Classical economics asserts that if two countries freely trade, then both gain relative to a baseline in which they don’t trade. The classical theory of comparative advantage hinges on reciprocal free trade. But more recently, economists have begun to push for entirely domestic support for free trade, arguing that reducing trade barriers is good even without reciprocation. The arguments involve corruption and misallocation of capital coming from protectionism. Whatever criticism there may be of this neoliberal conception of trade, rolling stock appears to be an example in which this conception is right.
I have previously criticized informal French protectionism in high-prestige procurement for blowing up Parisian rolling stock costs by a factor of almost 2. In Paris, my example of what could be done with the money Ile-de-France Mobilités is wasting on rolling stock was infrastructure construction, justified by the city’s very low construction costs relative to ridership (if not relative to route-length). But there’s an even better set of examples of high costs in the United States, justified on labor grounds and yet involving wastes of money disproportionate to the number of jobs created.
Last month, The American Prospect published an article about a union push to have more US rolling stock made in America, by unionized workers. The TAP article talks about a light rail vehicle order in Los Angeles for $890 million, for what the article says is 175 cars and what manufacturer Kinki Sharyo and other industry sources say is 235 cars, built at a dedicated factory in the Los Angeles exurbs. The purpose of the article is to advocate for more protectionism for the sake of American union members, so it details the wages the workers are making (about $20 an hour, up from $11 for unskilled jobs elsewhere) but does not delve into comparative costs. It’s worth asking if the costs are competitive, and the answer is that they are not.
The cost of LACMTA’s Kinki Sharyo order is $3.8 million per car; these cars are 27 meters long, so this translates to $140,000 per meter of train length. In contrast, the average cost in Europe appears to be just under $100,000 per meter, across a variety of cities and models:
- In Bordeaux, a recent Citadis tram order cost $80,000 per meter.
- In Strasbourg, the Citadis cost $95,000 per meter.
- In Avignon, the Citadis Compact cost $95,000 per meter.
- In Aubagne, the Citadis Compact cost $100,000 per meter.
- In Budapest, an order for Urbos trams cost $95,000 per meter.
- In Birmingham, the launch customer for the Urbos, they cost £2 million per unit, and at 33 meters per car, it’s around $90,000 per meter.
- In Luxembourg, the Urbos cost €3.95 million per unit, each at 45 meters, or $110,000 per meter, and include catenary-free operation.
- In Munich, the launch customer for the Avenio, the trams cost $120,000 per meter.
- In the Hague, the Avenio cost $90,000 per meter.
The shortest trains on this list (the Citadis Compact orders, at 22-24 meters) are in the middle of the pack, so it’s unlikely there’s any nonlinearity in cost; moreover, the Compact is slightly shorter than the Kinki Sharyo trains, so no extrapolation is required, only interpolation.
The LACMTA order follows another premium-priced light rail order in the same state: as I wrote in the Bay City Beacon last year, Muni Metro’s Siemens LRV order cost about $4 million per 23-meter car, about $170,000 per meter of train length. The trains are being built at a new plant in Sacramento.
The United States has federal Buy America laws, requiring federally-funded contracts to buy domestic products provided they cost no more than 25% more than equivalent imports. However, there is no in-state purchase requirement. Owing to large New York City Subway orders, some vendors have long-established plants near New York (Kawasaki and Alstom are in-state, Bombardier is in Vermont). However, under informal pressure from activists within California to provide good local jobs, LACMTA asked bidders to open local factories. Moreover, Siemens most likely placed its plant in Sacramento rather than in lower-cost states in order to curry favor with state-funded orders.
We even see the same problem in Massachusetts, where CRRC opened a plant in Springfield for an MBTA Red and Orange Line car order. The order itself does not come at a premium – according to Metro Report the base order is about $100,000 per meter of train length and the option is $115,000, and the range of per-meter costs for subway trains is the same as that for LRVs – but it’s possibly a loss leader to help establish CRRC as a player in the American market. Even before Trump’s election, Congress investigated the order, which beat the competitors by a large margin; the competing bids were about $135,000 per meter for the base order. It says a lot about Massachusetts’ broken procurement that it takes a loss leader just to get costs down to their international levels. Nonetheless, the US premium does appear to be smaller for large subway orders than for small and medium-size LRV orders, since the extra costs of siting and setting up a factory are spread across more units.
The explicit goal of local content requirements is to create jobs. This is usually justified in terms of inequality and bleak prospects for unskilled workers. However, there is no cost-benefit calculation involved in this. According to TAP, the LACMTA order is creating 250 jobs manufacturing the trains; it doesn’t say how long they will last, but the duration of the contract is about 6 years. But the premium, about $300 million, works out to $1.2 million per job, a large multiple of total compensation to the workers. The Springfield plant has 200 jobs paying $50,000-60,000 per year, lasting 7 years across more than just the Boston contract; pro-rating to the Boston contract’s share of orders from the plant, the jobs will last around 5 years. Adding back the premium charged by the competing vendors raises the cost to $1 million per job, again a multiple of total working-class compensation.
There are two reasons why labor protectionism costs so much compared with its direct impact on working-class hiring. The first is leakage: much of the premium goes to management, including factory design and construction, or is just wasted on inefficiency (CRRC is opening a second American plant, in Chicago, instead of building everything at one plant). Some of the money goes to foreign consultants with the vendor and some stays domestic, but the domestic leakage goes to sitework and not to direct hiring.
The second reason is corruption and degradation of institutions. When the goal of public procurement is not just to buy the best product in terms of cost and quality, lobbyists make demands, like local hiring, that corrupt the process. A city that signals that the only things that matter are cost and quality will attract vendors who make the best bids in terms of cost and quality; a city that signals that the process depends on local political needs will attract vendors who make bids in order to satisfy local political actors, who as a rule don’t give a damn about good transit. Thus American agencies buy trains at a premium well beyond Buy America’s 25% limit, just because they think of cost and quality as just two of several political priorities and not as the sole legitimate bases of choosing a bidder.
The United States leads the world in higher education costs. The unsubsidized cost of a college degree at a good public university is about $100,000; at CUNY, which provides a good quality of degrees even if it’s so underfunded that classrooms aren’t supplied with chalk, it’s about $75,000. Stipends at the level of a good graduate program add another $30,000 or so per year. For around $200,000 per person, California could send low-income workers to college and pay for their living expenses for the duration of the degree, whereupon they will be able to get unsubsidized jobs paying much more than $20 per hour. For workers who can’t go to college, trade school is another option, offering decently-paying jobs for much lower cost since they take much less time. There is no need to lade the transit capital budget with what should be state or federal retraining grants; given the massive difference in cost, even the loss of matching funds (i.e. other people’s money) can leave the state or the city better off.
The problem is that there is no political incentive to think in such terms. Part of it is the corruption of institutions, as I mentioned already: labor groups see an opportunity to create jobs from a budget that from a local perspective is other people’s money. Another part is political prestige: romantics like old jobs (farmer, builder, truck driver, coal miner, baker, factory worker), which have had enough time to percolate into the national psyche, and since these jobs are old, they’re likely to be at the low end of the value-added ladder.
Absent very strong rules forbidding protectionism in procurement, this corruption will continue: evidently, Paris insists on buying expensive bespoke trains and somehow manages to get them manufactured within France, even though EU rules against interstate dumping are much stronger than US rules. Rules at the highest level are required to discourage such behavior (although Paris might still waste money on bespoke trains, just ones that can be made in Poland). Congress can and should stop funding any local or state agency that takes in-state content into account in procurement; the US is one democratic country, not fifty mercantile fiefdoms, and should use its status as a superstate with a large internal market to universalize good governance.