High Costs are not About Scarcity

I sometimes see a claim in comments here or on social media that the reason American costs are so high is that scarcity makes it hard to be efficient. This can be a statement about government practice: the US government supposedly doesn’t support transit enough. Sometimes it’s about priorities, as in the common refrain that the federal government should subsidize operations and not just capital construction. Sometimes it’s about ideology – the idea that there’s a right-wing attempt to defund transit so there’s siege mentality. I treat these three distinct claims as part of the same, because all of them really say the same thing: give American transit agencies more money without strings attached, and they’ll get better. All of these claims are incorrect, and in fact high costs cannot be solved by giving more money – more money to agencies that waste money now will be wasted in the future.

The easiest way to see that theories of political precarity or underresourcing are wrong is to try to see how agencies would react if they were beset mostly by scarcity as their defenders suggest. For example, the federal government subsidizes capital expansion and not operations, and political transit advocates in the United States have long called for operating funds. So, if transit agencies invested rationally based on this restrictions, what would they do? We can look at this, and see that this differs greatly from how they actually invest.

The political theory of right-wing underresourcing is similarly amenable to evaluation using the same method. Big cities are mostly reliant not on federal money but state and local money, so it’s useful to see how different cities react to different threat levels of budget cuts. It’s also useful to look historically at what happened in response to cuts, for example in the Reagan era, and spending increases, for example in the stimulus in the early Obama era and again now.

How to respond to scarcity

A public transit agency without regular funding would use the prospects of big projects to get other people’s money (OPM) to build longstanding priorities. This is not hypothetical: the OPM effect is real, and for example people have told Eric and me that Somerville used the original Green Line Extension to push for local amenities, including signature stations and a bike lane called the Community Path. In New York, the MTA has used projects that are sold to the public as accessibility benefits to remodel stations, putting what it cares about (cleaning up stations) on the budget of something it does not (accessibility).

The question is not whether this effect is real, but rather, whether agencies are behaving rationally, using OPM to build useful things that can be justified as related to the project that is being funded. And the answer to this question is negative.

For every big federally-funded project, one can look at plausible tie-ins that can be bundled into it that enhance service, which the Somerville Community Path would not. At least the ongoing examples we’ve been looking at are not so bundled. Consider the following misses:

Green Line Extension

GLX could include improvements to the Green Line, and to some extent does – it bundles a new railyard. However, there are plenty of operational benefits on the Green Line that are somewhere on the MBTA’s wishlist that are not part of the project. Most important is level boarding: all vehicles have a step up from the platform, because the doors open outward and would strike the platform if there were wheelchair-accessible boarding. The new vehicles are different and permit level boarding, but GLX is not bundling full level boarding at all preexisting stations.

East Side Access and Gateway

East Side Access and Gateway are two enormous commuter rail projects, and are the world’s two most expensive tunnels per kilometer. They are tellingly not bundled with any capital improvements that would boost reliability and throughput: completion of electrification on the LIRR and NJ Transit, high platforms on NJ Transit, grade separations of key junctions between suburban branches.

The issue of operating expenses

More broadly, American transit agencies do not try to optimize their rail capital spending around the fact that federal funding will subsidize capital expansion but not operations. Electrification is a good deal even for an agency that has to fund everything from one source, cutting lifecycle costs of rolling stock acquisition and maintenance in half; for an agency that gets its rolling stock and wire from OPM but has to fund maintenance by itself, it’s an amazing investment with no downside. And yet, American commuter rail agencies do not prioritize it. Nor do they prioritize high platforms – they invest in them but in bits and pieces. This is especially egregious at SEPTA, which is allowed by labor agreement to remove the conductors from its trains, but to do so needs to upgrade all platforms to level boarding, as the rolling stock has manually-operated trap doors at low-platform stations.

Agencies operating urban rail do not really invest based on operating cost minimization either. An agency that could get capital funding from OPM but not operating funding could transition to driverless trains; American agencies do not do so, even in states with weak unions and anti-union governments, like Georgia and Florida. New York specifically is beset by unusually high operating expenses, due to very high maintenance levels, two-person crews, and inefficient crew scheduling. If the MTA has ever tried to ask for capital funding to make crew scheduling more efficient, I have not seen it; the biggest change is operational, namely running more off-peak service to reduce shift splitting, but it’s conceivable that some railyards may need to be expanded to position crews better.

Finally, buses. American transit agencies mostly run buses – the vast majority of US public transport service is buses, even if ridership splits fairly evenly between buses and trains. The impact of federal aid for capital but not operations is noticeable in agency decisions to upgrade a bus route to rail perhaps prematurely in some medium-size cities. It’s also visible in bus replacement schedules: buses are replaced every 12 years because that’s what the Federal Transit Administration will fund, whereas in Canada, which has the same bus market and regulations but usually no federal funding for either capital or operations, buses are made to last slightly longer, around 15 years.

It’s hard to tell if American transit agencies are being perfectly rational with bus investment, because a large majority of bus operating expenses are the driver’s wage, which is generally near market rate. That said, the next largest category is maintenance, and there, it is possible to be efficient. Some agencies do it right, like the Chicago Transit Authority, which replaces 1/12 of its fleet every year to have long-term maintenance stability, with exactly 1/12 of the fleet up for mid-life refurbishment each year. Others do it wrong – the MTA buys buses in bunches, leading to higher operating expenses, even though it has a rolling capital plan and can self-fund this system in years when federal funds are not forthcoming.

Right-wing budget cuts

Roughly the entirety of the center-right policy sphere in the United States is hostile to public transportation. The most moderate and least partisan elements of it identify as libertarian, like Cato and Reason, but mainstream American libertarianism is funded by the Koch Brothers and tends toward climate change denial and opposition to public transportation even where its natural constituency of non-left-wing urbane voters is fairly liberal on this issue. The Manhattan Institute is the biggest exception that I’m aware of – it thinks the MTA needs to cut pension payments and weaken the unions but isn’t hostile to the existence of public transportation. In that environment, there is a siege mentality among transit agencies, which associate any criticism on efficiency grounds as part of a right-wing strategy to discredit the idea of government.

Or is there?

California does not have a Republican Party to speak of. The Democrats have legislative 2/3 majorities, and Senate elections, using a two-round system, have two Democrats facing each other in the runoff rather than a Democrat and a Republican. In San Francisco, conservatism is so fringe that the few conservatives who remain back the moderate faction of city politics, whose most notable members are gay rights activist and magnet for alt-right criticism Scott Wiener, (until his death) public housing tenant organizer Ed Lee, and (currently) Mayor London Breed, who is building homeless shelters in San Francisco over NIMBY objections. The biggest organized voices in the Bay Area criticizing the government on efficiency grounds and asserting that the private sector is better come from the tech industry, and usually the people from that industry who get involved with politics are pro-immigration climate change hawks. Nobody is besieging the government in the Bay Area. Nor is anybody besieging public transit in particular – it is popular enough to routinely win the required 2/3 majority for tax hikes in referendums.

In New York, this is almost as true. The Democrats have a legislative 2/3 majority as of the election that just concluded, there does not appear to be a serious Republican candidate for either mayor or governor right now, and the Manhattan Institute recognizes its position and, on local issues of governance, essentially plays the loyal opposition. The last Republican governor, George Pataki, backed East Side Access, trading it for Second Avenue Subway Phase 1, which State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver favored.

One might expect that the broad political consensus that more public transportation is good in New York and the Bay Area would enable long-term investment. But it hasn’t. The MTA has had five-year capital plans for decades, and has known it was going to expand with Second Avenue Subway since the 1990s. BART has regularly gotten money for expansion, and Caltrain has rebuilt nearly all of its platforms in the last generation without any attempt at level boarding.

How a competent agency responds to scarcity

American transit agencies’ extravagant capital spending is not in any way a rational response to any kind of precarity, economic or political. So what is? The answer is, the sum total of investment decisions made in most low-cost countries fits the bill well.

Swiss planning maxims come out of a political environment without a left-wing majority; plans for high-speed rail in the 1980s ran into opposition on cost grounds, and the Zurich U-Bahn plans had lost two separate referendums. The kind of planning Switzerland has engaged in in the last 30 years to become Europe’s strongest rail network came precisely because it had to be efficient to retain public trust to get funds. The Canton of Zurich has to that end had to come up with a formula to divide subsidies between different municipalities with different ideas of how much public services they want, and S-Bahn investment has always been about providing the best passenger experience at the lowest cost.

Elsewhere in Europe, one sees the same emphasis on efficiency in the Nordic countries. Scandinavia as a whole has a reputation for left-wing politics, because of its midcentury social democratic dominance and strong welfare states. But as a region it also practices hardline monetary austerity, to the point that even left-led governments in Sweden and Finland wanted to slow down EU stimulus plans during the early stages of the corona crisis. There is a great deal of public trust in the state there, but it is downstream of efficiency and not upstream of it – high-cost lines get savaged in the press, which engages in pan-Nordic comparisons to assure that people get value for money.

Nor is there unanimous consensus in favor of public transportation anywhere in Europe that I know of, save Paris and London. Center-right parties support cars and oppose rail in Germany and around it. Much of the Swedish right loathes Greta Thunberg, and the center-right diverted all proceeds from Stockholm’s congestion charge to highway construction. The British right has used the expression “war on the motorist” even more than the American right has the expression “war on cars.” The Swiss People’s Party is in government as part of the grand coalition, has been the largest party for more than 20 years, and consistently opposes rail and supports roads, which is why the Lötschberg Base Tunnel’s second track is only 1/3 complete.

Most European transit agencies have responded effectively to political precarity and budget crunches. They invest to minimize future operating expenses, and make long-term plans as far as political winds permit them to. American transit agencies don’t do any of this. They’re allergic to mainline rail electrification, sluggish about high platforms, indifferent to labor-saving signaling projects, hostile to accessibility upgrades unless sued, and uncreative about long-term operating expenses. They’re not precarious – they’re just incompetent.

76 comments

  1. Max Wyss

    In the ZVV area (aka Canton of Zürich), they have a relatively simple way to calculate the contribution of a municipality: They take the Departure sheets for each and every transit stop within the perimeter of the municipality. Then they count the number of departure times, and multiply it with a specific factor. That factor depends on the kind of service; bus has one factor, S-Bahn another, Lake boat a third one…

    This approach allows the municipalities to determine how much an additional bus stop on that one particular line will cost. With all those years of ZVV, it has been well established.

  2. Tunnelvision

    One thing about MTA is that any project that spans more than one Capital Plan period is always at the mercy of the politicians in Albany. Especially when the project has multiple contracts that are to be awarded against different plans. One big dealt on ESA was caused by this, Capital Plan took 2 years to approve and then only provided 75% of requested funds meaning that an ongoing procurement had to be stopped and smaller chunks of work parceled out to be bid. Not very efficient. Oh and the original CM009 project bid price for the rock tunneling was actually quite competitive at $325m. What has made ESA so expensive has been the cost of time as it’s been 20 years since it started!!!! It would also be insightful to look at the costs of the delays caused by railroad resource issues out in Harold where a cancelled outage can cause 3 months delay without even thinking about it due to scheduling constraints in a 800 train per day interlocking. Something that rarely gets looked at but has been a prime driver in the delays and costs.

    • adirondacker12800

      The politicians in Albany don’t come from Wyoming. The majority of them come from the MTA service area.

      • RossB

        Are you saying support for the MTA from Albany has been strong and consistent over the years? That is not my understanding.

        • adirondacker12800

          I didn’t say anything about whether or not the state does anything. The legislators in Albany don’t come from Wyoming. They come from New York. And get elected by the same pool of voters who complain how terrible they are.

          • Herbert

            People in the U.S. Only ever vote for a maximum of one representative at a time. So if you’re happy with “your” representative but unhappy with the lot of the others, there’s nothing you can do

  3. Henry

    MTA kind of did bundle a bunch of things with the ESA project that they may have wanted to do all along, including redoing Jamaica and the severing of Atlantic Terminal’s branch, and they almost tied in the first iteration of the Third Track as well. Doesn’t ARC/Gateway also have the Secaucus Loop thrown in there?

    But yes, the agencies are generally incompetent. The LIRR’s complete ignorance on how to electrify is very strange, given that they were pretty gung-ho about in the ’80s, to the point where there are no low-level platforms anywhere in LIRR territory anymore except the rarely used Belmont Park, and Port Jefferson has 12-car long high-level platforms with room for a double track throughout the entire line.

  4. Gok (@Gok)

    I don’t get the claim that there’s no long term investment in California transit. If anything there’s much too long term investment. LA Metro has projects planned out to the 2060s. Caltrain has spent decades electrifying and re-signaling with a grand visions of running 6 minute headways on a corridor that runs mostly empty trains between car-oriented suburbs. BART spent a decade building a 16-km extension to a flea market, and now is building a subway through a city’s “central business district” that has no jobs to speak of. I won’t even get into Muni’s plans.

    But more generally, it’s important to recognize that operational costs are not seen as something to minimize, so of course cost-saving projects are not pursued. An agency executive position is considered more prestigious if their budget is larger, not if they run more trains/buses. At finding ways to spend money, they are extremely competent, perhaps world class even.

    • Eric2

      “An agency executive position is considered more prestigious if their budget is larger, not if they run more trains/buses.”

      Someone should put up a ranking of transit executives by number of passengers their transit system carries.

    • Nilo

      In what world are Caltrain’s trains mostly empty? Caltrain’s capacity problems at peak were terrible pre-pandemic. Or is this some weird claim that Caltrain should 1. know that there was going to be a pandemic and 2. Have planned as though travel changes brought on by that pandemic were permanent?

      • Richard Mlynarik

        “At capacity” Caltrain carried fewer daily riders than any run-of-the-mill urban bus line, while literally pissing away billions of dollars.

        “Capacity problems at peak” weren’t “terrrible” and were 100% self-inflicted — shit quipment, shit scheduling, shit maintenance, shit operating costs, shit equipment utilization, shit staffing levels, shit everything.

        Clearly the solution is more money. Because you don’t want to to be in league with Donald Trump and the Koch Brothers, do you?

        FIxer upper railroad! At capacity! Future Service Vision! Community Stakeholder Involvement! Buy American!

        • Nilo

          Caltrain was carrying 60k passengers a day pre-pandemic, which was busier than any urban bus line in the United States outside of New York or Gaery in SF I think. And I agree they had bad equipment and bad scheduling, but you have to get rid of diesel trains to not have shit equipment, and not having shit equipment helps with bad utilization and bad scheduling.

  5. William Ehlhardt

    It seems like this post’s explanation simply raises another question: Why are US transit authorities (apparently) generally incompetent, but European ones are not?

    • Oreg

      It’s not even only transit but many U.S. authorities are incompetent by Western standards: police, mail, IRS, infrastructure, you name it. There is a lack of the public-servant work ethic you find elsewhere, and then there is the bad reputation that government has in the U.S. Hard to say at this point which came first.

      • Reedman Bassoon

        In the US, government workers are the country’s largest unionized workforce. And, US government projects (and many state and local projects) are required to use unionized workers. For example: in Concord, California (outside of Oakland), the largest housing project in Northern California history (13000 homes, 2700 acres of parks, 6 million square feet of commercial space) can’t get going because it is federal government land that was given to the city, and the city is requiring 100% union labor. The SF Chronicle “… last-minute negotiations between the developer and labor unions scuttled the whole thing.” A reminder that Northern California has very high housing prices because of the huge imbalance between job growth and housing construction.

      • Herbert

        Racism plays no small part. That and the ideology that wants to keep the state poor and incompetent

        • RossB

          Bingo.

          For a very long time, care at the Veterans Administration was considered top notch. If memory serves, a study found that nurse practitioners at the V. A. had the most cost effective outcomes in the world. Not the U. S. — but the world.

          Then, of course, we engaged in not one, but two major wars. So did the Republicans that started those wars beef up the V. A., and hire a bunch more doctors (especially with experience dealing with mental health). No, of course not. This is the party of Grover Norquist. They let the V. A. get overrun with cases, and then blamed them for the problems. They started outsourcing care to private agencies, while labeling the V. A. as incompetent. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, and budgets are cut, and progress stalls. The V. A. uses to have the best electronic medical record system in the world. My guess is someone has passed it. If you are the top in your class as a nurse, do you take that job at the V. A., or some hospital downtown?

          I’m not saying the V. A. is terrible, but it isn’t as good as it should be. The fact that a shining star in government can be hurt by demagogues who hate government means that it is very difficult for other agencies to make progress.

  6. Alex Cat3

    I agree that most of the problems of transit agencies in liberal states come from the general incompetence of the politicians in those states and the people they appoint to lead them. The national republicans contribute to the problem by being convenient scapegoats. Because they have adopted a uniformly anti-transit stance, and have shown a willingness to sabotage anything, including the democratic process, to stay in power, the democratic politicians and transit agencies can simply blame them when things go wrong, and people will easily believe it. In a hyper-partisan environment, people will tend to be defensive, and rally around their side, even when the politicians on their side are acting like idiots. The result is a system where instead of figuring out how to get things done, each party learns how to blame the other side for whatever the problems of the day are. Liberal activists do develop a siege mentality, having to deal with constant bad-faith attacks on many institutions, so that they begin to see a criticism of any part of the government they consider important as a political move against themselves. If the republicans were more reasonable, doing real analysis to show why transit projects are overpriced instead of saying dogmatically that all transit is bad, they would be able to win more democrats over to their side.

    • rational plan

      Transit Agencies are source of political patronage in the US, whether in construction contracts or operations. The number of people they employ seems more important than the number of passengers carried or at the lowest rider cost.
      In the liberal states there is no incentive to challenge out of date working practices, or technology. It’s more important to have a line on a map showing service than on whether it provides a quality service. terrible operating costs mean low frequency , which ensure low ridership etc etc.

        • Eric2

          I’m guessing because they have few black people, which means less fear that transit will bring crime based on racial stereotypes, which means it is easier to get white people to ride transit and conservatives to support transit.

          • Herbert

            Mormons may align with the Republican party, but they do have a few issues where they do not…

          • AJ

            Mormons are generally fiscally & socially conservative but are not antigovernmental, so Utah is closer to a center-right European party than the national GOP. The Mormon Church has a strong tradition of collectivists efforts, in contrast to the rest of the US West which has a (mostly imagined) individualist ethos.

          • adirondacker12800

            In 2020 Donald Trump got a bit more that 58 percent of the vote in Utah. The House delegation is all Republican. Whatever issues they may disagree with the national party on, they don’t care.

          • Herbert

            In 2016 the “Republican but not Trump” candidate (Evan Mullins? idk) got a relevant polling result in exactly one state: Utah

          • adirondacker12800

            That doesn’t change, that after four years of Donald Trump, a bit more than 58 percent of Utahans voted for Donald Trump anyway. I understand it’s difficult to admit that people are execrable, that perhaps there might be some shred of rational thought behind their actions. There isn’t.

          • RossB

            But it is also quite possible that a typical Utah voter supported Trump mainly because he had Pence on the ticket. These so called “value voters” in Utah may be aligned with the Republican Party on issues like religion, abortion and same-sex marriage, while being more centrist when it comes to government spending.

          • adirondacker12800

            So the stalwart righteous yeomanry of Utah cares more about money than anything else?

          • RossB

            Money and religion (welcome to Utah). Basically center-right on fiscal issues, farther right on religious issues.

          • adirondacker12800

            So I am right, the stalwart righteous yeomanry of Utah cares more about money than anything else. Though it may be that the only thing they care about is money.

          • RossB

            Again, money *and* religion — not just money. If Trump was pro-choice, and strong on sexual minority issues, he would be toast in Utah. Again, Pence had a big role to play in that regard.

          • adirondacker12800

            I agree Mike Pence gave them a model for how they could stand idly by and let Donald Trump do anything he wanted anyway he wanted.

    • RossB

      I agree Alex — well put. The lack of a center right makes the projects of the center left (or left) worse. There is no check. No organized force is saying “I like your goal, but that piece right there looks very expensive for what it will deliver. Maybe we should try this instead”. Or even “Rather than expand our system, let’s do some maintenance right now — this will benefit us in the long run”. It becomes a primitive debate: Transit Good versus Transit Bad.

  7. seangillis78

    Curious what folks thoughts are on how long gaps between major capitol projects may affect governments and agencies ability to quickly and cost-effectively deliver projects. The thought being, the best in class European cities are often working on several expansion projects at once. Many of the East Asian systems have built out dramatically of late, especially in China. When there is a continuity in projects, there is much more expertise internally and comfort with the process. Essentially you get better results through practice. Not the same in North America, goes the argument, where many cities have gone through long dry spells with limited to no system expansion. Don’t know if this plays a factor – thoughts?

    • Onux

      You could say that BART has been expanding continuously for the past 25 years, with extensions to Pittsburg and Pleasanton in the late 90’s, to SFO/Millbrae in the early 2000’s, and to Berryessa (first phase of the line to San Jose) in the 2010s. Plus the spur to Oakland Airport and the DMW eBART to Antioch. During this time the Bay Area has also seen SF Muni build the T-Third line and the Central Subway tunnel, VTA build about half of its route length of light rail, SMART create a DMU system in Marin/Sonoma, the start of the Capitol Corridor and Altamont Commuter Express regional/commuter rail systems, and Caltrain build numerous less visible infrastructure projects like grade separations. On the non-transit front, new tunnels were bored for Hwy 24 and Hwy 1, as well as a water tunnel under the Bay for the Hetch Hetchy system.

      Has the result been improved Bay Area construction after the two decade drought that followed the initial completion of BART, including for tunneled projects? Absolutely not. The latest BART project, the Berryessa/SJ extension, is farther behind and further over budget than anything before. Stations at Irvington and Calavasas are now “future infill” stations because there was no money for them. Berryessa opened in 2020 instead of 2016. The Central Subway is (probably) the third most expensive transit tunnel on earth after SAS and ESA (and has also been delayed from 2018 to 2022). As Alon noted, Caltrain has rebuilt station platforms keeping them low level, even though new rolling stock on its way could support level boarding. It also rebuilt the San Bruno curve to low speed (75mph) which means HSR if it ever reaches SF will need to rebuild it again or build an expensive tunnel just for HSR. The projected costs for a rail tunnel to Transbay in downtown SF or a new BART tunnel across the Bay are astronomical, not lower based on experience tunneling from Colma to SFO or under Lake Elizabeth or under downtown SF for the Central Subway or through the Oakland Hills for the Caldecott 4th bore.

      • seangillis78

        What was the reason for rebuilding station platforms? Maintenance/ state of good repair, longer platforms for larger trains. How much service can still operate through a station during a rebuild, or is the station closed fully or on a rotating basis (e.g. no Sunday service for nine months)? Same for the line running through the station with a platform under construction – what does this do to that service?

        I know very little about rail operations, especially commuter type rail.

    • Richard Mlynarik

      Re “governments and agencies ability to quickly and cost-effectively deliver projects.”

      Stop thinking about US “public” works agencies as being about delivery of public services.

      They’re not.

      For capital “investment”, they’re simply discardable host bodies for the engineering and construction consultancy parasites.
      For operating costs, they’re zombie host bodies for the various unions promoting the very few in their guild while further impoverishing the already-poor riders who silently suffer shit service while they attempt to travel to and from their union-busted at-will jobs. Keep the zombies alive enough to continue providing valuable nutrients!

      High-dollar US public transportation projects aren’t the answers to any question aside from “where’s the money?”

      It is in nobody’s interest the deliver anything either “quickly” or “cost-effectively”. Nor to deliver anything useful at all, at ay cost, on any schedule.

      I don’t see any way to fix this. The black hole of despair just deepens.

    • AJ

      Only if the expertise to manage/deliver major projects is developed in house. If the public agencies just establish alignments and write checks, there’s little build up in skill.

  8. Herbert

    Nuremberg subway built the U3 as a branch (which required automation of it and U2) which was at the time the maximum U-Bahn expansion possible without shutting down even more trams. It still required the shutdown of one of only two east west connections in the tram network in Pirckheimer Straße because otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten federal funds. And they at least kept the tracks to maybe reopen that bit in the 2030s…

  9. smooth indian

    I think there is a mix of incompetence and arrogance. You have already stated examples such as resistance to mainline electrification and level boarding platforms. This stems partly from the notion of ‘exceptionalism’ i.e. ‘We don’t do that because this is America’. Another example of incompetence or plain shortsightedness is the fact that American cities generally have poor suburban/commuter railway systems. It should be cheaper to establish or expand a commuter rail system since the track and land are already available. Since metro areas in the US aren’t that densely populated, a integrated commuter rail system should be the first choice as it can provide convenient connection between, downtown, uptown, suburban and exurban areas for a lower investment than dedicated mass transit. Yet large cities like Atlanta don’t have any commuter rail or like Dallas or Seattle where it is skeletal or like Chicago where it is archaic and insufficient or like the Bay Area where ( despite a huge population and sprawl of suburbs and towns) there are 3 different systems two of which provide very skeletal service.

    • Eric2

      A problem is that many of those commuter rail tracks are also used for freight. Even in ideal circumstances, this would limit the quality of the rail service unless you kick out the freight. In practice, it’s much worse than that because of legal issues (the tracks are generally owned by freight railways) as well as what appears to be stunning levels of incompetence at commuter rail agencies (far outpacing urban transit).

      A further problem in places like Dallas and Atlanta is that the suburbs are very low density, with low employment concentration downtown, which limits the potential ridership of such lines. And because the lines were originally designed for freight, they are often surrounded by industrial land with zero potential ridership. And NIMBYs prevent densification in general, but particularly when it comes to transit, which they suppose will bring criminals “from the city” to terrorize their neighborhoods.

      • Eric2

        Ever since January 5, a lot of people have been fantasizing about what laws Democrats should pass in this rare moment when they control (barely) Congress and the presidency. My personal fantasy is to use eminent domain to appropriate the freight railways segments that have transit potential in major urban areas (with some kind of provision for the current owners to be able to run freight on them still, maybe at night).

    • RossB

      For what it is worth the skeletal commuter rail system in Seattle is partly due to the fact that the rail lines are owned by BNSF. This means that adding more service would cost a lot more (it is more than just running the trains more often). It also passes through largely empty, industrial land before reaching the city, leaving a very large gap between stations. That could be altered, but it would cost about as much running a brand new line, and you would still have the cost of running the trains on the BNSF part of the route.

      • AJ

        Adding service or infill stations to Sounder costs a fraction of a comparable new line. It only because comparable if you try to run all day with high frequency, at which point you basically just buy the line from BNSF because they can no longer run freight on the same tracks. Where US agencies own their commuter rail trackage (Caltrain, some Metra lines), there are plans to upgrade operations to be more like a subway.

        • Bobson Dugnutt

          @AJ, in Seattle there’s probably no impetus to expand service on the two Sounder lines. Sound Transit operates the Sounder, but Sound Transit also manages the 500-series freeway express buses and is building out the Link light rail north and south.

          The BNSF right of way is pretty busy. You could see Boeing plane bodies on the sidings, as well as containers to and from port.

          Sounder runs just during the peak hours, but there are the express buses between Seattle and Tacoma and Seattle and Everett that run 7 days a week and up to midnight. They’re not much slower than the train when the freeways are clear.

  10. AJ

    Here is the US, fully agree that ‘unlimited’ Federal money is immensely toxic to government spending at all levels and of all types because Federal money is usually treated as OPM. I’d imagine EU’s funds are treated similarly?

    Not sure if you engage much with the Strong Towns movement, but they really like to beat this drum, most recently calling shenanigans on NY MTA’s demand for a bailout.
    https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2020/10/16/mta-cuts
    https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2020/11/30/just-print-the-money

    • Alon Levy

      EU funds aren’t like this at all. There are EIB loans, but they have to be repaid, and the projects I know of that get EIB funding, e.g. in Turkey, seem well-managed. There are some EU funds for international infrastructure, but not a lot, and judging by the Stuttgart 21 debacle, they’re just an excuse for things that national and local governments wanted anyway; there is sadly no pan-EU effort to build a continental-scale HSR system, with fast trains through Belgium, between Saarbrücken and Frankfurt, etc.

      • AJ

        I was more thinking about the COVID funds and whether the EU providing more ‘free money” to member nations would lead to less disciplined spending. I guess time will tell.

      • Herbert

        The EU does have an official crayoning department… It comes up with the TEN corridors.

        One of the justifications for Stuttgart 21 is/was that it’s on the Paris Budapest “magistrale for Europe”

  11. ericson2314

    Alon I’m curious how this comports with what you write in https://pedestrianobservations.com/2020/08/29/recession-and-efficiency/, and basically, how we get out of this mess.

    I don’t deny the public transportation in the US is grossly mismanaged, but given that we have a bad transpiration civil service that doesn’t do comprehensive in-house planning and, at least in NY history of politicians that aren’t even expressly anti-transit still treating the MTA is more patronage and vanity project vehicle, how would that be turned around?

    I would think that in some sense scarcity still hurts, and abundance still helps. E.g. rather than having big capital projects their is a steady steam of capital investment both because that better fits things like improvements to existing lines, and the civil service basically “levels up” in managing those until the gain the competence needed for fancier stuff.

    Now perhaps that requires less money, but it does require some ability to streamline the project management overhead enough so all those little things can happen. I’d guess that in the US the red tape is in some sense insufficiently in proportion to the size of the project, and that perversely incentivizes larger and fewer boondoggles. Again this doesn’t require more money, but still requires in some sense a trust between the balkanized institutions that doesn’t yet exist. And again as far as bureaucraticy goes, money and trust are rather similar constraining resources.

    • Eric2

      I think the key is to get foreign experts like Andy Byford into US management positions, and give them power to hire as necessary and shape the agency to have the necessary institutional knowledge and capabilities.

      • ericson2314

        Yeah I suppose that’s the easiest first step. I didn’t even violate the “Buy American” orders.

      • Eric2

        That means being ruled by people who succeed at violence, rather than people who succeed at politics. So unlikely to be an improvement, all things being equal.

  12. RossB

    “They’re not precarious – they’re just incompetent.”

    Hard to argue against that. If there is to be a “Green New Deal” (however watered down) then this is a huge problem. We are giving incompetent agencies lots of money, and they will likely waste much of it. Personally, I would take the following approach:

    1) Fund more service (service before capital, if you will). Some have argued* that the best way to reduce emissions is by simply running more buses. This is politically smart, as well. Large, expensive transit projects really only make sense in cities (and for the most part states) that are already Democratic. But run the buses more often in Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Toledo and the Democrats might take Ohio next time. It also gets people to work right away, with the money largely going to middle class workers (bus drivers) instead of high priced consultants, or engineering firms. Unlike large scale project, it becomes tough to criticize.

    At the same time, it is obviously important that the rail systems — neglected for years — get improved as well, so that the trains can run more often (or more consistently). Which is why I would suggest:

    2) Greater federal role in transit projects. Again, there should be an emphasis on service, rather than shiny new projects, as you suggest (rail electrification, high platforms, labor-saving signaling projects, accessibility upgrades and reducing long term expenses). If the locals won’t do it, then the federal government should. This is a reversal of the “New Federalism” approach, and now is the time for it. Of course we run the risk of incompetence at the federal level, but I think there is a better chance that they can set clear goals at the national level, and achieve them (e. g. rail electrification).

    3) Take a more hands-on approach to local projects. I think you can make a pretty good case that the federal-local system just isn’t working in the United States. Since the FTA was created (and started doling out money to local agencies) the best, most cost effective mass transit system was the one that was controlled by the federal government the most: The D. C. Metro. There have been dozens of local projects that are embarrassingly bad, and the federal approach has largely been “well, as long as you want to pay for most of it, we’ll chip in”. Again, I’m not saying that incompetence is limited to the local level, but it is clear to me that the locals in my city (Seattle) — haven’t got a clue. The ones who actually make the important decisions are incompetent. Federal intervention may be our only hope.

    * I’m sorry I don’t have a reference. In an audio program Jarrett Walker made this statement, but he didn’t cite the author.

    • Eric2

      One (small?) part of the picture is that federal funding means you can propose a bad project and say “Support this – or the federal money will go to a different region and we’ll get nothing at all”. This undercuts a lot of the opposition which would otherwise have said “This is a bad project, let’s work on formulating a better version of it”

      • Sascha Claus

        For such cases it might be useful to apportion the money by area (officially or unofficially)—you already had a grant, now the next state must get something, otherwise they will be strongly miffed. And if your state gets the next grant, it goes to the other metro area, otherwise they will be miffed. And if you don’t have something useful, you pass on this opportunity and hope for some money in the next round, because it wasn’t your turn for such a long time.
        One would hope that this would encourage to not treat the money as Other Peoples Money that can safely be wasted.

        • Henry Miller

          Great idea. How do you evaluate the proposals so that only the good ones are funded. Vs this is our turn and this is our idea, so it gets funded even though it wouldn’t be hard to come up with something better?

          The devil is in the details. I like the idea, but I need to see more detail before I will entertain the idea that it might actually work.

    • AJ

      #2 could be done with existing funding frameworks. Like FTA grants only for SOGR, or Amtrak grants that prioritize eliminating slow running segments on the Acela corridor rather than creating new fast segments. Congressional funding is already very specific, so this is just a matter of doing things differently, not doing new things.

      But I see no reason why the Federal government would be any more or less competent at spending OPM.

      • RossB

        The reason they would be more competent is because it would be their focus. I’m pretty sure the head of a national organization focused on public transit would know a thing or two about transit. Seattle proposed one of the biggest transit projects in the nation, and not a single member knew anything about transit*. This happens. A national organization would have a chance of doing things right because they wouldn’t be wowed by technology (“Hey Everyone — we are going to get a light rail line, just like a big city — let’s pretend its a freeway”) and be more focused on what works.

        * OK, not every member. But only one member has any transportation experience, and since the meetings were held in Seattle, and his job was in Olympia, my guess is he didn’t attend very often, and had little influence in decision making. He was largely there as a liaison with the state, to make sure (state) highway projects were coordinated with (local) mass transit projects.

  13. Bobson Dugnutt

    @RossB, be careful what you wish for in a greater federal role for transit service.

    I warn you that once the federal government is on the hook for operating funds, the federal government becomes the bargaining agent of management. Every transit system will get a San Francisco Muni or big East Coast system’s contract. If you’re reliant on a smaller or suburban transit system, they’ll go broke just trying to meet payroll.

    The philosophies of management will change depending on whether the Democrats or Republicans are in charge. Democrats will offer more labor-friendly policies. I am a strong supporter of unions, but this could also mean that expensive or outmoded work rules become calcified and can’t be rid of without a nasty fight. I don’t want that to happen, though my experiences would be different if I was drawing my salary from transit.

    The modal GOP position is hostile to government services. Antigovernment ideology had been an animating force since Reagan, but Trump ripped the mask off to revealed that hostility toward government was rooted in hate. GOP voters perceive interconnection among government, otherness and dependence.

    So the “moderate” position is something akin to Thatcherization. In the US, this takes the form of outsourcing frontline work. The largest scale privately operated systems are in Las Vegas (SNCF-owned Keolis and MV) Los Angeles County’s Foothill Transit (Transdev and Keolis), San Diego (MV in North County and Transdev for most bus services elsewhere), Maricopa County’s Valley Metro (each city must tender service to a private contractor), Long island (Transdev) and Connecticut (First Transit). They tend to offer low pay, and there’s the matter of what happens when contractors change (do workers have to reapply for their jobs and at what wage do they get rehired?).

    There’s really not a good solution or a desirable middle to this problem. High wages and oppressive work rules, or low wages and profit extraction. Think about the latter for a second. Only one of those major transit contractors, MV, is based in the US. First Transit and its school bus counterpart First Student, not to mention Greyhound, are UK-based. Transdev (formerly Veolia) and Keolis are in France. The profit these companies make are from winning contracts. The US has many in-house public employees, so the profit is the wage gap between public and outsourced employees.

    • RossB

      Yes, there is a lot that can go wrong. I just think that the only way it can go right is with a more national role in planning.

      Consider how it works now. Local agencies don’t know what they are doing. They often ask the wrong questions (how much would it cost to run rail here?) instead of the right ones (what is the most cost effective public transportation improvement we can make?). They then work with contractors to do the planning. Costs balloon (in much the same way the same way Healthcare.gov was a fiasco). Eventually they plan something. Then they start building, and it costs too much. Changes are made, and eventually they build something that is way too expensive at best, and largely useless at worse.

      I’m suggesting that there be a central planning agency. They may have local affiliates, but this is where the expertise is — in the federal government. They do all the planning work. They consult with the locals, of course, but they are the ones making sure that it actually makes sense. They are the decision makers, while the local officials — most of whom know very little about transit — can only offer up suggestions.

      Construction takes place according to local standards, with both the local and federal government paying for it, as is the case today. Except with such a large federal role, the locals would have a good idea what it will cost them before they paid much money at all. Otherwise the construction itself would be similar to today. There is very little evidence that the problems in the U. S. are due to construction workers. This is the part that is largely OK. It is the planning that is messed up.

      Of course this could break. A Republican administration will just kill everything. But if the planning is done, the local agency can just build it. If it isn’t done, then it is simply another planning delay. This is not that different than today. I’m sure there are lots of agencies who are about to propose a bunch of stuff, hoping that a Democratic administration will approve.

      This would not be that different than the way the federal government does a lot of things. If I’m not mistaken, this is more or less how the V. A. works. It looks at an area, and decided whether to open up a clinic, or a big hospital. It then searches for the right property, or rents it out. More than anything, this would be treating public transit as a national asset, instead of just a local one.

      • adirondacker12800

        in much the same way the same way Healthcare.gov was a fiasco

        The design specs were that most states would build their own system. That few would be stupid enough to refuse the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans then screamed about socialism and death panels. And did the stupid thing.

        • RossB

          I’m not talking about the government program, I’m talking about the website itself. It was originally estimated to cost $93.7 million. Current estimates are that it cost $2.1 billion. This wasn’t the first time the Canadian company that developed it (CGI) was involved in a project like that. While devising the Canadian Firearms Registry, estimated costs of $2 million ballooned to about $2 billion. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HealthCare.gov

          Outsourcing doesn’t work. We would have been much better off just hiring a bunch of developers who would open source the whole thing (and thus get people to contribute for free). For the same reason, mass transit planning should be done by a fully qualified federal agency, that does similar work around the country. Think of it this way: If you are a local transit planning company, do you attend an international conference? Of course not. You are only concerned about what your (local and national) competitors are doing. But a federal agency — like the one I described — would definitely look to other countries. In fact they might just decided to hold one of the conferenced in their headquarters (D. C. is nice in the spring, and home to one of our better subway systems).

          You also don’t get roped into stupid projects. Of course you have cities begging for new projects, but they wouldn’t build crap, just because you think it is the answer. If you want to build crap, you build it yourself (no help from the feds).

          But first they would focus on universally important projects. Run the buses more often. Get the existing subways to run more often, and more consistently. Electrify the railroads. Then develop new lines.

  14. adirondacker12800

    The website itself was designed for many fewer people than tried to use it. No amount of programming is going to fix that.

    • Henry

      You can definitely design version 1 to not blow up to 100x or 1000x costs on the off chance you do need to scale though. And it would also call into question the project planning to get the users off by such an order of magnitude.

  15. Matthew

    East/West rail in the UK just announced recently that they are not electrifying the new build sections.

    They can be as dumb as Americans too.

  16. Phake Nick

    >Others do it wrong – the MTA buys buses in bunches, leading to higher operating expenses, even though it has a rolling capital plan and can self-fund this system in years when federal funds are not forthcoming.

    On the other hand, buying buses in bunches could get bigger discount from suppliers?

    • Henry Miller

      That depends on the supplier. Many will give those discounts. However the smarter ones have figured out it is better to spread the orders out. If you get a large order you have to pay overtime and bring in extra people to fill that order, then when it is done you lay the extras off and send your other people on half time. If you get the orders spread out you can more consistently work your people their 40 hours a week, no high cost overtime, no bring in extra people to train up and let go.

      Bus manufactures should give the biggest discounts to buses ordered a year in advance (time frame is somewhat random, could be as short as 3 months: work with your supply management to figure out what is right). That gives plenty of time to inform their suppliers of what their needs are so they can apply the same discounts. It also means that things arrive as needed – by only having as much iron on hand as you need for the week you don’t have to worry about it rusting in storage, and other advantages of just in time manufacturing (and of course the disadvantages that you need to manage).

      Public transit buys enough buses that they should be planning like this. The largest cities are buying hundreds every year – this is more than enough to sign a long term contract that is a win-win for everyone. (lower prices for the city, predictable demand for the factory – and ultimately better operations mean the factory makes more profit on the lower prices)

      • Phake Nick

        Even if a bus operator buy new buses averagely each year, that doesn’t mean the operator need to buy from the same company everytime.

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