Agency Turf Battles and Construction Costs

This is a touched-up version of an article I tried publishing earlier this year, changed to be more relevant to regular blog readers, who know e.g. what Gateway is.

I’ve talked a lot about high rail construction costs in the US, especially in New York: see here for a master list of posts giving cost figures, and here and here for posts about things that I do not think are major reasons. In this post, I’d like to talk about one thing that I do think is relevant, but not for every project: agency turf battles.

The German/Swiss planning slogan, organization before electronics before concrete, means that transit agencies should first make sure all modes of public transit are coordinated to work together (organization) before engaging in expensive capital construction. In the US, most urban transit agencies do this reasonably well, with integrated planning between buses and trains (light rail or subway); there’s a lot of room for improvement, but basics like “don’t run buses that duplicate a subway line” and “let people take both buses and subways on one ticket” are for the most part done. Readers from the San Francisco Bay Area will object to this characterization, but you guys are the exception; New York in contrast is pretty good; Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia are decent; and newer cities run the gamut, with Seattle’s bus reorganization for its light rail being especially good.

But then there’s mainline rail, with too many conflicting agencies and traditions. There is no place in the US that has commuter rail and successfully avoids agency turf battles, even regions where the integration of all other modes is quite good, such as New York and Boston. I have complained about this in Philadelphia, and more recently criticized the RPA’s Fourth Regional Plan for letting Long Island claim the East River Tunnels as its own fief.

But all of this pales compared with what is actually going on with the Gateway tunnel. The New York region’s political leaders have demanded funding for a $25 billion rail tunnel between New York Penn Station and New Jersey. When Donald Trump had just won the election, Schumer proposed Gateway as a project on which he could cooperate with the new president; Booker got some federal money earlier, in the Obama administration.

The circumstances leading to the Gateway announcement are themselves steeped in inter-agency intrigue. Gateway is the successor to an older scheme to build a rail tunnel under the Hudson, called ARC. In 2010, Chris Christie acquired some notoriety for canceling it as construction started.

Earlier, in 2003, Port Authority studied three ARC alternatives. Alt P would just serve Penn Station with a new cavern adding more terminal tracks; Alt G would serve Penn Station and build a new tunnel connecting to Grand Central; Alt S would serve Penn Station and build a new tunnel to Long Island, at Sunnyside. The three options each cost about $3 billion, but Alt G had the highest projected ridership. Alt G had the opportunity to unite New Jersey Transit’s operations with those of Metro-North. Instead, Alt P was chosen, and the cavern was involved in the cost escalations that led Christie to cancel the project, saying the then-current budget of $9 billion would run over to $12.5 billion.

It is hard to say why Port Authority originally chose Alt P over Alt G. Stephen Smith spent years sending freedom of information requests to the relevant agencies, but never received the full study. Agency turf battles between New Jersey Transit and Metro-North are not certain, but likely to be the reason.

I talked to Foster Nichols a few months ago, while researching my Streetsblog piece criticizing the RPA plan for kowtowing to Long Island’s political demands too much. Nichols oversaw the reconstruction of Penn Station’s LIRR turf in the 1990s, which added corridors for passenger circulation and access points to the tracks used by the LIRR; he subsequently consulted on the RPA plan for Penn Station. Nichols himself supports the current Gateway plan, which includes the $7 billion Penn Station South complex, but he admitted to me that it is not necessary, just useful for simplifying planning. The Pennsylvania Railroad designed Penn Station with provisions for a third tunnel going east under 31st Street, which Alts S and G would leverage; Alts S and G are still possible. The one caveat is that the construction of Sixth Avenue Subway, decades after Penn Station opened, may constrain the tunnel profile – the ARC documents assumed locomotive-friendly 2% grades, but with EMU-friendly 4% grades it’s certainly possible.

With this background, I believe Alt G was certainly feasible in the mid-2000s, and is still feasible today. This is why I keep pushing it in all of my plans. It’s also why I suspect that the reason Port Authority decided not to build Alt G was political: the hard numbers in the study, and the background that I got from Nichols, portray Alt G as superior to Alt P. The one complaint Nichols had, track capacity, misses the mark in one crucial way: the limiting factor is dwell times at Penn Station’s narrow platforms, and having two Midtown stations (Penn Station and Grand Central) would allow trains to dwell much less time, so if anything capacity should be higher than under any alternative in which trains only serve one of the two.

The upshot is that Christie had legitimate criticism of ARC; he just chose to cancel it instead of managing it better, which Aaron Renn called the Chainsaw Al school of government. After Christie canceled ARC, Amtrak stepped in, creating today’s Gateway project. Even without the cavern, Gateway’s estimate, $13.5 billion in 2011, was already higher than when Christie canceled ARC; it has since risen, and the highest estimate I’ve seen (by Metro, so caveat emptor) is $29 billion. This includes superfluous scope like Penn South, which at one point was supposed to cost $6 billion, but more recently Nichols told me it would be $7 billion.

While bare tunnels would provide the additional capacity required at lower cost, they would require interagency cooperation. Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and the LIRR would need to integrate schedules and operations. Some trains from New Jersey Transit might run through to the east as LIRR trains and vice versa. This would make it easier to fit traffic within the existing station, and only add bare tunnels; the Penn Station-Grand Central section, at the southern end of the station, would keep dwell times down by having two Midtown stations, and the section connecting New Jersey Transit with Long Island (probably just Penn Station Access and one LIRR branch, probably the Port Washington Branch) would have 8 station tracks to play with, making dwell times less relevant. Unfortunately, this solution requires agencies to share turf, which they won’t – even the Penn Station concourses today are divided between Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, and LIRR zones.

Gateway is not the only rail project suffering from cost blowouts; it is merely the largest. The LIRR is building East Side Access (ESA), to connect to Grand Central; right now, it only serves Penn Station. ESA uses an underwater tunnel built in the 1960s and 70s to get to Manhattan, and is now boring a 2 km tunnel to Grand Central, at a cost of $10 billion, by far the most expensive rail tunnel in the world per unit length. But the tunnel itself is not the biggest cost driver. Instead of having the LIRR and Metro-North share tracks, ESA includes a deep cavern underneath Grand Central for the LIRR’s sole use, similar to the one in ARC that Christie canceled. About $2 billion of the cost of ESA is attributed to the cavern alone.

Agency turf wars are not unique to New York. In California, the same problem is driving up the costs of California HSR. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the project’s cost has risen from $33 billion in 2008 to $53 billion today. Most of the overrun is because the project includes more tunnels and viaducts today than it did in 2008. Much of that, in turn, is due to conflicts between different agencies, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area. The worst example is San Jose Diridon Station.

Diridon Station is named after still-living former California HSR Authority board member Rod Diridon, previously responsible for the disaster that is VTA Light Rail, setting nationwide records for low ridership and poor cost recovery. The station’s main user today is Caltrain. California HSR is planned to serve it on its way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, while Caltrain and smaller users plan to grow, each using its own turf at the station. The planned expansion of track capacity and new viaducts for high-speed rail is estimated to cost about a billion dollars. Clem Tillier calls it “Diridon Pan-galactic” and notes ways this billion-dollar cost could be eliminated, if the users of the stations shared turfs. Clem identifies $2.7 billion in potential savings in the Bay Area through better cooperation between high-speed rail, Caltrain, and other transit systems.

It is not a coincidence that the worst offenders – Gateway, East Side Access, and California High-Speed Rail – involve mainline rail. American and Canadian passenger railroads tend to be technologically and managerially conservative. Most still involve conductors punching commuter tickets as they did in the 1930s; for my NYU presentation, I found this picture from 1934.

I suspect that this comes from a Make Railroading Great Again attitude. Old-time railroaders intimately understand the decline of mainline rail in the United States in the middle third of the 20th century, turning giants like the Pennsylvania Railroad into bankrupt firms in need of federal bailouts. This means that they think that what needs to be done is in line with what the railroads wanted in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. Back then, people lived in the suburbs and commuted downtown at rush hour, so there was no need for intra-suburban service, for in-city stops (those were for working- and middle-class city residents, not rich suburbanites in Westchester), or for high off-peak frequency. There was no need for cooperation between different railroads then, since commuters would rarely need to make an onward connection, which led to a culture encouraging competition over cooperation.

Among all the explanations for high construction costs, turf battles is the single most optimistic. But Americans should be optimistic about building cost-effective passenger rail. If this is the main culprit – and it is in the Bay Area, and one of several big culprits in New York – then all it takes to fix the cost problem is bringing organizational practices to the 21st century, which is cheap. It is too late for East Side Access, but it is possible to drastically reduce the cost of Gateway by removing unnecessary items such as Penn Station South. This can be repeated for smaller projects in the San Francisco Bay Area and everywhere in the US where two separate transit agencies fight over station space.

Am I optimistic that Americans will actually do this? I am not. Even outfits that should know better (again, the RPA) seem too conservative and too politically constrained; the RPA is proposing systemwide integration in its Fourth Plan, but in a way that incorporates each player’s wishlist rather than in a way that uses integration to reduce capital investment needs. In California, the HSR Authority seems to be responding to demands for value engineering by procrastinating difficult decisions, and it comes down to whether in the moment of truth it will have politicians in the state and federal governments who are willing to pay billions of dollars of extra money.

However, I do think that a few places might be interested in running public transit better. Americans are not incorrigible, and can learn to adapt best industry practices from other countries, given enough pressure. From time to time, there is enough pressure, it’s just not consistent enough to ensure the entire country (or at least the most important transit cities, led by New York) modernizes.


  1. Joey

    As I recall, ARC only proposed through-running on Alt-G in the most rudimentary sense – NJT trains would terminate at Grand Central, and MNR trains would terminate at Penn. Needless to say, this severely limits the capacity and usefulness of the connection. So even with it being the highest ridership alternative, the potential benefits were probably badly undersold.

  2. threestationsquare

    The published summary of the ARC Major Investment Study found that Alt G was physically feasible. The reasons given for not pursuing it was that it would require relocation of the southbound Lexington Ave subway track, possibly requiring an extended shutdown, and that they assumed the majority of peak thru NJT trains would terminate at Grand Central and the majority of peak thru Metro North trains would terminate at Penn, severely limiting capacity to far less than the other alternatives. (See pdfp21-24 of that document.)

    The former objection may be avoidable with 4% grades instead of 2%, and even if not, diverting a line needn’t require an extended shutdown. The latter seems so bizarre and unjustified that I keep suspecting I’m misunderstanding it.

    • HalMallon

      Also, there is a water tunnel in the way…until the new NYC water tunnels come on-line, there are restrictions about contruction in the vicinity of that water tunnel…

  3. anonymouse observer

    I agree with you on the issue; turf wars/battles between agencies is one of the major factors blocking the integrated, more efficient rail service truly catering the general public in the U.S.

    I think majority of turf wars/battles between passenger rail operators in the U.S. are caused by the operating arrangement: host-tenant scheme. In most cases, tenant railroad gets to operate their trains over other railroads’ (host railroads’) territory for track usage/access fee, but the host cannot collect any revenue from passengers traveling within their own territory but on the tenant’s trains.

    Though this is a good deal for the tenant railroads, it doesn’t sound like a good deal for host railroads (especially when the hosts also operates passenger rail service on the same track) because their trains now need to compete against the tenants’ trains unless there is no overlap between the host-operated service and the tenant-operated service in terms of the market(s) and origin-destination pairs served. The moment the host allows someone else to operate the train on their territory, the host’s revenue and ridership could be eroded while giving the track capacity away to the tenant for relatively low track access/usage fee. I think that’s why the railroads, including passenger rail agencies, are very protective of their territory and track capacity and reluctant to cooperate.

    One way to avoid this would be to walk away from the host-tenant scheme and to apply a operating scheme similar to one used in Japan for through train operations, allowing “host railroad” to collect fare revenue from passengers traveling in the host’s territory but on the tenants’ train by making the tenant’s train operating in the host’s train while running within the host’s territory:

    Click to access 22-25_web.pdf

    If there is a way to allow LIRR to keep all fare revenue from all passengers traveling within its own territory, including ones traveling on the potential through trains from/to the NJT territory on the NJT equipment (or vice versa), they wouldn’t be so protective of their “turf” (e.g. track capacity/slots) or worried about other issues (e.g. liability).

    • Alon Levy

      It’s even worse than what you say, because the LIRR and Metro-North are owned by the same entity (the MTA) and still refuse to share turf. In both Boston and Philadelphia there’s a fair amount of management integration within the MBTA and SEPTA, but commuter rail still has separate fares, and at least in Boston bus schedulers are explicitly not allowed to time buses to connect to commuter trains.

      • adirondacker12800

        They refuse to share turf in the fevered imaginations of foamers on and Clueless Long Island legislators grand standing don’t work for either of them.

      • anonymouse observer

        Such turf battles happens everywhere, including in Japan:
        – Fights between JR Central and JR East (e.g. over Shinagawa Station on Tokaido Shinkansen Line, happened when majority of both companies are still owned by the government).
        – Relationship between Eidan-Tokyo Metro (a corporation fully owned by Ministry of Finance and Tokyo Metro. government) and Toei Subway (an agency under Tokyo Metro. government)

        But somehow they appeared to be more cooperative on planning actual operations than those examples you mentioned as the only exception I can think of in Japan is the attitude of JR Central on Meitetsu over the operations over a short segment of track near the end of Meitetsu Nagoya Main Line where they co-own and share the track.

        What do you think is the issue in the North America on this, besides lack of political will?

        • adirondacker12800

          Outside of Penn Station in Manhattan there aren’t any overlapping agencies to speak of. It’s is unlikely there ever will be. Outside of the Northeast metro areas are too far apart. Penn Station is owned by Amtrak. The tenants play nice or they don’t play.

          • Alon Levy

            The LIRR is demanding that Metro-North not go to Penn Station even after East Side Access. That’s not playing nice.

          • adirondacker12800

            Long Island politicians don’t work for the MTA. The LIRR doesn’t own Penn Station, they don’t get to decide who uses it.

  4. Alex

    So I remember speaking to somebody involved with ESA (not sure what capacity), and he told me that because the 63rd Street Tunnels are so deep, to get the track from that far down tot he height of the Lower Level at GCS would be impossible due to the slope. Is that true? Everybody only focuses on the agency turf battle, which is the most common issue in the NY region.

    Obviously there are some technical issues with the third rail shoes being different, but I think those could be overcome.

    • Alon Levy

      The tunnels are designed specifically to only be used by LIRR EMUs, which can climb around 60 meters between the tunnel and when they hit GCT.

      • Alex

        So would they have been able to design tracks to enter the lower level using LIRR EMUs? Or is the slope too steep?

    • HalMallon

      Originally, the plan for LIRR @ GCT was a fly-under the main tracks and coming up and connecting with tracks on the lower level on the WEST side of the terminal. The cost of underpinning the main tracks, as well as the various buildings along Park Ave, was later determined to be cost-prohibitive as well as very disruptive to MNCR operations. A separate concourse @ GCT for LIRR was seen, at the time, less expensive and less disruptive.

      • Alex

        Oh that is an interesting fact and I never knew that. Would they have extended the tracks at all or carved out more space? How would the layout have been with the existing platforms?

        • HalMallon

          LIRR @ GCT was to connect to existing tracks on the lower level on the west side (114 or so)…one of the main reasons to connect to the lower level was to share the available GCT passenger space…instead, we end up with ANOTHER terminal…might as well have sent ESA down 3rd Ave (one of the original options back in the 60’s when the 63rd St tunnel was planned)…if ESA was on 3rd, the option to send the tracks further south to Lower Manhattan then to Brooklyn would be easier, then you’d get your through-running…

    • F-Line to Dudley

      There’s no issue with the third rail shoes. M8’s use a new universal shoe design that can accept top-contact LIRR third rail and bottom-contact MNRR third rail in the default shoe position, which is how they’ll be able to cycle between Penn Station assignments and GCT assignments on the New Haven Line. That same shoe design is going on the M9’s just to standardize the part across all fleets for warehousing simplicity. M7’s in both fleets will then at some point get a cycled replacement of their single-position shoes in favor of the new ones for sake of completely uniting the parts supply.

      There’s nowhere the two types of third rail get within miles of touching in real life…but the M8/M9 shoe design does permit changing from top- to bottom-contact and vice versa on-the-fly. An EMU coming off of, say, top-contact territory and entering bottom-contact territory would have shoes touching a length of top-contact third rail on one side of the vehicle. That rail drops off at a normal circuit break, and then you have a length of bottom-contact third rail begin another circuit break on the other side of the vehicle picking up that side’s shoes. Transition is seamless at full speed because the dual-contact shoes don’t have to mechanically “flip” in any direction to accept the different contact surfaces, and it’s the same 750V DC power source on either type of third rail.

      That’s exactly how it would’ve been done in the ESA approach tunnels had they gone with a plan that piped LIRR directly into the MNRR levels of GCT. Other things with tunneling feasibility and politics went into the decision not to do that. But they solved on-paper decades ago how they’d handle seamless switchover of contact surfaces with this new shoe design…way back when all GCT hook-in options were still on the table.

      • adirondacker12800

        No it wouldn’t. Only in the fevered imaginations of foamers on was there ever going to a LIRR train on one side of platform and Metro North train on the other.

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  6. Tunnel Vision

    City Water Tunnel #1 is another factor in linking Penn and GCT. Another stumbling block is that the 63rd St tunnel will not accept bi levels thereby limiting any connections to single level trains and the minor fact that NJT runs on 25kV overhead catenary and LIRR on third rail again complicating the design for the traction power requirements which have been difficult to say the least anyway. As for the comment about bringing ESA to the surface and sharing track, that was the original plan in the 1960’s and the sections built in the 1970’s allowed for that with the tunnels at 63rd st pointing up. However do you seriously think that underpinning your way down Park Avenue, and the cost of real estate easements would be any cheaper than building the deep caverns. Also ridership projections are such that Madison Yard which would have served as the LIRR portion of the combined terminal would be less than sufficient to cope with the increased traffic.

    • po8crg

      London has had trains that can use both 25kV overhead AV and 750V third rail DC since 1990.

      Those specific trains (class 319) are a bit over-complex of a solution to the problem, but modern power electronics makes that a largely solved problem.

      • adirondacker12800

        Metro North knows all about them. They and the New Haven have had them since 1907.

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  9. Nathanael

    The official report blamed real estate acquisition costs for rejecting Alt G. Without ever putting a number on those costs. Very fishy.

      • Nathanael

        I read it. It did. The official reason given for rejecting Alt G was that “it would go under the most expensive real estate in Manhattan”. I remember it well.

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