New York’s MTA Hates Transparency

The New York Post just published its piece, by Nolan Hicks, doing some construction cost comparisons. Nolan spoke to me multiple times on the subject of finding proper comparisons to New York’s subway station construction; he settled on the single most difficult Roman station, at the Colosseum, as well as a more prosaic station at Grand Paris Express and one on the Battersea extension in London. The goal was to look at the issue of New York’s overbuilt stations, with their full-length mezzanines and excessive back office space; New York’s stations turn out to be three to four times too expensive in his analysis.

So far, so good. But then there’s the official response to the story, which tells me that MTA head Janno Lieber is bad at his job – presuming that he views his job as about delivering good service, rather than stonewalling and kissing ass.

The Post quotes Lieber as saying, “you have to be careful with that subculture” and “those people get a lot of their cost information from the internet.” This is not too different from what he said when asked about our report by Jose Martinez: he got aggressive, said that we “group sourced” our data, and disclaimed responsibility for things that happened long ago, in the 2000s (Lieber at the time worked on the new World Trade Center).

People on Twitter are roasting Lieber about the phrases “that subculture” and “those people,” but I mind those appellations a lot less than what they are about. Lieber is in effect complaining that we use public sources for costs, which we access via the Internet, the same way we talk to other people in 2023. Using the Internet, for example, I can poke around for Swedish construction contracts, which are transparent with published lists of bidders and the winning bid, or I can look for historic German construction costs as reported in official channels and reputable media, and Marco can look for the same in Italy including publicly itemized costs, and Elif can look for the same in Turkey. What Lieber means when he says “information from the Internet” is really “articles in trade media and newspapers of record and detailed government reports, calibrated with some in-depth case studies to ensure we didn’t miss anything important.”

It jars him, perhaps because he’s used to secrecy. The idea that a report about the cost overruns of Grand Paris Express would just be out there, while the project was still going on, available to the public to review, may confuse Americans who are used to their country’s much lower level of transparency. In the US, everything requires affirmatively filing a freedom of information request that agencies can and often will deny on flimsy grounds. In Sweden, everything is online and I’ve been able to learn exactly how things work there from talking to not many people thanks to the wealth of public information about procurement strategy and individual contracts. The same is true of the issue of back office space and overbuilt station boxes – the MTA has not released blueprints, whereas in Sweden they’re available to the public in 3D.

Perhaps this is why Lieber talks to reporters with aggression and derision that fit would-be autocrats trying to put democratic media in its place. The idea that people would put all this information out there, voluntarily, seems weird to both, in the same way that a politician in an autocracy might find it jarring that politicians in democracies are subject to free media scrutiny.

This culture of secrecy cascades to itemized contracts. In our work, we’ve found that low-construction cost countries itemize their most complex rail infrastructure contracts, and the items are public. In the United States, contracts are fixed-price, and when agencies have itemized estimates as private benchmarks, they keep them from the public as a trade secret. MTA Construction and Development head Jamie Torres-Springer defended this system in November, saying that if the MTA revealed the numbers, contractors might use them as a floor.

Torres-Springer clearly stated a doctrine of the institutional culture that he and Lieber know. We can rate, overall, whether this culture is worth retaining, through seeing whether New York can build. It, of course, cannot. Lieber takes credit for delivering some projects for less than the budgeted amount, but the budget was inflated with large contingency figures; when someone promises to build something for $70 million and delivers it for $65 million, you don’t give credit for going under budget when other systems deliver it for $12 million. (These are all rough costs of making a subway station that is not a transfer wheelchair-accessible using three elevators in New York and some comparison cases respectively.)

Meanwhile, other systems, outside the high-cost Anglosphere (update 3-28: here is Ontario engaging in the same repulsive behavior toward Global News on the costs of the Ontario Line), can deliver. Germany doesn’t want to build much infrastructure unfortunately, but when it wants, it gets it done at reasonable if not low costs – and those costs are barely higher now in real terms than they were in the 1970s, having inched from maybe 150 million euros per km of subway to 200. Paris is building 200 km of mostly underground driverless metro, for about the same cost as one five-year MTA capital plan. Istanbul builds many metro lines all at once and may be the world’s top city in total route-length built this decade if Chinese investment slows down – Turkey is not a rich country but it has figured out how to build cheaply so that it can afford it. Seoul is expanding so rapidly, using so many different networks, that I can’t even track how much it builds. Italy not only can keep building infrastructure despite not having much money, but also managed to cut its real costs by adopting transparency as a core principle in the 1990s; contra Torres-Springer, contractors use published itemized costs as an anchor and not a floor.

But New York is the city that can’t, in the state that can’t. It treats a three-station subway expansion as a generational project. It clings to its way of doing things in face of obvious evidence that this way does not work; when it wants to do something different, it privatizes the state to consultants and huge design-build contractors, which has consistently raised costs wherever it is implemented. It’s not even aware of how success looks. Its leadership is rather like a Russian general who, seeing the army throw countless soldiers to take individual blocks of Bakhmut, population 70,000, insists things are going great and there is no need for anyone to learn anything about NATO standards, before ordering another wave of assault.

The press is ahead of the curve on this, since it does not need to kiss ass. I’ve been a source for New York media and for US-wide wonk networks for years, and the great majority of journalists I’ve spoken with, veterans and newcomers, generalists and specialists, have been curious and intelligent and could tell me important things I didn’t know before, including, in particular, reporters on this beat at all major city papers, such as Nolan. I sadly cannot say the same of MTA management: the career civil servants are good below the managerial level, the managers are hit-or-miss, and the political appointees are more miss than hit. The way the latter try to pull rank on good journalists like Martinez and Nolan is supercilious, authoritarian, and just plain nasty.

And if New York wants to avoid looking as ridiculous as that Russian general, it had better learn how successful cities do it, and invite in people who are intimately familiar with these cities to take in-house leadership jobs to implement the required reforms. This means, among other things, fostering a culture of openness and transparency. No more putdowns of journalists who ask hard questions, no more hiding behind NDAs and trade secrets, no more black boxes with no itemization beyond “this contract is $1 billion.” It’s easier than for Russia – the American field-grade officers who could do every Russian general’s job better don’t at all have Russia’s interests at heart, whereas the Continental European and East Asian transit managers who New York can bring it can be hired to have the MTA’s interests at heart, just as Andy Byford was. Learn from the best and face the reality that right now New York is the worst.


  1. Andrew Lynch

    We FOILd the MTA a couple of times for the Rockaway Beach Branch data. They rejected us outright on the basis of “trade secrets”. Then, when we countered, they said they had already given us what they had. Complete trash at the MTA.

  2. Joe Wong


    This is due to the HORRIBLE & TERRIBLE CORRUPTION in New York City, New York State, and in the Federal Government as well.

  3. PB

    I would love to see you guys do a case study on how Seoul builds so many subway lines at once.

    • Joe Wong

      GREAT COMMENT PB – and its because Seoul and much of Asia is putting their minds and are doing it for the greater GOOD of its cities and nation. Communist China is also doing it the same way Seoul is doing it. America is possible the most CORRUPT and most warmongering nation on the face of this planet, and y’all including Alon is watching much of the world follow China & South Korea’s role, and are also DITCHING the US Dollar as well. America better start to wake-up and repent and learn from its past mistakes before it’s TOO LATE. And to get off topic a little bit if you believe in Bible Prophecy is that whomever nation can create PEACE in the Middle East would become the world next SUPERPOWER, and we all saw what happened this past March 10, 2023.

      • Sassy

        GREAT COMMENT Joe Wong – and another SYSTEM that the west should adopt from China and South Korea is the SUPERIOR BIG endian date format. Instead of the HORRIBLE MIXED endian format of “March 10, 2023” the DATE should be written as “2023-03-10” as is BLESSED by the priests of the Greek GODDESS of equality in GENEVA as ISO 8601.

      • Alon Levy

        It’s not Asia – it’s specific countries in Asia. China has pretty average costs, like Germany and France. Korea has low costs. Japan has kinda high costs. Taiwan has very high costs.

        And… prophecy? What? WTF?

        • Luke

          ….Trolls aside, I am a little perplexed that you say there’s so much in Seoul you can’t keep track. I’ve always been curious; is the relatively light amount of content on this blog relating to Korea (and truthfully, mainland China) due to a difficulty in finding data or good sources on the ground? You’ve specifically mentioned low Korean costs as probably the best in Asia many times, but I’ve yet to see a lot of attention paid to how they do it. What I know of Korea says that probably a high use of contracted labor–short-term, and of course, unions are not ubiquitous–is a factor, but that’s a guess, and I’m not sure I know enough about Korea’s construction industry (except that there are fairly dominant public entities like KNR and LH) to say that’s a big part of it.

          • Alon Levy

            Yeah, it’s a couple of things:

            1. Very little information in English.
            2. A genuinely weird urban rail system – a lot of the ongoing expansion isn’t the numbered subway lines, and there’s a lot of mimicry of one-line Japanese systems.

            (Note also that I said very little about Turkey until we hired Elif.)

          • Sassy

            Though I’m guessing you don’t know, on (2), I’d be very interested in knowing why Seoul started building one line systems and started naming lines instead of numbering them.

            If it was simple imitation of how it works in Tokyo, I would have expected lines to have been named from the start, and one line systems to start getting built sooner. Tokyo has used names for lines and has had one line systems since forever ago, so the South Korean bureaucrats clear knew and chose not to copy those aspects at first, then switched in the 2000s. And considering politics, it’s weird that 2000s Seoul would choose to be more like Tokyo when 1970s Seoul did not.

          • Frederick


            Those new named commuter rail lines are not solely built by Seoul. Korail (i.e. national government) has a lot of stake in them. The purpose of these projects is not solely about creating more commuter rail for Seoul, but also to improve intercity service from Seoul to the rest of Korea.

          • Borners

            Alon its time for my quarterly “you need to get a Korean specialist and approach the Korea foundation, they’d eat up being told they are better than the Japanese and Americans at something” nagging.

            N/B To understand how generous the Korea Foundation can be, Sheffield University has a program paid by them that sends planning students to Seoul for a 3 week jaunt as a part of a 1 term transport planning module.

  4. nerdy.nel

    Do you think New York can somehow turn it around and become not-the-worst vis-à-vis transit costs? (And by this, I don’t mean a marginal improvement to second-worst or whatever.) It’s easy to be disheartened by things like world-record transit costs, studies that sandbag subway extensions, and the powers-that-be’s contempt for transit riders and advocates.

    • Matthew Hutton

      New York is significantly richer than the European cities. And aside from London, Paris and Moscow its transit network is more complex.

      That said for a given project complexity they should be able to get to at worst 2n where n is the cost of a similar project in Paris.

      • Alon Levy

        I don’t think relatively wealth matters very much – Milanese costs are lower than Neapolitan ones. And Second Avenue Subway specifically is a simpler project from the point of view of undercrossings than, say, the U5 extension here.

        • Matthew Hutton

          Milan can learn from a bunch of other European cities who have equivalent wages. New York cannot.

          And a lot of the other ultra rich cities like Qatar or Singapore can rely on migrant Labour much more than New York can.

          • Alon Levy

            Well, Qatar and Singapore are both strong contenders for #2 highest costs in the world, because even migrant slave labor can’t paper over the soft costs crisis.

            (And if you think it’s inevitable in a rich country, look at construction costs in Switzerland, or Norway.)

          • Matthew Hutton

            I think Chicago, Washington DC and San Francisco can definitely learn from Norway by directly copying their practices.

            I think it’s always going to be a little harder for New York as the ridership will always be bigger, and some projects (but not the second Avenue subway as you say and I agree) are more complex too.

        • Luke

          Yes, but to some eyes, New York LOOKS much wealthier than other American cities, and as you note, no one at the MTA is seriously looking outside the U.S. for comparisons, so squandering billions on projects that should cost hundreds of millions is just the cost of doing business in “The Big City.” It’s the same thing about New Yorkers claiming that nowhere else in the U.S. has stores like bodegas; negative exceptionalism. You’ve written about it before.

    • Astro

      It must be possible. What are we going to do, give up? Wallow in misery? It will be hard, but fundamental change can and should happen. Just takes the right people (or just enough people) pulling in the correct direction.

      It’s going to be one hell of a fight.

      • nerdy.nel

        “One hell of a fight” is right! But giving up definitely ISN’T an option! I’d like to think there’s at least *some* momentum, given that certain themes like all-day frequent subway service, (#6MinuteService), regional rail, and even highway removal are now being formalized in some way.

  5. Astro

    On the upside: This might be the most face-losing response MTA could have given to your report. Might not matter, for their future employment. No high hopes from my end, at least.

    But, these quotes make MTA look exactly as they are: Terrible, incurious, and boastful about being abject failures.

    Poor one out for Janno Lieber’s future career prospects, hopefully.

    • Henry Miller

      How do we get a major opposition party to see this quote and run it in ads. This type of thing is something that any competition political party would love to scream on national TV.

      Note that the fact that no party is doing that is a sign of many things. Most likely that they don’t think voters will care.

      • Matthew Hutton

        The Republicans can’t run on it nationally that easily because almost no swing voters in the rest of the country even have public transport.

        So the best bet is probably to get people like AOC to care on the grounds it benefits her district and makes her look competent internally inside the democratic party.

        • Matthew Hutton

          Or somehow turn the US green party into a force that can win local elections like the UK or German Green parties can 🤷🏼‍♂️.

        • Matthew Hutton

          The other other option is to get the rich people in the community meetings on board. I cannot believe they favour the MTA wasting all this money (its their taxes after all) and they are likely worldly enough to know that transit works better in other countries.

        • Henry Miller

          Sure, but the Republicans in NYC running for local office should find that a winning advertisement. “Vote for me and I’ll take care of the bureaucrats who don’t trust the people.” “Vote for me, I’m not against transparency”. “Vote for me and I’ll hire people who know how to do their job.” Of course they need to find a supporter (who may not be the largest donor left when they get to that spot on the list) to put into those positions who cares about transit, but that should be possible.

          With a little study they can discover plenty of little changes to make that would deliver great transit (if I understand cost share correctly, at Spain prices all of SAS could be done with just the NYC share of the budget in less than 10 year – would those real world results keep someone in office for a generation?)

          • Matthew Hutton

            Every conversation I’ve had with ordinary voters says to me that this is a winning message.

            And yeah maybe you lose some big money donors. However you probably gain donors overall by being a politician who can deliver stuff cheaply – both in terms of legacy and because they should then be able to lower taxes.

            And also AOC won by doing hard graft and without big money donors, so it’s perfectly possible.

          • Alon Levy

            In theory, sure. In practice, New York Republicans are raging NIMBYs, trying to get votes out of opposition to Hochul’s upzoning plan, as their advocacy is rooted in racist opposition to affordable housing.

            Same thing with public transportation. Republican voters in the city rely on the subway. But the core of the Republican Party in the city comprises local neighborhood elites who drive everywhere and hate the subway, plus various racists who tell people not to take the subway even when they work for it.

      • Astro

        What’s it cost to start a PAC? $200 and an alphabet soup name for anonymity? That could be us running the ads, Henry. Time to become political movers and shakers.

  6. Lee Ratner

    Related but there is an upcoming book from the University of Chicago about the decline in transit in the United States called the Great American Transit Disaster. The interesting thing about this book is that it doesn’t hide the fact that the policies that led to the big decline in transit in the United States were popular with the majority of the voters in the United States rather than being a big conspiracy. This doesn’t seem really to be even that much of an American specific thing. Voters on average seem to prefer car-centric over transit-centric transportation policies. The countries with really great transit often have governments going against the majority of voters. So how do you get good transit in the United States when most voters really don’t want or need it?

    • John D.

      “The countries with really great transit often have governments going against the majority of voters.”

      Hard to say when (i) transit projects seldom involve concrete measurements of public approval, and (ii) different segments of the electorate will naturally hold differing views of transit projects depending on proximity and localised benefits/impacts.

      The most definitive case that comes to mind is Switzerland’s Bahn 2000 programme, which was put to a national referendum and passed with majority support. A 2014 poll found that 58% of Londoners thought Crossrail (now the Elizabeth Line) would ‘change their city for the better’, which we could interpret as ‘majority support’ from the local base. Then there’s vaguer examples like the 1970s ‘Shinkansen fever’ in Japan, or Singaporean YIMBY for metro stations that boost property values.

    • adirondacker12800

      They were popular with rich white guys. Other people got ignored back then.

    • Luke

      This is that Onion article that was like, “90% of Americans prefer transit for other people”, or whatever.
      A.) Especially in the U.S., where no one has access to world-class transit, the perspective is skewed against transit use and construction. Even in places that are less socioeconomically unequal and well-served by transit, car ownership denotes wealth, and wealth denotes goodness for a lot of people, even if it’s not thought or stated so consciously or out loud.
      B.) The problem with car-centric infrastructure is that even at very low levels of usage, the more people who use it, the worse the experience of using it gets. This applies to transit, as well, but only at very, very high levels of usage. Cars work against the sort of egalitarian society that transit can foster, and they and their associated infrastructure are spacially incompatible with the beneficial effects of economic agglomeration that are the reason why cities exist. You end up paying more–in every way–for a transportation system that is worse at transporting people and things, for the same or more money.
      No one likes inconvenient truths; they remain true nonetheless. Americans are just happier and less conscientious of living in their bubbles of oblivion than many other people.

      • Basil Marte

        Even in places with high transit use (and sometimes surprisingly tepid popular support for it), egalitarianism is rarely used as an argument for transit, because even outside America, only a minority of voters support that as an end in and of itself. Compare housing affordability; I think the US has an unusually messed up conceptual environment for it (“homeownership builds wealth”), but even elsewhere, (better-grounded) hopes of appreciation aren’t uncommon.

        • Alon Levy

          In Berlin, SPD uses egalitarian arguments to persuade left-wing voters to back its agenda over the left-NIMBYism of the Greens and Die Linke. But it’s pretty specialized to Berlin politics.

        • Luke

          You don’t need to have egalitarianism as your goal to want people to take transit; on the contrary, it can be pure self-interest. After all, the fewer other cars on the road, the easier your drive can be. The point is that cars–I would argue–help promote a self-interested society, and yet the end point of the self-interested position of a car driver (that a road should be just for them) requires transit to actualize.

          I feel like that incoherence on its own should point out to even the most transit-averse that transit has an important role. As no person can 100% guarantee their own car access 100% of the time, even the most transit-averse driver has a self-interest in ensuring that transit works well for them if they should ever end up needing it.

  7. Steve

    “…saying that if the MTA revealed the numbers, contractors might use them as a floor.”

    I worked at NYC Parks for the better part of a decade and spent about hald that on a team trying to get Parks’ Capital Projects division to publish their data tk the Open Data Portal (which they are legally obligated to do under the Open Data Law). We never managed to get it out of them – they fought tooth and claw to prevent it, lied to us, tried to trick us, and were generally real assholes about it. Us! Their fellow civil servants. They used this exact argument more than once, and it was just as bullshit there as it is here.

  8. heliomass

    I’d love to see some similar analysis from someone on Montreal’s REM. Absolutely shrouded in secrecy that project, and even though it’s PPP, there little clarity on how much it will cost the public purse.

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