This is a guest post from EngineerScotty, who blogs at Portland Transport and the Dead Horse Times. It is a follow-up to the recent series of articles on the issue of expertise vs activism, and it further explores the theme of the second article: projects which are over-constrained–those with excessive and sometimes contradictory requirements imposed on them by stakeholders. This post originally appeared at Portland Transport here; the version which appears at Human Transit has been edited and revised for a more global audience. As always, views expressed in guest posts are interesting to me but not necessarily mine.
Jarrett has been investigating the proper role of the transit planner. Is (s)he a dispassionate expert, much like an engineer is expected to be? Or should planners and other professionals serve a more activist role–essentially serving as advocates of the transit-riding public, and defending their interests? Jarrett, who has made numerous remarks about the limits of mixed-traffic streetcar (and has been accused, unfairly in my opinion, of being a "bus fanatic"), noted that his job has elements of both: He does prefer to optimize for mobility outcomes, and streetcar frequently fares poorly as a mobility measure; but when he takes on a project he needs to live within the project's constraints: If a project which hires Jarrett as a consultant is chartered with building streetcars, then he will help the agency design the best streetcar network that they can afford.
But then, an obnoxious commentor (OK, yours truly) threw a wrench into the gears, asking the essential question. What if the project requirements are nonsensical to begin with? Jarrett's answer focused on the role of transit planners in addressing all of this; and I defer to his expertise on such matters. Instead, this article looks at the more fundamental problem: projects with fundamentally conflicting requirements.
Too many cooks
Many public works projects, especially those in a multi-layer democracy like the United States and other countries with federalist systems, have many, many stakeholders. And not all of those stakeholders have the interest of the general public at heart, let's be honest. Politicians love to show up at ribbon-cuttings, and may have ideological axes to grind. Agencies frequently seek to expand their scope, power, and influence. Developers, vendors, unions, and other parties often want to cash in, and frequently aren't shy at trying to influence decision-makers (often in ways which are perfectly legal). NIMBYs frequently show up who want it somewhere else.
Even among those stakeholders who actively support a project's goals, one can frequently find many demands on a project. Institutions can fall into the "golden hammer" trap, where their job involves swinging hammers and thus view every problem as a nail. Professional societies frequently have standards and practices which they view as sacrosanct, regardless of whether appropriate for a given context. Diverse communities of users may impose conflicting requirements. If grants are part of the funding package, the granting agency will often impose conditions of their own. And spools of bureaucratic red tape will surround the project, particularly if the United States government is involved.
All too often, public works projects collect so many differing requirements and constraints, both legitimate and not, that running the project is like squaring the circle. (For the non-mathematically inclined, constructing a square with the same area as a given circle using only straightedge and compass, was proven impossible in the 19th century). And this is without taking into account financial and schedule constraints. Yet projects which attempt to square the circle–which attempt to satisfy simultaneously many conflicting requirements, often dictated by stakeholders with de facto veto power over the project–still happen way too often, often times with disappointing results.
At least two prominent projects in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area — one primarily highway, one exclusively transit — exhibit signs of being over-constrained. One of them is the Columbia River Crossing (CRC), a project to replace the Interstate Bridge crossing the Columbia River, between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington. The other is the Lake Oswego-Portland Transit Project, a project which seeks to build a "rapid streetcar" line connecting the city of Portland with its inner suburb of Lake Oswego, using an abandoned rail right-of-way.
The Swiss Army Bridge
The fundamental goal of the CRC ought to be conceptually simple. Modernize (structurally and functionally) the primary crossing of the Columbia, providing multi-modal crossing support, while eliminating the draw span. Straightening out the shipping channel on the river is a bonus. But what has actually happened has been a mess. The first problem is governance. Given that it's a bi-state effort, there isn't any single entity which is an obvious candidate to run the project. So management was given jointly to the Oregon and Washington State departments of transportation (ODOT, WSDOT), with the participation of the cities of Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington; the counties of Clark and Multnomah; Metro [the Portland regional planning authority]; the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council; and the two transit agencies, TriMet and C-Tran. ODOT and WSDOT drafted purpose-and-need statements that pretty much excluded any solution other than a new freeway bridge. Throw in a pile of rules from various highway manuals and "poof": rather than simply building a bridge, the project now involves rebuilding about five miles of Interstate 5. On Hayden Island, a small island south of the river's primary channel, a new proposed network of ramps and interchanges cuts a swath through the island, nearly as wide as a football pitch is long.
The city of Portland and Metro have their own requirements for the project. It must contain light rail (an extension of the MAX Yellow Line), and other "green" features. Many in Portland's civic leadership have insisted on an "iconic design" rather than a simple truss bridge. With all of these design elements, the total proposed cost reached US$4 billion.
Financing for such a price tag will require that the bridge be tolled. Residents on the Washington side would allegedly bear the brunt of tolls, because many of them commute to jobs in Oregon. The mayor of Vancouver was recently unseated when his challenger ran on the issue of bridge tolls. Many on the Oregon side have little sympathy for those in Vancouver, whom are accused of wanting the benefits of a large, dynamic city, but of not wanting to contribute to its upkeep. And so on.
The result, at this stage, seems to be a design that nobody really likes, that has a murky funding picture, that has cost eight figures to produce nothing but paper so far, and which has no end date in sight.
Did it have to be this way? That's a hard question. One fundamental issue is that the City of Portland objects to a key design goal of the highway departments on both sides of the river–"modernization" of the freeway (a catchall term which includes widening, ramp reconfiguration, and all sorts of other stuff designed to reduce congestion). While some of Portland's objections spring from ideological or environmental concerns that other stakeholders don't share to the same extent, the city does have a legitimate concern that redesigning the bridge simply will move the existing traffic bottleneck south into Portland's city center. The state departments of transportation, for their part, seem more than willing to hold Portland's transit expansion plans hostage (an ODOT staffer once reportedly suggested that the agency would block any attempt to extend MAX across the Columbia, unless as part of a larger project to widen I-5). And Vancouver doesn't want to be stuck with an ever-escalating bill. Part of the present dynamic seems to involve both sides wishing that someone (Governor Kitzhaber, the feds) would "see the light" and kick the other side to the curb.
The Lake Oswego Quit Calling It Streetcar (At Least For Now) Project
Compared to the CRC, the Lake Oswego transit project (LOTP) is a model of piece and harmony. The "what" of the project was largely fixed: a streetcar line, running from the current south end of the Portland Streetcar, along the old Jefferson Branch line to Lake Oswego. The project goals make sense: Use an existing asset (the rail right-of-way) to leverage federal funds, and build a transit service running in exclusive right-of-way which ought to be faster than local bus service on Highway 43, a frequently-congested 3-5 lane surface route. Demonstrate the potential of "rapid streetcar" as a budget alternative to light rail for shorter corridors. A no-brainer, right? Unlike the CRC, where leadership was distributed among a handful of agencies with contrary goals and a decided lack of trust, the involved government agencies (TriMet, Metro, and the cities of Portland and Lake Oswego) aren't fighting over the project requirements. But the devil, as is often the case, is in the details.
The most fundamental issue is that the project is promoted as rapid transit–as an upgrade over the existing bus service (TriMet's 35 and 36 lines, which the streetcar would replace between Portland and Lake Oswego). But this premise is undermined by the proposed implementation. The project is currently planned to be an extension of the existing Portland Streetcar system, which offers local-stop service along is present route, and which bypasses the main transit corridor downtown (the Portland Transit Mall). Portland Streetcar's current rolling stock (Skoda 10T streetcars and a clone produced by Oregon Iron Works), are optimized for mixed-traffic application, not for rapid transit use. In addition, many local merchants on Highway 43 in the Johns Landing neighborhood want streetcar service at their front door; whereas many condo owners along the existing right-of-way don't want trains past their front door. (Never mind that the rail line has been there far longer than the condos). Thus, the streetcar line is likely to make an expensive detour onto Highway 43–the same highway which is predicted to turn into a parking lot in the near future, justifying the mobility need for the project in the first place.
Unlike the new Milwaukie MAX line directly across the river, which is designed to function well as rapid transit until hitting downtown, the streetcar is not so designed. It's likely to be slower than the existing bus between Lake Oswego and downtown, and that's without considering the need for riders travelling from/to beyond Lake Oswego to transfer. Bus lines 35 and 36 from beyond Lake Oswego, which now flow through Lake Oswego into Portland, will have to be truncated, forcing a connection to the new streetcar. This is necessary both to avoid duplication and to provide operating funds for the streetcar line.
The streetcar does offer modest capacity improvements over the bus, and has the cachet of being rail. (That cachet is a source of debate in transit circles, but will likely have an impact given the demographics along the line). But the mobility improvements of the project are close to nil; and for longer-distance commuters on the 35 and 36, probably a net negative. Perhaps land-use improvements alleged to flow from the project will be worth the local investment, though much of the area along the line is already developed or not suitable for development. Perhaps the ability to get a big check from the US Government for a minimal local cash contribution–given that the federal government is willing to consider the value of the right-of-way in calculating their match–makes the project worth doing. This is a difficult case to make, however, to the transit-riding public, who tend to care more about headways and trip times than they do about property values.
Signs of an over-constrained project
Here at Human Transit, another commenter posed an interesting question: How do you know if a project has requirements or constraints that make it difficult to do a good job? The question was posed in the context of bad-faith requirements (such as developers engaging in rent-seeking), but the answers also apply to good faith attempts to square the circle. My response is here; the answers are also reproduced below, edited for brevity. (In particular, observations about the CRC and Lake Oswego streetcar projects which are redundant with the criticisms above are excised; if you want to see the original answers, click the link).
- Overly constrained initial project requirements. It's useful to distinguish here bona-fide requirements from design/implementation details, the latter of which ought to flow from the former. But sometimes, elements which ought to be details are set forth in the requirements without adequate explanation of why this should be so. Sometimes these requirements aren't stated explicitly, but still are constrained enough that only the solution preferred by the powerbroker can meet them. [CRC used as example]
- Decision criteria which may not match the stated goals of the project. For example, publicly identifying a project as "rapid transit" but then de-emphasizing speed and reliability, or basing decisions on highly speculative future estimates. [LOTP used as example]
- Thee presence of strawman alternatives in the DEIS (Draft Environmental Impact Statement) or equivalent planning/analysis document. By "strawman alternatives", I mean proposed alternatives which are obviously bad, and included only to satisfy process requirements that multiple alternatives be studied in depth. [LOTP "enhanced bus" used as example; in this case, a more robust BRT solution was excluded from analysis early in the project..which lead us to the next item…]
- Viable project alternatives rejected early in the planning phase, often due to being "out of scope" (see the first item concerning overly restrictive requirements), or on the basis of vague or overly-picky technical factors. Look for signs that point to "this might work, but we really don't want to (or aren't allowed to) consider it, so we'll dispose of it as quickly as we can". [Many have alleged that the proposed "supplemental bridge" alternative to the CRC is another example].
- Projects that appear "out of the blue", rather than the result of organic planning activities, or which are done "out of sequence" compared to their apparent priority. May represent a unique opportunity (such a project eligible for funding that isn't available for other projects) or it may be a sign that someone has his thumb on the scale.
- "Economic development" being touted as an advantage is a frequent red flag. This is always touted, of course, but if "economic development" is the main reason for doing a project (and especially if the "development" in question refers mainly to the project's construction effort itself and not to post-project activities the work will enable) a good response is to ask if there are any places to deploy the "economic development" that will have better post-project outcomes. Paying someone to dig ditches and refill them can be considered "economic development" in that it does create jobs, but it's better to pay people to build useful things.
- And one other, not in the HT article: The use of unproven or untested designs or methodologies in the project, or anything dubbed "experimental". Until recently, the CRC was considering an experimental bridge design, until cooler heads prevailed.
Of course, not all over-constrained projects are failures. Westside MAX had some annoying constraints placed on it, but is overall a successful project. Still, had ten extraneous stops been sprinkled along the line between Portland and Hillsboro, would the line be as successful?
Dealing with over-constrained projects
What to do about all of this? The hard fact about overconstrained projects is that often, we have to live with them. It's easy to fantasize about driving bad actors out of the process, and about having strong visionary leaders who have the foresight and the clout to sweep conflicting requirements out of the way, without losing support for the project. But such individuals are rare, and in many of these projects — notably the CRC — nobody in the process, not even the governors, are in the position to act unilaterally. Still, a few suggestions come to mind:
- Governance matters. It's hard with multiple stakeholders. In the case of the CRC, the first step to fixing the project would be for the stakeholders to jointly hire an outside project leader; one who has no particular ties to either Oregon or Washington, or to the various modal factions, to lead the project. Of course, for such a leader to be effective, the various agencies will need to cede a fair bit of authority to said leader; I'm not sure any of them are willing to do so at this point.
- Sunlight is the best disinfectant. A transparent process, one where decisions can be easily traced to inputs and planning work products are available for inspection, may help cut down on (or at least expose) some of the pettier forms of backroom dealing. Bad actors don't like being subject to public scrutiny. Transparency also helps good-faith projects avoid accusations of backroom dealing; virtually every large capital project gets accused of being done in order to grease someone's palm; an accusation which is frequently not true.
- Be prepared to say no. The City of Portland has won some concessions on the CRC with this tactic, but if a project is really going off the rails, cancellation should always be an option.
- Bifurcation and phasing may work. A controversial and difficult project can sometimes be split up into two or more separate projects. Often, though, the political impetus is in the opposite direction, creating more linkages between projects so as to create a package containing something that everyone wants.
- Better advocacy for users. One of the unfortunate parts of transit advocacy in the Portland area is a lack of effective organization of transit users. Freight users of the highway system are well-organized, and often asking government for better freight mobility. The auto lobby is likewise strong and forceful. Even the cycling community in Portland is relatively-well organized. Transit users in the city do have some organized advocates, but many of these activists represent subset of the overall transit community (such as lower-income inner city bus riders), not transit users as a whole. Beleaguered transit agencies, especially ones looking to grow their ridership base, can't always represent the interests of their existing ridership.
That said, not all gloom and doom is justified. Over-constrained projects do end up successful, despite warts. This is especially true when the bulk of the constraints come from actual community needs that happen to be in conflict (such as simultaneous demands for access and mobility). Portland's MAX system, overall, threads the access/mobility needle reasonably well, although not perfectly. Some critics of the system complain about too many highway-running segments without development potential; others complain that it's too slow downtown, and uncompetitive for crosstown trips. However, were MAX to offer streetcar-like performance over its entire length, it probably would not attract the ridership that it does (especially the large number of suburban commuters using the system); conversely, were it required to be built to "class A" levels of mobility throughout the system, it probably could not have been built at all. The flip-side of the overconstrained project is one which has too many degrees of freedom–and which may not be taking as many community needs into account as it should–or in the worst cases, such as the destruction wrought by urban freeway-building, result from the neglect of a particular community's concerns altogether.