|Plan showing where electrification poles|
will be placed in the vicinity of the
historic El Palo Alto redwood
(see RFP Volume 3 page 1193)
This RFP is an incredibly prescriptive document that tells prospective bidders precisely what the project should look like, down to the last bolt. Volume 3 of the RFP (download the 2840 page, 214 MB PDF file) includes layout plans of the overhead electrification system that dictate the exact placement of every single pole foundation. The prospective contractor is admonished that pole locations cannot be changed without first submitting a formal design variance request to Caltrain.
This procurement is being carried out as a "Design-Build" where the winning bidder will be tasked with "designing" the project, which in this case will amount to a connect-the-dots exercise to duplicate Caltrain's highly prescriptive preliminary engineering drawings into final construction-ready drawings. What little room is left for creativity and efficiency is stifled by an onerous variance process that requires the "designer" to submit extensive paperwork to Caltrain for approval of the slightest change to the design prescribed in the contract. One can easily imagine how the goal of Design-Build contracting, namely to reduce risk and cost by consolidating decision-making under a single entity, would be lost under the hyper-prescriptive approach that Caltrain has chosen.
The thousands of pages of the RFP highlight the cozy symbiotic relationship that exists between government agencies, their in-house consultants, and private contractors. Without an ounce of nefarious intent on the part of any of its participants, this self-reinforcing triangle, hardly unique to Caltrain, brings together hollowed-out government agencies with rubber-stamp boards run by politicians, permanent in-house consultants whose primary motivation is to justify their existence through highly prescriptive decisions that increase scope at their whim, a profit-hungry coterie of construction companies ticking all the boxes for shareholders and labor interests, and a byzantine system of contracting regulations and reporting requirements, quite ironically intended to prevent taxpayers from being defrauded. The results of this firmly-entrenched Transportation Industrial Complex are projects that deliver less and cost more, typically three times the going rate in other first-world countries where government agencies are centralized, smart, and employ an experienced staff of technocrats whose first interest lies in serving the public with better transit at lower cost. What can be done about this system? Not a whole lot. It is the logical byproduct of our decentralized system of government and of our free markets, pursuing their respective enlightened self-interests. These self-interests include neither low cost to the taxpayer nor excellent transit service to the user.
The recently-completed modernization of Auckland, New Zealand's commuter rail network, of quite similar technical scope, is an instructive benchmark against which to evaluate Caltrain's modernization efforts.