Category: Politics and Society

Institutional Issues: Transparency

Continuing with my series on institutional factors relevant to construction costs, I’d like to turn to a culture of transparency, or lack thereof. It’s unfortunate that the exact breakdown of costs by items and factors that we’ve seen in Italy and Turkey and are seeing in Sweden does not exist in the English-speaking world. It’s further unfortunate that there is an adversarial relationship in the Anglosphere between the civil service and academic researchers like us or the broad public.

It’s a delicate subject, because the cultures of opacity we’ve encountered, the American and the British, certainly correlate with high costs, but we cannot be perfectly certain that they cause them. The peripheral Anglosphere learns many things from the US and UK, so it could just be part of the general correlation between Anglosphere membership and high costs.

That said, we do have reasons to believe this matters. The opacity we’ve encountered in the US and UK is so severe that it ensures there is no proper oversight. A system that punishes junior workers for reporting problems will just not know they exist. It’s best viewed as the Xi Jinping school of governance: demand that people follow the line and not air out problems, until subordinates lie to you just as much as you lie to the public, and local party officials arrest doctors who report to the public about corona while Taiwan is already warning the world about it.

The organization of information

Many episodes of Yes, Minister prominently feature the red boxes of papers for the minister to review. The civil service prepares documents every night for review, and the minister, who thinks he is a reformer, demands to know everything – so the permanent secretary’s office gives him interminable work to look at, down to and including stationery requisition. Needless to say, the minister does not come out of this experience informed about the department’s workings.

One of the obstacles we’ve encountered to a clean itemized comparison of construction costs is that in the US (and apparently also the UK), the information either does not exist or is not made public. We know how much Second Avenue Subway cost; we know how much individual stations cost and even how the stations break down between the civil work and the finishes, but each of these is still $200-500 million in unitemized costs, given as a lump sum contract. There are independent itemized estimates used as a benchmark, but they’re confidential, since the MTA uses them to rate contractor bids.

Any further breakdown we’ve seen is at the level of the minister’s red boxes, stating individual salaries and contracts for concrete and widgets; it’s not even complete information, since most of the work is subcontracted, and what’s subcontracted is opaque even to the independent cost estimators. To the extent we have estimates at a level that’s at all useful, that is high single-digit millions to low tens of millions, they’re cobbled together from many different examples, to the great frustration of people who were hoping for a perfect recipe for them to solve the cost problem.

I must stress that this is in a relatively cooperative environment. I don’t think Janno Lieber is sitting on a detailed breakdown of contracts to tranches of about $30 million and is just making sure we don’t know it. I doubt that this information exists in an organized fashion at all – it lives in the lore of numerous private-sector middle managers each of whom knows a few items.

An example from Italy

Italy has a well-known problem with tax evasion. Pellegrino-Zingales consider tax evasion among small businesses to be one of the root causes behind Italy’s economy stagnation in the last generation, arguing that it encourages firms to hire and promote by loyalty and nepotism (alongside patronage-based credit networks) rather than by merit, and that this has been an especial drag in the age of IT.

More recently, D’Agostino-de Benedetto-Sobbrio consider this question from the other end: what makes people choose to evade taxes? They look at the impact of government spending, proposing two opposed theories: the government as a grabbing hand, which taxpayers perceive as out to get them, and the government as a helping hand, whose spending helps ordinary taxpayers. The grabbing hand model predicts that bigger government leads to more tax evasion, the helping hand model predicts the opposite. While Chinese tax evasion follows the grabbing hand model, Italian tax evasion follows the helping hand model: Italian government spending induces the taxpayers to perceive the Italian state as on their side, reducing tax cheating.

All of this should be treated as background to the fact that, in Italy, the public data on construction costs and their breakdown is of very high quality. Marco Chitti has obtained breakdowns at the level that is useful for us for the upcoming Italian case study, and having read a draft of his report, I can speak with relative confidence (less than he can, of course) about wages, staffing levels, techniques, relative costs, and what the problem sections are.

Transparency and openness

That Sweden has very high-quality public data is probably not surprising to readers who know even a little bit about Nordic institutions. Here, for example, is the published breakdown of one set of contracts for Nya Tunnelbanan. Nordic transparency is a general feature, seeping to so many places, to the point that academic hiring committees in Sweden produce public-facing spreadsheets of all applicants and brief comments on them, and if the comments are positive, along the lines of “almost makes our shortlist but we have too many good candidates this year,” then applicants use that in their next application.

But when it comes to infrastructure megaprojects, we’ve found high transparency wherever we’ve looked in Continental Europe. Italy has the same information quality – because the Italian state works for the people of Italy rather than lording over them in secret.

This transparency extends to analysis of problems. The cost overruns on Grand Paris Express have led to a report by the Cour des Comptes about what happened, with detailed analysis and cost breakdowns (albeit not at granular enough level for our case studies). The report is earnest because the French state, elitist as it is, still works for the public, and acknowledges errors. Likewise, academic work in Italy on cost problems, such as Paolo Beria’s paper on the high costs of Italian high-speed rail, is in wide circulation. In Sweden, there is not only academic student work about the cost overruns of Nya Tunnelbanan but also a brief report a civil servant involved in the project sent us explaining the issue of mid-project changes in regulations.

Then there are the UK and US, where the situation is different. The UK, and countries it influences like Australia, barely even informs the public of the expected cost of a project until it is time to approve it; David Levinson told me that in Australia all communication about costs comes from leaks and trial balloons, unlike in the more open US. Even learning the highest-level breakdown of Crossrail costs required using a freedom of information request, and project-level questions about the cost of individual stations are often redacted (Crossrail 2 made available information about relative costs of stations, not a specific number per station). Reports about critical technological change like driverless trains, increasingly adopted in Paris, are not available to the public in London except through leaks. American governance is somewhat more transparent in the early stages, but key information about choices is hidden in confidential documents; the freedom of information process takes forever and officials freely redact documents or reject handing them over. The American and British freedom of information process screams, the government doesn’t work for you – its relationship with you is adversarial.

Transparency and language

In the last year or so, observing ever more central circles of political activism in the United States, I’ve realized something important: federal policymakers, and state policymakers who interface with them, speak an inscrutable language of bureaucrats who nudge but do not do. This is best illustrated with examples:

  • The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework has a line item about federal funding for previously funded but canceled projects, inserted by Maryland’s senators in order to fund the Baltimore Red Line, which Governor Hogan canceled for racist reasons in 2017. Instead of openly including it as an earmark, or else letting the federal process play it out, the language uses a circumlocution.
  • At a meeting with activists, another advocate asked Beth Osborne of Transportation for America (T4America) about bus shelter. Instead of dealing with the direct issue, she gave a soporific answer about the need for federal standards, which may be Washingtonian for what in English would be rendered as “yes, I’ll do what I can to make sure the feds fund bus shelters,” or it may be Washingtonian for endless process and yet another round of red tape; not speaking the language, I could not and still cannot tell.

The contrast is with the concrete, plain language I see elsewhere from civil servants, to the point that it’s easier for me to go through the Cour des Comptes report, in a language I speak imperfectly, than to try to translate from Washingtonian to English. All of this matters – the use of a form of language designed to speak only to Beltway insiders is itself a form of opacity and American civil servants need to train themselves to on the one hand be more technical when necessary but on the other hand be very clear about what they’re doing.

Transparency as a goal

The path forward must involve treating transparency not as an imposition to be fulfilled through checklists, which produce red boxes, but as a positive goal. It involves ensuring agencies are helpful to regulators, academics, and the broad public, rather than hiding decisions behind walls, often because the reasoning behind such decisions is weak. An academic is expected to make data available to peers and the public, and so must agencies and regulators.

Trust in the civil servants is crucial for public infrastructure to succeed. Results can speak for themselves even in a low-trust system – streets really do come before trust – but the US and UK have poor results. The adversarial relationship with the public produces bad outcomes, and people whose expertise is in stonewalling and making excuses must be replaced with people whose expertise is in building things and accurately reporting on what they’re doing so that others can replicate their success.

Institutional Issues: Professional Oversight

Continuing my series on institutional issues concerning infrastructure costs and quality, after the issue of procurement, I’d like to discuss the issue of the quality of public-sector oversight. It is critical to have extensive in-house expertise inside an apolitical civil service empowered to make technical decisions. The role of the political layer is to set up broad rules, not to micromanage. Conversely, while the top people should avoid micromanagement, they should be expert enough to be capable of making specific decisions.

Civil service and oversight

The importance of civil service to oversight is that it’s the professional layer that has to supervise planners, engineers, architects, and construction teams. There are too many small decisions for a single elected political layer, say a minister and a policy team the minister directly appoints and supervises.

In my procurement post, I was basing my recommendations on common threads I’d seen or read about in low- and medium-cost European countries, and to some extent practice in South Korea, a low-cost country on a par with Southern Europe. All of these make use of professional civil servants to make any of the following decisions:

  • In-house planning. The macro-level decisions on funding levels are political (and never devolved to the agency through dedicated slush funds, unlike for US highways), but the decisions at the level just below, such as what programs to ask the politicians to fund, are made by professional agencies. High-speed rail was invented this way in Japan and then reinvented in France, while upgraded legacy rail was so invented in Germany and perfected in Switzerland.
  • Design and engineering. Those can be done in-house or outsourced to consultants, or more likely some mixture of the two, but even if the design is contracted out, it’s the agency that owns the product and is responsible for it.
  • Contractor selection. It is irresponsible to award a megaproject design contract based on the lowest bid. A technical score is used nearly universally in the low- and medium-cost examples we have looked at, and this means someone needs to come up with sound criteria for scoring and then evaluate each proposal. This has to be done more intelligently than just by rubric. A British source told us of a problem with British technical scoring: every large project is parceled out between different consultants, and thus all consultants can claim experience on the same project, making it impossible at that level to tell which companies do better work than others, even as industry insiders know who does bad work. The same source, when I asked about French comparisons, said that France has extensive in-house expertise and therefore doesn’t hire their consultancy.
  • Contract supervision. Change orders are inevitable, especially for underground projects. Not coincidentally, in Eno’s database the American premium for subways is higher than for at-grade light rail, which is technically more predictable. It’s on the client agency to decide whether to accept or reject changes coming from unpredictable factors, and this requires extensive knowledge of the field.

In my procurement post, I spoke of flexibility. No client can have flexibility without oversight – flexibility without oversight is an anything-goes game in which the contractor abuses the client, the client abuses the contractor, or, most likely, both. And this oversight is necessarily detailed enough that it requires civil service.

An example from Sweden

I spoke to an experienced Swedish project manager earlier this year. The project manager talked to me about the major issues with the construction of Citybanan, the regional rail tunnel Stockholm opened 4 years ago, shortly after I left the country. This included issues of construction techniques (but for further engineering question my source referred me to an engineer) but also competition policy, negotiation, change orders, etc.

At one point in the interview, I asked about something a previous Swedish source told me about, called functional procurement. In functional procurement, the agency maximizes flexibility by specifying only the function of the project, such as the required capacity and schedule, and letting the contractors make suggestions as to how to fulfill it; this is similar to the military concept of mission command, stressing flexibility and training intermediate officers in how to use it in a hierarchical organization.

The project manager said of this growing trend in Swedish procurement: “I can’t say it makes it easier.” The manager then explained the constraints involved – railways have technical specs that make a functional contract not too different from a conventional one, where the design is already figured out and the contractors have to build to it with only minor modifications.

Let’s unpack what happened in that interview. A Swedish manager who does not know me, who I have never met, first of all talked to me in technically adept language, and second of all was willing to go on the record criticizing a trend in infrastructure construction procurement, a trend that the person who put us in contact had mentioned to me as a positive.

I have never heard this kind of internal criticism from American sources, unless they knew me well enough and were trying to get me to publish their internal problems in the media. And quite often, the criticism I would hear from the US was much more pungent, complaining about politics or a bad manager. “We have been trying this trend but I don’t think it’s working,” in exactly the tone you can imagine emerge from the style of quotation, is not a line I recall hearing from an American. The civil servants who criticize something are far more frantic, far more afraid. Sweden will trust its civil servants to literal death. The US (and UK) will not trust them to do anything but follow orders.

Is Sweden unique?

No. Strong traditions of professional civil service exist everywhere we’ve looked outside the US. Even the UK has a semblance of it; the problem there is that the topmost layer of civil servants – the Sir Humphreys – consists of lifelong generalist elites rather than domain experts.

In Italy, the situation is especially lopsided. The political layer of the government is weak because party control changes so often and ministers do not last, and there are so few political appointments that even with political instability, the civil service lasts across those changes. If anything, the instability makes the professional layer stronger.

Apolitical experts

It’s critical to ensure the civil service is not political. This doesn’t just mean that it should not be partisan. There are enough dominant-party jurisdictions in which it’s understood that the civil service exists to implement a predictable political agenda, which can be left-wing (Berlin, New York, California) or right-wing (Bavaria, Texas). Those jurisdictions all have problems coming from the lack of meaningful political competition, but those problems come from politicians, not civil servants. No: political noninterference goes much deeper, and means sidelining issues of petty personal priorities.

The ideal civil service has as few political appointees as possible. Those are neither elected nor meritorious. By their nature, they lack the legitimacy of both the politicians above them and the deep layer of domain experts below them. If they’re selected from among people with industry and operating experience then this is fine – technically senior generals are political appointments in both the US and Israel subject to the usual military norms, and Andy Byford was an external hire for New York City Transit with experience in the industry but not the agency. But letting generalist managers selected for political loyalty parachute in charge of agencies is a recipe for disaster.

The word for people who are always to be managed by people who are not from within their own social group is servants. Such people, knowing that their manager will always be someone who has other priorities that are not always transparent to them, will learn to lower their heads rather than proactively looking for ways to improve their institution.

A scientist working at a federal institution explained it to me this way: “There’s absolutely ways to speed things up, but they need cover from the political appointees at the top. A career officer understands their role to be following an existing plan, laid down in writing by either congress or by a planning process involving the top (i.e. political appointee) officers of the agency.”

This was meant to explain the sluggish FDA corona vaccine approval process, but can equally apply to infrastructure and operations of public transportation. Any variation from a plan written long ago by people who were often not even at the frontier of knowledge then requires political approval.

Trusting the civil service

A low-trust society isn’t one in which common people don’t trust the elites. It’s one in which the elites don’t trust the common people. In the context of civil service, it’s crucial to set up a system in which the top people affirm rather than scourge those below them.

Byford did it well, setting up a system encouraging employees to complain and suggest improvements, much to the surprise of managers at other MTA agencies who preferred scourging their subordinates. At the topmost level, it means the political layer needs to affirm the authority and expertise of the civil servants; in conflict between a petty actor such as a community advocate and the junior members of the state, the state must support its own, while internally ensuring that the proposal has technical merit. (Political merit is judged by elections, not by who screams the most loudly at midday community meetings.)

Civil servants who see that their superiors are hired and promoted from within the ranks or among peers, and judged for their ability to work with those below them and not just those above them (in the tech industry, a managerial hire spends some interview time with the team they are to supervise), will soon learn that they can show initiative. The ones with bad intuition will fail, whereas the ones whose initiative is more successful will be able to rise and transmit their ideas to the group. It goes without saying that this also requires staffing up to normal levels and paying competitive wages. This way, the state can ensure it can oversee its own projects competently; there is no alternative.

Get Rid of Failed Leaders, Publicly

Richard Mlynarik is too nice. He uses expressions like “we’re doomed” and “inexplicably not indicted” and “grossly corrupt,” but I get the feeling that it’s not quite as heavy a grudge as it should be.

The problem with retaining failed leaders and failing projects, you see, is that they exercise soft power. This is seen repeatedly for American rail projects, from BART to San Jose to California High-Speed Rail. But it’s not just infrastructure and not just the United States.

Anders Tegnell’s mass manslaughter

Sweden infamously rejected the typical European approach to corona, which included lockdowns of various levels of intensity and mask mandates. Its chief public health bureaucrat, Anders Tegnell, believed the only solution was herd immunity, that is infecting everyone under retirement age in order to produce herd immunity protecting high-risk populations. None of this happened: no herd immunity was achieved despite his false claims to the contrary, and the virus got into Swedish nursing homes. I computed excess deaths through the beginning of May of this year (and the death toll since has not been high enough to matter); Sweden’s amount to 16.1% of its annual death toll, compared with about 2.5-6% for Norway, Finland, and Denmark, its Nordic peers.

And because Sweden never publicly drew a line and removed Tegnell for his gross incompetence, he gets to keep peddling his denialism, globally. Early on, he was even trying to get Finland not to engage in any lockdowns, explicitly in order to infect more people and reach herd immunity; Finland wisely did not listen and became, together with Norway, the closest thing Europe had to a corona fortress. Sweden enjoys good reputation in the world, which Tegnell abused domestically and in developing countries, counseling a strategy of mass infection in Brazil and India.

The imprimatur of Sweden has enabled him to keep making excuses. He and other defenders of Sweden’s failure say that Sweden has had fewer deaths than the US or Southern European countries; in reality, 22.4% of Swedes age 18-34 lived with parents in 2019, which proportion is similar in other Nordic countries, but in Italy it’s 69.4% and in Spain 64.5% – as with much else, Southern Europe is poor, rather than poorly-governed. He’s even taken to making racist excuses, saying that Sweden has an unusually difficult problem with immigration compared with Norway – but the two countries have similar immigration levels, Sweden just thinks it’s exceptionally open and blames its various social problems (high rape rates, detriorating schools) on immigrants. But the arguments are not what’s relevant. They are weak, but so long as he stays, they seem serious, because a person with a serious position makes them. Sweden is not only mass killing its own residents very day it fails to remove this deadly failure, but also exporting mass death through force of argument.

Excuses in transportation and the people who make them

The head of the Federal Transit Administration is Nuria Fernandez, formerly of San Jose’s transit agency, VTA. This is not the job Fernandez should have. The ideal job for Fernandez is none. She has a record of failure – the San Jose extension of BART, planned and built by VTA and not by BART, is seeing prices skyrocket, currently $9.1 billion, or $950 million per kilometer in an easy environment that is not even 100% underground, only 83%. Fernandez herself, I am told, signed off on questionable design decisions, namely the use of a large-diameter single bore (as in Barcelona’s L9) with oversize station halls (unlike Barcelona) to avoid cut-and-cover construction.

And there’s the rub. One could make arguments why VTA is bad. Richard has made them in comments for many years, foreseeing that the San Jose extension was beeing built without regard for its utility. The engineering decisions are clearly unusual and indefensible; the Barcelona method’s use case is for lines slaloming under older metro lines, not for a city’s first subway, especially not one going underneath wide streets. But as long as the project keeps going, and as long as the FTA is led by a political appointee who came from VTA, the full power of the federal government screams “this is okay.” It doesn’t have the global cachet of Sweden, not in infrastructure, but domestically it sets the tone.

In theory, she could accept that she had failed and work to be better. But she hasn’t. Quite to the contrary. At Eno’s symposium about construction costs and project delivery, she gave the keynote, which decision I had already been suspicious of, but her talk was even worse. While Eno’s experts talked about the need to minimize costs at many panels and about how to do it, she talked about balancing costs with environmental impact (as if there are no environmental protections in Southern Europe) and community needs. It was a boilerplate talk, unrepentant about the fact that she is the wrong person for the job – in fact any job in transportation, management, or government.

The system and the person

The need to remove failures is true at both the level of morally repugnant incompetents like Tegnell and Fernandez and overall systems. At California High-Speed Rail, moral offenders like Quentin Kopp and Rod Diridon are long gone. But their influence persists, as does the basic structure of a politicized board using the project as other people’s money (OPM) for local priorities.

And once again, the survival of the project exerts toxic influence. The state paused it on “let’s be real” grounds during the Trump era, even as Governor Gavin Newsom (himself morally loathsome for flagrantly breaking his own lockdown rule and dining indoors with donors) insisted the project would go as planned and connecting Bakersfield with Fresno was a worthy achievement. So the project was in effect mothballed, but not officially, and so all planning has operated under the assumption that bad decisions from 15 years ago are set in stone and, more importantly, the process that produced them is an acceptable way of building infrastructure.

The need for harshness

People do not exert effort in a social vacuum. They do so for any number of personal or social reasons:

  • A sense of personal achievement and ambition
  • The desire for peer approval
  • The desire for broader social status
  • Money

The higher up they are the managerial hierarchy, the weaker all these reasons become. They are paid too well to be curious of other organizational cultures, especially ones they’ve been brought up to believe are inferior to their own, like Southern Europe to both the US and Northern Europe. Their personal success is testimony to them and to their peers that no fluency in peer organizational cultures is necessary for one’s career, and their retention in important positions affirms that society views their contributions positively.

This is why quiet change is not possible. Sweden adopted mass masking in late 2020, but by then it was too late. Moreover, it keeps Tegnell around, which sends everyone in Sweden a message: we did fine, and as a public health bureaucrat you should aspire to be like Tegnell. A street criminal can be gotten rid of quietly – in some cases having his mother shame him is enough, no legal punishment needed, because said street criminal inspires nobody. A failed official of high public stature cannot, because said official inspires followers, unless removed loudly, clearly, and humiliatingly by a higher authority. In extreme cases like Tegnell’s (but not Fernandez’s), prosecution and lengthy imprisonment are ideal to communicate the gravity of the offense.

And this is equally true at the systemic level, that is that of the project. A small project, like a particular train station rebuild or a short tramway extension, can be postponed quietly. A megaproject cannot – a visible hulk still inspires people who argue in favor of the authority of the state, which de jure keeps the project on the books, and who invent excuses why the project is in fact good and its particular decisions are defensible. It can be built as is, or it can be formally canceled with all the humiliation that implies for the agency involved and the state, or it can be formally canceled and immediately restarted with the implication that all prior decisions are subject to review (as happened with the Green Line Extension in Boston).

There’s always thee temptation to walk back things slowly and quietly. Someone in a high position of power, or a project with symbolic significance for the state or a political movement, is deemed too important to be thrown away. But that’s precisely why throwing failures away is so important. Anyone deemed too important will never challenge themselves or grow, and end up occupying a seat someone with better understanding of the modern global situation should have; anything deemed too important will likewise systemically stagnate and acquire cruft, raising cots and reducing utility. It’s an error to make such people and such projects safe, and in some cases the failure to acknowledge and punish failure can kill tens of thousands.

Early Commitment

I want to go back to the problem of early commitment as I explained it two months ago. It comes out of research done by Chantal Cantarelli and Bert van Wee about Dutch cost overruns, but the theory is more generally applicable and once I heard about it I started seeing it in play elsewhere. The short version is that politically committing to a megaproject too early leads to lock in, which leads to compromised designs and higher costs. The solution, then, is to defer commitment and keep alternatives open as much as possible.

The theory of lock in

The papers to read about it are Cantarelli-Flyvbjeerg-Molin-van Wee (2010), and Cantarelli-Oglethorpe-van Wee (2021). Both make the point that when the decision to build is undertaken, it imposes psychological constraints on the planners. They are not long or difficult papers to read and I recommend people read them in full and perhaps think of examples from their own non-Dutch experience – this problem is broader than just the Netherlands.

For example, take this, from the 2010 paper:

Decision-makers show evidence of entrapment whenever they escalate their commitment to ineffective policies, products, services or strategies in order to justify previous allocations of resources to those objectives (Brockner et al, 1986). Escalating commitment and justification are therefore important indicators of lock-in. The need for justification is derived from the theories of self-justification and the theory of dissonance which describe how individuals search for confirmation of their rational behaviour (Staw, 1981; Wilson and Zhang, 1997). This need arises due to social pressures and “face-saving” mechanisms. The involvement of interest groups and organizational pushes and pulls can also introduce pressures into the decision-making process, threatening the position of the decision-makers, who may feel pressure to continue with a (failing) project in order to avoid publicly admitting what they may see as a personal failure (McElhinney, 2005). “People try to rationalize their actions or psychologically defend themselves against an apparent error in judgment” (Whyte, 1986) (“face-saving”). When the support for the decision is sustained despite contradicting information and social pressures, the argumentation for a decision is based on the need for justification.

The focus on face-saving behavior leading to escalation is not unique to the literature on transportation. In international relations, it is called audience cost and refers to the domestic backlash a political leader suffers in case they back down from a confrontation they were involved in earlier; this way, small escalations turn into bigger ones and eventually to war, or perhaps to a forever occupation.

There are a number of consequences of lock in:

  1. Projects will follow designs set long ago, especially ones that were hotly contentious. For example, California High-Speed Rail has stuck with the decision to build its alignments via Palmdale and Pacheco Pass, since the possibilities of changing Palmdale to the Grapevine/Tejon alignment and Pacheco to Altamont Pass both loomed large (there was a NIMBY lawsuit trying to force a change to Altamont). However, at the same time, there are plans to potentially run the partially-built system without electrification, since that issue was never in contention and is not part o the audience cost.
  2. There are unlikely to be formal cancellations. California is again a good example: high-speed rail lives as a hulk, not formally canceled even when the governor said of the idea to complete it, back during the Trump administration, “let’s be real,” defending the initial construction segment between Bakersfield and Fresno as valuable in itself. Formal cancellation is embarrassing; a forever construction project is less visible a failure.
  3. Prioritization is warped to tie into real or imagined connections with the already-decided project. California is not as clear an example of this as of the other two points, but in New York, once the real (if not yet formal) decision to go forward with Second Avenue Subway was made in the 1990s, the Regional Plan Association tied in every proposed expansion plan to that one line.

Surplus extraction

Cantarelli-van Wee treat early commitment as a problem of bad planners, who become psychologically wedded to potentially incorrect solutions. However, it is instructive to shift the locus of moral blame to surplus extraction by political actors, such a local politicians, power brokers, and NIMBYs.

In the story of HSL Zuid, much of the extra cost should be blamed on excessive tunneling. In the flat terrain of Holland and near-coastal Brabant, no tunneling should have been needed. And yet, the line is 20% underground, partly to serve Schiphol, partly to avoid taking any farmland in the Groene Hart. The Groene Hart tunneling has to be understood in context of rural NIMBYism (since at-grade solutions to habitat loss exist in France).

In this formulation, the problem with lock in is not just at the level of planners (though they share most of the blame in California). It’s at the level of small actors demanding changes for selfish reasons, knowing that the macro decision has already been made and the stat cannot easily walk away from the project if costs rise. These selfish actors can be NIMBY, but they can equally be local power brokers wanting a local amenity like a detour to serve them or a station without commercial justification. In Germany, an extra layer of NIMBYism (albeit not on connected with lock in – we have late commitment here) is demands to include freight on high-speed lines, in order to take it off legacy lines, which design forces gratuitous tunneling on high-speed lines in order to moderate the grade.

California is a good example of a non-NIMBY version of this. The state politically committed to building high-sped rail in the 2008 election, for which it showed clear maps of the trains detouring via Palmdale and going to San Francisco via Pacheco Pass. By the time further environmental design showed that the Los Angeles-Palmdale route would require tens of km more tunneling through Soledad Canyon than anticipated to avoid impact to an ecologically sensitive area, the state had already pitched Palmdale as a key high-speed commuter suburb, and Los Angeles County made housing plans accordingly. The county subsequently kept agitating for retaining Palmdale even as other alignment changes in the area were made, turning Palmdale into its pet project.

The planning literature undertheorizes and understudies problems arising from localism. In conversations with people in the European core as well as the United States, there’s an unspoken assumption that the community is good and the state is bad. If the community demands something, it must represent correction of a real negative externality, rather than antisocial behavior on behalf of self-appointed community leaders who the state can and should ignore. It doesn’t help that the part of Europe with the least community input is the Mediterranean countries, which Northern European planners look down on, believing any success there must be the result of statistical fudging.

The solution: late commitment

To reduce costs and improve projects, it’s best to delay political commitment as late as possible. This means designing uncertain projects and only making the decision to build at advanced stages of design – maybe not 100% but close enough that major revisions are not likely. The American situation in which there is no regular design budget so agencies rely on federal funding for the design of the projects they use the same federal funding for leads to bad outcomes over and over. California, which went to referendum without completing the environmental design first, takes the cake.

Late commitment is thankfully common in low- and medium-cost countries. Germany does not commit to high-speed rail lines early, and, judging by Berlin’s uncertainty over which U-Bahn extensions to even build, it doesn’t commit to subways early either. Sweden is investigating the feasibility of high-speed rail but rail planners who I talk to there make it clear that it’s not guaranteed to happen and much depends on politics and changes in economic behavior; overall, Nordic infrastructure projects are developed by the civil service beyond the concept stage and only presented for political negotiation and approval well into the process. Southern European planners com up with their own extension programs and politically commit close to the beginning of construction.

Consensus and Costs

I’m in the middle of an online symposium at Eno about construction costs; I talked on Tuesday and I think there will be a recording made available later. The conference is good by a lot of standards, including the “do they tell me things I don’t know about costs” standard. But for now, I want to address one point made repeatedly in interviews re some low-cost cities: the argument from consensus. It’s wrong, and leads to very wrong conclusions.

What is the argument from consensus?

In Eno’s lowest-cost comparison cities, like Madrid, there’s political consensus in favor of building more subways. Repeated panels gave this example of how in the 1990s and 2000s, PP and PSOE both supported subway construction and promised to build more in their election campaigns for the Community of Madrid. PSOE in fact attacked PP saying its proposals were unrealistically ambitious, but then the Madrid Metro expansion opened as planned. In such a political environment, no wonder planners had leeway to build the system without much interference.

Why is this wrong?

Britain has bipartisan political consensus in favor of both Crossrail and High Speed 2, both of which are explicitly supported in both parties’ manifestos. Its construction costs are still Europe’s highest.

More to the point, the United States is not uniformly an environment where public transportation is a partisan flashpoint, because in most of the cities that build subways, the Republican Party does not exist. The closest thing to a Republican Party in New York is the Manhattan Institute, which criticizes unions incessantly but does not call for ending public support for the subway and refrains from making the anti-transit arguments made by national Republican outfits like Reason and Cato. The last Republican mayor, Rudy Giuliani [sic], tried to expand the subway to LaGuardia. I’ve met New Yorkers who view Giuliani as a savior and who are ant-immigration climate denialists and thy too think the city and state should make the subway better – if anything they treat its poor state as evidence that the Democrats can’t govern.

This consensus does not lead to low costs. Why would it? There is no respect for planners or engineers. The consensus in New York means every governor installs their political cronies at the head of the agencies involved. None of the mechanisms that make Madrid Metro work is present.

The consequences

Just having more political support for subway construction is not going to by itself make things better. American states where investment is safe from cancellation do not do better than ones where one election could spell doom for the investment program. Sea changes are required, not just more public support.

Rapid Transit as an Amenity

An urban rapid transit system needs to be understood as both a consumption amenity and a production amenity. As a consumption amenity, it lets people have access to more of the city, for work as well as recreational travel; people pay a premium to live close to the subway. As a production amenity, it makes it easier to build dense office clusters and expect that people can get to work without too much traffic; businesses pay a premium to locate in city center. This means that such infrastructure is generally good for the city’s economy and the well-being of the people in it, without prominent distributional impact.

City center and rapid transit

I wrote a thread two years ago about CBD job concentration. The thread looks at the total number of jobs in the central 100 km^2 of a metro area, which figure is used because it’s about the land area of Paris plus La Défense and INSEE data only exists at the level of the commune or arrondissement (see for example here). Pointing out that Dallas and Atlanta’s central 100 km^2 have only about as many jobs as Vancouver’s and half as many as San Francisco’s, I talked about the need to build bigger CBDs to entice higher transit ridership.

This looks weird to people who immediately associate European cities with short buildings and polycentricity and American ones with tall buildings and monocentricity. But at the scale of 100 km^2, European cities are far more centralized. Paris has 2.2 million jobs in the central 100 km^2, the Bay Area 850,000, Dallas and Atlanta 400,000 each.

And as I threaded about this, it was pointed out to me that Dallas does not have very strong demand for office space in city center. Parisian commercial rents in the 8th are very high, indicating demand for taller buildings than Europeans find acceptable; Texan commercial rents in city centers indicate no such pent-up demand, and the Dallas CBD has high vacancy rates. In Los Angeles, the center is weak as well – in a metro region 50% larger than Paris, the most gerrymandered central blob, not at all centered on Downtown Los Angeles but rather reaching from Downtown to Century City and UCLA, has around 800,000 jobs. The highest pent-up demand in Downtown LA is residential and not commercial.

I bring this up because this indicates rapid transit is a strong amenity for producers: they pay a premium to locate in city center, provided a large system exists to feed commuters to their offices. This is the case in New York, Paris, and other transit cities, but notably not in large auto-oriented cities like Los Angeles and Dallas.

…but it’s not just about work

Transit cities are not just places of production. The city is simultaneously a production amenity and a consumption amenity. Pure production amenities, like the quality of the harbor, the location relative to logistics facilities, and the tax rate on businesses, do not draw in people except insofar as they lead to higher wages. But transit cities do draw people in – residential rents are higher where job access is better and even where general access to non-work destinations is better.

This effect happens at several levels. The highest level is the regional one: a transit city is less polluted than an auto-oriented alternative of the same size, and clean air is a consumption amenity. The lowest level is the block: the construction of rapid transit raises property values near stations. In between, there are the benefits of access, which like the regionwide benefits are diffuse; it’s hard to point out an exact set of winners and losers.

This is not just a matter of job access. A transit city is good at access to special amenities, of the type that people do not go to very regularly. Ones that people do go to regularly do not require public transit: an auto-oriented medium-size metropolitan region can perfectly well provide high-quality retail choices with plenty of variety. I don’t recall missing anything at the shopping centers of the French Riviera, nor hearing complaints about same from Americans in similar-size regions.

But once the options get more specialized, size and transit accessibility become important. Los Angeles notably has amazing restaurants from just about every ethnic and regional tradition on the planet and also it takes two hours to drive to them because they’re strewn about five counties with no fast transit options. It’s nothing like New York and Paris, which have plentiful options as well but they’re within 30-60 minutes by train.

Specialized restaurants are a convenient example – they won’t cluster in city center because that’s expensive, but they’d like to be in near-center areas, perhaps in the central 100 or 200 or 500 km^2 but not the central 5 or 10 km^2. But the same issue occurs for everything else: museums, visits to friends throughout the region, etc.

The implication of dual amenities

Rapid transit is annoying to analyze in that it doesn’t break down neatly as for one group or another. It’s incredibly diffuse, and the only definitive interest group that benefits from its existence more than anyone else, the providers, is small and doesn’t always benefit from making it more efficient. There are no distributional impacts to mitigate or take advantage of; the environmental impacts are uniformly positive because of the competition with cars and auto-oriented development; the local benefits of access are real but require building an expansive system with hundreds of stations each generating local benefits in a small radius.

The result is that it bores people who enjoy conflict. There is not much there for the marketer to bite on – transit as a product is optimized when everyone uses it. The upshot of the fact that rapid transit is simultaneously a production amenity and a consumption amenity is that there is nothing there for people who enjoy dwelling on class conflict or on postmaterialist New Left notions of conflict, either. Socialist states have built great transit systems once things have settled down and it’s time to rebuild, but would-be socialist revolutionaries in non-socialist states find it boring. Likewise, New Left green politics is much more interested in pure consumption amenities like bike paths and street redesign than in dual amenities like rapid transit, which also benefits the staid corporations green voters define themselves against. From the other direction, people whose political identity is indifference to the needs of anyone who’s not a business don’t find transit interesting, even though it clearly benefits business, because it doesn’t offer opportunity to engage in right-populist or Thatcherite politicking: it’s possible to run the system like a business, but actually kicking out visibly poor people fragments the market and reduces frequency.

Cost- and Project-Centric Plans

I did a poll on Patreon about cost issues to write about. This is a close second, with 11 votes; other people’s money won with 12, whereas neighborhood empowerment got 8 and will not be on my docket.

There are infrastructure investment programs defined around the specific projects funded: Crossrail, Second Avenue Subway, Grand Paris Express, Nya Tunnelbanan, the Toronto RER, Marmaray. Then there are programs defined around costs, where one constantly hears the project defined by its budget rather than what it produces; these are all in the United States, and include the entire slates of Los Angeles and Seattle rail extensions, and to some extent also California High-Speed Rail and Gateway. The latter appears like bad practice for cost minimization.

What’s the problem?

In isolation, I’d have expected cost-centric plans to be more prudent with the budget – there’s less room for overruns. This is related to Swiss practice, which is project-centric but also requires projects to go to referendum on the precise amount, which has disciplined cost overruns in most cases and also kept absolute costs low. However, the fact of the matter is that the only places that use cost-centric plans have high costs, having recently risen from levels that were not so bad 20 years ago. So why?

My suspicion is leakage. This is getting to be less general and more specific to the situation of California and its sales tax measures, but the way it works is, there is an amount that proponents think they can go to ballot on, and then they work the slate of projects backward. In theory, this is supposed to discipline the planners into better behavior: the amount of money is truly fixed, and if costs go up, it delays the entire program. In practice, there is no prior discipline about what infrastructure should be included, and thus the slate is decided politically on a place-based plan.

Further leakage occurs when buying off additional interest groups. Soon enough, one useful if very expensive subway line, like the Purple Line Extension in Los Angeles or the Ballard-West Seattle LRT, is bundled into a huge program alongside bus operating subsidies, road money, and low-usage lines to lower-density areas.

I can’t prove that this is the result of budget-centric planning. The comparison examples I have – all high-cost, politicized North American projects – exhibit leakage as well, but less of it. The Green Line Extension in Boston had extensive local leakage in the first iteration of the project, like the Somerville Community Path, but it wasn’t paired with less useful infrastructure elsewhere. Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 was paired with East Side Access and the Broadway subway in Vancouver is paired with a SkyTrain extension deeper into Surrey toward Langley; in both cases, the less useful projects are nonetheless more useful on a likely cost per rider basis than any of the American West Coast leakage and compete with the more useful projects. ESA is probably going to end up $60,000/rider, not much worse than GLX and probably about the same as the Purple Line Extension depending on how much transit-oriented development Los Angeles permits.

Place-based extraction

Place-based politics is a scourge and should be eradicated whenever possible. What it does wherever it is not suppressed is create political identification among local and regional power brokers not with the piece of infrastructure but its cost. The reason is that evaluating transportation needs is too technocratic for the attention span of a local politician, whereas the budget is a straightforward measure of one’s importance.

Once local actors are empowered, they make further demands for irrelevant extras (“betterments”), or construction techniques that spend too much money to avoid real or imagined negative local impact. People with a local identity don’t care about public transit much – public transit takes riders to other localities, especially city center, whereas the locally-empowered minority of people who work locally has little use for it and drives everywhere.

Local empowerment is not unique to budget-based infrastructure. It was a major drag on GLX and at least a moderate one on SAS Phase 1, neither of which is budget-based. The Central Subway and BART to San Jose projects are both place-based vanity, for Chinatown and San Jose respectively, but even these projects are smaller in scope than the Los Angeles or Seattle ST3 leakage. There’s just more surface area for it when advocates lead with a budget, because then every local hack sees an opportunity to make a claim.

The place-based politics in the Northeast is much broader and more regional: SAS, a city project championed by then-Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Lower East Side), was balanced with ESA, a suburban project serving the base of Governor George Pataki (R-Peekskill, but the state Republicans were based on Long Island). Metro Vancouver’s place-based extraction follows the same schema: if Vancouver gets a useful SkyTrain extension, Surrey must get an extension too regardless of usefulness. Massachusetts is likely to be in a similar situation with the TransitMatters Regional Rail program: RR serves the entire east of the state, and must be balanced with a Western Massachusetts project, for which we propose the still-useful East-West Rail program connecting Boston and Springfield.

In contrast, the situation in California and metropolitan Seattle is much worse – useful lines in Los Angeles are paired with many layers of leakage, as different groups make claims on the pot of money. This way, Los Angeles doesn’t build as much useful transit as New York and Boston even though its construction costs are comparable to Boston’s and much lower than those of New York, and even though it makes large amounts of money available for transportation by referendum.

Are jobs a cost or benefit?

Like place-based extraction, the use of infrastructure as a jobs program is terrible everywhere in a modern developed country where construction is not a labor-intensive zero-skill job, and should be eradicated. And like place-based extraction, I think – and am less certain than on the other points – there is more surface area for this when the program is about a budget and not a piece of infrastructure.

The mechanism is the same as before: once money becomes available, local labor groups descend on it to make claims. Promises of job creation are thus always local, including beggar-thy-neighboring-state demands for local rolling stock construction. These occur for both budget-based plans (like the Los Angeles light rail fleet) and project-based ones (like the new Red and Orange Line cars for Boston, built in Springfield due to place-based extraction). However, it’s easier to make a claim when the political discussion is about how to spend $X and not how to optimally produce a desired piece of infrastructure.

The way forward

The American West Coast’s problem of budget-based planning is, thankfully, easy to solve, because it’s been solved in other parts of the same country. The Bay Area has less of it than Southern California and the Pacific Northwest (but it’s not free of it – many of the specifics of California High-Speed Rail’s failure come from Bay Area power brokers hoping to use it as a slush fund). The Northeast doesn’t have it at all. Los Angeles is likely to be forced in that direction anyway, because it’s running out of sales tax capacity – the already-approved measures are spoken for through the 2050s.

The impact is likely not a matter of straight construction costs in dollars per kilometer. Rather, it’s about leakage. Los Angeles and Seattle do not have unusually higher per-km costs by American standards; in the 2000s Los Angeles looked like the good part of America and in the 2010s Seattle did, but since both have converged to much higher figures. The problem is that a smaller share of the Los Angeles Measures R and M spending goes to useful expansion than the capital budget in places that have project-based planning. This is what needs to be fixed through transitioning to project-based planning, costs aside.

I Voted, but There’s no YIMBY Politics in Germany

It’s the first time in my life I’m eligible to vote in a national election. I thought it would be faster than it was; the line took 1:10, of which the first 10 minutes were taken standing in the wrong line – there were two precincts at the same physical location. It felt weird, feeling out of place and yet knowing, approximately for the first time in my life (unless one counts the European Parliament election), that I had a right to be there no matter what.

I voted Green, up and down the ballot, which is a vote for prioritizing public transportation over cars and climate protection over coal jobs and cheap Russian natural gas, but is not a YIMBY vote. And there’s the rub: a YIMBY political party does not exist here, and neither does even a YIMBY movement.

YIMBY is not exactly a movement about more development. It’s specifically about development in the most in-demand urban areas, through infill. It’s about aggressive transit-oriented development; when YIMBYs cite a success case, it’s the TOD of Tokyo and Seoul, and to a lesser extent what’s happening in Stockholm (where the term YIMBY originates) and the Paris suburbs, and not the equally fast but exclusively suburban and auto-oriented development in the Austin area.

And this does not exist here. SPD supports building housing in Tempelhofer Feld; the Greens are against it, treating it as common parkland, where in reality the treeless field makes a poor park and is adjacent to actual wooded parks in Kreuzberg and Neukölln. So in that sense SPD is the YIMBYer party – but SPD also built a freeway cutting through Neukölln last decade, going into coalition with CDU rather than with the Greens in order to build it. The Greens, in contrast, oppose freeways and support bike lanes and road diets – but they oppose new housing, want to downscope a proposed high-rise building in Alexanderplatz, and prefer bike lanes and city center tram expansion to extending the U- and S-Bahn.

And there’s the rub. The central tenet of YIMBYism is that cities are predominantly loci of production, and people choose where to move based on work more than anything else; building more housing is the central policy proposal, in recognition that economic production is done predominantly in city centers. And this does not exist, because every political faction that wants to build more housing pairs this with more roads and more peripheral locations for new development. The idea that post-car cities represent growth rather than stagnation does not exist in German politics, at least not yet. People still think of cars as the industrial future, rather than as what people thought the future would be 70 years ago, about as relevant to the world of tomorrow as what people thought of agriculture in the 19th century was in the middle of the 20th. The Greens just want to slow that industrial future down instead of building the information future – and nobody in German politics wants to build that future, the right preferring more cars and more gas.

I suspect there’s room for such YIMBY politics in Germany, cobbled together from the most left-wing fringes of FDP, the younger and less NIMBY Greens, and sundry SPD members. Already, most Green voters in Berlin support Tempelhof redevelopment, albeit at much narrower margins than SPD, FDP, and CDU voters. At the climate march two years ago, I saw a single anti-nuclear sign carried by two older people; new nuclear is out of the question here due to costs, but it matters that younger Greens aren’t animated by Green boomers’ anti-nuclear activism. There was a bigger sign carried by a few people opposing urban development, but it was one sign, not the thousands of generic signs about climate change and many hundreds opposing coal power, oil, and cars. Up the Elbe, younger G/EFA parties like the Czech Pirates are pro-digital.

Good Practices for State Planning and Local Public Transportation

Earlier this week, I complained about the OPM (other people’s money) problem: federal funding of American public transportation, which is managed locally, leads to cost-raising behavior as local and state governments seek to maximize federal infusion of cash. This is a companion post about more positive and fruitful interactions of government at different levels on this side of the Pond. The examples here often look pointless or acrimonious by local standards, but at the end of the day, they produce cost-effective infrastructure and are positive examples to learn from.

Of note, all the examples below are from unitary, not federal states. This is just an artifact of where I have talked to the most people about this – from what I know of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Belgium, they all fall within the spectrum spanned by Italy, Turkey, France, and Sweden when it comes to state-local funding allocation. Moreover, the extent of subnational fiscal autonomy in Germany is not greater than that of Sweden, where there are extensive county and municipal taxes funding subnational government, whereas in Germany nearly all taxes are federal and the Länder mostly rely on transfers.

This is a theme I’ve been investigating ever since I talked to a planner at DOTr. Philippine construction costs are high, although that’s mainly for subways, while elevated lines have fairly average costs. The planner explained to me how planning and procurement are done and specifically how it contrasts with the role of the federal government in the US. Manila Metro projects are planned and designed by DOTr, and ever since that conversation I’ve learned to interpret interviews with European experts in that light.

Sweden: state-local negotiation

The Nordic states practice consensus government. This means that decisions are done by majority vote without veto points, but also there’s no such thing as a majority. In practice, infrastructure involves negotiations between different stakeholders. Bigger projects, including the subway megaprojects we study, require funding from different sources, creating more stakeholders in the process.

In the case of Stockholm, it’s instructive to compare Citybanan and Nya Tunnelbanan. Citybanan is a regional rail tunnel, and therefore the lead agency was the state’s Trafikverket – but even then, Stockholm County had extensive input. Regions send wishlists to the state, and compete for a fixed pot of funding for grants, but there are further negotiations about project details. Nya Tunnelbanan is a subway project led by the county’s SL, but funding comes 25% from local sources, 25% from the county, and 50% from the state.

Crucially, Trafikverket builds rather than just nudges. It has a strong professional civil service capable of designing and supervising the construction of infrastructure megaprojects – and the same pool of civil servants move between agencies within the Swedish public sector, so that some of the people I’ve spoken to have moved between Trafikverket and SL. The example planners I have in mind are mid-level, not top management – this is not a case of a mobile executive suite lording over mid- and low-level career bureaucrats who can’t move between agencies easily.

There is also integration of transport and housing, in the sense that residential upzoning in Stockholm County focuses on areas that have or will soon have urban rail access. Construction rates in Stockholm County are some of the highest in Europe: per SCB, annual completions were around 6.5-7 per 1,000 people in the five years before corona. I’ve been told that it’s a consensual process, with no further elaboration; in Oslo, in contrast, the state has to compel wealthy NIMBY municipalities to upzone as a precondition of giving them subway expansion, but state-local coordination is as far as I can tell otherwise similar to the situation in Stockholm.

Turkey: state-local competition, but no OPM

Turkey has one of the world’s lowest construction cost levels; more details will be available in a report to appear soon, led by Elif Ensari. Wages in Turkey are low by European standards and social protections are weak, but the direct labor share of subway construction is small enough that it is a secondary contributor to the low costs; Turkey dos some things more efficiently than Sweden and others less efficiently.

The situation of state-local relations there is the exact opposite of Sweden’s. There is no collaboration – rather, there are metro tunnels in Istanbul funded and built by the state and others funded and built by the city.

The city is not quite local – the municipality covers the entire metropolitan area of 15.5 million people, and Istanbul politics has an ideological left (i.e. anti-Erdoğan) vs. right (i.e. pro-Erdoğan) characteristic rather than the hyperlocal ties of New York and other American cities. Moreover, now that AKP lost the municipal election and the mayor is CHP’s Ekrem İmamoğlu, who will likely challenge Erdoğan in the 2023 presidential election, there is friction between the state and the city, each trying to argue that it builds more and better infrastructure. There are arguments between pro- and anti-Erdoğan sources over who is to blame, but the city has much less access to state financing now than before İmamoğlu’s victory, which it has been able to replace with financing from the European Investment Bank and other sources of loans, like JICA and Deutsche Bank.

In this situation, there is no coordination, and this is a drag on efficiency – one of the ways Istanbul has been able to keep costs down is finding parks and state land to use for station footprint to keep station construction costs down. However, because there is direct responsibility for the state or the city for infrastructure, there is no OPM problem – İmamoğlu’s political career depends in part on his ability to build infrastructure, and Erdoğan’s ability to interfere is real but limited.

Housing construction is extremely rapid. Istanbul has a housing surplus thanks to the construction of around 160,000 annual housing units; neighborhood character is not a priority there. But I do not know whether it is integrated with subway construction as in Sweden.

France: the capital is the state

France has a convoluted set of local and regional governing mechanisms. However, in Paris, much of the power remains in state and state-appointed organs. The transport association Ile-de-France Mobilités, which would be called a Verkehrsverbund in Germany, is coordinated by the Ile-de-France region, but its two largest components, SNCF and RATP, are both state-owned (though SNCF-RATP agency turf battles remain). Public services that elsewhere in France might be devolved are in Paris often run by the state – for example, the Paris Police Prefecture is part of the National Police, and it’s smaller cities, for example in the Riviera, that have local police departments.

This is not unique to France. In infrastructure, Sweden too exhibits more state involvement in urban rail planning in the capital than in smaller cities – Västlänken in Gothenburg is a Trafikverket project but more of the planning and funding come from the county than was the case for Citybanan. London is a mix: TfL is run by the mayor, offering much more devolution than the Metropolitan Counties of England have, but conversely the construction of infrastructure megaprojects like Crossrail is really within the purview of UK-wide politics.

The issue here is one of scale. Grand Paris Express is a 200 km, 80% tunneled project, and France is a medium- rather than low-cost country. Even the state barely has enough planning capacity for it – the Cour des Comptes report on the cost overruns, not seen before for smaller Métro extensions, blamed the insufficient size of existing planning organs, but unfortunately, the solution arrived at, the special-purpose delivery vehicle (SPDV) GPE, is not good, and is either in imitation of or evolved toward convergence with Crossrail. Nothing below the level of the state could build such a project.

And because the project is so large, it’s been forced into a situation that rhymes with Sweden’s intergovernmental negotiation. It’s also been discussed as part of national politics, with some redesigns stemming from the Sarkozy-Hollande transition. In some cases, this has led to OPM – namely, M18 is unpopular among the region’s public transportation advocates and remains because of pressure by the high-income suburbs it would serve. However, there is no visible impact on unit costs; it’s notable that the OPM the state would dispense is additional infrastructure at per-rider costs that are high for France but common in the United States, rather than extras of little use like signature stations or more expensive construction methods.

Finally, housing construction in Ile-de-France is, as in Stockholm County, among the YIMBYest in Europe. Yonah Freemark’s paper on the subject is indispensable: stating around 2017, the annual construction rate rose to 80,000 units regionwide, around 6.5/1,000 people. Construction is largely in the Petite Couronne suburbs, and not the city, and focuses on regions with current or future urban rail extensions, as in Stockholm.

Italy: state planning and austerity

A full report on Italy will appear soon, on a similar timeline as Turkey, written by Marco Chitti. In Italy, there has been a transition from municipal funding and planning of metros to state funding; in Rome, there was always more state involvement as I understand it.

The situation leading up to the Financial Crisis had similarities with the United States: state funding, municipal or regional responsibility for construction. However, the state always exercised far more oversight. The Italian state builds rather than just nudging. State regulation is done through administrative rather than judicial mechanisms, and thus questions of environmental and historical protection are decided by civil servants trained in engineering, archeology, history, and ecology; there are clear rules, providing similar final outcomes to the Nordic process of negotiation and superior ones to the American process of lawsuit.

More recently, the state has devolved some of the funding to regional, provincial, and municipal governance. This was an artifact of post-Crisis austerity, so the state would fund the majority (I believe 70%) of each project’s budget but not all of it. The result has not been positive – subnational governments have no money, not even wealthy ones like Milan, and to fill in for missing state funding they’ve resorted to PPP financing, which has not impacted construction costs but in effect required hidden loans at high interest bonded to future revenue.

The Other People’s Money Problem

I did a poll on Patreon about cost issues to write about. This is the winning option, with 12 votes; project- vs. budget-driven plans came second with 11 and I will blog about it soon, whereas neighborhood empowerment got 8.

OPM, or other people’s money, is a big impediment to cost reform. In this context, OPM refers to any external infusion of money, typically from a higher-level government from that controlling an agency. Any municipal or otherwise local agency, not able or willing to raise local taxes to fund itself, will look for external grants, for example in a federal budget. The situation then is that the federal grantor gives money but isn’t involved in the design of where the money goes to, leading to high costs.

OPM at ground level

Local and regional advocates love OPM. Whenever they want something, OPM lets them have it without thinking in terms of tradeoffs. Want a new piece of infrastructure, including everything the local community groups want, with labor-intensive methods that also pay the wages the unions hop for? OPM is for you.

This was a big problem for the Green Line Extension’s first iteration. Somerville made ridiculous demands for signature stations and even a bike path (“Somerville Community Path”) thrown in – and all of these weren’t jut extra scope but also especially expensive, since the funding came from elsewhere. The Community Path, a 3 km bike path, was budgeted at $100 million. The common refrain on this is “we don’t care, it’s federally funded.” Once there’s an outside infusion of money, there is no incentive to spend it prudently.

OPM modifying projects

In capital construction, OPM can furthermore lead to worse projects, designed to maximize OPM rather than benefits. Thus, not only are costs high, but also the results are deficient. In my experience talking to New Englanders, this takes the form of trying to vaguely connect to a politician’s set of petty priorities. If a politician wants something, the groups will try pitching a plan that is related to that something as a sales pitch. The system thus encourages advocates and local agencies to invest in buying politicians rather than in providing good service.

This kind of behavior can persist past the petty politician’s shelf life. To argue their cases, advocates sometimes claim that their pet project is a necessary component of the petty politician’s own priority. Then the petty politician leaves and is replaced by another, but by now, the two projects have been wedded in the public discourse, and woe betide any advocate or civil servant who suggests separating them. With a succession of petty politicians, each expressing interest in something else, an entire ecosystem of extras can develop, compromising design at every step while also raising costs.

The issue of efficiency

In the 1960s, the Toronto Transit Commission backed keeping a law requiring it to fund its operations out of fares. The reason was fear of surplus extraction: if it could receive subsidies, workers could use this as an excuse to demand higher wages and employment levels, and thus the subsidy would not go to more service. As it is, by 1971 this was untenable and the TTC started getting subsidies anyway, as rising market wages required it to keep up.

In New York, the outcome of the cycle of more subsidies and less efficiency is clearer. Kyle Kirschling’s thesis points out on PDF-p. 106 that New York City Transit’s predecessors, the IRT and BMT, had higher productivity measured in revenue car-km per employee in the 1930s than the subway has today. The system’s productivity fell from the late 1930s to 1980, and has risen since 1980 but (as of 2010) not yet to the 1930s peak. The city is one of a handful where subway trains have conductors; maintenance productivity is very low as well.

Instead of demanding efficiency, American transit advocates tend to demand even more OPM. Federal funding only goes to capital construction, not operations – but the people who run advocacy organizations today keep calling for federal funding to operations, indifferent to the impact OPM would have on any effort to increase efficiency and make organizations leaner. A well-meaning but harmful bill to break this dam has been proposed in the Senate; it should be withdrawn as soon as possible.

The difference between nudging and planning

I am soon going to go over this in more details, but, in brief, the disconnect between funding and oversight is not a universal feature of state funding of local priorities. In all unitary states we’ve investigated, there is state funding, and in Sweden it’s normal to mix state, county, and municipal funding. In that way, the US is not unique, despite its federal system (which at any case has far more federal involvement in transportation than Canada has).

Where the US is unique is that the Washington political establishment doesn’t really view itself as doing concrete planning. It instead opts for government by nudge. A federal agency makes some metrics, knowing that local and state bodies will game them, creating a competition for who can game the other side better. Active planning is shunned – the idea that the FTA should have engineers who can help design subways for New York is unthinkable. Federal plans for high-speed rail are created by hiring an external consultant to cobble together local demands rather than the publicly-driven top-down planning necessary for rail.

The same political advocates who want more money and care little for technical details also care little for oversight. They say “regulations are needed” or “we’ll come up with standards,” but never point to anything concrete: “money for bus shelter,” “money for subway accessibility,” “money for subway automation,” etc. Instead, in this mentality the role of federal funding is to be an open tab, in which every leakage and every abnormal cost is justified because it employed inherently-moral $80,000/year tradesmen or build something that organized groups of third-generation homeowners in an expensive city want. The politics is the project.