Transit Talk

Shall we start with some good news? I think we should.

Word from the engineers studying the Transbay Transit Center beam cracks is that they’ve ruled out a design flaw as the cause of the problem. That means once the cracked beams are repaired (or, presumably, replaced) we should get decades of use out of the terminal.

Granted, we still don’t know what the underlying problem is or how long repairs will take. In theory, we’ll know the answer to the first question by the end of November–but don’t forget the difference between theory and practice. And, although the engineers are already planning repair procedures based on a variety of likely scenarios, implementing those plans could still take months.

But let’s focus on the positives here. Based on what we know now, unlike the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch, the TTC’s problem seems to be limited in scope and unlikely to recur. That’s a big win.

To be fair, however, all is not sweetness and light in TTC-Land. The San Francisco County Transportation Authority–an alias for the city’s district supervisors–voted to withhold tax money that had been slated to go toward the next phase of the Transit Center*. The SFCTA is also calling for an investigation of the whole project and the Joint Powers Authority, which currently oversees the TTC.

* Laying new railroad tracks to bring Caltrain into the Transit Center.

An extended delay could permanently derail the train project (sorry). That would make the TTC a mindbogglingly expensive bus-only project.

Stay tuned to see how this one plays out.

Meanwhile, BART is taking steps to ensure that we don’t lack for expensive transit projects to worry about. They’re about to present plans for a second connection between San Francisco and the East Bay.

I hesitate to call it a second Transbay Tube, as early reports suggest it could be an above-ground project associated with one of the existing auto bridges.

According to the Chron, construction wouldn’t even start for another decade, which does make me wonder if we’re going to get a reprise of the Bay Bridge’s extended design and implementation. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to see them rush in and give us something half-assed.

Still, ten years of planning should produce plenty of blog fodder. That’s a good thing, I think.

And one final Bay Area transportation note. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission is considering a plan to do away with toll booths.

No, that doesn’t mean doing away with tolls. Don’t be silly.

The goal would be to go to all-electronic toll collection, something that’s already been done on about 20% of the country’s bridges and tunnels.

There are some good arguments around cost savings and safety to be made in favor of the change, but there are also some unanswered questions to be dealt with.

Most notably, in a region as heavily dependent on tourism as the Bay Area, how does electronic collection work for someone driving a rental car? I hope the MTC isn’t figuring that Uber and Lyft are going to put Hertz, Avis, and Enterprise out of business any time soon.

I also wonder just how much support the MTC will have for some of the ideas they’re considering under an all-electronic toll regime. Congestion pricing is never popular, but I could see it happening.

But implementing tolls on traffic in both directions seems like a plan designed for failure. If you thought the gas tax caused a major upset, just wait until voters hear that a round trip across the Bay Bridge is going to cost $15.

BART had better hurry up with that second Bay crossing. When the price tag for driving hits two or three times what transit costs, we might actually get a few drivers off the road. (Yeah, I know. That’s my optimistic side speaking.)

The B-sides

You know, when I started writing about the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch, I didn’t really expect to get more than a couple of posts out of it before moving on to some fresh new piece of ineptness. Same thing with BART. I expected to do one or two columns about management and the unions shooting themselves in the feet, and then be done with it.

Clearly, Caltrans and BART are exceeding all expectations. I’m quite happy to have such splendid targets for my curmudgeonly wrath. So happy that I need to be careful about overdoing it. I don’t want to bore my loyal (and not-so-loyal) readers, so I’m going to limit myself to one post per month about the Bs. Unless there’s some breaking news, of course…

So with that said, here’s the B-side for February.

Let’s start with the Bay Bridge. The new bridge has been open since September and it hasn’t fallen down yet. What’s to talk about?

Well, way back in pre-history (i.e. before I started writing this blog), there was a mini-scandal involving bad welds on major structural members of the roadbed. I say “mini-scandal” because the welds were inspected, some of them were redone, and Caltrans moved on to bigger and better cost overruns.

Now we have whistle-blowers claiming that they had been ordered not to report the bad welds in writing so that the reports wouldn’t become part of the public record. That could explain a lot. If the accusations are true–and let’s note that they haven’t been proven–they could be part of a general Caltrans policy. Find a problem, report it verbally. We’ve been asking since we started talking about the bridge where the records of the QA work are. Maybe now we know: they don’t exist, not because no testing was done, but because supervisors didn’t want problems documented. Interesting thought, no?

Speaking of cost overruns, it appears that taking down the old eastern span of the bridge is already six months behind schedule. That’s not going to be cheap to fix… It seems that the core of the problem is that Caltrans was so busy trying to open the bridge by Labor Day that nobody filed the necessary paperwork to get the demolition permits. Really? Caltrans has–according to Wikipedia–over 22,000 employees. None of them said “Hey, wait a minute. The plan says we need to file for demolition permits about now”? Or maybe there wasn’t a plan? I know: the plan was communicated verbally to ensure there was not public record of delays! Oh, wait.

Then there’s BART. Everyone, labor and management, have signed off on the new contracts, so it should be smooth sailing now–at least for a couple of years until they start negotiating the new contracts, right? Apparently not. BART board President Joel Keller is pushing for a new contract negotiation process modeled on the one used by Major League Baseball: both sides supply two representatives. They then select a neutral fifth person, such as a retired judge, and the panel chooses either BART’s proposed contract or the unions’. No compromises, one contract or the other. The proposal has met with limited approval, but the unions are not going to sign onto it if a provision preventing them from striking while the board is considering the proposed contracts remains. My own thought: the idea has a lot of merit, but I’d like to see the commuters get a voice in the process. Add a requirement that the fifth panel member has to have commuted via BART at least twice a week for the previous year, and I’m in.

Labor negotiations may be the least of BART’s problems in the immediate future, though. Right now, there are a lot of eyes on the BART police. Yes, BART has its own police force, and yes, they are actually police, not security guards. They’re in the public eye because one officer died in a “friendly fire” incident two weeks ago during a probation search of a robbery suspect’s apartment. Why were BART officers conducting the search? Because the robberies in question had occurred on BART.

There are a lot of people questioning whether BART really needs its own police, or whether the public would be better served if BART drew its police from the cities where the system operates. They point to procedural errors during the search as well as the well-publicized 2009 shooting death of Oscar Grant as evidence that BART’s training and oversight are inadequate. On the other hand, there are obvious potential problems with using civic police forces for BART work. Questions of jurisdiction spring to mind, as do financial and staffing concerns (case in point: Oakland is seriously short of police already; seconding officers to BART would be a huge burden on the city.)

Then there are the protesters who are demanding that the BART police be disarmed. Obviously, they say, if the police don’t have guns, they can’t shoot anyone. Problem solved!

Do I even need to point out the flaw in this plan? I suppose I do, since they’re proposing it with straight faces. It’s the same reason that civic police carry guns: criminals won’t give up their weapons if the police don’t have guns. I’m not going to start a gun control debate here, but until there’s some actual evidence that unilateral disarmament reduces crime, I’m going to regard all such proposals with scorn.

I don’t have a simple solution to BART’s police problem, but it seems obvious to me that the answer lies somewhere in the realm of improving the organization’s processes and training, whether on their own or as part of another group.

New Year, Same Old Stories

As we kick 2013 under a steamroller and leap into 2014, it seems like a good idea to check on the biggest stories of the year gone by.

  • The Bay Bridge is still standing. That’s a good start. The famous “saddle” retrofit is complete, and the seismic stabilizers are actually attached to the bridge structure now. Of course, the retrofit went over budget, but did anyone actually expect anything different? The original estimate was $10 million, so the final cost of $25 million is only over by 150%. That’s a damn sight better than the cost overrun for the bridge itself.Our buddy Jaxon notes that Caltrans is still testing rods and bolts. They’ve identified an additional 700 fasteners that might need replacement. Such fun. The bridge is a project that just keeps on giving.

    No updates yet on any of the basic questions we started our study of the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch with. Is it too late to make the whole East Span a single “Who QAed This Shit?” item?

  • Meanwhile, over in the wonderful world of BART, we’ve had a few things happen since we last checked in. As you may recall, the unions ratified the contract, but BART management did not, thanks to a family leave clause that BART said they never meant to include.Words were exchanged, lawsuits were filed, and behind the scenes, negotiations went on. In exchange for deleting the familiy leave clause, BART offered a package of tweaks to the contract, including expanded bereavement leave, new break rooms in some stations, and a modification to the way bonuses for meeting ridership targets are calculated.

    BART directors are supposed to vote on the final, final contract today. Based on the rhetoric flying around, it’s unlikely to be approved unanimously, but I’m guessing there’s a 75% chance it will be approved.

    Meanwhile, BART has been pushing for legislation to make strikes illegal and require mandatory arbitration. Unions have greeted that idea with great enthusiasm. Rumors that union members’ cars are now sporting “You’ll have to pry my right to strike from my cold, dead hands” are entirely false (and were, in fact, invented by this author just now). In reality, the unions are greeting the notion of mandatory arbitration with all the excitement they would give to mandatory dentist visits or a return of the Macarena. A Bay Area “advisory” ballot measure seems likely to pass by a landslide, but getting a bill through the state government seems highly unlikely.

    My take is that if both sides really want to avoid another strike four years from now, they need to start negotiating now. Don’t wait for 2017, just get the teams talking first thing Monday morning. Don’t reference the just-signed contract, forget traditional perks, rules, and barriers, and start with a blank sheet of paper to build a contract acceptable to both sides. They’ve got three and a half years; that’s almost long enough. Go to it!

  • Finally, there was a small story buried on page 4 of the Chronicle’s sports section on 22 December. Its headline is “Pill to Korea”, and my first thought was that somebody was proposing chemical therapy for Kim Jong Un. Apparently not, and the Giants don’t need to worry about the AMA investigating them for practicing medicine without a license. Turns out they’ve sold first baseman Brett Pill to a Korean baseball team. Interesting choice of words there. If we can believe the story, they haven’t sold his contract to the Kia Tigers, they’ve sold him. The AMA may be the least of the Giants’ problems.For Mr. Pill’s sake, we’ll hope that the Kia Tigers are a baseball team with a need for a first baseman, and not actually a section of the Gwangju Zoo with a need for raw meat. Maybe we can interest the zoo in a package deal for Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman.

The Worst Job In the World

OK, so we’ve got BART making national headlines again. Not content with a four day strike last month, BART directors and union representatives are flirting with another.

Wait, wasn’t the contract ratified? Well, yes and no. The unions ratified it, but BART has not. Seems there’s a clause in there–the now-infamous section 4.8–that grants workers six weeks of paid family leave. BART officials are claiming that it could cost as much as $44 million over the length of the four-year contract, they never meant to agree to the clause, and it was included in the ratified contract by mistake.

The unions say that the estimate is outrageously overblown–$22 million is a realistic high-end estimate, and under $10 million is more likely–and that regardless of what they meant to do, they not only signed off on it in July, but didn’t raise any objections to it during the final review to resolve any questions before it went to the unions for ratification.

BART wants to reopen contract negotiations, a notion that the unions are flatly rejecting. The sides met to argue over the actual projected cost of the provision, but the unions explicitly stated that the meeting “should in no way be construed as interest on our part to resume negotiations.”

The contract includes the same “no strike” clause that the unions declared inapplicable and the same clause that prevents BART from hiring replacements until after a strike is called. Consequently, many Bay Area residents feel that BART caved into union demands, and that the current flap is a desperate attempt to save some face by “getting tough” at the expense of commuters’ jobs.

Both sides are acting like children here. BART is on one side of the room whining “It’s not my fault!” and blaming an unnamed “temporary employee”, and the unions are on the other side of the room, jumping up and down and screaming “No takebacks!” Commuters just want to spank both sides and send them to bed with no dessert.

Meanwhile, in hopefully unrelated news, Google is promoting an initiative to actively remove links to child porn. They say they’ve cleaned up over 100,000 queries, and 13,000 more queries will result in warning messages that child pornography is illegal.

Kudos to Google for taking steps to make such material harder to access. (None of the articles I’ve seen say whether suspected kiddy porn will also be reported to authorities, but since they have reported such material in the past, presumably they’ll continue to do so.) What’s especially interesting to me in these reports is that Google is taking active steps to avoid false positives. They’re not trusting computer algorithms to automatically remove links, which would have the potential to block legitimate content. Apparently, every image flagged by the software is reviewed by “a team of 200 Google staffers”. Those are the people that I really take my hat off to.

Not only do those staffers have to spend hours looking at some of the most depressing scenes possible, but they have to make very sensitive decisions about each one. It’s not just a question of whether the participants are actually children, but whether the images are pornographic–one article mentions “something innocent like a child taking a bath”. Keep in mind that Google is attempting to honor local (i.e. national) laws in making their decisions. That means that a given picture could be an “innocent” bathing image in one country and an actionable obscenity in another.

Not only do the reviewers need to look at the materials and make repeated sensitive but subjective judgments, but they’ll be under very close scrutiny while they do it. In many jurisdictions, possession of child pornography is an offense–possession, not viewing. Google is going to have to closely monitor reviewers to ensure that questionable materials don’t wind up on their computers; one hopes that reviewers are not able to use BYOD machines for the task. Given the number of prosecutions that have taken place when computer repairers have found images in browser caches or temporary folders, one failure to wipe a machine at the end of the day could result in nasty accusations or even jail time for someone who really was just doing his job.

I think I’d rather be a BART contract negotiator.

PS: I had already decided on the title for today’s post when Lior reminded me of this. Good timing!


Catching up and cleaning up before I start on the research for today’s main post.

There isn’t a lot going on publicly with the Bay Bridge at the moment. There’s no official word yet on whether Caltrans will be proceeding with the proposal to install shims to allow the bridge to open before the saddle is completed. Presumably Director Steve Heminger is still sulking in his tent after being cut out of the loop on the shim proposal.

The Bay Bridge Bolt Botch affects the eastern span of the bridge; the western portion didn’t need to be replaced after the Loma Prieta earthquake. It has received a set of seismic updates. Now we find out, courtesy of Matier and Ross, that there’s a problem with those updates. 37 of the 96 seismic dampers (essentially, shock absorbers) are leaking lubricant. Caltrans is refilling them, but considers that to be a temporary fix and plans to replace all 96 dampers beginning in 2015. Why wait that long? Because they’re not sure the specs are correct. Currently Caltrans believes that the specs are inadequate for the amount of vibration the dampers receive from wind, traffic, and temperature changes. They’re using the next year plus to beef up the specs.

Meanwhile, over in BART-land accusations and recriminations continue to fly between BART officials and the unions. The unions continue to claim that BART’s chief negotiator has a history of labor law violations and provoking strikes. BART, of course, denies that. Said chief negotiator is currently on vacation; BART says the vacation was incorporated into their planning, and that they can continue to negotiate without him. BART, for its part, is trying to line up retired staff to run the trains in the event of a renewed strike. That’s necessary because under their current agreement they can’t start training new drivers until a strike actually occurs–and the training includes a required 15 week safety course.  Yes, I said “week”.

Details of the negotiations are being kept secret, but nobody seems to think an agreement is close.

Away from the negotiating table, BART is showing off a mockup of the new rail cars it expects to begin buying. Union members are countering with letters to the newspaper decrying BART’s lack of engagement on safety issues.

Finally, a correction: I predicted that the unions would strike again July 31 and an agreement would be reached over the following weekend. The extension of the old agreement actually expires August 4, not July 31 as I had thought. So my updated prediction is that the unions will go back on strike on Sunday the 4th; a deal will be reached late on Wednesday the 7th–too late for the morning commute on Thursday.

BART and Bolts

A couple of unrelated Bay Area transportation-related updates today.

First, a quick update on BART for those who are interested: the strike lasted essentially all of last week. Service resumed at 3pm Friday, too late in the day to do much for the afternoon commute. There is no settlement. The union members have returned to work while negotiations continue. State mediators pushed both sides to agree to extend the current contract for 30 days. Both sides continue to claim that an agreement isn’t close and that the other is negotiating in bad faith. Neither side is doing much to boost their image with the general public.

My prediction: There will not be a new agreement by the time the extension expires. Workers will strike again on 31 July, and an agreement will be reached over the following weekend.

In Bay Bridge Bolt Botch news, it appears that Labor Day is off the table for opening the new bridge. So are Columbus Day and Halloween. Ditto Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.

Caltrans gave a closed-door briefing to state legislators yesterday, and an official announcement is planned for tomorrow. The word coming out of yesterday’s briefing is that constructing and installing the “saddle” to anchor the seismic stabilizers will take until December 10. We’ve discussed the saddle in the past. It’s intended to serve the same function as the snapped bolts, and will add only $10,000,000 to the cost of the bridge. A true bargain for the sense of security it will provide! I’m sure we’ll all feel much happier about driving over the bridge with the saddle in place.

Oh, and the other 2,000+ bolts? Caltrans is still testing them. On Sunday, our friend Jaxon quotes a corrosion expert as saying that the sort of simulated aging tests being done are “a roll-of-the-dice kind of thing” in terms of their ability to give an accurate picture of the long-term condition of the materials. He also quotes a UC Berkeley materials science professor as saying that the tests are unlikely to provide any new information. He says “You know what it is going to prove? That high-strength steel is susceptible to hydrogen-assisted cracking.” I find it interesting that the testing is intended to simulate aging over a ten year period. The new bridge is supposed to have a 150 year useful lifespan.

Jaxon was apparently unavailable to write today’s article on the report to the legislature. That was done by Michael Cabanatuan in Tuesday’s paper. In regard to the bolts that haven’t cracked, Michael quotes the report as saying that based on inspections done to date, the installation of the saddle will be sufficient to allow the bridge to open. 740 bolts will need to be replaced, but that can be done “after the span opens”. How reassuring. Why not replace them now? After all, it’s going to take three months to get the saddle installed. Is there a reason not make use of that time?

The report, by the way, also addresses the question of responsibility. Says Michael, “Caltrans, bridge designers T.Y. Lin International/Moffatt & Nichol Design Joint Ventrue and bridge builder American Bridge/Fluor Joint Venture share responsibility for the rod failures, the report concludes.” I’ve got news for you, Michael: one cannot hold a corporation or public agency as a whole responsible for anything. Responsibility vests in individuals.

I’ve been saying for weeks now that some specific people should have signed off on the design, the choice of materials, and the manufacture and installation of the parts. Either those signoffs were never given, or they’ve all been mislaid. Regardless of which scenario is more likely or which actually occurred, it’s the people who signed off or should have signed off but didn’t who should be identified as “responsible”.

Maybe we’ll get more information when the report is formally released tomorrow, though I doubt it. As Wikipedia tells us, collective responsibility “often breeds distrust and isolation…and is almost always a sign of authoritarian tendencies in the institution or its home society.” This is a situation where Caltrans, the contractors, and the legislature need to build trust, and blaming anonymous members of largely faceless corporate entities will not do that.

What if they built a bridge and nobody drove over it? If BART has settled its strike by December, we may very well see a huge spike in BART ridership at the expense of automobile and AC Transit’s Transbay bus service.

BART Strike

Since y’all are asking about it in email, here are a few words on the current transportation woes in the Bay Area: “GET BACK TO WORK!”

And that’s not just aimed at the striking workers. It’s also aimed at BART officials.

Strikers, you’ve made your point. Transit is a mess without you. We get it. (We knew it already–we remember the last time you went on strike, when BART wasn’t as critical as it is now–but thanks for making it crystal clear.) So now that you’ve reminded us that we can’t get by without you, please get back to work while negotiations continue. Thanks in advance.

BART officials: How about making a serious offer? 2% a year after four years of frozen wages is barely an offer; combined with the increases to pension and health care costs, it’s bordering on an insult.

Speaking of those negotiations, union negotiators: what the hell were you thinking, leaving the negotiations at 8:30 Sunday? Dumping an offer that you knew was going to be unacceptable to BART on the table and then walking out doesn’t just border on an insult, it is outright insulting. Not to BART management, but to the general public who relies on BART to get to work. That says “We don’t give a shit about you, but we expect you to back us.”

All of you: Whether we like it or not, BART is an essential resource. Today there is literally no way to get from home to work for anyone who does not work in San Francisco. If you need to commute between Richmond/El Cerrito/Berkeley and Walnut Creek/Concord/Pittsburg or Dublin/Pleasanton/Hayward/Fremont, you’re on your own. No bus connections, no casual carpool, no Caltrain or Amtrak. I’m not suggesting that BART employees (or transit employees in general) should be legally prevented from striking, just that they should seriously consider limiting their strikes to short, specified strikes as other essential workers do (one or two day strikes get the point across without burning all of your goodwill).

Remember folks: there’s plenty of blame to go around to all sides on this one. Settle quickly, or don’t be surprised if the public at large spits on you all.

One final thought for the commuters: Congratulations on making today not nearly as bad as most of the predictions. Here’s hoping you can keep it up. If AC Transit goes on strike tomorrow and everyone who burned their weekly telecommute day today is trying to get to the office, it’s going to make those predictions look optimistic.