In the last few years, ever more serious and powerful actors have begun investigating the fact of high American infrastructure construction costs. First it was Brian Rosenthal’s excellent New York Times exposé, and then it was the Regional Plan Association’s flop of a study. At the same time, I was aware that the congressional Government Accountability Office, or GAO, was investigating the same question, planning to talk to sources in the academic world as well as industry in order to make recommendations.
The GAO report is out now, and unfortunately it is a total miss, for essentially the same reason the RPA’s report was a miss: it did not go outside the American (and to some extent rest-of-Anglosphere) comfort zone. Its literature review is if anything weaker than the RPA’s. Its interviews with experts are telling: out of nine mentioned on PDF-p. 47, eight live in English-speaking countries. Even when more detailed information about non-English-speaking countries is readily available, even in English, the GAO report makes little use of it. It is a lazy study, and people who ideologically believe the American federal government does not work should feel confident citing this as an example.
Brian himself already notes one of the reasons the report is so weak: Congress mandated a comparative study, but the report made no international comparisons at all. Instead, the report offered this excuse (PDF-p. 27):
The complexity of rail transit construction projects and data limitations, among other things, limits the ability to compare the costs of these projects, according to the stakeholders we interviewed. As highlighted above, each project has a unique collection of specific factors that drive its costs. According to FTA officials, each proposed transit project has its own unique characteristics, physical operating environment, and challenges. Some stakeholders said that the wide disparity in the relative effect of different cost factors renders cost comparisons between projects difficult. For example, representatives of an international transit organization said that because of the large number of elements that can affect a project’s costs and the differences in what costs are included in different projects’ data, projects should be compared only at a very granular level and that aggregate cost comparisons, such as between the costs per mile or costs per kilometer of different projects, are likely flawed. Some stakeholders also said that project costs should not be compared without considering the projects’ contexts, such as their complexity. For example, one academic expert contended that project costs cannot be compared without considering the context of each project, and that analysis of projects should focus on leading practices and lessons learned instead.
There is a big problem with the above statement: disaggregated costs for many aspects of urban rail construction do exist. The Manhattan Institute’s Connor Harris has done a lot of legwork comparing tunnel boring machine staffing levels and wages in New York and in Germany, and found that New York pays much higher wages but also has much higher staffing levels, 25-26 workers compared with 12. I have done some work looking at station costs specifically, and at the cost of installing elevators for wheelchair accessibility.
There is a lot of detailed comparative research about the costs of high-speed rail; the report even references one such meta-study undertaken within Europe, but omits the study’s analysis of causes of cost differences and instead asserts that it shows that comparing different projects is hard. In the interim, California contracted Deutsche Bahn to do a post-mortem of its elevated high-speed rail costs, which found that California needlessly built larger structures than necessary, explaining its cost premium over Germany.
Instead of probing these disaggregated estimates, the GAO preferred to say that they are too hard and move on.
Even without disaggregation, there are some good sanity checks one can make about construction costs. The most important is that big projects – major subway expansions, regional rail tunnels, high-speed rail – cost an appreciable amount of the government’s budget. The budget for the 200-kilometer Grand Paris Express project is €35 billion, plus another €3 billion in contributions for related suburban rail extensions such as that of the RER E. There may be future cost overruns, but they will be reported in the media, just as the current overrun has been; it is extremely difficult to hide cost overruns measured in tens of billions in a Paris-size city, and even in a China-size country it may not be easy.
Is it plausible that GPX is inherently easier to build than New York’s $1+ billion/km subway tunnels? Yes. It’s equally plausible that it is inherently harder. Second Avenue Subway runs under a wide, straight throughfare, a situation that simplifies construction. In Israel, the ministry of transportation has long mentioned the ease of tunneling under wide, straight boulevards in connection with plans to extend the second line of the Tel Aviv subway to North Tel Aviv under Ibn Gabirol, and admitted this even when it opposed the extension on land use grounds.
The most important sanity check is that in a world with several dozens of cities with a wide variety of wealth levels, land use patterns, geologies, and topographies, no city has managed to match or even come close to New York’s construction costs. New York is not special enough to be an edge case in all or even most relevant geographic variables – it is dense but no denser than Seoul or Paris, it is wealthy but no wealthier than London or Paris or Munich and barely wealthier than Stockholm, it has hard rock but less hard than Stockholm (and in Stockholm the gneiss is cited as a cost saver – bored tunnels do not require concrete lining), etc.
Moreover, the cities that have the highest construction costs outside New York are almost without exception in the same set of countries: the US, Canada, Britain, Singapore, Australia. What’s likelier – that there is some special geographic feature common to the entire Anglosphere (including Quebec) but absent from all other developed countries, or that there is a shared set of legal and political traditions that developed in the last 50 years that impede cost-effective construction? Instead of probing this pattern, the GAO preferred to wash its hands and refuse to compare projects across countries.
In lieu of making international comparisons, the GAO has engaged in extensive internal comparison. It cites aspects that have raised the costs of Second Avenue Subway above other American subway projects, such as overdesign for stations. Apparently, it’s completely legit to compare two different cities’ construction if they’re in the same country.
Over and over again, it references its own domestic standards. The GAO has 12 design standards, e.g. on PDF-pp. 51-52 and 56-60; the report mentions that existing cost estimation methodologies by the Federal Transit Administration, or FTA, meet 7 of them; thus, it exhorts transit agencies to meet the other 5 standards.
The only problem is that there is no evidence supplied that those design standards are really useful. After all, the United States has very high costs, so why should anyone trust its standards? Even domestically, the report makes no effort to bring up successful examples of low overall costs coming from following prescribed standards. Seattle recently opened a light rail tunnel built for around $400 million per kilometer, a cost that would get most European project managers fired but that is still the lowest for an American urban rail tunnel built in this century. But the report never brings up Seattle at all, never mind that New York would salivate over the prospect of tunneling at Seattle’s cost.
The real internal comparisons then are not between different cities in the United States. Rather, they’re between different stages of cost estimation for the same project. There is published literature on cost overruns, most famously by Bent Flyvbjerg and his research group. The report cites Flyvbjerg. Moreover, one of the nine academic experts it consulted is Don Pickrell, who published a seminal paper on American cost overruns and ridership shortfalls in 1990. Pickrell was influential enough that a 2009 review found that not only had cost and ridership projections improved greatly in the intervening two decades, but also there was an improvement in ridership estimate quality attributable to Pickrell’s paper.
The GAO report is not the best source on cost overruns, but it is not completely useless there. Unfortunately, it remains useless when it comes to discussing absolute costs, a different topic from relative increases. Flyvbjerg’s original paper found that the US did not have higher cost overruns than Europe; but absolute costs in the US are several times as high. Flyvbjerg’s paper found that urban rail has higher cost overruns than road projects; but when a rail tunnel and a road tunnel are built in the same city, the road tunnel is more expensive by a factor of 1.5-2.5, at least in the four-city pilot I reported in 2017, owing to the need to build bigger bores with ventilation to carry heavy car traffic.
Lazy analysis, lazy synthesis
Americans who think of themselves as reformers like to point out real problems to solve, but then propose solutions that they made up without any connection with their analysis. The RPA study is one such example: even though one of its sources (namely, former Madrid Metro CEO Manuel Melis Maynar’s writeup about low Spanish costs) explicitly calls for separation of design and construction, its recommendations include a greater reliance on design-build. The same design-build recommendation appeared in a 2008 report in Toronto comparing the costs of the Sheppard subway, opened in 2002, with those of subways in Madrid; construction costs in Toronto have since tripled, while those of Madrid have barely risen.
To the GAO report’s credit, it does not recommend design-build. It even mentions the biggest drawback of design-build: it shifts cost risk to the private contractor, who compensates by demanding more public money up front. Nonetheless, it does not follow through and does not make the correct recommendation on this subject – namely, that cities and states should cease using this approach. It buries a recommendation for in-house expertise alongside a fad for peer review of projects.
Instead of lazily proposing design-build, the GAO lazily proposes two barely relevant tweaks (PDF-p. 43):
- The FTA administrator should ensure that FTA’s cost estimating information for project sponsors is consistent with all 12 steps found in GAO’s Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide and needed for developing reliable cost estimates.
- The FTA Administrator should provide a central, easily accessible source with all of FTA’s cost estimating information to help project sponsors improve the reliability of their cost estimates.
In other words, the report makes no recommendation about how to reduce costs, only about how to tell the public in advance that costs will be unaffordably high.
Why are these reports so bad?
This is not the first time a serious group releases an incurious study of American construction costs. What gives?
I suspect the answer has to be a combination of the following problems:
- Reform factions often have a lot of internal ideas about how to improve things based on what they already know. They will cite new information if they feel like they must do so to save face, but they will not let new evidence change their conclusions. A little knowledge can be dangerous.
- Finding information from outside the US, especially outside the English-speaking world, puts Americans (and Canadians) at a disadvantage. They know few to no foreigners, have little experience with cities abroad except as tourists, and do not speak foreign languages. Even when machine translation is decently accurate, which it is in the engineering literature in European languages, they are intimidated by the idea of dealing with non-English material. The process of learning is humbling, and some people prefer to remain proud and ignorant.
- Open-ended analysis does not always lend itself to easy explanations or easy solutions. Even when solutions do present themselves, they may not flatter the people in power. Ten years ago I did not think senior management at American transit organs should be fired; today I think mass layoffs of the top brass, especially the political appointees, are somewhere between very useful and essential.
All three problems interact. For example, senior management is even less likely to be multilingual than junior staffers, who may be second-generation immigrant heritage speakers of a foreign language; thus, anything relying on foreign material disempowers the high-ups in favor of up-and-comers. The quick-and-easy-and-wrong solutions reformists seize upon if they find a little bit of knowledge let outfits like the GAO feel more powerful without actually challenging any obstructive politician or interest group, and if those solutions fail, they can always keep churning reports about implementation.
Last year, I did not know whether the GAO was capable of providing a blueprint for improving American infrastructure at lower cost. I assumed good faith because I had no reason not to. With this report, it is clear to me as well as to other observers of American public transit that the GAO is not so capable. Instead of doing what was in the country’s best interest, the people who commissioned and wrote the report delivered the minimal product that would get them kudos from superiors who do not know any better. They could have learned, or made a serious effort to learn, but that might challenge their assumptions or those of the high political echelons, and thus they preferred to say nothing and propose to do nothing.