EIR’s and the Damage They Cause

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(Updated October 3, 2016)

In the middle part of the last century, brutally insensitive highway-building and other major projects were ripping California to shreds. If you’re too young to remember this, take a trip across the Bay and observe what Highways I-880, I-580, I-80, I-980 and 24 have done to Oakland.

In 1970, to protect California cities and countrysides from the wanton destruction being caused by highway-builders, destructive pubic developments and the industries of pollution, the State Legislature passed the California Environmental Quality Act.  In principle this made good sense.  The idea was that all attributes of a highway or other major project were to 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) planner/writers, too 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 finding all aspects of a conceptual design.  In the ensuing years this led to many major design errors and distortions of fact.  Reports were often 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 were and still are often buried among thousands of pages devoted to delineating and describing every conceivable environmental and other aspect of the candidate project.

Time has shown that an important specialty report buried in a two-thousand page EIR does not carry the same weight as a well-publicized, stand-alone document.  To make matters worse, such “specialty” work is often doled out to sub-consultants who lack the qualifications and experience to complete their assignments successfully.  The inevitable result of this careless approach to architectural and engineering aspects of major projects often includes major design mistakes, unrealistic schedules and unsupported “low-ball” cost estimates.  When combined with politicians anxious to sell a potentially unpopular project, the practice becomes doubly damaging.

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 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, geared to accurate results.  This 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, the subordinated but critically-important design, cost and scheduling elements of projects often do not receive the scrutiny, review and evaluation they deserve.

Jerry Cauthen

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