Analyzing Rail Transit Project Costs and Delays

January 2022Getting Back on Track Cover

Increasing the reach and capacity of public transit networks, including rail transit, will be essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. But in California (and throughout the US), transit infrastructure projects have long suffered from cost overruns and deployment delays that reduce the value of investment and erode public trust.

With funding from California SB 1 research dollars through the UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies, CLEE analyzed national and international construction trends as well as five California rail case studies to identify overruns and delays, understand their causes, and develop policy solutions to avoid them in the future. 

CLEE’s case studies included rail transit projects in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose, as well as California’s statewide high-speed rail project. While California projects are broadly in line with national averages on cost and time of construction, they lag international peers, and some of the largest and highest-profile projects are particularly slow and expensive. Expert interviews and review of the historical record revealed key barriers to success including megaproject management capacity and expertise; project design and scope creep; agency coordination; procurement and contracting methods; and stakeholder outreach.

Policy recommendations include:

  • Forming regional collaboratives to house permanent expertise not tied to any individual local project, with staff available to consult with or contract out to projects when needed.
  • Creating an office within Caltrans to provide dedicated staff support/ technical assistance to facilitate coordination among local and regional agencies or offer additional funding to agencies that provide detailed plans for addressing any in-house staffing needs, as applicable.
  • Using construction manager/general contractor or construction manager-at-risk (CMGC/CMAR) and other alternative project delivery methods with early contractor involvement to ensure the total cost of building expensive projects in dense, complex areas is identified before construction begins.
  • Legislatively granting master permitting authority to transit agencies with priority rail transit projects (including engineering, street closure, and similar project completion-critical permits) to reduce delays and costs imposed by local governments or large or powerful stakeholders along the route.
  • Avoiding the addition of significant, non-essential betterments and limiting bespoke design for extraneous station elements (e.g., complex facades), particularly after the design stage.

Read the Full Report

Getting Back on Track: Policy Solutions to Improve California Rail Transit Projects


View the Policy Brief

How Can California Transit Agencies Build Rail Cheaper and Faster?


Register for the Webinar

Analyzing Rail Transit Project Costs and Delays Webinar: January 27th, 2022, 10-11am PT


Contact Ethan Elkind, Katie Segal, or Ted Lamm for more information.