After four posts about the poor state of political transit advocacy in the United States, here’s how I think it’s possible to do better. Compare what I’m proposing to posts about the Green Line Extension in metro Boston, free public transport proposals, federal aid to operations, and a bad Green New Deal proposal by Yonah Freemark.
If you’re thinking how to spend outside (for example, federal) money on local public transportation, the first thing on your mind should be how to spend for the long term. Capital spending that reduces long-term operating costs is one way to do it. Funding ongoing operating deficits is not, because it leads to local waste. Here are what I think some good guidelines to do it right are.
Working without consensus
Any large cash infusion now should work with the assumption that it’s a political megaproject and a one-time thing; it may be followed by other one-time projects, but these should not be assumed. High-speed rail in France, for example, is not funded out of a permanent slush fund: every line has to be separately evaluated, and the state usually says yes because these projects are popular and have good ROI, but the ultimate yes-no decision is given to elected politicians.
It leads to a dynamic in which it’s useful to invest in the ability to carry large projects on a permanent basis, but not pre-commit to them. So every agency should have access to public expertise, with permanent hires for engineers and designers who can if there’s local, state, or federal money build something. This public expertise can be in-house if it’s a large agency; smaller ones should be able to tap into the large ones as consultants. In France, RATP has 2,000 in-house engineers, and it and SNCF have the ability to build large public transport projects on their own, while other agencies serving provincial cities use RATP as a consultant.
It’s especially important to retain such planning capacity within the federal government. A national intercity rail plan should not require the use of outside consultants, and the federal government should have the ability to act as consultant to small cities. This entails a large permanent civil service, chosen on the basis of expertise (and the early permanent hires are likely to have foreign rather than domestic experience) and not politics, and yet the cost of such a planning department is around 2 orders of magnitude less than current subsidies to transit operations in the United States. Work smart, not hard.
However, investing in the ability to build does not mean pre-committing to build with a permanent fund. Nor does it mean a commitment to subsidizing consumption (such as ongoing operating costs) rather than investment.
Funding production, not consumption
It is inappropriate to use external infusions of cash for operations and, even worse, maintenance. When maintenance is funded externally, local agencies react by deferring maintenance and then crying poverty whenever money becomes available. Amtrak fired David Gunn when the Bush administration pressured it to defer maintenance in order to look profitable for privatization and replaced him with the more pliable Joe Boardman, and then when the Obama stimulus came around Boardman demanded billions of dollars for state of good repair that should have built a high-speed rail program instead.
This is why American activists propose permanent programs – but those get wasted fast, due to surplus extraction. A better path forward is to be clear about what will and will not be funded, and putting state of good repair programs in the not-funded basket; the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework’s negotiations were right to defund the public transit SOGR bucket while keeping the expansion bucket.
Moreover, all funding should be tied to using the money prudently – hence the production, not consumption part. This can be capital funding, with the following priorities, in no particular order:
- Capital funding that reduces long-term operating costs, for example railway electrification and the installation of overhead wires (“in-motion charging“) on bus trunks.
- Targeted investments that improve the transit experience. Bus shelter is extremely cost-effective on this point and a federal program to fund it at a level of around $15,000/stop (not more – it’s easy to make local demands that drive it up to $50,000) would have otherworldly social rates of return. Washington bureaucrats are loath to be this explicit about what to do – they try to speak in circumlocutions, saying “standards for bus stops” instead of just funding shelter, or “transit asset management” instead of just committing to not playing the SOGR game.
- Accessibility upgrades. This require close federal control to eliminate local waste, because much of the money would be going to New York, which has a long-term problem of siphoning accessibility money to other priorities like adding station access points or repairing stations, and has a uniquely incompetent local environment when it comes to construction costs.
- Planning aid for improving bus-rail interface; these two modes are often not planned together in American cities, and commuter rail is not planned in conjunction with other modes. San Jose, for example, has a proposal for large expansion of bus service, part of which is parallel to Caltrain; the local agency, VTA, owns one third of Caltrain and could expand rail service within the county and integrate it with bus service better, but does not do so.
- Rail automation, to reduce long-term operating costs. Bus automation could go in this bucket too but is at this point too speculative; save it for one or two stimuli in the future.
Avoiding local extraction
Local government has very little democratic legitimacy. It’s based on informal power arrangements, in which direct elections play little role; partisan elections are rare and instead primaries reign with severe democratic deficits (for example, it’s hard to form any kind of base for opposition to challenge a sitting New York mayor or governor). Without national ideology to guide it, it is the domain of cranks and people with the time and leisure to attend community meetings on weekdays at 3 pm. Local community takes its illegitimate power and thieves what others create, whether it is the market or the state.
Recognizing this pattern means that federal funding should not under any circumstances coddle local arrangements. If, for example, California cannot spend money cost-effectively because it is constrained by referendum, federal funding can be used to bypass this system, but never work under its rules. If the local business community is traumatized by cut-and-cover construction in the distant past, the feds should insist that subway money that they give will be used for cut-and-cover instead of mined stations.
The typical surplus extraction pattern concerns car dominance. State DOTs are in effect highway departments; transit planning is siloed, usually at separate agencies. They use their power to demand the diversion of transit money to roads. For example, in Tampa, a plan to increase bus service led to a DOT demand to pave the routes with concrete lanes at transit agency expense (with federal or state transit funding). The list of BRT projects that were just highway widenings is regrettably too long. The feds should actively demand to keep transit funding for transit, and not roads, social services, policing, or other priorities.
In particular, the feds should give money for some bus improvements, but demand that agencies prioritize the bus over the car. No bus lanes? No signal priority? No money. Similarly, they should demand they engage in internal efficiency measures like stop consolidation and all-door boarding with proof of payment ticket collection, which a larger and more expert FTA can give technical assistance for.
It may also be prudent to give transitional resources, up to a certain point. Funding private-sector retraining for workers displaced by automation is good, and in some limited cases public-sector retraining, as long as it doesn’t turn into workfare (there is no way for the subway in New York to absorb redundant conductors or surplus maintenance staff). If moderate amounts of capital funding are required for bus improvements, such as traffic signal upgrades to have active control and conditional TSP, then they are good investments as well.
Funding public transportation is useful, provided there is enough of a connection between the source of funds and the management thereof that the money is not wasted. A larger and more technocratic federal government is an ideal organ for this, with enough planning power to propose bus network redesigns, rail planning, integrated fare systems, and intermodal coordination. It can and should have technical priorities – shelter is far and away the lowest-hanging fruit for American bus systems – and state them clearly rather than hiding behind bureaucratic phrases (again, “transit asset management” is a real phrase).
It’s fundamentally an investment rather than consumption. And as with all investments, it’s important to ensure one invests in the right thing and the right people. A local transit agency with a track record of successful projects, short lead times from planning to completion, technical orientation, and the ability to say no to highway departments and other organs that extract surplus is a good investment. One that instead genuflects before antisocial groups that launch nuisance lawsuits is not so good an investment, and funding for such an agency should be contingent on improvement in governance of the kind that will make local notables angry.
The state is to a large extent a coordinating body. Even the more extractive aspects of it, like historically the military, succeeded or failed not by who was the most brutal (they all were brutal) but by who was most efficient at organizing large groups of people.
Coordination in public transit is especially important, because it’s a system with many moving parts: infrastructure, equipment, timetable, development. These do not accrete spontaneously, not in any society that has also invented cars; transit-oriented development in the 21st century looks different from historic development before mass motorization. Organizational capacity makes the difference between a state that grows around mass transit, like Japan or South Korea or Switzerland or Sweden or increasingly France, and one that grows around cars even when the goal is nominally transit first, as is common in the United States but also most of Southeast Asia.
So in general, better coordination means overall better public transit. But it specifically means better investment – more targeted at the right places. And this is especially visible in mainline rail, which is less self-contained than urban metro lines. The right way to plan is to get different bodies to cooperate, such as different railroads and government agencies. And then there is the wrong, American way.
Coordination versus wishlists
In theory, the United States has mechanisms to get different agencies to talk to one another. The Northeast Corridor planning process understands that the corridor has many users and owners: Amtrak, MBTA, Connecticut DOT, MTA, New Jersey Transit, SEPTA, MARC. To ensure they collaborate, there are layers set on top of them, like the NEC Commission.
And yet, the NEC Commission’s plans are not worth the paper they are written on, and the people involved should not work in this field or in government again. The problem is that their idea of coordination is to ask each of the above agencies what its wishlist is, collate the responses, and staple them together.
The wishlist staple job is the opposite of coordination. Coordination means sitting down with intercity and regional rail operators, figuring out their service needs, and writing down a timetable with associated infrastructure plan that maximizes service at minimum cost. Even the accidental moves toward coordination that do exist, like the MBTA plan to complete electrification of the Providence Line and run modern EMUs rather than diesels under catenary, do not figure into the plan: Amtrak still wants a third track on the Providence Line, which such electrification obviates even if Amtrak cuts its Boston-Providence trip time in half. The third track was said to cost $400 million years ago; I do not know if it is still its budget or whether costs are higher now. One such unnecessary project at a time is what it takes to turn what should be a $15 billion project into three-figure billions.
This wishlist mentality is present whenever bad planners (e.g. all Americans) try to do something that involves more than one agency. It’s assumed that different parts of the government must constantly be at one another’s throats. Unless one agency dominates, the only solutions in this mentality are either to do a staple job, or subordinate all agencies to one new hierarchy, typically run by people who have never run transit service and do not respect those who have.
How to plan mainline rail better
Three of the legs of coordinated planning – infrastructure, rolling stock, timetable – are coordinated in an excellent way in Switzerland. (Switzerland is unfortunately too NIMBY for modern TOD.) This does not mean slavishly copying every single Swiss decision, but it does mean that it behooves planners to learn how Swiss rail planners got Europe’s best rail network on a limited (though not quite austerity) budget.
The way it should work is that everything begins from the timetable. Trains must run on the same fixed interval – typically hourly, but denser services should be planned around shorter intervals like 30 minutes or smaller divisors of the hour. This provides the base level of coordination: connections between trains at major stations are to be done at times that are compatible with this interval.
If the trip time between major stations (“Knoten”) is just a bit too long for timed connections at both ends, it means that the trains should be sped up. This is the run trains as fast as necessary maxim, beloved by many high-speed rail opponents who bring up that maxim far more often than they bring up how much rail tunneling Switzerland has built.
Everything must come based on this plan. The choice of rolling stock must be compatible. Switzerland chose bilevel EMUs, because its use case is urban stations with a surplus of platform tracks but limited platform length; the bilevel trades off higher on-train capacity per unit of train length for lower egress capacity, and in a country where the main train station has 26 tracks, the bilevel is the correct choice. Maybe in another environment it is and maybe it isn’t; in New York it is not.
The slate of infrastructure projects must likewise be based on total integration of operations and capital planning. This means being able to trace delays to their source, using data to figure out what the most problematic areas are, and fixing them. Swiss trains are not inherently punctual; delays in the 5 minute range are routine. What sets them apart is that the infrastructure has been designed, at minimum cost, to ensure that delays don’t propagate, whereas in Germany, cascading delays are more common, and the less said about the United States, the better.
Swiss integration, to be clear, operates in an environment that is highly federal, has a smattering of private railroads interoperating with SBB, is stingy about public spending, and has in most cases Western Europe’s most privatized economy. And yet there is no separation of infrastructure and operations, in contrast with the trend in Britain and the EU.
Coordination and saying no
A planning agency that has to work with operators to ensure they all collaborate has to mediate conflict in many cases. This is the origin of the wishlist mentality: by planning overly expensive systems with maximum separation between operators, conflict is avoided, at the minor cost of an order of magnitude increase in the budget.
A better way to mediate is to either propose compromises, or outright saying no. Investment that is not part of the coordinated plan is extra and infrastructure plans should not burden the taxpayers with it. If different bodies conflict, sometimes one is right and the other is wrong, and the infrastructure planners should say so; sometimes who is right and who is wrong is consistent, sometimes it isn’t. Moreover, if bodies refuse to coordinate, it’s important to be able to say no to overall plans.
All of this interfaces with previous posts on this subject. In particular, the infrastructure investment program, whether it’s a regional Verkehrsverbund or an intercity system like the NEC Commission, should consist of subject matter experts. Senior politicians should understand that those experts are paid to maximize the efficiency of an enormous infrastructure program and therefore defend their expertise against attacks.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
If the state spends money on a bad infrastructure project, or too much money beyond what was necessary for the project, then this is waste of money, and should be avoided. But the opposite situation can occur too: some worthwhile projects are not pursued, and that too is a waste, because society forgoes the benefits coming from such projects. This situation should be avoided equally. Moreover, there is no priority between those two types of error. Planning should treat them symmetrically and aim on balance to avoid both equally.
The reason is that just as infrastructure projects are generally not critical, the money that is spent on them is not critical. The US is spending around $1.5 trillion over the lifetime of the program on the F-35 plane, and the money is buried deep in a defense budget that by the standards I grew up with isn’t even that large – and that program consists of documented waste and suffers from poor planning, including serious cost overruns and delays. None of this is an existential threat; the problems the F-35 is intended to solve are not existential but neither are its costs, and likewise, neither infrastructure problems such as delays, capacity limitations, and congestion nor the costs of the projects that intend to fix them are existential.
And if none of this is existential, then the decision of whether to build is about comparing two finite, bounded quantities: costs and benefits. This is why one does a benefit-cost analysis and respect its conclusions, without spiking. But this is also why the state should not systematically aim to err in one direction. If a project with a BCR of less than 1 is built then there is waste, but if a project with a high BCR is not built then there is waste as well.
Note that this principle of not biasing one’s error in one direction (typically the bias is toward inaction) is separate from the question of what the best estimates for costs and benefits are. There is a real tendency to underestimate costs, which is why the minimum BCR that should be funded is not 1 but slightly more, the typical range in Europe being 1.2-1.4. But subject to that limit, decisions should still be symmetric, i.e. if the limit is 1.4, then building 0.7 is symmetrically bad with failing to build 2.8. Alternatively, some projects, like high-speed rail, have upfront costs and long-term benefits, and so it’s better to think of them in terms of financial and social returns on investment, as is done in France (source, pp. 11-12), rather than a BCR in which the discount rate is hidden in a box. But ROI analysis should still be symmetric around one’s chosen limit.
This becomes relevant especially for projects that can expect benefits to rise over time due to economic growth. It is tempting to have a bias toward inaction and only build something once its benefits are unimpeachable, a large multiple of the cost. But this means that in the interim, society has forgone the smaller-but-still-real benefits. Worse, when the BCR grows too large, surplus extraction might pull it back down through an increase in costs, and thus building later can be very risky.
In essence, what this means is that if there’s infrastructure out there with a very high BCR or ROI – and if you ask me, preliminarily, Northeast Corridor high-speed rail done right has a purely financial ROI of maybe 13% – then something is deeply wrong. There shouldn’t be 13% returns out of anything. If there is one, the first question to ask is “why was this not built 50 years ago?”.
In the opposite direction, what looks like building infrastructure prematurely is in fact the prudent decision. South Korea and Taiwan both opened high-speed rail in the 2000s, both underperforming initial expectations. But both have seen steady growth in ridership; at this point, Taiwan HSR returns 4% without social benefits, which is decently healthy, and KTX has somewhat higher ridership than THSR on only slightly higher total construction costs. In the mid-2000s the projects looked like white elephants, that is they were doing just better than minimum. But the 15 years of benefits since then have been considerable. The 20% of society least interested in paying for things should not have veto power; economics exists on the margin and politics on the median.
And yet there’s a problem of comparable size when discussing infrastructure waste, which, lacking any better term for it, I am going to call leakage. The definition of leakage is any project that is bundled into an infrastructure package that is not useful to the project under discussion and is not costed together with it. A package, in turn, is any program that considers multiple projects together, such as a stimulus bill, a regular transport investment budget, or a referendum. The motivation for the term leakage is that money deeded to megaprojects leaks to unrelated or semi-related priorities. This often occurs for political reasons but apolitical examples exist as well.
Before going over some examples, I want to clarify that the distinction between leakage and high costs is not ironclad. Sometimes, high costs come from bundled projects that are costed together with the project at hand; in the US they’re called betterments, for example the $100 million 3 km bike lane called the Somerville Community Path for the first, aborted iteration of the Green Line Extension in Boston. This blur is endemic to general improvement projects, such as rail electrification, and also to Northeast Corridor high-speed rail plans, but elsewhere, the distinction is clearer.
Finally, while normally I focus on construction costs for public transport, leakage is a big problem in the United States for highway investment, for political reasons. As I will explain below, I believe that nearly all highway investment in the US is waste thanks to leakage, even ignoring the elevated costs of urban road tunnels.
State of good repair
A month ago, I uploaded a video about the state of good repair grift in the United States. The grift is that SOGR is maintenance spending funded out of other people’s money – namely, a multiyear capital budget – and therefore the agency can spend it with little public oversight. The construction of an expansion may be overly expensive, but at the end of the day, the line opens and the public can verify that it works, even for a legendarily delayed project like Second Avenue Subway, the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport, or the soon-to-open Tel Aviv Subway. It’s a crude mechanism, since the public can’t verify safety or efficiency, but it’s impossible to fake: if nothing opens, it embarrasses all involved publicly, as is the case for California High-Speed Rail. No such mechanism exists for maintenance, and therefore, incompetent agencies have free reins to spend money with nothing to show for it. I recently gave an example of unusually high track renewal costs in Connecticut.
The connection with leakage is that capital plans include renewal and long-term repairs and not just expansion. Thus, SOGR is leakage, and when its costs go out of control, they displace funding that could be used for expansion. The NEC Commission proposal for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor calls for a budget of $117 billion in 2020 dollars, but there is extensive leakage to SOGR in the New York area, especially the aforementioned Connecticut plan, and thus for such a high budget the target average speed is about 140 km/h, in line with the upgraded legacy trains that high-speed lines in Europe replace.
Regionally, too, the monetary bonfire that is SOGR sucks the oxygen out of the room. The vast majority of the funds for MTA capital plans in New York is either normal replacement or SOGR, a neverending program whose backlog never shrinks despite billions of dollars in annual funding. The MTA wants to spend $50 billion in the next 5 years on capital improvements; visible expansion, such as Second Avenue Subway phase 2, moving block signaling on more lines, and wheelchair accessibility upgrades at a few stations, consists of only a few billion dollars of this package.
This is not purely an American issue. Germany’s federal plan for transport investment calls for 269.6 billion euros in project capital funding from 2016 to 2030, including a small proportion for projects planned now to be completed after 2031; as detailed on page 14, about half of the funds for both road and rail are to go to maintenance and renewal and only 40% to expansion. But 40% for expansion is still substantially less leakage than seen in American plans like that for New York.
Betterments and other irrelevant projects
Betterments straddle the boundary between high costs and leakage. They can be bundled with the cost of a project, as is the case for the Somerville Community Path for original GLX (but not the current version, from which it was dropped). Or they can be costed separately. The ideal project breakdown will have an explicit itemization letting us tell how much money leaked to betterments; for example, for the first Nice tramway line, the answer is about 30%, going to streetscaping and other such improvements.
Betterments fall into several categories. Some are pure NIMBYism – a selfish community demands something as a precondition of not publicly opposing the project, and the state caves instead of fighting back. In Israel, Haifa demanded that the state pay for trenching portions of the railroad through the southern part of the city as part of the national rail electrification project, making specious claims about the at-grade railway separating the city from the beach and even saying that high-voltage electrification causes cancer. In Toronto, the electrification project for the RER ran into a similar problem: while rail electrification reduces noise emissions, some suburbs still demanded noise walls, and the province caved to the tune of $1 billion.
Such extortion is surplus extraction – Israel and Toronto are both late to electrification, and thus those projects have very high benefit ratios over base costs, encouraging squeaky wheel behavior, raising costs to match benefits. Keeping the surplus with the state is crucial for enabling further expansion, and requires a combination of the political courage to say no and mechanisms to defer commitment until design is more advanced, in order to disempower local communities and empower planners.
Other betterments have a logical reason to be there, such as the streetscape and drainage improvements for the Nice tramway, or to some extent the Somerville Community Path. The problem with them is that chaining them to a megaproject funded by other people’s money means that they have no sense of cost control. A municipality that has to build a bike path out of its own money will never spend $100 million on 3 km; and yet that was the projected cost in Somerville, where the budget was treated as acceptable because it was second-order by broader GLX standards.
Bad expansion projects
Sometimes, infrastructure packages include bad with good projects. The bad projects are then leakage. This is usually the politically hardest nut to crack, because usually this happens in an environment of explicit political negotiation between actors each wanting something for their own narrow interest.
For example, this can be a regional negotiation between urban and non-urban interests. The urban interests want a high-value urban rail line; the rest want a low-value investment, which could be some low-ridership regional rail or a road project. Germany’s underinvestment in high-speed rail essentially comes from this kind of leakage: people who have a non-urban identity or who feel that people with such identity are inherently more morally deserving of subsidy than Berlin or Munich oppose an intercity high-speed rail network, feeling that trains averaging 120-150 km/h are good enough on specious polycentricity grounds. Such negotiation can even turn violent – the Gilets Jaunes riots were mostly white supremacist, but they were white supremacists with a strong anti-urban identity who felt like the diesel taxes were too urban-focused.
In some cases, like that of a riot, there is an easy solution, but when it goes to referendum, it is harder. Southern California in particular has an extreme problem of leakage in referendums, with no short- or medium-term solution but to fund some bad with the good. California’s New Right passed Prop 13, which among other things requires a 2/3 supermajority for tax hikes. To get around it, the state has to promise somthing explicit to every interest group. This is especially acute in Southern California, where “we’re liberal Democrats, we’re doing this” messaging can get 50-60% but not 67% as in the more left-wing San Francisco area and therefore regional ballot measures for increasing sales taxes for transit have to make explicit promises.
The explicit promises for weak projects, which can be low-ridership suburban light rail extensions, bond money for bus operations, road expansion, or road maintenance, damage the system twice. First, they’re weak on a pure benefit-cost ratio. And second, they commit the county too early to specific projects. Early commitment leads to cost overruns, as the ability of nefarious actors (not just communities but also contractors, political power brokers, planners, etc.) to demand extra scope is high, and the prior political commitment makes it too embarrassing to walk away from an overly bloated project. For an example of early commitment (though not of leakage), witness California High-Speed Rail: even now the state pretends it is not canceling the project, and is trying to pitch it as Bakersfield-Merced high-speed rail instead, to avoid the embarrassment.
The issue of roads
I focus on what I am interested in, which is public transport, but the leakage problem is also extensive for roads. In the United States, road money is disbursed to the tune of several tens of billions of dollars per year in the regular process, even without any stimulus funding. It’s such an important part of the mythos of public works that it has to be spread evenly across the states, so that politicians from a bygone era of non-ideological pork money can say they’ve brought in spending to their local districts. I believe there’s even a rule requiring at least 92% of the fuel tax money generated in each state to be spent within the state.
The result is that road money is wasted on low-growth regions. From my perspective, all road money is bad. But let’s put ourselves for a moment in the mindset of a Texan or Bavarian booster: roads are good, climate change is exaggerated, deficits are immoral (German version) or taxes are (Texan version), the measure of a nation’s wealth is how big its SUVs are. In this mindset, road money should be spent prudently in high-growth regions, like the metropolitan areas of the American Sunbelt or the biggest German cities. It definitely should not be spent in declining regions like the Rust Belt, where due to continued road investment and population decline, there is no longer traffic congestion.
And yet, road money is spent in those no-congestion regions. Politicians get to brag about saving a few seconds’ worth of congestion with three-figure million dollar interchanges and bypasses in small Rust Belt towns, complete with political rhetoric about the moral superiority of regions whose best days lay a hundred years ago to regions whose best days lie ahead.
Leakage and consensus
It is easy to get trapped in a consensus in which every region and every interest group gets something. This makes leakage easier: an infrastructure package will then have something for everyone, regardless of any benefit-cost analysis. Once the budget rather than the outcome becomes the main selling point, black holes like SOGR are easy to include.
It’s critical to resist this trend and fight to oppose leakage. Expansion should go to expansion, where investment is needed, and not where it isn’t. Failure to do so leads to hundreds of billions in investment money most of which is wasted independently for the construction cost problem.