.

Or, as Flyvbjerg, an Oxford University professor who frequently lectures in the United States, puts it in the title of one treatise, “Delusion and Deception in Large Infrastructure Projects.” That paper, interestingly enough, was published in the California Management Review, a UC Berkeley publication.

Flyvbjerg sees infrastructure mismanagement as a global phenomenon that plagues not only public sector projects such as the Bay Bridge, but private ones and private-public partnerships as well, and catalogs examples in his “Delusion and Deception” paper.

“There are some phenomena that have no cultural bounds such as maternal love and a healthy fear of large predators,” Flyvbjerg writes.

“We can add to this list the fact that, across the globe, large infrastructure projects almost invariably arrive late, over-budget and fail to perform up to expectations.”

However, Flyvbjerg does much more than describe the syndrome; he also seeks to understand its origins and offer ways to avoid its pitfalls. The underlying reasons, he says, are delusions born of ignorance, deceptions to make projects sound more feasible than they truly are and bad luck.

The Bay Bridge project, which was supposed to cost about $1.5 billion and take 10 years, but wound up costing more than $6 billion and is a decade overdue, fits that pattern.

It's important to view the bridge project against Flyvbjerg's thesis not only to pinpoint, for history, the reasons it became an embarrassing fiasco, but because it's only the first and smallest of three huge infrastructure projects.

State officials plan to begin work later this year on a bullet train line linking California's northern and southern regions whose present price tag is $68 billion but is bound to grow by many billions more. And a big water project, including twin tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is in the works, with a price tag of at least $25 billion in taxpayer and water user funds.

Both projects are based on assumptions of need and utility that are questionable and may be, to use Flyvbjerg's words, “delusions” or perhaps “deceptions.” However, he points out that more realistic and transparent planning processes can avoid the pitfalls - and that's why he should be invited to review what California has done on the bridge and what it proposes to do on the bullet train and the Delta tunnels.

Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.

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