In an environment of high construction costs, there’s an impulse to downgrade projects: build light rail instead of subways, BRT instead of rail, commuter rail on existing tracks instead of greenfield light rail, shared-lane buses and streetcars instead of ones running in dedicated lanes. Some of those downgrades have already gotten flak individually from transit supporters, of which Jeff Wood’s recent article about commuter rail and Mike Dahmus‘s repeated attacks on BRT and the Austin commuter rail are good examples.
I do not think anyone has made the following point connecting those projects: the same causes that lead to incompetence in running one mode will lead to incompetence in running all other modes. Regardless of the mode chosen, a project in the US can expect to cost several times as much as a comparable European projects. (As a single exception, FRA-compliant commuter rail can be expected to be especially bad, because there the regulations and operating traditions are especially bad.) With very few exceptions, building BRT in a corridor that begs for rail, suburban transit in a city that needs urban transit, peak-only commuter rail, and other apparent cost savers will incur the same cost escalations as in every other mode.
In particular, downgrading service will not save any money, and going to the FRA will actually raise costs. This affects both the choice of technology and the choice of how to use it: American light rail lines keep the per-km costs reasonable by building out to exurbia, creating ersatz commuter rail with low ridership. This is epitomized in Dallas, whose light rail is setting records for low per-km ridership, and whose plans for the next decade are projected to cost $2.4 billion for 60,000 additional weekday riders, i.e. $40,000 per rider. In contrast, Houston’s urban Main Street Line cost $300 million for 34,000 riders, which is about $10,000 per rider in today’s money, the lowest per-rider cost in the US in the last 15 or so years. And Houston is unusual; more common is the Portland Milwaukie light rail extension, projected at $55,000 per rider and $110 million per km.
If we start looking abroad, we see the same pattern. When European LRT is more expensive, as for example in Nice, it’s because it’s very high-ridership urban infill. And Nice is an exceptionally expensive case; Lyon’s trams are cheaper. Few European light rail lines go over $10,000 per rider, and on Yonah Freemark’s list of recent and planned projects in Paris, a few lines are below $5,000.
Something similar is true for bus transit. Despite Jaime Lerner’s admonition that “Creativity starts when you cut a zero from your budget,” American cities have failed to create good BRT under budget constraints. The Los Angeles Orange Line is expensive for the ridership it has ($15,000/rider in construction, with the high operating costs of a bus) and has mediocre signal priority. Under a budget constraint, Los Angeles still built something inferior to the Blue Line, or even the expensive-to-build, cheap-to-operate Red Line subway.
As an aside, this also holds for the costs of transit versus highways. In the rest of the developed world, prudent cities invest most or all of their transportation money into mass transit, and try to restrain traffic. This should also be true in the US, where subways and light rail are expensive, but so are highway projects: see the 8-times-over-budget Bay Bridge Eastern Span replacement, the Big Dig, and the proposed Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, and compare them to the more complex Øresund Bridge-Tunnel connecting Denmark and Sweden.
At worst, the high costs of transportation in the US imply that government should spend its money elsewhere – on health or education, or perhaps tax cuts. Even then I’m personally skeptical about the efficiency of the marginal dollar: American health care is infamously expensive, tax expenditures are byzantine and in such cases as the mortgage tax credit create the wrong sort of incentives, and so on.
Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 is by far the most expensive urban rail project in the world today, but its per-rider cost is only $25,000, high by European and Japanese standards but lower than any other rail line proposed or under construction in the US today. It would not be approved in today’s pennypinching climate, and even ten years ago it was funded only thanks to legislative blackmail by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose district would be served by Phase 3. Of course at normal cost it would be very cheap, just as at normal cost everything else in the US would become much more affordable, but it is still more cost-effective than seemingly cheap commuter lines.
The upshot is that from the perspective of transit planning, high costs should not deter anyone. Other than the special rule that FRA-compliant commuter rail is practically never justifiable, the relative merits of projects are about the same in the US as in all other developed countries. Agencies all over the world have to choose between a subway, five trams, and twenty busways. In an environment of high costs, it still make sense to draw plans as if the costs are normal, and when the costs are not normal, build more slowly and start with the most cost-effective lines. If agencies and activists behave as if there’s no money for good transit, they will only get bad transit.