This is what I hope to be the first in a series of four posts about the poor state of political transit advocacy in the United States, to be followed by posts about free transit, operating aid, and an Urban Institute report by Yonah Freemark.
The Green Line Extension in Boston opened on Monday. Or, at least, the Union Square branch did; the main line to Tufts is expected to open in a few months. I rode it with Marco Chitti in the afternoon, a few hours after the formal opening ceremony. It was incomplete, with some access points not yet open, and the station fare barriers not yet functional (ticket receipts are checked by staff). There were many railfans on the platforms taking photos, and we accidentally let the first arriving train go because of a misunderstanding over whether it was in service; at least during the first day, it was not yet intended for a general audience.
Bostonians seem to view the extension as a great success. The media’s tone is celebratory. I no longer remember what local New York media said when Second Avenue Subway opened at the beginning of 2017, but I think it was more sober, more reflective of its high costs (I was getting a lot of followers on Twitter, but I tweeted that I was looking for work in the field around that day and got a lot of boosts over that). Within a year of SAS’s opening, Brian Rosenthal’s article appeared, detailing the mess that led to the line’s $1.7 billion/km cost. And as far as I can tell, there’s no comparable look at GLX in Boston.
This is not for lack of material. The Transit Costs Project began as a case study of how GLX got so expensive – it cost $2.2 billion not including rolling stock for a total length of 7.6 km. For a subway, it’s somewhat above global average. But it’s a light rail line with a short elevated segment and the rest in existing commuter rail trenched rights-of-way.
The line isn’t even especially good for the cost. It’s still incomplete. The fare payment is especially messy. The CharlieCard system used in Boston is a legacy mid-2000s system, which the MBTA wants to replace with something called AFC 2.0 (Charlie being AFC 1.0); it gave the contract to American transit agencies’ favorite military contractor, Cubic, which recently said it’s going to have a multi-year delay because it’s prioritizing New York’s Omny contract, and there’s nothing Massachusetts can do about it. When GLX value-engineered the stations, it was expected AFC 2.0 would be done by now, so there was no need for AFC 1.0-compatible fare barriers. It isn’t, so station staff stand in front of the platform directing passengers to tap their cards to get paper receipts. Going fareless at just this station for a short period is looked down on because it’s in a rich neighborhood and it may be discriminatory.
And as far as I can tell, nobody in Boston is asking “how can we make sure it will never happen again?”. The criticism I see in the media is about gentrification; Union Square has been gentrified for at least 10 years, but local politicians like Ayanna Pressley are using the line as an opportunity to make social criticism and impose even more political restrictions, so that future lines will be even kludgier and more expensive.
The MBTA is not always like this. Small projects do not have a large cost premium in Boston. Commuter rail infill stations, designed in-house, have a cost premium over Berlin in the 1.5x area. But the MBTA lacks in-house capacity to manage larger projects; GLX is beyond its capacity, so the original project was stuck and ballooned to $3 billion, and Governor Charlie Baker restarted it as a special-purpose vehicle, rather like Crossrail, with an externally-hired project manager in John Dalton. This mirrors the other transit megaproject in the region, South Coast Rail, currently clocking around $3.4 billion for 77 km of commuter rail in existing rights-of-way, a cost in line with German greenfield high-speed rail with considerable tunneling. No in-house hires were made, and now it seems that Dalton will be let go to take his experience elsewhere; the next MBTA megaproject will start from zero.
And as far as I can tell, nobody is pointing out this pattern. Baker and his political appointees are certain that their method works, because they are ignorant of global best practices. They are not exposed to ideas outside the US, except maybe in the most globalized parts of Britain and other high-cost English-speaking countries; a European who speaks to them like a typical European does – that is, without any pretension that Americans are better people – will just never get through.
In fact, they are failures. Not Dalton, who made the project better (but who is still unemployable anywhere with low costs; Milan Metro has its own in-house team, thank you very much). But Baker, who led the privatization of the state as budget director in the Weld era 30 years ago, must be viewed as the primary villain. His secretary of transportation for much of this period, Stephanie Pollack, must be viewed in a similar way: she does not believe it is possible to compare different projects, perhaps because the ones she is involved with are deficient. People should point at them and laugh on the street and perhaps yell at them for wasting government money with their failed ideology.
The second villain, after the state capacity destroyer that is Baker, consists of Governor Deval Patrick, who let the project balloon. He did not rebuild state capacity; he instead instructed the MBTA to accept the demands of every community that wanted something – in this case, Somerville and its demand for premium-cost bike paths (“Somerville Community Path”) and oversize stations. Pressley is an heir to this tradition; unless she changes her tune, it will be best for infrastructure if she is ignored, or better yet defeated for reelection.
Right now, I do not see any political group in the Boston area that is interested in making things better. High costs to them are just “it’s our turn to hog the trough.” This has implications for federal funding: the feds should choke funding to the region if it stays like this.