Generational Investment and Politicized Delay

Investments that are pitched as once in a generation tend not to work very well. They’re delayed, they’re expensive in both absolute and relative terms, they’re compromised by competing demands that are rarely about good service. Looking at both the ongoing situation in the United States and Germany, I’m seeing parallels; one of my motivations for writing this post is New York-area problems, but the other is response by German tram advocates to my post about the Berlin U-Bahn expansion plan. In short: there’s nothing inherently easier about lower-intensity infrastructure like trams or legacy rail than about high-intensity alternatives like subways and high-speed rail.

There is an artifact of politicization there. At the end of the day, every generational investment is vulnerable to political micromanagement. If you build an U-Bahn, the streetcars will not be politicized; if you don’t and instead make the streetcars your urban rail centerpiece, they will be politicized instead. If your city has a problem with construction costs or with timelines, it’s likely political and therefore will attach to whatever mode you choose; downgrading to a lower-intensity mode will just make that mode as expensive as the higher-intensity mode used to be.

The issue of political micromanagement

There are countries that are capable of building infrastructure efficiently. All of them do so in a remarkable depoliticized manner, even extremely polarized Turkey, where AKP’s attempt to choke metro funding to Istanbul after the opposition won the election under Ekrem İmamoğlu failed and İmamoğlu got funding from the European Investment Bank. The engineers and planners choose the alignments and construction methods; the politicians say yes or no and have little or ideally no further input.

The upshot is that this is the most politically sustainable in an environment of regular ongoing construction. Setting up this system in a country that can’t build is hard and requires a lot of public breaking of implicit promises to political actors who think they matter but don’t. But if this preexists, then this is sustained through regular construction in which politicians show up twice, once for the groundbreaking and once for the opening, and never again. The civil service runs technical matters under the aegis of technical experts.

As soon as major politicians make more decisions than the most general ones, things go awry. This is for two reasons.

The first reason is that the politicians want to show that they are important and therefore like overruling or changing previous plans just because. Such changes are by themselves neutral: usually the changes are relative to a plan that was itself developed with political input (for example, changes in the alignment of Grand Paris Express in the early 2010s). However, they introduce delays, which raise costs, permit more cruft to accumulate, and lead to projects that solve yesterday’s problems.

The second reason is that petty actors are likelier to find audience with politicians, who don’t want to annoy them, than with civil servants. Those petty actors can include NIMBYs who demand more expensive methods to avoid real or perceived negative local impact, but also their opposite number, local groups that want a diversion of service to reach them or bigger construction to act as a signature piece. In the United States, there is a lot of preemptive surrender to such groups (“good neighbor policy”). Other groups just send input for its own sake. Others hog other people’s money (OPM), such as when the New York Parks Department and got $15 million to permit staging subway construction in a playground, or when an American municipal department insists on building more than the federal and state fire code requires. This happens regardless of the project, but politicians want to please and will not generally back the civil service against the petty actors, and if the politicians are involved, it’s also a signal that there’s plenty of OPM.

Of note, neither of these mechanisms depends on the technical details of the project. All that matters is that the project is perceived as big enough to merit political attention.

Also of note, local environmental organizations generally cause more environmental problems than they solve through their praxis of making it harder to govern. In Brussels, the construction of Métro Line 3 is delayed due to complaints by local NIMBYs, signal-boosted by Ecolo/Groen, that staging construction in a park hurts the neighborhood; this is then held up by the same green NIMBYs as evidence that subways take too long to build and decarbonization has to be done by 2030. The praxis of such organizations is deliberately adversarial and disruptive – whatever the city decides is its primary form of transport investment will be opposed.

Downgrades don’t solve the problem

There are German anti-subway NIMBYs who think that trams are literally as good as subways; one person on Reddit reacting to my post said that the Berlin average speeds I posted (streetcars 17.6 km/h, U-Bahn 30.5 km/h), sourced to BVG, are just an opinion. People like that are obviously risible. The more common anti-U-Bahn take recognizes that metro trains provide better service than trams, but questions whether it’s worth the higher cost. This is in places reasonable: cities don’t literally build a subway on every street, and there’s a growing system of using peripheral trams to feed metro trunks.

However, this analysis is only true at the relative level. If a city that builds subways also builds trams, the trams will look easier, precisely because they’re beneath the notice of politicians, who care about the highest-end projects. As soon as the city decides to forgo the subway and focus only on trams, the problem of political micromanagement instead attaches itself to the tram system.

This is also true of downgrades in quantity and not quality. A large metro expansion project, like Grand Paris Express or the Istanbul Metro investment program, is a flashy project that attracts political attention and sometimes includes weak lines, such as Métro Lines 17 and 18 in Paris. If there’s political controversy over the project, it will likely center the weakest lines, as these are the easiest to rally against, while often the critics will acknowledge that the strongest lines should still be built. The downgrade in quantity occurs when, in anticipation of future controversy over the program, it is decided to only build a small program comprising the strongest lines or even just a single line. The strongest line is genuinely strong, but if the problem comes from politicization, then this strong line will have many interests demanding tie-ins and OPM and often this line will then be more marginal just from the extra costs.

This is not hypothetical: this exact problem has happened in the United States in the last 45 years. Subway construction costs exploded in the 1970s: the Washington Metro’s per-km tunneling costs were in today’s money on the order of $300 million, continuing at this level through the 1990s (source; old costs are on PDF-p. 4 and 1990s costs are taken from segment 3 on PDF-p. 11). This was seen as too expensive for most cities, so they instead built light rail.

The early light rail program in the United States looked successful; its Canadian equivalent, of the same provenance, actually was successful. One of the planners involved, R. W. Rynerson, occasionally comments here, and points out that it was developed by American veterans who had been stationed in Germany and were intentionally adapting the German Stadtbahn concept to the North American context. The cities involved in this were all Western, because this system was ideal for cities that did not have preexisting urban rail and Western cities were newer; early examples include Edmonton, San Diego, Calgary, Portland, Denver, and Sacramento, with Los Angeles building a mix of light rail and subway and Seattle building a different mix.

This bought those cities maybe 15 years of reprieve. Subsequently, costs exploded. Once light rail was not just a simple way to plan future growth, under the aegis of trusted engineers, but rather a political program, the same politicization that made New York incapable of building beyond its Depression-era plan (that is, the IND) and Washington and San Francisco incapable of building beyond their Great Society-era plans (that is, the initial Metro and BART networks) now made those newer cities incapable of building. Portland opened the at-grade Orange Line of its light rail system in 2015 for $160 million/km in 2022 dollars. Minneapolis is taking forever to build its Southwest light rail line, with plenty of politicization of where and how to go. Boston built the Green Line Extension for $370 million/km in 2022 dollars, a higher real cost than that of tunnels in densely built-up parts of Washington in the 1990s – and it had severe politicization problems at all levels, even eclipsing the problem of insufficient project management capacity. Canada has had the same problem: Calgary’s light rail-centric investment was extraordinarily cheap in the late 20th century, but starting with the West LRT, costs have exploded so much that the city lost its ability to build and its modal split is stagnating around 16%.

Of note, American environmental and local-left organizations have not made light rail expansion easy. The first iteration of the Boston Green Line Expansion plan included $100 million, maybe $130 million in today’s money, for a short bike path, based on the demands of Somerville. In Los Angeles, left-NIMBYs oppose rail construction and have complained about transit-oriented gentrification. American left-NIMBYs have grown enamored of the idea of transit-oriented gentrification that they make demands of any city that builds light rail that it should pair it with spending on affordable housing and oppose any program that doesn’t include such additional funds, for example in Nashville in alliance with the anti-spending right. Any German readers who have any notions that such advocacy couldn’t happen here are invited to see the rhetoric that Green Party officials deploy against Tempelhofer Feld redevelopment.

If you can build, then build

The construction costs report we put out at the Transit Costs Project are pitched to an American audience, or very occasionally a Canadian or possibly British one, those countries sharing the American problem of poor project delivery and high soft costs. However, there are a lot of conclusions that can be drawn for the case of a medium-cost country that manifestly can build, like France or Germany. Such a country must look carefully at what goes on in the United States and to an extent the United Kingdom, as an example to avoid.

In particular, under no circumstances should cities downgrade, shrink, or slow down construction as a means of dealing with high project costs. The political problems are going to happen to the primary program no matter whether it is pitched as a metro- or tram-centric system.

Next to politics, the second most important thing to avoid is problems with project delivery. Here, I’m happy to report that Germany doesn’t seem to have such problems, except perhaps on the Munich S-Bahn, which has an even bigger political problem (namely, it’s a generational project for CSU politicians and was not properly overseen when CSU also controlled the federal transport ministry). Tellingly, other than the Munich S-Bahn, I’m not seeing substantial cost increases in actual (not projected) costs from the 1970s to the present in Germany. If an expansion program is larger than the city has recently had, it should staff up the civil service, hiring in-house to ensure the civil service retains lessons learned, and avoiding relying on private consultants or British-style Special Purpose Delivery Vehicles (SPDVs).

And if you can build, you should. Germany is a growing country with demand for further growth, especially in and next to its largest cities, such as Berlin. It should expand its U- and S-Bahn networks, using trams as a subsidiary feeder; that the trams look easier doesn’t make them so, not when they are turned into the centerpiece of the urban rail program – the same petty actors who induce delays to whatever the biggest project in town is do it no matter what the biggest project is.


      • df1982

        As pointless as most of them are, streetcar projects in non-legacy cities largely seem to be done for reasonable costs.

        And what about Brightline’s Orlando extension? It at least seems to be happening without a lot of fuss. No news is usually good news when it comes to infrastructure.

  1. Pingback: SNOW-GATE SCANDAL: Little Cottonwood Canyon Gondola Delayed, Leaving Working Class in the Cold – The LCC Gondola Is For the Children
  2. PB

    Unfortunately, this seems to be true for Toronto. They decided to build a 19 km LRT because it’s cheaper than a subway but its cost has ballooned to at least $11.5 billion. I will note that this includes a 30 year maintenance contract so you cant tell how much they spent on just the construction. But there was quite a lot of political interference. Then mayor rob ford wanted specific parts of the LRT underground as to not disturb car drivers.

    • Eric2

      You must be referring to the Eglinton line. I believe more than half of it is tunneled, which explains part of the $670M/km cost. Of course if you tunnel unnecessary that’s another kind of design error. If they had to tunnel the core, they should have at least elevated the end (which is over a wide unpleasant stroad) so that the whole thing would be grade separated.

      • Henry Miller

        Even if they tunneled the whole thing, $670M/km is high. We have to assume the non-tunneled sections where cheaper than the tunneled as well, so the tunneled sections cost way too much.

      • Alon Levy

        Yeah, it’s just a politically compromised mode choice. David Miller’s Transit City idea centered short trips by tram, with relatively short interstations (I forget if 200 m as is typical of North American buses or 400 as is typical of European ones). Ford was elected in opposition to this whole idea, but Eglinton was too important a route to cancel, so he made it a subway, but there was no money, so it got politically compromised to a subway-surface hybrid that completely misses the point, as you note.

  3. Matthew Hutton

    The flaw with this analysis is that the world’s most expensive high speed rail project is as expensive as it is because the technical experts have had too much say and the politicians haven’t had enough.

    If he’d had real input David Cameron would have never added the tens of billions of cost to HS2 by doing the chilterns tunnel rather than slowing the trains by four or even eight minutes by adding a station or two. Nor would he have added loads of cost by over designing the project technically so that at some hypothetical point in the future you can run trains at 400km/h to save a further 10 minutes on journey times.

    And yeah leaders like to put their stamp on things by changing them. However ultimately getting to be the person who opens the finished project is a much bigger deal than some minor change no one will ever notice.

    • PB

      Is this really a case of technical experts having too much say or is it that the technical experts hired to manage the project werent competent?

      • Matthew Hutton

        Certainly Gareth Dennis who has the ear of the government and who have debated online is technically bright but financially illiterate.

        Theres lots of people like that out there in the world.

    • Alon Levy

      The Chilterns tunneling was preemptive surrender; whenever I point out that this is excessive, the answer I get is not “the engineers overbuilt this” but “these are rich elites and they don’t like seeing trains.”

      And yeah, ultimately getting to open the project is usually much bigger. I’m not asserting politicians are being rational when they’re making petty changes; I’m asserting they’re making petty changes. I live in a country where the chancellor is literally throwing the election by making sure to be seen doing the absolute least for Ukraine just because some geezers at the party don’t want to admit “we were wrong about everything in the Schröder era.”

      • Matthew Hutton

        Actually while the head of Buckinghamshire county council did talk about mitigations and cutting depth the main thrust of his anti-HS2 position which includes the first five paragraphs of his open letter is actually about cost.

        And I can’t find it online but I have been told he offered to stop his HS2 opposition in exchange for a station.

        • Borners

          Part of the problem is that HS2 advocates simply refuse to admit the cost is the thing that is driving such of the opposition at a time where basic services are collapsing after 15 years of economic hardship and austerity. NIMBYs, Austerions and Luddites get that its the greatest point of vulnerability and push there while advocates just complain about insufficient will.

          There is no discussion of value engineering in British railway discourse which is all about Nostalgia wank, grievance mongering, team-tribalism and shiny things. And nobody really listens to the eggheads in Network Rail who actually understand quite a bit of the problem.

          They should have extended the Metropolitan line to Aylesbury. A much better bribe than tunneling.

          • Matthew Hutton

            I looked up Martin Tett’s ward. He represents the area around Chalfont and Lamiter tube station. His constituent’s (and probably him) aren’t anti train.

          • Frederick

            They should have extended the Metropolitan line to Aylesbury.

            Is it what the people want, though? Sometimes NIMBYs just don’t want any transit improvement.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Its pretty clear from Martin Tetts letter that he wants improvements to the existing chiltern lines, most likely electrification. And station(s) on HS2 would also have been a strong choice. If you four tracked between Amersham and Calvert a stop at each with half the trains stopping at each would be reasonable.

            Even in 2021/22 with Covid Buckinghamshire produced ~10 million rail and tube passengers. Thats not terrible.

          • Borners

            Aylesbury is the most most YIMBY place in the Homecounties. They’d want it given the investment and the current Chiltern service is DMU so relatively slow and infrequent compared to the rest of hte commuter belt services (not the operators fault because its an issue of tech and investment unlike the rest of the network).

  4. Astro

    With urban America struggling to even build apartment buildings without horrendous schedule and cost delays, depoliticizing our transit project delivery is the least of our worries. So many nested layers of problems, when the solution is just to step aside and let paid professionals do what is needed.

    What would New York, LA, Chicago, and San Francisco look like if planners were just allowed to… make things happen?

    • Frederick

      Looking at the Manhattan grid, do you think it arises naturally, or do you think it arises from a plan?

      Looking at those freeways that cut through LA, do you think it arises naturally, or do you think it arises from a plan?

      Of course America has planners and the planners of course have a plan. Their plan consists of just three letters: C. A. R.

      Now let’s say you have a panel of German planners and they are allowed to “make things happen” to America, Sim-City style, then yes, America will become more transit-oriented as you wish. But if they’re all American planners, then don’t have your hopes up.

      • Astro

        There was a time before the present, when we built. New York grew fast. LA filled the valley from the sea to the mountains. Parts were good, and parts were bad. But most important: The city changed! It grew fast enough to satisfy housing demand (relatively). The planners of those eras worked to satisfy the cities demands, and generally were allowed to do so! That’s not nothing! I disagree with the methods. I want more trains. I want more bike lanes. But hell, at least they had a plan and executed it in a timely manner.

        Now what do we do? We hem and haw over subway expansions until they cost far too much. We drown the voices of engineers out with endless public comment sessions until each new expansion of the LA Metro takes nearly a decade to break ground. And above all: We build almost no housing, compared to what we must. Whatever this current era is, where a few ‘concerned citizens’ can drown the idea of an affordable American city under a few well-placed lawsuits, it’s not cooking. We have to try something different.

        Maybe it will still suck. I don’t know. I’ll be at the planning commission meetings to throw my two cents in. But I just want to see American cities die, because we stood still, did nothing, and let them wither away on the vine.

        • Henry Miller

          Some people (Robert Moses) ruined that for everyone. While I agree with your claim, lets not go too far back the other way.

          • Basil Marte

            On the one hand, the “too far” part is correct. Politicians (or for particularly large project, a public referendum) getting a yes/no vote is the part which does less than nothing to ensure the goodness of projects, but does a lot to ensure that projects aren’t flagrantly bad. The same principle as democracy: its point is not to elect good leaders, but to reliably remove bad ones from power.

            On the other hand, the “ruined that for everyone, let’s not do it” attitude is …a key ingredient of the problem Astro is pointing out. If we dismiss entire fields or approaches based on one failure, if we sue companies out of existence for one thing, then for the most part, nobody will dare do anything, or at least, everything will be severely gold-plated. Additionally, somehow we’ve come to treat every “harm” from “it looks out of character with the rest of the neighborhood” to “it will collapse” as basically of equivalent severity (namely, unconscionable). (It’s off-topic, but the unacceptability of any risk whatsoever goes absolutely everywhere. In a Pew survey from a few years ago I found: “On average, parents say children should be at least 10 years old before they should be allowed to play in front of their house unsupervised while an adult is inside. Parents say children should be even older before they are allowed to stay home alone for about an hour (12 years old) or to spend time at a public park unsupervised (14 years old).” (page 14). WTF? The survey buckets many answers by family income, highest bucket is $75k+ (2015 median household income was ~$55k). Numbers for that group. On page 4, 78% said their neighborhood was “v.good/excellent” place to raise children, but on page 5, 44% worry about their children getting kidnapped (along with 22% getting shot, 38% beaten up, 43% applicable end of a teen pregnancy). WTF with a cherry on top? People not allowing houses or transit to be built kind of pales in comparison to not allowing their children to stay home alone for a single hour until 12.)

    • adirondacker12800

      When we put technocrats in charge they wanted to carve highways all over those cities. Be careful what you wish for.

      • Astro

        I want my city to change so that housing prices go down. Leaving that in the hands of the current political structure did not work.

        • adirondacker12800

          Carving highways through cities was quite effective at keeping housing prices low. The Rent is Too Damn High Party had it wrong. The Pay is Too Damn Low.

  5. Astro

    The argument I almost trend toward in addressing the issue in America is to go wide, instead of big: Quietly launch 20 different small-dollar projects in a city that alone do not amount to transformational change. Do not talk about them in media. Do not give the initiative some big singular name. Just follow the rules, dot the I’s cross the T’s, and deliver a bunch of small-potatoes changes that sum up to something big.

    Then, when it does come time for something that must be a big project (i.e. trains where no trains yet exist) there is the organizational momentum to stand a better chance in the face of political chaos.

    • Henry Miller

      The problem is transit depends on a network. So small projects often are not worth doing at all until the big one is done. Even if you “magically” know what the big project is and do it in 20 small projects, until the last project is done none of the other 19 are useful.

      You can make it work with small projects, but they are not cost effective and so you risk someone noticing your small project and calling you on transit not being cost effective when in fact it will be when the final project is done.

      • Astro

        I generally agree. At some point you have to spend the big bucks.

        On the most basic level though: What if US cities just tried to start by have a single good bus route? Most have these weird 45+ minute headways unless you live somewhere real large. But what if you proposed taking just one route, and pushing the headway to 10 minutes? Something that goes through downtown, to places people might want to avoid parking. That can’t be nearly so difficult as a rail line. A few buses and drivers, to take something from a service of last-resort to something truly convenient.

        Then when it comes time for a rail line, maybe you have the rider base that people will say: Why not? The bus is clean, and goes where I want.

        Maybe even the small project is a boondoggle, but I propose it would at least be worth a shot.

        • Basil Marte

          Several US cities tried something even better: mostly grade-separated light rail (though whether they run reasonable headways is a separate question). Ridership per physical thing (track-mile, vehicle-hour, whatever) is disappointing, mostly because land use intensity is low (and station pedestrian accessibility is poor), and they allow vanishingly few people to go carfree, because at least some complementary land uses are missing (a.k.a. “they can’t buy groceries without getting in a car”) because they are literally illegal to provide.

          In general, the point on which the big bucks are spent is always the building stock. This is immediately obvious if an obviously sprawling city has to be densified, but even in NYC, whatever location the housing stock growth goes in, will spend much more on that than the cost of the transit project.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Yeah but if they don’t have vaguely reasonable headways the project is pretty poor.

    • Phake Nick

      A problem with this approach is different small projects might be altered to not align with the ultimate goal of the big project. Like if you want to create a trunk transit corridor between A1 and A21, but then each local segment twist and turn them according to localized demand, and ultimately you have no corridor

  6. Lee Ratner

    The issue becomes how to avoid politicized decision making though and apply this in politics seems prone to politicization like the United States.

  7. Seb

    Paris shows that quite well.

    It’s expanding its tramway network without much fuss as all the concentration is on RER and GPE. (Yes it’s not perfect, it does not receive enough funding, costs are not really low as the streets are usually redone completely)

    The Line 1 extension to Val de Fontenay is not moving forward because of high cost (it adopted the GPE methods of deep station boxes) and environmental NIMBYism (cutting some old trees in Bois Vincennes would be an environmental catastrophe and building the metro will produce more carbon emissions than it saves, they say).

  8. fmobus

    > Next to politics, the second most important thing to avoid is problems with project delivery. Here, I’m happy to report that Germany doesn’t seem to have such problems…

    Isn’t Stuttgart 21 another example of terrible delivery too?

    > … , except perhaps on the Munich S-Bahn

    It’s mind boggling that the 2nd Stammstrecke project is expected to be delivered mid-2030s. It’s literally less than seven kilometres of tunnelling and three stations, what’s so damn hard about it? The fact that this simple project is expected to take this long shakes any faith that the other projects (e.g. U9) can be completed before I die.

    • Alon Levy

      Stuttgart 21’s cost per kilometer is lower than every single American urban rail tunnel that I know of going back to the 1990s.

  9. Matteo

    I don’t trust Seattle to build proper rapid transit infrastructure, not at a reasonable price or in the right areas. Their transit agency hasn’t allowed themselves to learn from their mistakes

    They’re building an oddity of surface subway tram trains with current and future plans only being capital intensive extensions deep underground or elevated. Why would you use trams for such a capital intensive new ROW railway? And for the billions they have spent on such a counterintuitive system (as far as capacity is concerned) can they even call themselves a transit city? No. Not globally. Not continentally. Not nationally. A failed city both nationally and globally

    It’s asinine. The system is arguably worse than had nothing been been built at all. I’d trust them more to paint the city red with bus lanes than whatever useless system has been built

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