Lately I’ve seen some very aggressive people on social media assert that high American transit construction and operating costs are the fault of unions, and thus, the solution is to break the unions using the usual techniques of subterfuge and breaking implicit promises. A while back, maybe a year ago, I even saw someone argue that gadgetbahn (monorails, PRT, Hyperloop, etc.) is specifically a solution to union agreements covering traditional transit but not things that are marketed as new things. This is an incorrect analysis of the problem, and like many other incorrect analyses, the solutions that would follow were this analysis correct are in fact counterproductive.
American costs are high even without unions
The majority of American transit construction occurs in parts of the country with relatively strong unions. This is for historical reasons: American cities with large prewar cores are both more unionized and more densely populated than newer Sunbelt cities. Thus, a table with cities and their subway construction costs, such as what one might get cobbling together my posts, will show very high costs mostly in cities with American unions.
However, American cities with weak unions build transit too, it’s just unlikely to come with subway tunnels. We can look at above-ground urban rail construction costs in a variety of American states with right-to-work laws. There is one recent above-ground metro line in a right-to-work state, the Washington Silver Line in Virginia, and another proposal, an extension of MARTA. Let’s compare their costs with those of other mostly at-grade urban rail lines in unionized West Coast states:
- The second phase of the Silver Line cost $2.8 billion, or about $150 million per km.
- The proposed MARTA extension is projected to cost about $110 million per km.
- Portland’s Milwaukie MAX extension, which Wikipedia says cost $1.5 billion for 11.7 km, or $130 million per km.
- San Diego’s mixed elevated and rail right-of-way Blue Line extension is currently budgeted at $2.1 billion, or $120 million per km.
- The canceled BART extension to Livermore in a freeway median would have cost $1.6 billion, or $180 million per km.
We can go lower than this range by looking at street-running light rail lines, which are popular in such Sunbelt cities as Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and Charlotte, but then we can compare them with light rail lines in Minneapolis, which has no right-to-work laws.
- Dallas’s Orange Line cost either $1.3 billion or $1.8 billion, or $2.8 billion, so either $58 or 80 million per km.
- Houston’s Green and Purple Lines together cost $1.3 billion, about $80 million per km.
- Phoenix’s light rail extension to Gilbert Road is $186 million, about $60 million per km. A canceled extension to Glendale was projected to cost $900 million to $1 billion, around $90 million per km.
- Charlotte’s light rail extension cost $1.1 billion, about $75 million per km.
- Minneapolis’s light rail extensions, the Blue Line extension and the Southwest LRT, are $1.5 and $2 billion respectively, or about $75 and $80 million per km.
Let’s also look at commuter rail. Dallas’s Cotton Belt Line, a diesel line in a disused freight right-of-way, is projected to cost $1.1 billion for 42 km. The cost, $26 million per km, is within the normal European range for greenfield high-speed rail without tunnels, and more than an order of magnitude higher than some German examples from Hans-Joachim Zierke’s site. In Massachusetts, the plans for South Coast Rail cost around $3 billion for 77.6 km before some recent modifications cutting both cost and length, about $40 million per km; this would have included electrification and right-of-way construction through an environmentally sensitive area, since bypassed to cut costs.
Finally, what of operating costs? There, the Sunbelt is unambiguously cheaper than the Northeast, Chicago, and California – but only by virtue of lower market wages. The cost ranges for both sets of states are wide. In Chicago and San Francisco, the operating costs of rapid transit are not much higher than $5/car-km per the NTD, which is normal or if anything below average by first-world standards. Light rail looks more expensive to operate in old unionized cities, but only because Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco’s light rail lines are subway-surface lines with low average speeds, which are more expensive to run than the faster greenfield light rail lines built elsewhere in North America. The lowest operating costs on recently-built light rail lines in the US are in Salt Lake City, San Diego, and Denver, and among those only the first is in a right-to-work state.
Non-labor problems in American transit
I urge everyone to look at the above lists of American transit lines and their costs again, because it showcases something important: high American costs are not a uniform problem, but rather afflict some areas more than others. Commuter rail construction costs are the worst, casually going over European levels by a full order of magnitude or even more. Subway operating costs are the best, ranging from no premium at all in some cities (Chicago) to a factor-of-2 premium in others (New York). Light rail construction costs are in the middle. The variety of cost premiums suggests that there are other problems in play than just labor, which should hit everything to about the same extent.
When I’m asked to explain high American construction costs, I usually cite the following explanations:
- Poor contracting practices, which include selection of bidders based exclusively on cost, micromanagement making companies reluctant to do business with New York public works, and design-build contracts removing public oversight and encouraging private-sector micromanagement.
- Poor project management: Boston’s Green Line Extension is now budgeted at about $1 billion for 7.6 km, but this is on the heels of an aborted attempt from earlier this decade, driving up total money spent beyond $2 billion.
- Indifference to foreign practices: Americans at all levels, including transit agencies, shadow agencies like the Regional Plan Association, and government bodies do not know or care how things work in other countries, with the partial exception of Canada and the UK, which have very high costs as well. The area where there has been the greatest postwar innovation in non-English-speaking countries, namely commuter rail, is the one where the US is the farthest behind when it comes to cost control. Explanation #1 can be folded into this as well, since the insistences on cost + technical score bid selection and on separation of design and construction are Spanish innovations, uncommon and obscure in the English-speaking world.
- Overbuilding: extra infrastructure required by agency turf battles, extra construction impact required by same, and mined stations. Other than the mined stations, the general theme is poor coordination between different agencies, which once again is especially bad when commuter rail is involved for historical reasons, and which in addition to raising costs also leads to lower project benefits.
Labor is a factor, but evidently, the intransigent BART unions coexist with low operating costs, as do the Chicago L unions. American unions are indifferent to productivity more than actively hostile to it, and in some cases, i.e. bus reforms in New York, they’re even in favor of treatments that would encourage more people to ride public transit.
But union rules force transit agencies to overstaff, right?
In the Northeast, there are unambiguous examples of overstaffing. Brian Rosenthal’s article for the New York Times found horror stories, and upon followup, frequent commenter and Manhattan Institute fellow Connor Harris has found more systematic cases, comparing the ~25 people it takes to staff a tunnel-boring machine in New York with the 12 required in Germany. The unions themselves have pushed back against this narrative, but it appears to be a known problem in the infrastructure construction industry.
So what gives? In Texas, the unions are too weak to insist on any overstaffing. Texas is not New York or even California. Without knowing the details of what goes on in Texas, my suspicion is that there is an informal national standard emerging out of mid-20th century practices in the cities that were big then. I see this when it comes to decisions about construction techniques: features that came out of the machinations of interwar New York, like the full-length subway mezzanine, spread nationwide, raising the cost of digging station caverns. I would not be surprised to discover something similar when it comes to staffing. Obvious economies like running driver-only train are already widespread nearly everywhere in the US, New York being the exception. Less obvious economies concerning maintenance regimes are harder to implement without very detailed knowledge, which small upstart Sunbelt transit agencies are unlikely to have, and if they invite consultants or other experts, they will learn to work in the same manner as the big American transit agencies.
The reality that the entirety of the American transit industry is used to doing things a certain way means that there needs to be a public discussion about staffing levels. There are jobs that look superfluous but are in fact crucial, and jobs that are the opposite. The cloak-and-dagger mentality of anti-union consultants does not work in this context at all. Experimentation is impossible on a safety-critical system, and nothing should be changed without double- and triple-checking that it works smoothly.
Anti-union explanations are harmful, not neutral
While union overstaffing does drive up tunneling costs in the United States, there are many other factors in play, which must be solved by other means than union-busting. By itself, this would make union-busting either neutral or somewhat positive. However, in reality, the politics of union-busting wreck government effectiveness in ways that make the overall cost problem worse.
The people who try to tell me the problem is all about the unions are not, as one might expect, Manhattan Institute hacks. Connor himself knows better, and Nicole Gelinas has been making narrow arguments about pension cuts rather than calling for sweeping changes to leave unions in the dust. Rather, the loudest anti-union voices are people who either are in tech or would like to be, and like using the word “disruption” in every sentence. The Manhattan Institute is pretty open about its goals of union-busting and race-baiting; in contrast, the people who tell me gadgetbahn is necessary to avoid union agreements insist on never being public about anything.
The rub is that it’s not possible to solve the coordination problem of public transit agencies without some sort of public process. Adding gadgetbahn to the mix creates the same result as the XKCD strip about 14 competing standards. The more the people building it insist that they’re disruptive synergistic innovators inventing the future with skin in the game, the less likely they are to build something that’s likely to be backward-compatible with anything or cohere to form a usable network.
Nor is it possible to assimilate good industry practices by cloak and dagger politics. The universe of industry practices is vast and the universe of good practices isn’t much smaller. The only way forward is via an open academic or quasi-academic process of publication, open data, peer review, and replication. A single consultancy is unlikely to have all the answers, although with enough study it could disseminate considerable knowledge.
There needs to be widespread public understanding that the United States is behind and needs to import reforms to improve its transportation network. This can happen in parallel with a process that weakens unions or for that matter with a process that strengthens them, but in practice the subterfuge of managers looking for union-busting opportunities makes it difficult to attack all cost drivers at once. Whatever happens with conventional left-right politics, there is no room for people who reduce the entirety or even the majority of America’s transit cost problem to labor.