Stockholm is currently expanding its transit system, with about 19 kilometers of subway extension, and another 6 kilometers of a commuter rail tunnel taking regional traffic off the at-capacity mainline. The subway extension, excluding rolling stock acquisition, costs about $2.1 billion, and the commuter rail extension $1.8 billion.
The US is currently building five subways: Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 (2.8 km, $4.6 billion), East Side Access (2.2 km, $10 billion), the first phase of the Wilshire subway (6.3 km, $2.8 billion), the Regional Connector (3.1 km, $1.4 billion), U-Link (5 km, $1.8 billion). Two more projects are partially underground: the Crenshaw/LAX Line, a total of 13.7 km of which 4.7 are underground, at a total cost of $2.1 billion, and the Warm Springs BART extension, a total of 8.6 km of which 1.6 are underground, at a total cost of $900 million. (Update 2/1: the Central Subway is $1.6 billion for 2.8 km. Thanks to Joel for pointing out that I forgot about it.)
The first observation is that Sweden has just
700 meters 3.5 km of subway under construction less than the US under construction, despite a vast gap in not only population but also current transit usage. Stockholm may have twice the per capita rail ridership of New York, but it’s still a small city, the size of Indianapolis, Baltimore, Portland, or Charlotte; 450 million annual rail trips is impressive for a city of its size, but the US combined has more than 3 billion. This relates to differences in costs: the amount of money Sweden is putting into heavy rail infrastructure is $3.9 billion, vs. $23.6 billion $25.2 billion among the seven eight US projects, which approaches the ratio of national subway and commuter rail ridership levels.
The second observation is that the US spending is not really proportional to current rail ridership. Two thirds of the spending is in New York, as is two thirds of US rail ridership, but nearly everything else is in Los Angeles, which takes in a majority of current subway construction route-length. Los Angeles is a progressive city and wants better public transit, but the same is true in many of the six major US transit cities – New York, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. And yet, of those six, only New York and San Francisco are building urban subways (BART’s one mile of tunnel is in a suburb, under a park).
The difference is that Los Angeles builds subways at $400-450 million per km in the city core (less in future phases of the Wilshire subway), whereas in most of the US, lines are either more expensive or more peripheral. Boston, the Bay Area, and Washington are expanding their rapid transit networks, but largely above-ground or in a trench, and only outside the core. Boston’s Green Line Extension is in a trench, but has had major budget overruns and is currently on the high side for a full subway ($3 billion for 6.9 km), and the MBTA is even putting canceling the project on the table due to the cost. Washington’s Silver Line Phase 2 is 18.5 km and $2.7 billion, in a highway median through the Northern Virginia suburbs. BART’s Warm Springs extension is about $100 million per km, which is not outrageously high, but the next extension of the line south, to Berryessa, is $2.3 billion for 16 km, all above ground.
Let us now stay on the North American West Coast, but go north, to Vancouver. Vancouver’s construction costs are reasonable: the cost projections for the Broadway subway (C$2.7 billion ex-vehicles, PDF-p. 95) are acceptable relative to route-length (12.4 km, PDF-p. 62) and very good relative to projected ridership (320,000 per weekday, PDF-p. 168). Judging by the costs of the Evergreen and Canada Lines, and the ridership evolution of the Canada Line, these projections seem realistic. And yet, in a May 2015 referendum about funding half the line as well as many other transit projects, 62% of the region’s voters, including a bare majority in Vancouver proper, voted no.
The referendum’s result was not a shock. In the few months before the vote, the polls predicted a large, growing no vote. Already in February, the Tyee was already comparing Vancouver negatively with Stockholm, and noting that TransLink’s regional governance structure was unusual, saying the referendum was designed to fail. This is not 100% accurate: in 2014, polls were giving the yes side a majority. The deterioration began around the end of 2014 or beginning of 2015: from 52-39 in December to 46-42 in January, to 27-61 in March. The top reason cited by no voters was that they didn’t trust TransLink to spend the money well.
This cannot be divorced from Vancouver’s Compass Card debacle: plans to replace paper tickets and SkyTrain’s proof-of-payment system with a regionwide smartcard, called Compass, and faregates on SkyTrain, were delayed and run over budget. The faregates aren’t even saving money, since TransLink has to pay an operating fee to vendor Cubic that’s higher than the estimated savings from reduced fare evasion. The height of the scandal was in 2014, but it exploded in early 2015, when TransLink replaced its manager amidst growing criticism. The referendum would probably have been a success a year earlier; it was scheduled in what turned out to be a bad period for TransLink.
The importance of the Vancouver example is that construction costs are not everything. Transit agencies need to get a lot of things right, and in some cases, the effects are quite random. (Los Angeles, too, had a difficult rollout of a Cubic-run faregate system.) The three key principles here are, then:
1. Absolute costs matter. They may not directly affect people’s perceptions of whether construction is too expensive. But when legislators have to find money for a new public transit project, they have some intuitive idea of its benefits, give or take a factor of perhaps 2. Gateway is being funded, even though with the latest cost overrun (to $23.9 billion) the benefit-cost ratio in my estimation is about 1/3, but this involved extensive lobbying by Amtrak, lying both to Congress and to itself that it is a necessary component of high-speed rail. Ordinary subways do not have the luxury of benefiting from agency imperialism the way the Gateway project did; if they’re too expensive, they’re at risk of cancellation.
2. Averaged across cities and a number of years of construction, cities and countries with lower construction costs will build more public transit. We see this in the US vs. Sweden. Of course, there are periods of more construction, such as now, and periods of less, such as around 2000, but this affects both countries right now.
3. Variations from the average are often about other issues of competence – in Vancouver’s case, the failure of the faregates and the delayed Compass rollout. Political causes are less important: Vancouver’s business community opposed the transit referendum and organized against it, but it’s telling that it did so and succeeded, whereas business communities in cities with more popular transit authorities support additional construction.
In a post from 2011, Yonah Freemark argued that California HSR’s projected cost’s upper end was just 0.18% of the projected GDP of California over a 20-year construction period. The implication: the cost of high-speed rail (and public transit in general) is small relative to the ability of the economy to pay. This must be paired with the sobering observation that the benefits of public transit are similarly small, or at most of the same order of magnitude.
New York’s survived decades without Second Avenue Subway. It’s a good project to have, provided the costs are commensurate with the benefits, but without cost containment, phase 2 is probably too expensive, and phases 3 and 4 almost certainly. What’s more, the people funding such projects – the politicians, the voters, even the community organizations – consider them nice-to-haves. The US has no formal mechanism of estimating benefit-cost ratios, and a lot of local political dysfunction, and this can distort the funding, to the point that Gateway is being funded even though at this cost it shouldn’t. But, first, even a factor of 3 distortion is unusual, and second, on average, these distortions cancel out. Democrats and Republicans shouldn’t plan on controlling either Congress or the White House more than about half the time, in the long run, and transit activists shouldn’t plan on political dysfunction persistently working in their favor.
The only route forward is to improve the benefit-cost ratio. On the benefit side, this means aggressive upzoning around subway stations, probably the biggest lacuna in Los Angeles’s transit construction program. But in New York, and even in the next five transit cities in the US, this is not the main problem: population density on many corridors is sufficient by the standards of such European transit cities as Stockholm, Berlin, London, and Munich, none of which is extraordinarily dense like Paris.
No: the main problem in most big US cities is costs, and almost only costs. Operating costs, to some extent, but mainly capital construction costs. Congress and the affected states apparently have enough political will to build a 5-km tunnel for $20 billion going on $24 billion; if this system could be built for $15 billion, they’d jump at the opportunity to take credit. The US already has the will to spend reasonable amounts of money on public transit. The difference is that its
$24 billion $25 billion of spending on subways buys 26 km 28.5 km of subway and 16 km of a mix of light rail and el, where it could be buying 120 km 125 km of subway. Work out where you’d build the extra 94 km 96.5 km and ask yourself if ignoring costs is such a good idea for transit activists.