I Gave a Followup Talk at TransitCon

Hayden Clarkin’s online conference TransitCon just happened, and I was drafted at the last minute to give a talk about construction costs. Here are the slides; for the most part, they’re a compressed version of slides that regular readers have seen before, except done in Beamer rather than Google Slides.

Cognizant of the fact that most people at TransitCon would have heard of me and our research and many would have read the reports or at least seen me, Eric, Marco, or Elif talk about them, I rushed through the description of our report. Instead of just going over trodden ground, I added slides at the end describing new issues we’d learned about since writing the synthesis, which was in a fairly advanced draft in late summer 2022 already. This fell into two categories: new obstacles, and reactions of people in power.

The new obstacles slide talks about the issue of last-minute squeaking (in the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” aphorism, which can and should be changed to “squeaky wheel gets replaced”). The most glaring examples of gross surplus extraction for Second Avenue Subway and the Green Line Extension all happened fairly early in the process.

In contrast, since then, Eric has spent so much time working in Seattle he could given time make an entire case out of its ongoing problems, and there, some of the extraction has been late in the project: one suburb’s fire department demanded construction in excess of the normal fire codes or else it wouldn’t certify the stations in its jurisdiction as fire-safe. In Dallas, the city itself is grabbing surplus: it’s demanding betterments and holding up the DART Silver Line until it gets them, adding $150,000 a day to the cost of the project. These two examples are both late in the process, after the Full Funding Grant Agreement has been signed; but once there is a political commitment, a local actor can still hope to grab surplus by demanding unreasonable changes.

But it’s really better to view this issue as one of top-level cowardice and unwillingness to take responsibility. The solution in Seattle is not hard: dissolve the department and have it taken over by the state or by Seattle proper. But whoever does that in effect takes ownership of every single fire in the suburb, and this requires taking more responsibility than American politicians and their appointees are used to.

The reaction of people in power plays to how they treat obstacles. I wrote a title for that slide, The Self-Hating State, and then deleted it and replaced it with the less toothy Public Officials and Consultants. But in effect what we see when we present the results to sympathetic federal and state officials who want to do better (i.e. not the MTA) is that most government officials don’t like the government very much. Their eyes glaze over the sort of technical and economic points that their counterparts here talk about, and instead they talk about how consultants have more long-term experience, when most of what the consultants know is how poorly-managed projects are built and where they do have positive knowledge (like the standardization of construction in Copenhagen) they’re not listened to.

Even more frustrating is their reaction to red tape. They take it as a given that the government must involve red tape; the same red tape in the private sector is invisible to them, such as when Seattle-area construction involves multiple jurisdictions each with its own consultants. But more fundamentally, these are people who can rewrite regulations, formally or informally, to make things easier; they just consider a government that works unthinkable.


  1. Matthew Hutton

    I have been watching Clarkson’s Farm over the past few days and that’s quite interesting from a planning perspective.

    Basically his whole restaurant was blocked over one person. Literally one person it the local village hated Clarkson so much that they hired a London planning barrister to object. Its completely unhinged.

    Maybe a Top Gear fan ran over his cat, maybe his daughter is a waitress who Clarkson screamed at. But regardless its ridiculous that literally one person was able to derail everything.

    And also there’s no way greasing the wheels a bit will get that one very extreme person to stop their objections. Because actually Clarkson did do that – and by and large it was successful at getting the community on board.

    • Alon Levy

      Yeah, adversarial legalism is wild. But Germany can be surprisingly adversarial – although not exactly legalistic about it – and while it does lead to underbuilding of infrastructure, the costs here aren’t especially high and the entire NBS network has been built for around half the projected cost of HS2.

      • Borners

        Oh Southern English nimby court cases are incredible.

        But the tragic-comic thing about the UK case is that planning permission actually is actually administrative law. Until the last 20 years, you could only sue if you could prove the planning authority had done something wrong of procedural grounds. But then a corpus of badly designed environmental laws gave NIMBYs more chances to sue. Plus a slow creep in Planning Administrative paper load as NIMBYism took over local government and the Central government continually intervening with ever more self-contradicting guidance.

        And Labour still hasn’t admitted that it was their fault this system emerged they think its just evil Tories not setting a properly moral GOSPLAN. God if we’d had Gaullists or Japanese Construction barons designing the system we’d be in paradise.

        • Alon Levy

          Re Japanese construction barons: the cost of HS2 is higher than that of the Tokaido Shinkansen per-km, but relative to GDP per capita at the start of the program (2018 in the UK, 1959 in Japan), it’s the same to within 1% – the Tokaido is actually the one that’s more expensive.

          • Matthew Hutton

            Do you know who built the Tokiado Shinkansen (i.e did they get the Chinese in to build it like we got the Irish in to build stuff in the 19th century?

          • Borners

            I’m sure there were some Zainichi Koreans involved somewhere in such a large project especially in Osaka. But they maxed out at 2% of the population in the immediate Postwar decades. Construction worker immigration has only really picked up in the last decade as Alon says.

            Remember Japan is still quite poor in the 1960’s and is pioneering the East Asian model “wage restraint plus high education” labour market approach at this point. Japan lacked capital not labour then.

            Alon I’m a bit confused to what you said here. Is the Tokaido overpriced or is it just they took on such a big project that it cost a hell of a lot? Especially since the Tokaido line doesn’t have as much of your bug bear of concrete viaducts.

          • Matthew Hutton

            To be fair the Tokaido Shinkansen goes through very mountainous terrain, has very high population density and is in an earthquake zone. It should be super expensive.

          • Alon Levy

            The Tokaido Shinkansen was around $40m/km in today’s money. Nowadays it doesn’t look like an insane cost (Germany, with its tunnel fetish, averages around that), but a generation later, the LGV Sud-Est was maybe $8.5m/km. And late 1950s Japan was an upper middle-income country, not a rich country – it had 1/3 the US’s GDP per capita in 1959 (1973: 2/3) – so relative to per capita income, construction costs were very high. There’s a reason Hideo Shima and Shinji Sogo both had to resign over it.

          • Borners

            I suspect the urbanisation and lack of eminent domain were more important than the mountains for the Tokaido shinkansen. The three megacities plus the Shizuoka-Hammamatsu industrial zone. Because of its age, its actually relatively light on tunnels compared to later lines like the Hokuriku shinkansen or Italian/Korean ones. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rivers were a big problem too.

            Alon, do you have any ideas where the screw-ups where in the Tokaido shinkansen? You’ve argued Japan’s main problem is land acquisition issues plus overuse of viaducts and tunnels.

          • Borners

            Well, this sent me on a quest to start finally reading my Shinkansen histories. Alon if you’re interested there are two new English language books on the original Tokaido Shinkansen.
            This is translation of a series of lectures by former JNR/JR engineer. He’s notably not that interesting in construction cost, but goes into quite technical detail.

            This has a lot of useful information that hasn’t been put into English before, in particular detailed discussions of the controversies about the Northern route to Osaka via Gifu-Kyoto. Its a bit ruined by the fact that the author has all the prejudices of her profession in America. I.e. cultural condescension sufficiently toxic that something that makes people’s lives better like the Shinkansen is bad because 1930’s Imperialism, conservative electoral dominance and the pursuit of economic growth means that Postwar Japan is a bad society whose successes need to be trashed. She even makes Kyoto NIMBYs heroes FFS.

    • michaelj

      Given Clarkson’s long, long awful record on almost anything he is involved in, I’d be wary of giving him any benefit of the doubt. The farm thing is somewhat amusing because his opponents are the squirocracy, which in fact he aspires to (well, in his own way; he is part of the “Chipping Norton set” which included David Cameron and Murdoch henchwoman Rebekah Brooks; Boris used to live close by too). They don’t like this kind of thing in their exclusive patch of rural Oxfordshire: (Wiki)

      Clarkson faced a severe backlash from the people of Chadlington over the opening of the farm shop, which resulted in a 3-mile-long (4.8 km) traffic jam and necessitated the attendance of the police to handle the disruption in traffic. Later that day he took to Twitter, writing: “People of Chadlington. I’m truly sorry about the traffic around our farm shop last weekend. We are doing everything we can to improve the situation”.[26][27]

      • Borners

        Jesus Christ, you really are poster-child for “hate is not the opposite of love” when it comes to Britain.

        Clarkson is a boorish prejudiced egomaniac celebrity performer, a posterchild of his generation of Home Counties upper crust males. But he also the virtues of that group, pragmatism, a lack of nihilism and even a an interest in self-improvement (hence Anti-Brexit). Clarkson voters are how you take down the blue wall of Southern England.

        And NIMBYs don’t come from the Squirearchy, which doesn’t exist anymore. They’ve been replaced by the exburban boomer with an Estuary English accent or the local Yeoman.

        • Alon Levy

          So far the way Labour is taking down the Blue Wall is “run someone bland and let the Tories ruin the economy,” like in the mid-1990s except without the Blairism.

        • michaelj

          Clarkson voters are how you take down the blue wall of Southern England.

          Clarkson’s politics are pure ego-driven whimsy. He probably is part of the blue wall. He has clearly stated that he has mostly voted Conservative and of course he’s a longtime personal friend of David Cameron of the Chipping Norton set. The basis on which he decides his voting intention has nothing to do with public policy of relevance to the future of the UK. He now claims he is a Remainer but I reckon what he says/said is irrelevant, or worse, that the kind of people who admire him are natural Brexit Leavers. He is like journalist-Boris in insulting all and sundry Europeans, even though he doesn’t believe any of it (but his dumb audience does).

          I really couldn’t give a stuff about Clarkson but there’s little doubt that he reinforces a lot that is lamentable about Little Englanders. A Venn diagram would show considerable overlap with Leavers and Monarchists.

          And NIMBYs don’t come from the Squirearchy, which doesn’t exist anymore. They’ve been replaced by the exburban boomer with an Estuary English accent or the local Yeoman.


          Shrubsole, Who Owns England. 2019.
          What’s astonishing about his research is how little has changed in the last 1,000 years. His figures reveal that the aristocracy and landed gentry – many the descendants of those Norman barons – still own at least 30% of England and probably far more, as 17% is not registered by the Land Registry and is probably inherited land that has never been bought or sold. Half of England is owned by less than 1% of the population. The homeowners’ share adds up to just 5%: “A few thousand dukes, baronets and country squires own far more land than all of Middle England put together.”

          Even the nouveau riche like Clarkson, or the seriously ultra-wealthy like James Dyson and Jim Ratcliffe (both of whom were Brexiteers but now have domiciled in Monaco!) or Russian oligarchs, don’t really make much impact on overall land ownership. Comments on this very blog have blamed the landed gentry for a lot of the ridiculous cost of HS2.

          • Matthew Hutton

            The two stories I have heard about HS2 overspend are that George Osbourne wanted a faster train than everyone else – which lead to the obsession with speed.

            And there was a lot of opposition from ordinary voters on the doorstep.

            I am fairly well connected and live very roughly in the same sort of part of the world as Clarkson and I don’t recognise the idea that the landed gentry are making all the decisions.

          • Borners

            If you get your understanding of English society comes from reading the Guardian and Aussie stereotypes you won’t understand how Britain and England work. Aussie stereotypes are about proving that Australia isn’t England with lots land (it isn’t). The former is particularly misleading since its a newspaper committed to maintaining the social status quo by pretending to be revolutionary. Permanent oppositions in a democracy are status quo players. By deliberately obfuscating on the inequalities and abuses in the UK it can avoid taking responsibility (see housing, and my obsessions with the English question).

            Blaming a cynic like Osborne is pointless, HS2’s many mistakes are much more structural to British political, government and activist cultures.

          • Matthew Hutton

            I mean to be fair we built reasonable infrastructure under Thatcher so I find it difficult to believe that its reallt structural.

            I also think if the politicians understood the problem they’d try and fix it. Being able to improve the railways in (more) swing districts is in their interests.

  2. BindingExport

    IDK if you already looked into it but one specific thing that always amazes me is the obsession of the american transit plans with rail ROWs even though they have proven to provide horrible transit ROWs with low ridership (see Denver) and are more expensive (due to class 1 surplus extraction) than building within or under street ROWs (see SWLRT in Minneapolis). (Although Phoenix now which used to build sensibly managed to get over $150 million per km for a surface street median tramway without a single civil structure.)

    • Richard Mlynarik

      It’s not just urban transit plans.

      California’s so-called High Speed Rail system was actively sabotaged by eliminating greenfield routings (Interestate 5, and more polically realistically “West of 99”) that failed to maximally and expensively interact with existing freight railroads and freeways and urban highways.

      Maximizing concrete, maximizing costs, maximizing soft costs, maximizing impacts, maximizing construction duration, maximizing “passenger rail” budget transfers to freeway rebuilding programs and the black hole of freight RR avarice — these are all what the “project” is about. They’ve delivered nothing aside from extensive roadworks (relocating Highway 99, you know, for reasons!) and out of control overcrossings of shitty freight tracks.

      Sure there was greewash — very easily and incredibly outrageously cheap to buy, one of the finest ROIs that any corporation could ever conceive — about “serving urban cores”, “miminzing farmland impacts”, “revitalizing communities” and all that bullshit, but this was done by PBQD solely for PBQD (“WSP”) and it’s worked out very nicely for them and their extra extra extra special friends.

      They love this stuff! They live and breath it. It’s why they exist. Especially the “delivering nothing” part.

        • Alon Levy

          WSP is an engineering consultancy. Parsons-Brinkerhoff is a former engineering consultancy that did a lot of the studies for California HSR and has been subsequently sold to WSP; the Parsons in the name is the same guy who designed the first subway line in New York.

          • CA

            For additional clarification the old longer name of Parsons Brinkerhoff (now WSP) was Parsons Brinkerhoff Quade Douglas, hence PBQD. However, the firm had not traded with that longer name for a decade (perhaps more?) prior to being acquired by WSP.

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