(Updated September 8 2017)
In the mid-20th Century, brutally insensitive highway-building and other big projects were ripping California to shreds. If you’re too young to remember this, take a trip across the Bay and observe what Highways 24, I-880, I-580, I-80 and I-980 did to Oakland.
In 1970, to protect California cities and countrysides from the wanton destruction being caused by highway-builders, destructive public and private developments and the pollution industry, the California Legislature passed the California Environmental Quality Act. In principle this made good sense. The idea was that all elements of a highway or other major project would be described, publicized and evaluated ahead of time…..before the bulldozers arrived.
Unfortunately this spawned a whole new industry of eager Environmental Impact Report (EIR) writers, often unschooled in the complexities of major engineering enterprises. Despite being managed by technically-challenged planners, the EIR soon came to be regarded as a convenient place for locating all aspects of a conceptual design. In the ensuing years this led to many major design errors and distortions of fact. EIRs were and still often are poorly-organized, poorly-written, and full of irrelevancies and redundancy. More importantly, key design elements such as surveys, geotechnical analyses, structural engineering, traffic counts, ridership projections, construction schedules and costs are often buried among thousands of pages devoted to profusely describing virtually everything about candidate projects.
Time has shown that an important technical specialty buried in a two-thousand page EIR does not carry the same weight as a well-publicized, stand-alone document. To make matters worse, key technical assignments are often doled out to sub-consultants who lack the qualifications and experience needed to successfully complete their assignments. The inevitable result of this careless approach to the technical aspects of major projects often leads to major design mistakes, unrealistic schedules and unsupported “low-ball” cost estimates.
In the past it was not this way. Geotechnical reports, long recognized as vital to the success of projects, were prepared with care and given close attention. Engineering firms had control over, and were 100% responsible for, all elements of their engineering designs. The checking of drawings and other design elements was rigorous and comprehensive. Cost estimating was a careful and exacting process.
This highly disciplined approach is still used today….by competitive bid construction contractors for whom guess work and carelessness would soon put them out of business.
When buried in EIRs, critically-important engineering design, cost and scheduling elements of large projects often do not receive the attention, scrutiny and evaluation they deserve.