It’s been a good four years since Manteca “secured” funding to rehab the cracking pavement on Main Street between Atherton Drive and Yosemite Avenue as well as Yosemite Avenue between Main Street and Cottage Avenue.
Contracts have finally been awarded for both projects with Main Street work starting in the next two months and Yosemite work shortly thereafter.
More than a few people are irked that it is taking so long and want to know why the city is dragging its feet.
There are a multitude of reasons for the delays.
Both projects involve federal and state money. That means agencies at both levels that control the approval process must sign off on not just the scope and design — they are two different things that in most cases can’t be done concurrently — but also on release of funding and environmental clearance.
Compounding the problem is a shortage of transportation engineers who have the expertise the city needs on staff to deal with road projects to meet a whole slew of regulations and requirements that will make your head spin when you see the length of the list.
Manteca Public Works Director Mark Houghton in the case of road projects will tell you the biggest challenge the city has encountered is a staffing shortage although the loops the city has to jump through seemingly go on forever.
You just can’t have any engineer do the work. It makes sense from an engineering knowledge perspective. But even more important in the world of state and federal funding it is a mandate to move projects forward.
Houghton notes it has been an ongoing challenge for 11 years for the city to hire and retain a qualified engineer. Once they gets projects moving they often take a much higher paying job in the private sector and puts the city back to square one. The city could pay such workers more but if they did they’d have to take a chainsaw to municipal staffing across the board given the salaries they can command in the private sector.
What the city has ended up doing which Houghton says “honestly seems silly to me” is hiring consultants to overlook the work of consultants.
If that sounds wacko, let me explain. There is a redundancy of sorts built into the system to assure public safety and that the job is done right. In a perfect world the city would have an on-staff transportation engineer doing the upfront work and then retain the services of a firm to do the design. But if you don’t have the staff position you either wait until you can hire someone and watch construction inflation eat into funding or you hire a consultant to work with a consultant.
Seemingly endless regulations to scale and staffing challenges are the reality of modern bureaucracy, a growing environmental review process that requires you to now take into consideration “environmental justice” — read that social justice — if it applies to projects including major road work, and the fact we are in a high growth area.
To give you some context of how daunting it is to move any public works project forward today, consider the Tri-Dam Project built on the Stanislaus River as a joint venture by the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District. It involved building three reservoirs — Donnells, Beardsley, and Tulloch. Between them they can store in excess of 120,000 acre feet of water and generate 120 megawatts plus of electricity.
Voters in 1948 approved a $52 million bond measure. Design and geology work was completed to allow the filing for needed state and federal permits in 1952. The Tri-Dam Project was up and running five years later. Two of those three years were the actual construction. It was projected to take three years to build but the workers were promised to receive an extra year of wages if the dams were completed in two years.
Fast forward to today. The OID after 10 years of design work and navigating the permitting process is now constructing a 7,000-foot replacement tunnel for their main supply canal below Goodwin Dam at a cost of over $12 million. Most of the time was tied up trying to secure federal permits as the canal/tunnel project at one point crosses land under the control of the Army Corps of Engineers.
The best illustration is perhaps the infamous shade canopy over the San Joaquin River that was in place for nearly five years as part of the River Islands at Lathrop development.
The “canopy” was the bridge deck for the River Islands Parkway that stood completed for almost five years across the river without earthen berms in place to construct the approach for the road let alone the actual street.
Cambay Group had to attain approval from 10 different stage and federal agencies. When they finally secured the final permit, the first permit they obtained was about to expire within two years. Even though it was in the middle of the Great Recession and they were years away from building their first home let alone the roadway, the decision was made to build the bridge so they would not have to repeat the approval process.
It took five years to secure needed permits and build the three Tri-Dam reservoirs in the 1950s that at the time was the biggest such project ever undertaken by a local irrigation district in the United States without a single penny from state or federal sources. It took 10 years in the 21st century with bureaucrats armed with all sorts of time saving computer technology to get a simple bridge crossing permitted and built.
Tri-Dam a few years back added a third hydro-component to produce “green” electricity at Tulloch Reservoir. It took three years to obtain the state and federal permits. That was a year longer than it took to build the entire Tri-Dam Project consisting of the Tulloch, Beardsley, and Donnells reservoirs.
It’s easy to slam the people who have to make government work day-in and day-out in terms of making sure water flows through our taps, the stuff we send down the drain is treated, our garbage is collected, police and fire respond to emergencies, and such. But in reality they often have to play by rules put in place by the state and federal governments that regulate how the system works by deploying a massive bureaucratic army that makes the D-Day invasion look like an expeditionary force by comparison.
The rules are put in place for good reasons but more often than not they are morphed and stretched into applying to virtually every conceivable project by bureaucratic dictates and the hijacking of the environmental review process for objectives that often put the needs of the whole at the mercy of the few.
That’s not to say the environmental review process is a sham and isn’t needed or that bureaucracies that move so fast they make snails seem to move with the speed of Justify, the 2018 Triple Crown winner, are superfluous.
But it is clear if you want to slash the high cost of government and speed the delivery of public works infrastructure you need to find ways to streamline the bureaucracy and the environmental review process.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.