13 November 2008

Quickie Stakeholder Analysis

Each stakeholder in California's HSR project has different interests in the project. Keeping those interests in mind is very important to interpret their actions. On the back of an envelope, the stakeholders are:

The Public

The public has a strong interest in the HSR project, rooted in two different roles: the role of a user who desires HSR to be convenient and fast, and the role of a taxpayer who desires HSR to be built efficiently and for the least amount of money. The public pays up front (see Proposition 1A) and is usually not very well organized to defend its collective interests, compared to the other stakeholders. This blog will scream loudly, if anybody listens, to defend those interests.

While other stakeholders may say that they want HSR to be fast and cheap, the bottom line is that they have little stake in that outcome. Read on to see why!

The Agencies and Governments

On the peninsula, the various agencies are going to defend their parochial interests. Caltrain, the Transbay Authority, SamTrans, VTA, the three counties, the High Speed Rail Authority, and the local communities are going to defend their piece of the pie, be it money or influence. One catfight to watch for in the coming years will pit Caltrain against the CHSRA. Caltrain owns the peninsula rails, but HSR will so profoundly alter every project recently undertaken or planned by Caltrain that even shared goals (fast, efficient and modern transportation) won't be enough to prevent some friction. Up in San Francisco, sparks are already starting to fly between the CHSRA and the Transbay Authority.

The agencies will be in cahoots with the construction companies. You've got to worry when on the night of the election, Quentin Kopp, the head of the CHSRA, is having martinis with the construction big wigs (HNTB, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Webcor) who will get a piece of the action.

The Construction Companies

Construction companies that will build the HSR project stand to profit handsomely. They are where the money ultimately flows. Design engineering, construction, program management, most of the slices of the HSR budget will be sent to them at some point. Their interest is to make money. They make a lot of money by engineering complex infrastructure that involves lots of earth moving and concrete pouring. The more earth moving and concrete pouring, the greater the profit. There's nothing wrong with that so far.

Unfortunately, those same companies are also in charge of designing all this infrastructure. The fox is guarding the hen house, but in proper industry lingo this is passed off as cost-saving "design-build-operate-maintain" and "turn-key solutions". The construction companies know that once HSR is far enough along, nothing will stop its completion, least of all running out of money. They have little interest in making HSR any faster or better or cheaper than absolutely necessary to maintain continued public funding of the project. The wisdom goes that among the three qualities, faster, better and cheaper, you can have any two. Locally, if the HSR design is left without strong oversight, the peninsula may get none of the three.

Look out for gold-plated solutions to simple problems, sold by throwing up a fog of expert-knows-best complexity.

The Neighbors

Many communities, groups and individuals on the peninsula will suffer negative impacts from the HSR project, either inherent in its design or arising from its construction. These groups have some of the most obvious and clear-cut interests: Not In My Back Yard! They will work hard to influence HSR plans to their own benefit, with less regard for the wider public interest. One example: the resolutions opposing Proposition 1A passed by the city councils of Menlo Park and Atherton. Yet another example is Millbrae's push to develop land needed for HSR. And that's only the beginning...

Opposite the NIMBY's, there are what you might call YIMBY's (Yes, In My Back Yard!) who would like to use HSR as an opportunity to obtain local benefits, again without regard to the wider public interest. One example is the screwball plan to tunnel the tracks underground, floated by a Palo Alto group. There will be other communities keenly interested in swinging some HSR bacon their way to achieve urban design aspirations entirely unrelated to HSR.

Let's finish on a positive note: to avoid becoming the boondoggle that proposition 1A opponents fear, the HSR project needs to be designed under the watchful eye of an independent panel of experts with local knowledge, and especially some TEETH to bite back at the agencies and contractors as required to keep them attuned to the public interest. Whether the provisions attached to Proposition 1A will provide for this remains to be seen.


  1. If Palo Alto wants to come up with the money to tunnel or cut-and-cover under Alma then I say go for it. I have no problem with the communities wanting a more livable space, but it should not be the CAHSR's responsibility to come up with the funds to do so...

  2. Instead of Palo Alto investing in hiding the train, wouldn't it be a better overall benefit if Palo Alto invested in a modern streetcar, connecting downtown, the train station and the Stanford Mall and Medical Center together? Portland's system is a huge success.


    That would reduce overall traffic in the city. Both the Mall and the Medical Center are huge traffic generators.

  3. Re stakeholders: the open secret is that CHSR is open season for cost maximization by contractors.

    The CHSRA explicitly signalled this, in a fashion equivalent to taking out full-page ads in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Engineering News Reports shouting in 64 point type COST IS NO OBJECT when it chose the most costly, highest-construction-risk, lowest-ridership, most environmentally destructive, most duplicative, least multi-usable Pacheco route into the Bay Area solely in order to guarantee that the duplicative, parallel, $9+ billion VTA BART project was not rendered instantly obsolete.

    The best thing that could have happened for HSR in California was for Prop 1A to have been defeated.

    Unfortunately we are now in a situation in which cost maximization is the top priority of the controlling stakeholders of the program, and in which the public has written a blank check to them.  The sky is the limit.

    It's not going to be pretty, at least for people who care about the regional environment and economy.

    However it's going to look very, very good indeed from within the offices of PBQD (coincidentally promoting and feeding off BART to San Jose and eliminating HSR between Fremont and San Jose -- what are the odds?) and friends.

    My recommendation: hop on the gravy train, because that's the only ride that's going to be enjoyable. Other stakeholders should just assume the usual Bay Area transportation position.