Why American Costs Are So High (Work-in-Progress)

I am embarking on a long-term project to investigate why US construction costs are high using case studies, so everything I’m going to say so far is tentative. In particular, one of my favorite theories for most of this decade seems to be false based on the addition of just two or three new data points. That said, having spent the last nine years looking at topline costs and a few itemized breakdowns does let me reach some initial conclusions, ones that I believe are robust to new data. The context is that some mainstream American pundits are asking why, and I realized that I’ve written more posts criticizing incorrect explanations than posts focusing on more plausible reasons.

1. Engineering part 1: station construction methods

The most important itemized fact concerning American construction costs is that New York’s premium over Paris is overwhelmingly about stations. I have itemized data for a single line in New York (Second Avenue Subway Phase 1) and a single line in Paris (Metro Line 1 extension), from which I have the following costs:

Tunneling: about $150 million per km vs. $90 million, a factor of 1.7
Stations: about $750 million per station vs. $110 million, a factor of 6.5
Systems: about $110 million per km vs. $35 million, a factor of 3.2
Overheads and design: 27% of total cost vs. 15%, which works out to a factor of about 11 per km or a factor of 7 per station

These costs have some reinforcement with other projects in both cities. When New York built the 7 extension, there were calls for an intermediate stop in addition to the single stop built, and at the time the city definitively canceled the extra station, its cost was given as $800 million. Moreover, in Paris, another extension for which I have per-station cost data, that of Metro Line 12, costs 175 million for 2 stations and no tunnels, about $110 million per station, including overheads; the same is true of two more stations not on M12 given in a French report about the costs of Grand Paris Express (PDF-p. 10).

The difference concerns construction methods. In Paris, as well as Athens, Madrid, Mexico City, Caracas, Santiago, Copenhagen, Budapest, and I imagine other cities for which I can’t find this information, metro stations are built cut-and-cover. While the tunnels between stations are bored, at higher cost than opening up the entire street, the stations themselves are dug top-down. This allows transporting construction materials from the top of the dig, right where they are needed, as well as easier access by the workers and removal of dirt and rock. There is extensive street disruption, for about 18 months in the case of Paris, but the merchants and residents get a subway station at the end of the works.

In contrast, in New York, to prevent street disruption, Second Avenue Subway did not use any cut-and-cover. The tunnels between stations were bored, as in nearly all other cities in the world that build subways, and the stations were mined from within the bore, with just small vertical shafts for access. The result was a disaster: the costs exploded, as can be seen in the above comparison, and instead of 18 months of station box-size disruption, there were 5 years of city block-size disruption, narrowing sidewalks to just 2 meters (7′ to be exact).

In London, the Crossrail project was forced to mine stations as well, as it passes underneath and around many older Underground lines. Only one station could be built cut-and-cover, Canary Wharf, built underwater at very deep level. These stations have comparable construction costs to those of Second Avenue Subway. One way around this problem is to build large-diameter bores, as in Barcelona on Line 9/10, which used a bore so big it could fit two tracks with platforms. However, L9/10 has high costs by Spanish standards, and moreover the vertical access to the stations is exclusively by elevator, with lower capacity than escalators and stairs. A technique for slant bores for escalators exists in St. Petersburg, but I do not know its cost.

2. Engineering part 2: mezzanines

The other big problem with American metro construction methods is the oversized stations. This problem also occurs in Canada, where Toronto uses cut-and-cover stations like most of the world and yet has very high costs, as these cut-and-cover stations are palatial. But I do want to caution that this is a smaller problem than station mining, especially in New York. The total amount of excavation in Paris is barely lower than in New York.

But whatever the dig size issue is, one problem persists: American subway stations have mezzanines, usually full-length. This problem goes back to the 1930s. According to a historical review published in JRTR, costs in New York per kilometer rose to $140 million in the 1930s; in the 1910s and 20s costs were only $45 million per kilometer but there was extensive elevated construction, so per underground kilometer they were perhaps $80 million. This contrasts with $30-35 million per km on lines built in London and Paris from the 1900s to the 1930s.

A big cost driver in the 1930s was the higher construction standards. The subway built wider curves, even wider than those used in London and Paris. There were underground flying junctions allowing a complex system of branching on local and express trains to serve many different origin-destination pairs. And stations had full-length mezzanines.

The mezzanines have since turned into an American standard, featuring on all subsequent subways that I know of. BART has them under Market Street. Boston has them at some of the newer stations, alongside high ceilings at parts of stations the mezzanines don’t reach.

Outside the US, cities with such large station digs have high costs as well Toronto has had palatial construction at some of its newer stations, such as Vaughan Metro Center, leading to high costs even with cut-and-cover stations: while the Vaughan extension cost only C$320 million per kilometer, further projects in Toronto are slated to cost far more, including the single-stop Scarborough subway for C$520 million per km (only 18% less than Second Avenue Subway adjusted for station spacing) and the Downtown Relief Line at C$800 million per km.

Moreover, my recollection of riding the MRT in Singapore, another high-cost country, is that its stations are palatial as well, more so than recent American ones, let alone French ones. Singapore has high construction costs: the under-construction Thomson Line is to cost S$600 million per km according to information from 2012, and since then there has been a schedule slip, though I can’t find more recent cost estimates, and I do know of rail infrastructure projects with schedule overruns that stay within budget. Individual stations in Singapore are fairly expensive, with the central one (Orchard) approaching American costs at S$500 million, and in a speech full of excuses for construction costs, Singaporean transport minister Khaw Boon Wan mentioned that the new line has more exits per station, signaling larger station footprints.

3. Management part 1: procurement

The best industry practice, outlined by Madrid Metro’s Manuel Melis Maynar, is to award contracts by a combination of cost, construction speed, and a technical score judged by an in-house oversight team. Moreover, in Madrid there is separation between design and construction, in order to permit construction teams to make small changes as they go along without being wedded to their own plans. With this system, Melis built a wave of metros for an underground construction cost of, in today’s terms, $80 million per kilometer (almost all but not 100% underground), including rolling stock, which I have attempted to exclude from other lines whenever possible.

The American practice is to award contracts by cost alone. This leads to one of two problems, depending on the coast.

In California, the problem is, in two words, Tutor-Perini. This contractor underbids and then does shoddy work requiring change orders, litigated to the maximum. Ron Tutor’s dishonesty is well-known and goes back decades: in 1992 Los Angeles’s then-mayor Tom Bradley called him the change order king. And yet, he keeps getting contracts, all of which have large cost overruns, going over the amount the state or city would have paid had it awarded the contract to the second lowest bidder. In San Francisco, cost overrun battles involving Tutor-Perini led to a 40% cost overrun. This process repeated for high-speed rail: Tutor submitted lowest but technically worst bid, got the contract as price was weighted too high, and then demanded expensive changes. It speaks to California’s poor oversight of contractors that Tutor remains a contractor in good standing and has not been prosecuted for fraud.

In New York, this is not a problem, as the state makes sure to avoid shoddy work through overexacting specs, down to specifying the materials to be used. Unfortunately, this kind of micromanagement reduces flexibility, increasing construction costs in two ways. First, the direct effect raises the hard costs of construction, by about 15-25% plus overheads and contingency according to many contractors interviewed for Brian Rosenthal’s New York Times article on the subject. And second, since many contractors are turned off by the red tape, there is less competition – the 7 extension had just a single bidder – and thus contractors can demand an extra profit on top.

Some American cities try to get around this problem by using design-build contracts. However, these merely move the locus of micromanagement from the public to private sector. Madrid eschews them and prefers using public oversight to macromanage contractors.

While this may well by the single most important institutional factor in New York, it is not universal in the United States. In Boston, a manager at the MBTA, Jaime Garmendia, reassured me that the agency would “would cease to do business with that contractor in a heartbeat” if anyone acted like Tutor.

4. Management part 2: conflict resolution

In Madrid, Melis Maynar insisted on itemizing construction contracts. Thus, every contract would have a pre-agreed cost per extra item if changes were needed. Since changes are inevitable, this provides fast conflict resolution without expensive courtroom battles and without too much risk on the contractor.

I know of one additional example of itemization: in a paper studying electricity generation contracts in India, Nicholas Ryan compares cases in which there was a pre-agreed system for price escalation in case of changes in input prices and cases in which there were one-off negotiations whenever the situation suddenly changed. Pre-agreed escalation based on input prices leads to lower costs, first because there is less risk to the contractor, second because the negotiation happens in a situation in which if the contractor walks away the state can find another without incurring too much of a sunk cost, and third because the process attracts more honest contractors than Tutor.

In the United States, itemizing does not happen. Contracts are by lump sum, and every time a change is needed, there is a new negotiation, which involves lawyers and potentially courtroom litigation. Robert Kagan calls this tradition adversarial legalism, and contrasts it with European bureaucratic legalism, in which regulators and judges have more power than individual lawyers. Kagan gives an example of litigation about the Oakland Harbor dredging project. Tellingly, a civil rights-centered critique of the concept, arguing that adversarial legalism produces more liberal outcomes for minorities and the disabled (in the context of special education) – but when it comes to transit, the United States lags in wheelchair accessibility.

This is not intended as a broad attack on American legalism, although I do think such legalism also leads to worse infrastructure decisions in general. This is a specific attack on the tradition of using lawsuits to resolve conflicts between contractors and the state, rather than agreeing on itemized costs in advance, a technique that is legal in the US and that international firms, which have successfully bid on many American projects at American costs, are already familiar with.

5. Management part 3: project management

Some problems are not about procurement or the law, but purely about managerial competence. In Boston, consensus concerning the Green Line Extension seems to be that its high costs are the result of poor project management. The Green Line Extension’s costs were at one point estimated at $3 billion for 6.4 km of light rail in preexisting mainline rail rights-of-way; it’s so expensive that it was misclassified as a subway in one Spanish analysis, which still found it was a premium over European subways.

The current estimate is down to $2.3 billion, of which $1.1 billion was wasted in the initial project, and only the remaining half is actual construction costs of the restarted project. Several Boston-area insiders, including the aforementioned Jaime Garmendia, explain that the MBTA had no prior experience in managing a large project, and did not hire an experienced manager for it, leading to a pileup of errors. When it finally hired a new manager and a new team and restarted the project, costs fell, but not before a billion dollars were wasted.

The remaining cost of the extension, $190 million per km, is still very high for a light rail line. However, in conjunction with the other problems detailed here, this is not so surprising.

6. Management part 4: agency turf battles

There is little cooperation between different public transit providers in the US in the same region. Usually, the effect is only on operations. Whereas in Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland the fare within a metro area depends on the start and end point and perhaps on whether one rides in first or second class but not on whether one uses a bus, a tram, a subway, or a commuter rail line, in the United States fares are mode-dependent and transfers between separate agencies are not free. Nor do American agencies coordinate schedules between different modes of transit even within the same agency: the MBTA is forbidden to coordinate suburban bus and commuter rail schedules.

While this by itself does not impact construction costs, it can lead to overbuilding when construction for one agency impinges on another agency’s turf. This problem is particularly acute when mainline rail is involved, as there is an institutional tradition of treating it as a separate fief from the rest of public transit: “commuter rail is commuter rail, it’s not public transit,” said MBTA then-general manager Frank DePaola in 2016. Extensive turf battles may also occur between different commuter rail operators run as separate units, for example in New York. The same tradition occurs in Canada, where Toronto regional rail modernization plans came from an overarching planning agency, which had to force the commuter rail engineers and managers to go along.

I covered turf battles in a post from the end of 2017. In short, two distinct problems may occur. First, there may be visible overbuilding: for example, plans for California High-Speed Rail included a gratuitous tunnel in Millbrae, near the airport, in order to avoid reducing BART’s territory even though BART has three tracks at a station where it needs only one or at most two; overall, area advocate Clem Tillier found $2.7 billion in high-speed rail cost savings between San Francisco and just south of San Jose. The same problem afflicts plans for extra regional rail capacity in New York: the commuter railroads do not want to share turfs, forcing the construction of additional station tracks in Midtown Manhattan at great cost.

The second problem is that without coordination of capital planning and operations, schedules for construction may be constrained. I believe that this contributes to the high cost of Boston’s Green Line Extension, which is high by American light rail standards. Without agreement on construction windows, right-of-way modifications such as moving bridge foundations to make room for extra tracks become difficult.

7. Institutions part 1: political lading with irrelevant priorities

There is a kind of overbuilding that comes not from American engineering practices that became accepted wisdom in the 1930s, but from active interference by politicians. I caution that I do not know of any case in which this has seriously impacted tunneling costs, the topic I feel more qualified to compare across the world. However, this has been a problem for other public transportation and livable streets projects, especially on the surface.

When a city announces a new public transit initiative, it comes with the expectation of an infusion of money. Usually this money comes from outside sources, such as higher-level governments, but even when it is purely local, individual stakeholders may treat it as money coming from other parts of the city. In this environment, there is an incentive to demand extra scope in order to spend other people’s money on related but unnecessary priorities. The most common example of this is the demand for street reconstruction to be bundled with light rail and even bus rapid transit.

The advocacy organization Light Rail Now claims that bundling street reconstruction has raised some American light rail costs. Moreover, I know examples of this happening for BRT. The Albuquerque project ART, which I covered in the context of electric buses, is one such example: it cost $135 million for 25 km, of which about 13 km were reconstructed to have wider sidewalks, trees, and street lighting. Moreover, in Tampa, the highway department insists that the transit agency find money for repaving roads with concrete if it wishes to run buses more frequently.

This is not just an American problem: the Nice tramway, which at €64 million per km for the first line is France’s costliest, spent 30% of its budget not on the tramway itself but on drainage, rebuilding a public plaza, and other related but unnecessary amenities.

Commuter rail exhibits this problem in droves. Either local suburbs or agencies that are captive to them insist on building large transit centers with plentiful parking, retail that is not necessary if trains arrive on time, and a sense of place. Spartan stations, equipped only with level boarding, shelter, and a convenient spot for connecting buses to drop people off on the street or at a bus bay, cost a few million dollars apiece in Boston and Philadelphia. In contrast, veritable palaces cost many tens of millions: the four stations of Penn Station Access, in the low-car-ownership Bronx, are projected to cost a total of $188 million per the 2015-9 capital plan (PDF-p. 225); in West Haven, an infill station cost $105 million including land acquisition.

8. Institutions part 2: political incentives

Politicians in the United States do not have an incentives to control costs. On the contrary, if anyone complains, their incentives are to accommodate even if costs rise as a result. While the American legal system favors the state over the individual in property takings, for example in contrast with the Japanese system, the political system favors NIMBYs and really anyone who complains. Infrastructure construction takes a long time and the politician who gets credit for it is rarely the one who started it, whereas complaints happen early. This can lead to many of the above-named problems, especially overbuilding, such as tunneling where elevated segments would be fine or letting agency turf battles and irrelevant demands dictate project scope.

Politicians have the ability to remove obstructive officials, as Governor Andrew Cuomo did when LIRR head Helena Williams opposed Penn Station Access on agency turf grounds. But they rarely have the will to do so. Coordination and good government are not their top priorities. American politicians who are ambitious enough to embark on big infrastructure projects govern their respective states and cities like comets, passing by quickly while expecting to move on to a bigger position within a few years. They can build better institutions if they want, but don’t care to.

This goes beyond individual high-profile politicians. In planning for the NEC Future project, a planner who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said that there was an unspoken assumption that there must not be impact to the richest suburbs in Fairfield County, Connecticut; such impact can be reduced, but not eliminated, and to forestall political controversy with very rich suburbs the process left that segment for later, never mind that it is the slowest portion of the Northeast Corridor today outside major city areas.

This problem can be mitigated by raising the political cost of poor infrastructure construction decisions. One way to do so is using referendums. In Switzerland, all major infrastructure construction must be approved by referendum. Thus, if cost overruns occur, the state must return to the people and explain itself in asking for more money. In contrast, California High-Speed Rail went to ballot on $9 billion (plus $950 million for connecting transit) out of a budget that at the time was estimated at $42 billion in year-of-construction dollars. The state did not need to identify funding sources for the remaining $33 billion, and thus there was no incentive to control costs, as it was not possible to complete the project for the budget on hand no matter what.

9. Institutions part 3: global incuriosity

The eight above factors all explain why American infrastructure costs are higher than in the rest of the world, and also explain high costs in some other countries, especially Canada. However, one question remains: how come Americans aren’t doing anything about it? The answer, I believe, has to do with American incuriosity.

Incuriosity is not merely ignorance. Ignorance is a universal trait, people just differ in what they are ignorant about. But Americans are unique in not caring to learn from other countries even when those countries do things better. American liberals spent the second Bush administration talking about how health care worked better in most other developed countries, but displayed no interest in how they could implement universal health care so that the US could have what everyone else had, even when some of these countries, namely France and Israel, had only enacted reforms recently and had a population of mostly privately-insured workers. In contrast, they reinvented the wheel domestically, coming up with the basic details of Obamacare relying on the work on domestic thinktanks alone. The same indifference to global best practices occurs in education, housing policy, and other matters even among wonks who believe the US to be behind.

This is not merely a problem in public policy. In the private sector, the same problem doomed the American auto industry. American automakers have refused to adopt the practices of Japanese and German competitors even after the latter produced small cars better suited for post-1973 oil prices. They instead dug in, demanded and got government protection, and have been in effect wards of the American federal government for about 40 years.

American business culture does not care much for imitation, not does American society give high prestige to people who perfect something that someone else invented. The industry that teaches how to adopt best practices, consulting, has poor reputation in American culture. Instead, Americans venerate founders and innovators, an approach that works in industries where the US is in the global frontier, like tech or retail, but not in ones where it lags, like cars and the entire public sector. To avoid learning from others, Americans end up believing in myths about what is and isn’t possible: they insist they are so much richer than Europe that they have nothing to learn from across the Pond, and hang all their hopes on any flim-flam artist who comes from within American business culture who insists there is no real need for public transit or any of the other things Europe and high-income Asia do better.

In transit, we see it in politicians and agency officials who say things that are so funny they are sad, or perhaps so sad they are funny. Richard Mlynarik tells me of an official at either Caltrain or the California High-Speed Rail Authority, I forget which, who did not know Germany had commuter trains. Another Caltrain official, confronted with the fact that in Japan trains turn faster than Caltrain thought possible, responded “Asians don’t value life the way we do” – never mind that Japan’s passenger rail safety per passenger-km is about 1.5 orders of magnitude better than the US’s. In stonewalling about its safety regulations, since positively reformed, an FRA official insisted American trucks are heavier than European ones, where in fact the opposite is the case. Boston’s sandbagged North-South Rail Link process included a best practices section but insisted on only including North American examples, since European ones would make America look bad. To advocate for transit among Americans is to constantly hear things are not possible that in fact happen in various parts of Europe on a daily basis.

Canada is not much better than the US. Americans’ world is flat, with its corners in Boston, Seattle, San Diego, and Miami. Canadians’ world includes the United States and Canada, making it flat with the northern ends of the quadrilateral stretched a few hundred kilometers to the north. A study of a long-overdue extension of Vancouver’s Millennium Line to UBC has four case studies for best practices, all from within North America. This is despite the fact that in the developed world the system most similar to Vancouver’s SkyTrain in technology and age is the Copenhagen Metro, whose construction costs are one half as high as those of Vancouver despite cost and schedule overruns.

Meiji Japan sent students to the West to assimilate Western knowledge and catch up, avoiding the humiliations inflicted upon China in the same era and instead becoming a great power itself. The historian Danny Orbach, who wrote his dissertation on the historical arc leading from the Meiji Restoration to Japan’s World War Two atrocities, argues that Japan was able to modernize because it understood early that it was not at the center of the world, whereas China and the Ottoman Empire did not and thus only realized they were technologically inferior to the West too late, at the signing of the unequal treaties or at dismemberment. The United States at best thinks it’s the center of the world and at worst thinks it’s the only thing in the world, and this has to change.

Can this be reformed?

The answer is absolutely. There are no examples of good transit under construction in the United States, but there are many partial successes. The California State Rail Plan is moving toward coordinated planning, and Massachusetts has some inklings of reform as well. Boston’s ability to restart the Green Line Extension is to be commended, and the large gap in cost between the original project and the current one should encourage other American transit agencies to hire good project managers with a track record and pay them competitively; paying high six figures to a manager or even more can easily justify itself in ten-figure savings.

The legal problems can be reformed as well without turning the United States into something it is not. Politicians would have to be more courageous in telling constituents no, but so many of them have no chance of losing reelection that they can afford to piss off a small proportion of the population. Contracts could include itemized costs to control change orders. California already awards contracts based on a mix of cost and a technical score, it just needs to adjust the weights and figure out how to avoid doing business with Ron Tutor, and if possible prosecute him.

However, all of this depends on solving the last of the above nine problems. Americans have to understand that they are behind and need to imitate. They can try to innovate but only carefully, from a deep understanding of why things are the way they are in such global transit innovation centers as Spain, South Korean, Japan, Switzerland, and Sweden. They have to let go of the mythology of the American entrepreneur who does not listen to the experts. They can solve the problem of high construction costs if they want, but they need to first recognize that it exists, and that internal politics and business culture are part of the problem rather than the solution.

147 comments

  1. Stephen Smith

    I think you’re overcorrecting by not including a labor item. It’s obviously an issue (probably a pretty big one) in NYC – 25 people to a TBM instead of nine, we’ve all heard that stat more than once. And then Brian Rosenthal’s 2nd Ave. subway article opens with 200 redundant workers on an East Side Access job.

    Maybe it’s only a problem in New York (although given Boston’s costs and Philadelphia’s high estimates, I suspect it might be an issue there as well), but I still think it’s worth mentioning.

    • Al

      There is also incompetence, like not reading old maps and seeing there was an old pond or stream there once.

      I believe the the Port Authority of NYNJ didnt look at an old map around JFK, and specified a very detailed design for an open cut, that required an expensive change order when they ran into a buried stream. The MTA also did this with both the 2nd Ave Subway and East Side Access. There are buried streams and gullies on the east side of Manhattan with documentation dating all the way back to the colonial era. SAS Phase 1 ran into one of these with what was initially an inadequate plan to deal with groundwater and soil conditions, between 96th St and 86th St stations. The ESA had a similar situation in Sunnyside, Queens, with worse cost and time overruns.

      The JFK Airtrain had a snafu where the contractor didnt install viaduct compenents correctly. It wasn’t until it got hot in the sun that it caused viaduct column bearing misalignment. That required a redo. The fatal overspeed derailment during testing might or might not had been them rushing to complete the project on time. The SAS tunnels as built were too small and needed grounding and trimming to allow for safe, speedy and reliable passage of subway cars.

      • Tunnel Vision

        Your comments are simply incorrect. The location of old streams etc is well known in NY, on ESA provisions were put in place to deal with any potential water inflow into the Manhattan tunnels, it was not needed as the fault was dry. In Queens, as far as I am aware the CQ031 Soft Ground Tunnel contract experienced no issues with streams as closed face pressurized slurry TBM’s were used and the project was essentially completed on time and with work scope transfers taken into account on budget. The flooded TBM launch structure was caused by incompetent work by a now defunct contractor who was supervised by MTA staff. It was fixed on the advice of the much maligned consultants. The cost and schedule over runs in Sunnyside, Queens are primarily driven by AMTRAK’s complete lack of staff to support the ESA project in track outages etc.

    • Patrick Hardison

      Labor cost is a huge factor all across the country for a huge reason: One dollar of federal funding turns the whole job into a Davis Bacon Prevailing Wage job; therefore, inflating labor cost to perform the job.

    • Deepish Thinker (@DeepishThinker)

      “Tunneling: about $150 million per km vs. $90 million, a factor of 1.7
      Stations: about $750 million per station vs. $110 million, a factor of 6.5
      Systems: about $110 million per km vs. $35 million, a factor of 3.2”

      I’d assume that tunneling being 70% more expensive in NY is at least partially due to NY’s powerful unions (who presumably drive up station and systems costs to a similar degree)

      The interesting insight here is that there are other structural factors that drive the insane cost of NY infrastructure.

        • Stephen Smith

          The TWU fought and won to keep two people on each full-length subway train even with CBTC, while French unions fought and lost to keep one person on trains that could operate driverlessly. Sure seems like the TWU has more power than French unions.

          • Michael James

            Stephen Smith, 2019/03/09 – 16:17
            The TWU fought and won to keep two people on each full-length subway train even with CBTC, while French unions fought and lost to keep one person on trains that could operate driverlessly. Sure seems like the TWU has more power than French unions.

            Or French management and politicians have dealt more appropriately and intelligently with the workers. No existing workers were sacked and were re-deployed elsewhere in the huge RATP system. Within a few short years retirement, combined with non-replacement, soon adjusts and the overall costs (of labour) reduce.
            In last year’s rail dispute, Macron was able to defuse the son et Lumiere and get the long-overdue changes to SNCF’s retirement system (whereby drivers could retire on full pensions as 52ys).

    • Andrew

      200 useless workers at say $125k each is $25M. It’s a lot but not enough to explain multi billion dollar gaps in cost

      • Reedman Bassoon

        The New York Times article estimated $1000 per worker per day. If they work 250 days per year, that is $250k per worker per year in excess cost. “A billion here, a billion there, and after a while you are talking about real money” — Senator Everett Dirksen (Illinois).

        • adirondacker12800

          200 of them at a quarter of million a year is fifty million a year or half a billion over ten years. Where did all of the other billions go?

        • Michael James

          As adirondacker points out, Americans and certain American politicians and their proxy thinktanks, are prone to greatly exaggerate the cost impact of labor (the kind that actually constructs the infrastructure). When really the serious money lies elsewhere (and is largely unaccountable to anyone) as Rosenthal revealed in his Dec 2017 article on NYC:

          Consulting firms, which have hired away scores of M.T.A. employees, have persuaded the authority to spend an unusual amount on design and management, statistics indicate. Public officials, mired in bureaucracy, have not acted to curb the costs.
          A Times analysis of the 25 M.T.A. agency presidents who have left over the past two decades found that at least 18 of them became consultants or went to work for authority contractors, including many who have worked on expansion projects.
          Soft costs for East Side Access are expected to exceed $2 billion. The project plan called for the hiring of 500 consultants from a dozen different companies, according to a 2009 federal oversight report.

          As Alon has written, Rosenthal reported that the comparable Paris project, extension of M14, was vastly cheaper and on time & budget, and had recourse to almost zero consultants. He described meetings that decided on big issues at which there was no one representing the public; and if an MTA official was present that was probably merely transiently prior to being recruited into the lucrative consultancy business or one of the big constructors etc., creating a perfectly reinforcing cost blowout paid for, but without any true oversight, by the public.
          It’s not the actual workers sitting around those meetings being paid $10,000 for getting out of bed …

          • adirondacker12800

            Nobody wants to talk about the white collar featherbedding. It would be rude to suggest they are engaged in circle jerks of paperwork. Mostly because other white collar workers get to create their own blizzard of paperwork out of it. Including valiant investigative reporters that prod legislator’s constituents into a frenzy and results in arcane regulations. That need paperwork.

          • Michael James

            adirondacker, as I’ve said before, it would be cheaper to pay those consultants to do nothing (hah, they don’t even have to get out of bed for their $10k) because I am sure they feel obliged to recommend all kinds of unnecessary nonsense to justify their consultancy fee; and of course not only will that generate more work for the project but inevitably more work for the consultant. Perfect scheme.

          • Tunnel Vision

            Well as someone interviewed by Rosenthal for his article this was an out of context statement. Lets look at the realities for ESA. There was no plan to hire 500 consultants. When ESA started there was no MTACC and so various entities were hired. The Program Management Consultant (PMC) which was Bechtel/URS and the GEC, General Engineering Consultant. Originally the intent was to have the PMC manage the project and then MTACC was set up. I have no idea who you think would actually do the design work, if not for the design firms. Its cheaper to hire design firms who can be released when completed than use full time in house design staff who when they retire after 30 years have index linked pensions and healthcare for life, a cost that is often conveniently overlooked when folk compare consultant staff versus agency staff. The real multiplier cost for agency staff is way higher than for consultant staff, higher salaries notwithstanding. Also how many staff do you think it takes to design a project like ESA. 35 third party construction contracts and 72 force account or railroad support contracts. That takes a lot of people. Managing a project that size also takes a lot of staff especially with the multiple levels of oversight, especially the FTA requirements for independent cost and schedule oversight for change orders and monthly controls. If you want to reduce the number of staff, you need to look at how projects are funded and the procurement guidelines rather than just complain about consultants. Having worked on ESA for 9 years in a senior position, your comments are just so much BS. There are many reasons ESA was late and over budget, but consultants were not significantly culpable, considering all decision making was retained by a bunch of political appointees at 2 Broadway and in Albany. One of the biggest factors is the way that MTA is funded through its 5 year capital plan. This often takes a couple of years to get through Albany, and is rarely passed with the funds required. Given that MTACC could not award a contract unless they had 100% funding meant that planning contract awards was tricky especially as you approached the end of a 5 year plan. The size of packages had to be frequently adjusted to ensure sufficient funding was available to award them. But yeah, lets blame the consultants instead of the politicians in Albany and the archaic way funding is doled out to the agency.

          • Michael James

            Tunnel Vision, 2019/03/11 – 08:46

            It’s not me who said those things. You’re saying Rosenthal wrote b.s.

            I have no idea who you think would actually do the design work, if not for the design firms. Its cheaper to hire design firms who can be released when completed than use full time in house design staff who when they retire after 30 years have index linked pensions and healthcare for life, a cost that is often conveniently overlooked when folk compare consultant staff versus agency staff.

            Who do you think does the design work in France, Germany, China, Japan and other countries with serious transit industries? Seriously.
            I don’t think you really know what you are claiming is actually true. I’m biased but I don’t believe it (that it’s true or that you know if it’s true or not). It’s a particularly toxic trope of neo-liberalism that giving people, whether teachers, university lecturers or engineers etc, stable employment is somehow less efficient than the shambles of unstable, insecure and benefit-free sessional work. Or even highly paid consultant work which probably doesn’t work for a lot, especially as they age and are thrown on the trash heap.

            And yet, the “soft costs” were $2bn (according to Rosenthal), and way above Paris-M14. Unless you think this is more of Rosenthal’s b.s.?

            You may or may not have been interviewed by Rosenthal but it sounds like you are part of the problem. It doesn’t preclude all the other guilty parties. But you are clearly just defending your piece of the gravy train. Even if it isn’t necessarily in your own long-term interests.
            ………………….
            I have let this (above) sit on my screen overnight before posting or sending to the trash, but to heck with it. I agree with adirondacker. No one is necessarily impugning the competency of consultants but the system that seems to multiply the number of independent entities involved in a big project. The more there are then clearly the more complicated and in all likelihood, overcomplicated or dysfunctional and unaccountable, will be the response or “solution”. An awful lot of this, especially overall oversight and co-ordination, should be done by the commissioning entity (the one who pays), ie. in-house. No one is disagreeing with you about your political system but the solution is not yet more outsourcing.
            FWIW, I think the start to a solution is what Di Blasio suggests: the city should take back control of MTA since how more decades of incompetence by NY state and its disinterested politicians and lobby groups, or wannabe state or federal politicians (like Lhota) is needed? Then re-establish a core group who have both competence and authority to oversee such projects (without turning to outsourcing for everything). Oh, and critically if you want continuity and institutional memory, senior employees must be on contracts that forbid them working in the same field in the private sector (funny enough, a Trumpist thought-bubble that is true; he recommended 5 years or forever.) I suppose it’s simply too “socialist” …

          • adirondacker12800

            If the political machine thinks more paperwork is needed it’s not the consultants fault they are getting paid to file it. Almost everybody loves to point at blue collar workers that are costing 200k a year with wages, benefits and admin costs. And blithely ignore the consultant paid to assure the admin workers are filing the paperwork. And the consultant who is hired to assure the consultants are filing their paperwork. And the lawyers that have to be paid when the Archibishop wakes up one morning and is shocked that someone is building something that has been proposed on and off for 40 years and has to have paperwork filed. Or the condo owners are shocked there will be pedestrians on the sidewalk. How much did it cost to document again that the nutjob at IRUM is a nutjob?

            http://web.mta.info/capital/esa_docs/eafiles06/Appendix%20B%20Upper%20Level%20Loop%20Alternative%20Analysis.pdf

    • ZOni Cermal

      Everyone is to blame. Unions, managers, contractors all want to fresse off the big teat.

      • Michael James

        ZOni Cermal, 2019/03/17 – 11:04
        Everyone is to blame. Unions, managers, contractors all want to fresse off the big teat.

        Two points.
        First, overall it may be true but one of these groups costs vastly more than those evil union workers.
        Second, as per previous point, it is obvious where the correction should begin. However it is equally true that with good management and project control (which will never come from outsourcing everything to the private sector which is clearly the source problem) these overmanning issues would probably be solved naturally, the way they are in these other jurisdictions.

  2. JJJ

    “The advocacy organization Light Rail Now claims that bundling street reconstruction has raised some American light rail costs. Moreover, I know examples of this happening for BRT. The Albuquerque project ART, which I covered in the context of electric buses, is one such example: it cost $135 million for 25 km, of which about 13 km were reconstructed to have wider sidewalks, trees, and street lighting. Moreover, in Tampa, the highway department insists that the transit agency find money for repaving roads with concrete if it wishes to run buses more frequently.”

    This was the same for the Fresno “BRT” which cost something like $50 million. The only improvements the transit passengers got were improved bus stops with modern shelters. The bulk of the cost was replacing traffic signals along the entire route. Yes, the signals were 40+ years old, but why was such scarce transit funding used for a standard automobile improvement project?

  3. SCC

    A thought: a lot of what is termed “American global incuriosity” in transit construction costs is probably related to how much American construction contract law, and the American legal system in general, is tied to the use of the common law system vs. the civil law systems of Europe and the rest of the world. American common law doesn’t really allow for virtually any legal precedent to be imported from civil law countries, and allows for limited legal precedent to be imported from Britain and Canada, whose common law systems, since the Victorian era, have been modified with civil law concepts by monarchical fiat. How the American common law system directly impacts construction costs is something someone smarter than I will have to answer, but I feel certain that civil law has directly cut certain construction costs in other parts of the world due to its direct impact on contract law.

    • Alon Levy

      If this post hadn’t breached 4,000 words I’d have included a section on why I don’t think common vs. civil law matters. The main exhibit is that in Canada, Quebecois costs are the same as Anglo-Canadian costs. It’s not about importing legal precedent; reforms like awarding contracts based on technical score and not just price not only are already legal but are practiced to limited extents.

      • Leo Comerford

        Most of the UK also has the common law, and while England is probably far from having the best public transport in Europe the problems with its rail and subway networks are mostly ones the US can only aspire to having for now.

          • Alon Levy

            Lower, of course. The common-law-makes-things-more-expensive hypothesis comes from the fact that other than the US, the highest costs are in Canada, the UK, Singapore, Hong Kong, India, and Bangladesh. The reason I don’t believe this hypothesis any longer is that,

            1. Quebec = English Canada
            2. Third-world ex-colonies with similar reliance on foreign consultants to India and Bangladesh, like Vietnam and Indonesia, have similar costs
            3. Israel and New Zealand, while tunneling expensively, electrify as cheaply as France (which the US, UK, and Canada don’t), and without reliance on first-world consultants India electrifies very cheaply

          • Michael James

            Yes, because for over 30 years now, they outsource everything. It is laughable (but the joke is on the taxpayers) that this is supposed to save money and be more efficient. As the Carillion disaster showed. And just this week another similar debacle was revealed with the company Interserve, in which the government transferred about $1bn knowing of all the concerns plus profit warnings–that then blew up shortly after. Their prison system is out of control, largely because they outsource a lot of it to Serco or G4 (and doesn’t this sound familiar).

            Anyway, while it is still early days in the enquiries of the B737-Max8 crashes, what has emerged is that the same sort of mindset has eroded government’s ability to properly regulate these things. The FAA has gone public with the reality that they don’t have, and cannot afford, enough in-house expertise to assess such complex aircraft certification. Such that they are forced to leave it to Boeing to provide the documentation and answer their own questions. Self-certification gone crazy. Given the huge sums involved (the projected sales of the new 737s is half a trillion dollars) and the intense competition, this kind of ‘cheating’ is almost inevitable. In this case it is the attempt by Boeing to claim that the differences between the old model and the substantially upgraded model is trivial, such that airlines don’t have to spend on upgrading/retraining their pilots. Many experts have come out of the woodwork to say that it was irresponsible to not even tell the pilots about the issue with the new engines, and the new automatic software override that was supposed to fix it but may be responsible for losing control (‘porpoising’). Today we learn from the earlier accident enquiry that the pilots were frantically looking through the manual as their plane plunged into the sea.
            Even the late-night comics can see the issue:

            Trevor Noah:
            The job of regulation is supposed to fall on the FAA, he continued. “But it turns out that somewhere along the line, the FAA went from Boeing’s boss to Boeing’s bitch.”

          • Eric

            The FAA has done a great job. They just made a mistake, but even with that mistake and its consequences, air travel is incredibly safe, for that matter much safer than it was before the era of “deregulation”.

          • Michael James

            The FAA didn’t “make a mistake”, they outsourced the certification to the company making the product being certified. How could anything go wrong?

            We’d be more forgiving of a genuine mistake but this is far worse.

            And air travel didn’t get so safe by allowing all the companies involved (manufacturers to airlines to airports) to self-certify. What next? Allow Big Pharma to self-certify? (Yes, seems like we are halfway there already.)

  4. adirondacker12800

    The same problem afflicts plans for extra regional rail capacity in New York: the commuter railroads do not want to share turfs, forcing the construction of additional station tracks in Midtown Manhattan at great cost.

    In the fevered imaginations of foamers on railroad.net and subchat.com.And village councilmen on Long Island rearing on his hind paws. In the real world not so much.

  5. Max Wyss

    To point 6 (and others too): This really calls for a separation between infrastructure and operator.
    The infrastructure procurer/manager should be on a regional level, and if not “government”-owned, at least be “government”-backed. And the message to the operators: an operator can be changed.

  6. Max Wyss

    To point 7: It is a question of proper communication. About half of the project cost of the Zürich West tram line extension were not tram line-related, but included refurbishing one of the busiest roads in the city, plus quite a bit of relocating power/water/sewage/communication lines. The project cost were communicated split up between the main parts, and their financing came from appropriate sources. Because that road is an access road to the national highway network, even money from the federal highway construction fund was involved. Because of the many stakeholders in the project, the financing was a cocktail of sources. The voters voted for the whole project, but the financial obligation for the taxpayers of the City of Zürich and the Canton of Zürich was less than the complete project.

    That said, a transit project is a very rare chance to make use of the disruptions to do as much work as possible on other infrastructure. It just has to be financed accordingly, and communicated in a way that even political simpletons can understand it. So, even if more than half of the project cost is “non-transit”, overall, at the end of the day, the whole project will be the least costly solution.

  7. adirondacker12800

    displayed no interest in how they could implement universal health care so that the US could have what everyone else had

    We been discussing it in depth and in great detail since the Medicare Act Eisenhower couldn’t push through. Universal healthcare has been in the Democratic platform even longer. Medicare was going to turn us all in to socialists working at government jobs before we faced the death panels, the long playing album Saint Ronald Reagan made, that explains it all, has been posted on YouTube, if you care to listen to it. Hillarycare was going to turn us all into socialists and give us death panels. The liberals settled for the half of a loaf the conservatives said was the bestest goodest thing ever. Warmed over Romneycare, then discussed it with Republicans for almost two years. The Republicans then screamed that we hadn’t talked about it enough and almost immediately it turned into something that was going to give us socialist death panels. Including their 2012 nominee for President who enacted Romneycare in Massachusetts. Sorry you haven’t been paying attention.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, the GOP is intransigent, which is why I focus on liberals. In 2008 the discourse on health care was about extending some internal ideas developed domestically, i.e. the community rating-mandate-subsidies trio, and more radical people wished to abolish any and all private insurance. When I tried saying something about how universal health care worked in France I was ignored or treated as a troll, never mind that in the situation of pre-ACA America, France was most likely the best model, grafting a universal system on top of extensive preexisting employer- or welfare-provided insurance. In American terms the closest thing to this was the public option, which the Democrats probably should have fought for instead of for community rating and mandates.

      • adirondacker12800

        They fought for it and it was going to turn us all into socialists waiting for an appointment with the death panel. After decades of discussion they settled for the plan the Republicans were touting as the best thing since sliced bread. Sorry you weren’t paying attention.

        • Alon Levy

          Not quite. The core of the ACA was community rating, the mandate, and subsidies. The public option was always touted as an extra for the left, and Lieberman managed to kill it. What I suspect Obama and Pelosi should have done was instead make the public option the center and turn everything else into extras.

          • adirondacker12800

            After 15 years of advocating for it they realized they weren’t going to get it. Sorry you weren’t paying attention.

          • adirondacker12800

            and the ten years of Republican screeching about how awful it is, has exposed that their plan is “get better or die”. which was always their plan because who was gonna go for this cockamamie system with subsidies and exchanges and bronze, silver and gold levels of benefits and attaching another slip of paper to you income tax forms.

          • Ross Bleakney

            This is a common argument not that different than saying the football team should have thrown the ball more. Some claim that Obama should have used the bully pulpit to push for a public option. Others say that all he could get was the Nixon plan (first implemented by Romney). What is clear, though, is that very few people were looking around to other countries and saying “we should try that” (which is Alon’s point). Howard Dean literally wrote a book on the subject, but of course, few read it. To a certain extent, you are both right. Had Obama said “Look, what makes the most sense is to implement the French plan”, it would have gone nowhere. It would have been ridiculed by the right, and even some Democrats would have rejected it under pressure. The only way to actually accomplish anything was to come up with an “uniquely American plan”, and pretend that is a virtue.

          • Dan

            Obama tried to get the AHA and AMA on his side. Expanding Medicaid cut per average payment but put more overall spending. Romneycare is said to be the model but half the new enrollees are just from expanding Medicare. The system, in my opinion, was designed to just get as many people enrolled without addressing a bigger problem, rising cost. The ACA just uses light market pressure to reduce cost; their needs to be more active government involvement in regulating cost, regional monopolies and abuse. Our current can be modified to get lower cost, we already do it, in Hawaii.

  8. adirondacker12800

    in West Haven, an infill station cost $105 million including land acquisition.

    And 658 parking spaces. I’m sure there were all sorts of lawsuits about whether or not the traffic lights should be on arms or hang from cables and the specific shade of the concrete tinting. I vaguely remember they had final environmental approvals and had to start over because of something someone should have brought up early in the process and the judge didn’t tell them that they should have brought up earlier. 20,000 a stall for parking, because there were lawsuits over the kind of asphalt they were going to use, is in nice round numbers 13 million for automobiles. I suspect the West Haven station, even with its extravaganza of waiting room and coffee shop was a lot less than 108.

    must not be impact to the richest suburbs in Fairfield County, Connecticut

    Which is why they came up with a tunnel to White Plains Airport, Danbury and Waterbury in the earlier iterations.

    Send the high speed trains through Nassau and Suffolk, almost no impact in Fairfield County. It serves more people to more places. They can have a once an hour Kodama and a once an hour from Stamford to Boston via Hartford, Springfield and Worcester. Name it something clever and NYNH&H-y like the Merchant’s Limited. Something M8-ish and it can start off in Grand Central.

    They are rather skilled at this. There have been attempts to widen Boston Post Road for almost a century and they have managed to block that. The mitigations they demanded and got for the alternative, Route15/Merritt Parkway, are spectacular.

  9. SL

    I get the impression from how often you’ve brought up Spain in this and other posts, that it might be the railway construction best-practices leader in the Western world. Apropos your point about bringing international best practices to the US, as a fluent Spanish-speaker (and formerly fluent German-speaker) in the US considering the Univ of Illinois Masters in Railway Engineering (https://railtec.illinois.edu/), might I be better served by trying to do the Masters in Spain? If I am reading your posts correctly, any indications of reputable Spanish programs you’re aware of would be welcome. If am incorrect about your view on Spain, any thoughts on attending a strong European program (German, or English language) vs the U of I program are also welcome (actually, thoughts on the U of I program are welcome in general), and I would also welcome any thoughts about what those strong programs are.

    Ideally, I imagined the degree giving me exposure to Spanish methods, then finding a job there for a few years to get some practical experience, before finally returning stateside with those best practices to help improve the rail construction situation here.

    • Paul

      Depends on what you want to do after you graduate. You can get a great education in Spain, or ETH Zurich might also be worth considering for an English and German speaker interested in rail. The downside is that most Americans know little to nothing about European universities, so you would not have the name recognition or industry connections if you want to find a job back in the US. Academia is better connected, I did a Master’s at EPFL (which also has a good rail program, but is French-speaking) and came back to a US PhD program with no trouble at all.

  10. Herbert

    Is it really true that cut and cover isn’t done anymore?

    The U3 extension in Nuremberg is partially cut and cover and there is some grumbling by locals about the U4 extension in Hamburg because it’s cut and cover and will cut down some trees…

  11. Martin

    Regarding underground stations, I found the Taiwanese practice of always building a mezzanine plane within a larger cavern structure pretty reasonable (almost universal in Taipei MRT). The height of the platform is just tall enough to accommodate a train, but the atmosphere is still quite spacious, and because the two platforms are very close in space I dont think the overall volume is so big (the Taiwanese tend to over-construct the rest of the stations though in their newer lines). On the top level, you allow a walking corridor at one side over one of the tracks (which also leads to mid-platform stairs). The problem with old European style platforms is that they often undersupply exits (e.g. Stockholm) which I think leads to unacceptable amounts of travel time loss for a modern system (though with one exit at each end, and some elevators in the middle it is not so bad).

    I also think that in principle using dynamites for stations is very cheap. You can remove debris through the tunnels, and if the geology is good you can usually use dynamite for diagonal shafts with escalators too (much of Stockholm subway is constructed that way), at least for most of the way. There must be other options as well to get a diagonal shaft that does not include using a tunnel boring machine.

    In general, with proof of payment systems (but with unmanned automatic gates that can be forced to walk through, like in Japan), everywhere in the world could have much more efficient station layouts (more exits, less mining). Any staff could be placed on the actual platform where they would be most needed.

      • Martin

        In general, as it will be with very deep stations underneath all other activity in most cities, maybe it will be more common to reach depths with bedrock in many contexts in the future?

        I think one reason the Helsinki subway was quite cheap was that it was built on bedrock similar to Stockholm (though Stockholm manages to build way more expensive tunnels these days anyway…). Seems like much of central Canada has similar overall geology. https://www.britannica.com/place/Canadian-Shield

        Regarding diagonal shafts it was used in many older mines, so I guess there be pretty standard low-tech solutions available, but I am not very knowledgeable about this.

      • Tunnel Vision

        Stockholm’s rock is extremely competent and so can stand with out rock support. Manhattan schist is good but not that good and the mica in it can deteriorate over time so you could not leave the rock bare like in Stockholm.

    • John

      Why do you say that the stations in Taiwan’s newer lines are over-constructed? If anything, stations on the newer lines have become more space-efficient since there are no longer atriums over half the platform, allowing station caverns to become smaller.

      • Martin

        It is true that the platform-layout by the newer stations is more confined, and are of the quite narrow Japanese type in the Tokyo metro system (they also have less travelers I think). I was referring to the general station layout, which at many new stations have lots of caverns, and long walking distances between platforms and various exits, sometimes for reasons that are hard to understand. Often it is related to transfers, but just for getting to the street level from the platform. Maybe because it was not built cut-and-cover it was harder to get rational solutions. IIRC Nanjing Songjing is a good example (was 1 ½ year since I lived their last time). The Brown line also has very overconstructed stations, and many of the above-ground stations on the red line seems a bit overconstructed as well.

        In general Taipei MRT is a very good example in which many stations could have been organized more efficiently with a more relaxed fare-gate system.

        • John

          Oh, I see what you mean now. Newer stations do tend to have snaking passageways between station exits and concourses because it has become more and more difficult to site the exits themselves–a city ordinance passed in the early 2000s required a much wider clearance between on-sidewalk station exits and buildings, which has made it downright impossible to build station exits on sidewalks on narrower streets (and made pairs of one-way entrances and exits necessary in other cases). So now the majority of station exits must be integrated with buildings, but with recent real-estate bubbles landowners are demanding increasingly exorbitant amounts of money for the government to procure the lots needed to build an exit. So sometimes the exits are far away simply because that was only lot whose owner was willing to sell.

          It’s not an exaggeration to say that station exit siting is one of the biggest bottlenecks in subway planning in Taiwan–a station was literally canceled on Taipei’s green line because city hall simply couldn’t find anywhere to put an exit. And in Taoyuan’s own under-construction green line, there will be one “future” station where a cavern will be dug, but no station until a solution for the exit could be found.

          • Martin Kolk

            Ah, that explains it then. I was wondering about some of those very strangely placed exits.

            It is interesting that the city at the same time still insists on so many exits though, if it so expensive to build. Maybe it is all related to the tradition of vast underground malls.

            It is also interesting that Asia has so weak eminent domain laws (except China…).

  12. marcel

    96th St was built cut-and-cover. However they cut open one half of the street at a time, covered with precast beams before the digging was compete and built a full length mezzanine. It was not cheaper than the other two stations.

  13. Ian

    This is a very minor nitpick but to my knowledge the State and Dearborn street subways in Chicago don’t have full length mezzanines despite being built after the IND in New York.

  14. Pingback: Can predictive analytics be made safe for humans? – TechCrunch
  15. Dan

    We have cost disease in the United States (healthcare). Is there any way cut costs and is setting benchmarks a good way to start?

  16. Comradefrana

    “In contrast, in New York, to prevent street disruption, Second Avenue Subway did not use any cut-and-cover.”

    Not quite. Cut and cover was used for constructing the 96th street station and the TBM launchbox/eventual crossover area.

  17. Reedman Bassoon

    Cynicism and cost overruns start at the top. When “truth in construction estimates” is considered to be bad, the result is …
    —————
    Willie Brown, former SF mayor, San Francisco Chronicle – July 28, 2013
    “News that the Transbay Terminal is something like $300 million over budget should
    not come as a shock to anyone. We always knew the initial estimate was way under the
    real cost. Just like we never had a real cost for the [San Francisco] Central Subway or
    the [San Francisco-Oakland] Bay Bridge or any other massive construction project. So
    get off it. In the world of civic projects, the first budget is really just a down
    payment. If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved.
    The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big,
    there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”

      • Max Wyss

        I would not even think so. Switzerland had its famous example: the Furka base tunnel (part of the Glacier Express route). Its costs were deliberately downplayed, because otherwise, the project would not have passed parliament. The consequence was that the final cost was about 4 times what was originally asked for (and that for a relatively simple meter gauge, single track with two passing loops, tunnel.

        • Michael James

          Max Wyss, 2019/03/05 – 15:00
          Its costs were deliberately downplayed, because otherwise, the project would not have passed parliament.

          Don’t they have to hold a referendum to approve such things? Unless it was below some threshold cost?
          I’m pretty sure they held a referendum for the Gotthard Base Tunnel, though it was sold on two reasonable grounds, 1. it would make money from everyone else (other Europeans) paying tolls to use; and 2. it would reduce the heavy freight traffic using Swiss roads and thus lower costs and reduce air pollution. This latter is probably why they changed it from a road tunnel to a train tunnel (carrying large trucks like the Chunnel).

  18. Benjamin Turon

    Good Post! Agree about the incuriosity of Americans about how things work in the rest of the world. For example, my trying to explain to NYSDOT that in Japan people don’t ride backwards on bi-directional trains because seats can be turned individually by the passengers using a petal or all at once by a railway worker by pushing a button at one end of the coach. This was in response to at a public meeting the offical explaining why bi-directional trains (like what we used with the Turboliners) are no good for the Empire Corridor.

    • Alon Levy

      The funny thing is, the US does understand the importance of forward-facing seats, unlike Europe. Some New Jersey Transit trains have seats with backs that can be moved manually to face either direction, and the Northeast Regional turns the coaches so that seats face forward as well. It’s just the specific Shinkansen technology that Americans are unfamiliar with.

      • Max Wyss

        Could you explain to my limited knowledge why forward-facing seats are so important? In fact, the only reason for “aircraft seating” is that it is possible to cram in one or maybe two rows of additional seats.

        FWIW, I think the system to turn seats by pressing on a pedal was invented by the Deutsche Bundesbahn. Their Apmz121 and Apmz122 first class cars used in TEE and IC/EC services (the ones with the many little windows) had such seats. But they rarely turned them when the train changed direction (for example in Frankfurt Hbf).

        • Alon Levy

          [I deleted a double-post.]

          Backward-facing seats make some people (hi!) motion-sick. In the US you can see this on commuter trains where half the trains face backward and there’s no assigned seating: people fill the forward-facing seats first. In South Korea this effect is quantified: half the seats on the KTX face backward, as on the TGV that the first generation of trains is derived from, and backward-facing seats sell at a 5% discount.

          • Max Wyss

            Thanks for deleting the double post; the comment system did not react properly, and I was not sure whether it took the first post (maybe something to look at eventually).

            Anyway, it is kind of interesting, as the issues are rarely found in Switzerland, where “aircraft seating” style was introduced very late (some 40 years ago, even less). I do understand the motion sickness issue (although I seem to be immune to it). But there are people who actually prefer travelling backwards (my father was one, but I think it was caused because he was in a very serious train accident in his youth, and he believes that he survived because he was facing backwards on the aisle (and reading about what happened makes it sound plausible; the back of the seat protected him).

            Motion sickness issues aside, it looks to me more like a cultural issue.

          • Leo Comerford

            The catch is that alternating front- and back-facing seats on long-distance trains allows the passengers to have a decent table rather than the abominable aircraft-style seatback trays. Some of the UK’s current long-distance carriages mix the two layouts.

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah, in Japan you can change your seat yourself to have 2*2 or 3*3 facing seats, conference-style, but no table in the middle.

  19. yuuka

    If you asked me, this picture probably shows everything that is wrong with station design in Singapore:

    • yuuka

      I still think we’re getting a lot more bang for our buck than America though, but it’s tempting to contemplate how operation and maintenance costs could have cut down with more effective use of space.

      (that’s a cut and cover station, FYI)

      • Alon Levy

        For what it’s worth, operating costs on the MRT are pretty low, it’s just construction costs that are “why is the transport minister getting paid more than S$1 million a year again?” bad.

      • adirondacker12800

        It costs a lot of money to pour dirt back into a hole and hold it up. Air fills the hole at no cost and doesn’t cost much to hold up. Slapping some tile on the walls and installing some lighting doesn’t cost much either.

        • Michael James

          I suspect yuuka might be thinking of air-con costs, however with an underground structure it is not a significant factor. It would be if above ground in a place like Singapore sitting right on the equator but underground is actually cooler and protected from the sun etc. The volume of air won’t have much effect as it is input heat (mostly from the trains, the people and things like lights & escalators) that is determinant, and that wouldn’t be any different.

          BTW, your point about putting excavated dirt back into holes: in Singapore that dirt is a valuable commodity used to keep generating new land from the sea. Singapore is one of the world’s largest importers of some dubiously-sourced sand for those reclamation projects:

          http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/singapore/7221987/Singapore-accused-of-launching-Sand-Wars.html
          Singapore accused of launching ‘Sand Wars’ Singapore has been accused of launching a clandestine “Sand War” against its neighbours by paying smugglers to steal entire beaches under the cover of night.
          By Barney Henderson, 12 Feb 2010

          The world’s legal trade in sand is worth an estimated $US70 billion a year and involves at least 15 billion tonnes with the illegal trade worth billions more.
          Singapore, already more than 22 per cent bigger in land size than it was as a British colonial backwater in the 1950s, is meanwhile pushing ahead with plans to import titanic amounts of sand to artificially expand its territory by 6200 hectares [9.3% of 710 km2] by 2030, prompting fears of environmental disaster on a swathe of tropical islands.

          • adirondacker12800

            It’s really big plenum for the air returning to the HVAC system….

          • yuuka

            Yeah. It makes me think that the only reason why they would bother building such large stations (and pay the corresponding price) would be because they justify it with land reclamation costs as well.

            For the record, the platform of Orchard station on the Thomson line is only about 100m long – I believe the cost is so high because of the cripple siding located outside the station, and the need to dig up the existing station under a shopping mall to construct a paid link.

    • yuuka

      (I can’t edit comments, so I’ll just reply instead)

      This is Bendemeer station on the Downtown Line, which was built by cut and cover. When I go through the place I kind of ask myself how much the air conditioning bill is, especially in a hot and humid place like this. If I’m not already contemplating whether the systems located at platform ends could have been placed within the atrium instead.

      America, please don’t do this.

  20. Diego Beghin

    Nitpick: It’s actually good to bundle other street work with LRT construction. If you’re gonna disrupt the street anyway, you might as well ask the sewer, gas, water, etc. managers if they also need to work on that street’s infrastructure in the near future. If they do, it’s more efficient to do everything at the same time. Widening sidewalks/adding bike lanes should be treated the same way. If the sidewalks were really too narrow and the city was planning on widening them anyway, might as well do it now.

    Another reason to do street reconstruction is when the ROW is narrow enough that fitting everything you want to fit (LRT, car lanes, bike lines, wide sidewalks, street trees, ….) might require some creative rearrangement of space.

    I guess the main problem is using transit money to pay for those non-transit things? Does that happen in Europe too or is it just a US thing?

    • Alon Levy

      It happened with the Nice tramway.

      The problem with this approach is that it incentivizes cities to keep doing nothing until they can bundle it into a semi-related infusion of outside money. Unbundled street reconstruction can be quite cheap, as in the case of Götgatan in Stockholm.

      • Diego Beghin

        The money should come from the city itself, like when they do sewer maintenance or whatever.

        • Herbert

          In German pro tram media the French way of redesigning the city while building a new tram is actually seen as an asset. And it apparently does help boost ridership to go for “pretty”. At any rate, trams are much more cost efficient for cities under a million people anyway.

  21. Ross Bleakney

    Great article. It seems to me that there are two categories of cost problems. First is design related. This is where our failure to look at other countries — or even just look at older subway systems — leads to big expenses. It also leads to poor design in general. Not just overbuilt, but not as functional.

    But there are also construction problems due to bad management. This is what has plagued many a big American project. California high speed rail comes to mind, of course, but another good example was the Obamacare website (Healthcare.gov). It isn’t like Americans can’t create software. Most of the technologies used today — including the means by which we are currently communicating — were developed by the government, with later cooperation by the universities and private business. So building a government website shouldn’t be that hard. Yet it was.

    It was a mess for the very reasons you described. It is telling that no big name software agency wanted to get involved. Red Hat could have pushed for a Linux based, open source system. Let thousands of volunteer programmers make their mark by building a system the same way folks build Wikipedia. Or maybe IBM could jump in as a way to promote themselves, also building the software with open source tools. Or maybe Microsoft goes with a proprietary solution. None of that happened. They weren’t outbid — they just weren’t interested. It fell to CGI group of Canada — a big consulting firm. Not only was the software completely proprietary — it was a mess. Initially it couldn’t even handle the basic functions. Quoting from Wikipedia, it sounds very much like a failed rail project: The original budget for CGI was $93.7 million, but this grew to $292 million prior to launch of the website. While estimates that the overall cost for building the website had reached over $500 million prior to launch, the Office of Inspector General released a report finding that the total cost of the HealthCare.gov website had reached $1.7 billion. This isn’t a case of too many mezzanines, this is a case of a broken process. Way too little transparency, and thousands upon thousands of hours spent arguing over specs, instead of actually building the thing. No wonder none of the other companies wanted to get involved.

    As a software engineer, it occurred to me that government workers could have done a better job. Hire a software team, teach them about the domain and have at it. The thing could have been built faster, cheaper (and better). We have seen the private-public government contract system fail time and time again. All the while, a completely public organization (the Veterans Administration) has some of the the best health outcomes in the world. (Their biggest problem is lack of funding to deal with the gigantic increase in case loads caused by the two major wars). Maybe it is crazy talk, but I wonder how things would look right now if the California high speed rail system was being built by the Army Core of Engineers. There is this assumption that projects run completely by the government are bound to be more expensive. That there will be too much corruption. That is certainly a problem, but we have seen plenty of corruption with the bid to contract system. More importantly, we have just seen way too many of the problems described. Companies underbid, and under deliver, then fight it out in the courts. Or they don’t even get that far, but the government just ponies up the money anyway. When a software project originally supposed to cost $94 million ends up costing $1.7 billion, it really isn’t that surprising that rail projects have the same problem.

    • adirondacker12800

      The design specifications for the national exchange were that a few states would refuse to create their own site. Almost every Republican controlled state, refused to participate. The problems were resolved.

      • Ross Bleakney

        So, these Republican states didn’t have to pay for the $1.7 billion dollars for the national website (that was supposed to cost $93.7 million)?

        Yes, the issues were resolved, but only after spending a ridiculous amount of money. 1.7 billion dollars — to a Canadian company — to make a freakin website! For context, it costs about $25 million to operate Wikipedia. Give me 100 million dollars to create Healthcare.gov and we are all partying in Tahiti after the launch party (drinks are on me!). Seriously — it is the same problem as building subways (or HSR). We rightly freak out because it costs too much to build a rail system in this country. Yet even when it is something that this country does better than any other nation, we somehow have a twenty fold cost overrun (of $1.6 billion) and the damn thing doesn’t even work the day it is launched!

        It is the system. It is overly specific, which basically excludes many companies that are quite capable of doing the work, but don’t want to hire a room full of pencil pushers to write, and then evaluate the specs. Just to be clear — I’ve been a pencil pusher. I’ve been a software test engineer, and took pride in my ability to weed out ambiguities in the specs, and thus prevent bugs before they were ever coded. But such attention to detail only makes sense when you are trying to prevent something dangerous (i. e. violating safety codes) or are building something that could cost a bundle to fix. Create an adversarial system based on the specifications — for every little bit of the project — and you end up with major cost overruns.

        • adirondacker12800

          They paid for it very indirectly because the pot of money they suck out of blue states won’t be as big.

    • SCC

      >”As a software engineer, it occurred to me that government workers could have done a better job. Hire a software team, teach them about the domain and have at it.”

      I’m just imagining software engineers physically signing with their PE license the heavy civil construction design documents that specify how projects like HSR are built… hahaha, not gonna happen. What software engineer has a PE license, let alone is willing to risk being sued when a bridge collapses on top of someone’s head?! The most that I can see a software engineer practically doing is developing machine learning algorithms to automate the drawing of blueprints, all of which would need to be checked multiple times before they are signed by a PE and sent off to be construction.

      • Ross Bleakney

        Wow. You missed my point completely. It is an analogy. I was writing about how government software engineers could have done a better job building a *website* (specifically, Healthcare.gov). I would never suggest in a million years that a bunch of software engineers should build a bridge. That is like saying plumbers should rewire your house, and electricians should put in a toilet.

        • adirondacker12800

          There wasn’t all that much wrong with the website software. Give the hardware specialists estimates, that turned out to be very low, because no one though Republican governors would be THAT stupid, there will be problems with the hardware dealing with the demand.

          • Ross Bleakney

            It cost 1.7 billion dollars! That is what was wrong with it. It was supposed to cost less than a hundred million, yet costs ballooned nearly twenty fold. Imagine if you were trying to build a small light rail system, and instead of costing $94 million, it ended up costing $1.7 billion. Oh, and when it launched, it crashed.

            Again, if this task was simply handed over to a few dozen government workers, and they were asked to do the job, it would have cost a lot less, and be done sooner.

            Just to be clear, I’m not attacking CGI Group. I’m not saying they are corrupt, or somehow underbid, then jacked up the price. I’m saying that *the process* was terrible. Software companies that could have built the website in half the time (for half the cost) simply weren’t interested. Oh, they had the coders. They had the managers, and the testers. They had I. T. folks who knew how to handle the load. They had security experts who knew a thing or two about the HIPPA regulations (along with the more obvious concerns about hackers). They even had technical writers, and web designers, who could make it all look pretty. They had teams that could handle last minute changes, whether it be with load or with the design.

            But they just didn’t want to deal with all the BS involved with coding to spec. It is not like they couldn’t do it (of course they could) but it just isn’t worth the bother. It isn’t like they are building software for NASA, or medical equipment (where such attention to detail is warranted). It is just a medical insurance website (and in many ways way less sophisticated than the medical records system that the V. A. pioneered). It isn’t worth the bother, and if any of them bothered, they were obviously underbid (which would again prove Alon’s point). Any time you go from something that is supposed to cost $94 million to something costing $1.7 billion (while also being late), it is obvious you have a problem with the process.

  22. Tue Le

    Mr. Levy, you wrote that “the MBTA is forbidden to coordinate suburban bus and commuter rail schedules.” Is there a reason for this? It really strikes me as odd. Thanks!

    • Alon Levy

      I don’t know. I was told this when working on the Boston regional rail proposal but there was no reason specified. One reason proposed in response to this post is that Boston privatized commuter rail operations (with subsidies) so the planning may be required to be separate. Or it could just be a railroad tradition and the prohibition is internal to the MBTA, not legal.

      • F-Line to Dudley

        Alon,

        Not sure why they told you that, because it’s untrue in-practice. The nearest Middleboro Line commuter rail station to where I currently live has an MBTA bus in the parking lot ready to take passengers with every peak-direction P.M. train (prob. same on the A.M. arrival, but I come from the opposite direction so never paid full attention). Now, schedule syncing is not a common thing on the system by any means. But it does happen at a few commuter rail stops, so there is no administrative prohibition whatsoever.

        It’s not widespread because as you get closer to the city the buses are on a more regular rotation that doesn’t match well with currently very irregular commuter rail frequencies without buses either A) getting their headways gapped out by having to wait for the train, or B) having to send out run-as-directeds to make the train amid their regular churn. If RER is implemented on clock-facing headways, that gets worlds easier to fit into a bus schedule at vast majority of the commuter rail stops currently served by buses. As well as the rail frequency bump itself compelling better bus service. Slightly different story outside of the MBTA district where the cash-starved outer Regional Transit Authorities need some funding love in order to step up their frequencies to a level that can be coordinated with RER, and to expand their territories to hit flat-out more rail stops. Other than BAT in Brockton and *maybe* LRTA in Lowell, the state’s other local bus districts stink across the board at offering acceptable all-day frequencies.

        But since it’s questionable whether the Administration in Massachusetts is fully committed to an honest consideration of RER or is just going to throw the report in a filing cabinet, I’d be very wary about what statements of schedule coordination “can’ts” suggest in advance about that commitment. They “do” coordinate schedules in some places, so the administrative excuse is bunk. And the “can” part gets so much easier with implementation of RER schedules that pushback to coordination now can only be seen as trying to knock a big peg out from under RER…since RER by its very nature is going to create a mandate for substantially improved last-mile transit on the connecting routes. Red flag…big red flag if the spokesflaks are pushing that non-coordination line as gospel to the working committee.

        • Max Wyss

          FWIW, schedule synching would be by far the cheapest method to increase passenger numbers. This is such a no-brainer!

          And if that can not get through in the administration… remind them that if they don’t get it we will soon be talking of them in the past tense…

          • Alon Levy

            That’s the thing, the governor won reelection by an enormous margin even though Massachusetts is a Democratic state and 2018 was a strong year for the Democrats. In a state where public transport has low mode share, “he’s refusing to invest in public transport” isn’t necessarily a strong attack line, especially since the suburban middle class just drives to the commuter train station at rush hour and doesn’t think much about off-peak service or transit connections.

          • F-Line to Dudley

            Massachusetts has a structurally very weak governership, and structurally extremely strong Legislative chamber leaders. So the amount of backlash Baker is going to receive from voters over any one issue is going to be limited. The Speaker of the State House is the single most powerful position in state government by having nearly autocratic control over the chamber that holds power of the purse. The current Speaker, Conserva-dem Robert DeLeo (after his FOUR consecutive predecessors all left office under indictment) uses the threat of taking away committee assignments mid-session to get the entire supermajority-Dem caucus to vote to rubber-stamp anything he wants. Any progressives who try to agitate get sent to committee Siberia until they learn to tow the line, and there are too few Republicans left at all to play spoiler. The chamber as a whole votes more conservatively than their membership, and votes the Speaker’s will on things as beyond the pale as: revoking the term limits set on his own position after the last guy went to jail, or pausing a roll call to change votes by voice vote when he doesn’t like the optics of how the roll call is going. Mainly, DeLeo will simply bottle up any spending bills he doesn’t like or gut them in committee so they’re defective by design. His district is from the richest part of Winthrop, where there’s no transit constituency except for a few boutique bus routes. DeLeo’s mantra on all things MBTA is “no revenue before reform”. So he’s blocking most in the way of funding increases because they haven’t met his undefined standard of “reform”, which is apparently something which cannot be accomplished walking and chewing gum at the same time.

            Part of the reason for electing so many Republican Gov.’s over the last 30 years is the MA electorate fumbling for a check against the Legislative autocracy. Baker and DeLeo are about equally conservative, so DeLeo likes Baker for the moment and they both like using rigged studies to kill off transpo projects. Emphasis on “for the moment”, because over 3 decades regardless of who’s occupied the corner office the Speaker of the moment has always seen fit to mess with one of the Gov.’s signature initiatives to remind him/her who’s really boss. And ultimately MA has an equal tradition of so many Gov.’s period losing all interest in the job within 1-1/2 terms and agitating for fed appointments, ambassadorships, or Presidential flights-of-fancy because they’ve grown bored of having their wings clipped. Baker is destined for this diminishing returns, too.

            Unfortunately this cycle isn’t going to end until DeLeo does the same perp walk his 4 predecessors did, and there’s enough of a “throw the bums out” movement to fumigate the Legislature of its worst leadership lackeys and hold the rank-and-file’s feet to the fire to not fold like a cheap suit and go forward stiffening the chamber rules before another autocrat repeats the cycle. While citizens are getting sicker of watching this corruption kabuki than ever before, it’s still several degrees away from hitting any flashpoint. The next Gov. may well be a progressive with better ideas about funding transit. But the way things structurally stand it still won’t matter what comes out of the corner office because DeLeo is Spreaker-for-Life. Before he retires or gets nabbed in a corruption sting he’ll have his heir apparent already lined up to continue the tradition of acting as a government of one.

  23. Andrew K

    Add one more to the pile – particularly for Canadian LRT projects: utility relocations. Without a state/provincial regulated approach to costing relocations the utility owner charges what they wish and actually make no promises on mundane details such as deadlines, acceptable temporary work methods and final location certainty. This even occurs for utilities owned by one layer of government and transit work performed by another! Pure madness – this drives direct costs as well as risk associated with schedule. Combine all this within a P3 (AFP in Ontario) procurement and you have a deadly cocktail resulting in delays and cost overruns of epic proportions. Of course the contractor community learns the lesson and adds this risk to the next job.

  24. Bob L

    America built the Golden Gate Bridge and the Oakland Bay Bridge at the same time, both finished within 4 years, in the middle of the Great Depression.

    What changed since then? Too much debt, too high labor cost, too many regulations, too litigious a society, and too much corruption. To be able to build things, society would have to change.

  25. Adam

    Tutor Perini on conference call recently, apparently they plan to milk additional rent out of future contracts and also think that the system is not friendly enough to them:

    https://seekingalpha.com/article/4245039-tutor-perini-corporations-tpc-ceo-ronald-tutor-q4-2018-results-earnings-call-transcript?part=single

    As I have said before evidenced everyday by the minimum competition in the billion dollar plus projects. There are very few companies in the United States that can successfully build a billion dollar plus infrastructure projects and as in such there are very few bidders as we go forward.

    As a reminder, the projected margins on our new awards from last year in the backlog on average are considerably higher than the existing margins that we have earned over the past years and we expect that margin to increase, as frankly, we raise our margins given the lack of competition.

    So, overtime, as the older work with lesser margin burns off and is replaced by higher margin new work at an accelerated pace, we feel there is an opportunity for significant increases in both operating income and earnings per share.

    I keep saying it, but the truth is in the pudding. We have now got three straight large projects for the MTA, a $1,400 million tunnel and a $1 billion for a station. Three straight contracts the total $3 billion for the LAMTA, $1,400 million job in Newark where we are the only bidder.

    And as I advised our owners, if you don’t make these contracts far more contractor friendly you are not going to get bids even including us. And the fact of the matter is an owner today is fortunate if he gets two bids and really extraordinary if he gets three. So that’s the market we are in.

    All of our New York City operations are working at 120% of capacity electrical, mechanical, Building, and Civil and with the reduction in size of Skanska, our largest competitor in New York and the failures of some of our New York peers, we find ourselves increasing and increasing at New York backlog to a point I have had all of our subsidiaries have to get my approval before they been any more work, because our backlogs in New York are at records, both electrically, mechanically, and civilly.

    And California is booming, we meet regularly with the principals of Los Angeles MTA and with that sales tax proposition had passed, they are talking about $10 billion in Civil work going out into the marketplace over the next 12 months to 15 months and there isn’t two or three companies that even have the potential to bid it. So it is really quite an interesting time of enormous growth in opportunities in a depleted industry.

    Well, high speed rail is a constant dilemma and I am in touch literally on a weekly basis with the principals of the agency in Sacramento as well as the job site. We continue to have delays in the right of way and third-party agreements that they have taken responsibility for and their commitments to turn us loose in March, now look like more like June or July.

    However, I am also in the midst of negotiations on over $400 million of extra work that they would like us to perform. So obviously those are very positive. I have said and they have concurred that we will not start any extra work without an agreed entitled change order and an agreed price.

    So there are very positive aspects of high speed rail. The negative is we are stymied in many areas continue to be and I expect to have a meeting in the next two weeks and try to get in some manner determine when we can gear back up, because although they are State Agency they continue to struggle to do their job and their job is defined by our contractors to get there right away is out of the way get the third party agreements out of the way and get out of our way the way the contract states they would.

    So it’s just a struggle. But in fairness they deal with us with integrity. They pay us when they owe us. They step up. So it’s just a continuing travail that we think in the long run will turn out well. But in the short run it’s very difficult, because we can’t earn money on cost we don’t spend.

    remember it’s a State of California Agency and no matter what the federal government does it pulls back, it doesn’t pull back.

  26. Adam

    For los angeles, here’s some additional datum from the fantastically overbudget Regional connector light rail subway line

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/senrpj50uq7tp36/C0980%20PP%20No.%2046.pdf?dl=0

    (fun game, how many times can you find that metro got billed for the TBM screw that got destroyed during the digging by the unexpected steel it ran into and had to be replaced)

    This was a dual bore done sequentially with 24 feet tunnels, I believe. it was 1.1 miles of tunnel total:

    1 TBM at a cost of 18M,
    it cost 7M to disassemble, reassemble and decommission the TBM

    1.1 miles of tunnel pairs cost 60.4M
    invert tunnel concrete at 2.7M
    tunnel walkway at 2.4 M
    tunnel finishes at 8.9M
    cross passages at 1.6M

    That’s a total of $76,000,000 for 1.1 miles of twin tunnels, or a cost of $69,100,000 per mile for 24 foot twin tunnels. $42,900,000 per kilometer. If you check the abovelinked invoice, you can see the cut and cover section they are doing is about half to a third of that cost.

    The project is budgeted at 1.7 billion. Most of the cost is going into the station palace construction.

    So even with this very recent example of $42.9 million per kilometer of tunneling. Metro budgets when doing planning for the 9 km sepulveda tunnel (with no stops), at an estimated cost of 505 million per mile (313 million per km).

    here’s a 2012 cost estimate of sepulveda.

    http://media.metro.net/projects_studies/sfv-405/images/final_compendium_report/6.0%20Preliminary%20Cost%20Report.pdf

    pay particular attention to page 36, when it says:
    Average Professional Service (Project Management, Construction Management, etc…)
     50% of construction costs
    Recommended Aerial Guideway Programmatic Cost
     $80,000,000 x 1.5 = $120,000,000/mile

    where the $80,000,000/mile base cost is from the previous, most recent in state project.

    so in california, at least, the contractor expectation seems to be that every project should cost 50% more this year than last year’s project cost.

  27. Adam

    I should also say, I’ve been reading up much more extensively on the history of Tejon vs Palmdale on the HSR, and mea culpa, you’re very much right.

    Some things I’ve discovered:

    quantm analysis of various mountain crossing options (but not Altamount)
    http://www.hsr.ca.gov/docs/programs/eir-eis/statewide_techrpt_EvalQuntmSysFin.pdf

    For the pachecos, they identified a route that crossed all 3 faults at grade, avoided Henry Coe State Park, was close to SR130 to provide construction access, a maximum 3.5% grade and had a 5 mile tunnel and 16 miles of total tunneling with their cost estimate at 1.88 billion to cross the Diablos at Pacheco (this is within the Gilroy to Carlucci Rd section of construction) (page 49)

    the most recent California legislative analysts office pegs this section of rail (Gilroy to Carlucci road) at 10.2 billion, ouch, what are they opting for an all tunnel route?

    https://lao.ca.gov/reports/2019/3948/transportation-proposals-022619.pdf

    the same CALAO also estimates the Bakersfield-Palmdale-Burbank dogleg will cost a combined 34 billion to build.

    So at 34 billion just to go to Palmdale, would Tejon make more sense?

    Would Tejon be cheaper using a QuantM alignment? they had an east side of Interstate 5 alignment with 3.5% max grade, Garlock and San Andreas crossings both at grade, with 17.4 miles of total tunnels and a 6 mile max tunnel budgeted at 2.42 Billion. (but worth remembering there has since been (and more scheduled to start next year) extensive widening of interstate 5 in tejon that may have changed all this)

    If we extrapolate a 5.42x cost premium over the QuantM alignment (pachecho 10.2 bilion current estimate divided by 1.88 QuantM alignment), that would make the Tejon crossing cost 13.1 billion, less than either section required to go to Palmdale.

    That’s a savings of 21 Billion to use Tejon instead of Palmdale, or about 40% of the total 50 billion CAHSR funding gap.

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  29. Alex Chow

    Notably, you left out San Francisco’s Van Ness BRT in discussing cost overruns. It is costing $115 million per km. For Bus Rapid Transit…

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  33. Donald

    Thank you for a very good analysis; I am in Toronto and we are indeed experiencing these issues.

    I’m not sure cut-and-cover is an applicable design construction method, anymore. So much underground infrastructure exists now that deep tunnel boring seems only option. In Toronto we had a street rail ROW project and 1 intersection caused years long delay due to an incredible maze of every type of underground service pipe possible – it looked like that old 3D pipes screensaver – some going from just subsurface to 20 – 30 meters deep, and some services unknown until exposed due to age and shoddy records. If the project had been subway, it would have required tunnel boring, as is currently happening .5 km north with another similar mixed project above and below ground light rail.

    I worked project management at large engineering company. I have a design background, so prefer new ideas, methods, and tools. What i learned is that PM in North America is largely tribal practice, engineers grow and advance into the role, from within and sometimes from who’s available. Most do not come from study, from case history analysis, from lessons and research and thesis. Consequently PM is an extremely stagnant discipline, almost no innovation, and the job title comes with universal derision and blame.

    Personally, I saw project managers default behavior is abject fear, unto minor deception to outright lies, about bad numbers and status. In some cases in my company, bad project metrics, if available, were reported as self correcting, short term valid “wait for report next week”. I was on a 2 PM team on a nuclear design-build project where the owner employed a 3rd party contract administration company who were utterly the same as all the others: out of touch, easy to manipulate, produced meaningless analysis.

    There are new project management methodologies and tools, from what I see and hear they are not used on infrastructure projects. Generally speaking they track dollars in time, as this is purely objective math, while disregarding subjectivity of linear time milestones and deliverables. Most PM’s aren’t aware of them, meaning distrust and disbelief all the way to GM’s, CEO’s and presidents.

    • Alon Levy

      Do you know if there’s a big difference between Toronto and Vancouver when it comes to underground infrastructure? Because the Canada Line was cut-and-cover and had an okay cost and no serious overruns, and the reason they’re boring the Broadway subway is that the merchants complained about street disruption and not that it was physically difficult.

      • Donald

        Alas, I don’t know specifics, embarrassingly, as I’ve lived in both cities. Vancouver Canada Line had 2 factors: winter Olympics (part of the Sea-to-Sky getting athletes and VIP’s to Whistler) and some of the route followed a wide boulevarded street. Combination of hardest of hard deadlines + convenient topology for cut-and-cover, had success. However, there’s never anything clear or clean about Olympics infrastructure and money. Broadway is a much denser and tighter street than the Cambie street boulevard.

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  36. Eric

    It seems to me there is a common thread between the US failures in infrastructure and its failures with other public projects, such as healthcare.gov (mentioned above) and military programs like the F-35. None of the reasons in your post seems to explain these failures. Are there other reasons that could?

    On the other hand, there may be US transit agencies that have a good record and can be mentioned to Americans who are convinced by the irrelevance of other countries. For example, Chicago has very efficient transit operations, and the last metro line it opened (in 1993) was quite affordable (though current plans are not).

    • Alon Levy

      Is the F-35 really worse than similar efforts in other military powers? Maybe I’m overgeneralizing from the IDF, but my impression is that the military always pisses money.

      • Eric

        What other country has spent $1.5 trillion on a military program of dubious (i.e. possibly nonexistent) value?

        • Alon Levy

          $1.5 trillion? None that I know of. But my vague understanding is that relative to overall military spending that kind of waste is pretty common? But again, I may be overgeneralizing from the IDF and its culture of makework.

      • Sarapen

        My understanding is that the biggest criticism of the F-35 is not that it’s a horrible money pit (it is) but that it kind of sucks as a military plane. The US Army demanded it be good at bombing, the Air Force wanted it to excel at shooting down other planes, the Navy wanted it able to take off from aircraft carriers, and the Marines wanted it to be able to take off from really small airstrips a la Wake Island. The design compromises to accommodate these demands made the F-35 not really good at any of these. So it’s not the money per se – spending $1.5 trillion to have an unbeatable superjet would be acceptable to the military – but that it wouldn’t be as good as a more specialized plane. Design compromises are fine normally, but not when it means planes shot down over the South China Sea and captured pilots forced to denounce US imperialism on CNN. Also, since NATO and US allies went in on the F-35 then the issue is further compounded internationally.

  37. Tunnel Vision

    I was interviewed a couple of times by Rosenthal and while his article was of interest it picked easy targets without really identifying the major drivers for the cost and schedule overruns on ESA. The major drivers were and are:

    1) Access – or lack thereof. To construct tunnels and caverns in mid town Manhattan being fed from Queens, and with no truck traffic allowed in Manhattan seems like a nice way to appease the environmental impacts during construction. In reality it has driven the program scheduling and packaging. This meant that you had to complete the tunnels from 63rd st to 38th st before you could start the cavern work for example as all material had to be removed in Queens. Its also why there is a TBM buried beneath Park Ave around 37th St. Similarly building the 350,000 sq. ft station concourse on the lower level of GCT with support from BN Yard in the Bronx, and requiring all material and equipment to be delivered and removed by work trains has been a significant driver in efficiency and costs. For whatever reason the EIS promised no additional truck traffic in Manhattan. It was later modified to enable concrete deliveries only, and a limited number of drop pipe locations were set up to pump concrete up to 5000ft to where it was needed. Try building a ship in a bottle with the cork in the bottle. The lack of access points, for years the only location where muck could be removed and material and equipment brought in was the bell mouth in Queens, on Northern Boulevard, drove schedule and hence cost. As such contracts had to be sequential as the complexities in managing multiple contracts with only one hook were problematic to say the least.
    2) Funding – The MTA’s 5 year capital plan mechanism and the link to Albany. MTA cannot award contracts without 100% funding in place. Depending on where the project was in the 5 year plan cycle dictated the size of the contracts that could be awarded. Critical path was preferred, which were essentially those tied to the systems and SCADA backbone. However any deferred work eventually became critical thereby pushing out completion. You want to fix the problem, delink funding from Albany and allow MTA to self fund to raise the funds for projects.
    3) Railroad Support: The work in Sunnyside yard which has involved a complete rebuild of the Harold Interlocking, separation of signal power between AMTRAK and LIRR, install of 92 new switches, 5 miles of new track, 350 catenary poles, signal bridges, 11 microtunnels to move utilities from one side of Harold to the other etc. etc. to enable three new revenue tracks to connect into the existing system, while not cutting off the Port Wash branch from ESA has caused more delay than any other part of the project for a variety of reasons. Considering LIRR and AMTRAK spent the first few years ignoring ESA in the hope it would go away, then paid lip service, then failed to provide the necessary levels of support, such as A Men, flaggers, etc. , then demanded changes and improvements at a significant costs, to move this along has been devastating to the project. You can lose three months on your schedule when AMTRAK resource fail to show up to support a 55 hour weekend outage to install a new CIL or signal bridge etc. as you have to plan months ahead and those items need to go in sequence to enable service cut overs. Eliminate the bidding system based on seniority for such support and provide dedicated resources and you’ve got a chance, but again there was a failure of leadership in the various agencies to fix this problem.

    These three issues have dictated schedule, and the pace of the project. The sandhogs and the other issues are a negligible cost compared to the time costs associated with the three issues above.

    I have been very disappointed with the lack of critical analysis of what actually happened on ESA, its just so much easier to blame consultants, or sandhogs etc. rather than understand the specific project related impacts and the structural and institutional issues endemic to the MTA, its funding and procurement systems.

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  41. Benjamin Arthur Schwab

    A couple of potential examples for “political lading with irrelevant priorities” from the construction of the Washington DC subway:

    The first might not show up in official construction statistics but it is an example of wasted money. When the DC Metro was just about ready to go ahead after a long planning and political process, it was held up by Representative Natcher (D-Ky) who favored a highway only transportation plan for the District and was chairman of the Subcommittee on Appropriations for the District of Columbia and could (practically speaking) single handily block the Metro project.

    Eventually Rep. Natcher agreed to let the Metro project go forward only if a proposed Three Sisters Bridge were built, a project who by this time was unpopular by almost all local political officials. This increased cost by delaying construction of the Metro at a time inflation was an issue and by requiring Metro to redo work it had already done, It also meant money was spent on a bridge that eventually wouldn’t be built. (Construction started but the bridge was never completed and what was built ended up being destroyed by a Hurricane). Eventually Congress was able to secure funding for Metro circumventing Natcher.

    The DC Metro has to serve three groups of people: commuters, tourists, and District residents. Local officials from the early planing days insisted that the subway system have stations that serve the Georga Avenue corridor which served a mixture of well off and not as well off minority neighborhoods (which have since been gentrified). This area ended up being served by the system’s Green Line.

    Of the original lines, the Green Line was the last to be built. Part of this reason was certainly the priorities of the planners, part of it was for practical reasons (the Red Line had to be first because it had the original train yards), but part of it was that it was the line that had the biggest and most design changes over the course of its planning. For example, instead of following Georgia Avenue as initially planned, the Green Line has two stations off of Georgia Avenue in between two stations on Georgia Avenue.

    Local activists and politicians setting up the Green Line and it’s stations just they way they want it increased the time to build the line (which itself adds costs) and increased the expense more directly. I’m not making an opinion on the balance between controlling costs and getting desired features but this process seams like it’s what you described (politicians have more incentive to insist on costly changes/additions then they have at controlling costs). I also don’t mean to imply that these issues are limited to a particular demographic. The Red line goes in part through the Connecticut and Wisconsin Avenue corridors which are upscale white neighborhoods and, for example, local activists have got Metro to plant an maintain azalea bushes hiding an emergency escape exit in perpetuity.

    I know these examples because I read the book The Great Society Subway by Zachary Schrag. I don’t know if any rigorous study has been done for this specific issue with regard to the DC Metro. I thought I would point them out as potential examples though.

  42. Reedman Bassoon

    FYI. In today’s LA Times:
    ——–
    How California’s troubled high-speed rail project was ‘captured’ by costly consultants

    The bullet train relies on consultants who have consistently underestimated the difficulty of the project and are now cemented into control of the job.

    By RALPH VARTABEDIAN

      • Michael James

        Herbert, that is entirely glib. Show what he has written is wrong or ….

        Vartebedian wrote:

        When California shifted its bullet train plan into high gear in 2008, it had just 10 employees to manage and oversee design of the largest public construction project in state history. Consultants assured the state there was little reason to hire hundreds or thousands of in-house engineers and rail experts, because the consultants could handle the heavy work themselves and save California money.
        State officials followed that advice, and for the next several years, development of the nation’s first high-speed rail line was overseen by a minuscule government staff.

        Gov. Newsom is threatening to take an axe to the fields of consultants but the article points out how embedded they are. Once you go down this route–of outsourcing everything including oversight and reliance on proprietary software and the entire project stored on consultant’s servers–then there is no easy way back. It would take years to build the proper experience in-house and it would be pointless unless there were ‘no-compete’ clauses in the government worker’s contracts to stop them jumping to the consultant’s gravy train once they had picked up enough inside knowledge to sell themselves.

        They have staffed their ranks with former high-level bureaucrats, and their former executives have occupied key government posts.

        Doubtless this is considered anti-American so it is close to hopeless.
        Here’s what I wrote in an earlier post (above):

        An awful lot of this, especially overall oversight and co-ordination, should be done by the commissioning entity (the one who pays), ie. in-house. No one is disagreeing with you about your political system but the solution is not yet more outsourcing.

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  45. Reedman Bassoon

    It sounds like Orlando is able to do a lot on a reasonable budget. The “I4 Ultimate” (Interstate 4) will rebuild 21 miles of freeway, rebuild 140 bridges, rebuild 15 interchanges, move exits and add toll booths for $2.4 billion.

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