Local Elected Representation is Bad
I am in awe of Marco Chitti’s depth of knowledge and quality of analysis on matters of public transportation; what he’s written about coordinated planning on his blog, not to mention his Italian construction costs case study, is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in improving public transportation at any scale. So it’s against this background that I feel compelled to point out, regrettably, that he’s wrong when he calls for local representation on public transit planning boards. Specifically, he promotes a model in which a transport association’s decisions flow from a board that represents the mayors of the municipalities in the region. And this is a model that exists (he gives the example of provincial France) and just plain does not work. EU-level observers see this every time we are reminded that the Council of Ministers exists.
To the contrary, any path forward on public transportation requires the steady disempowerment of local electeds, including mayors of small municipalities or neighborhood-level representation in a larger city. The EU-level observation that the Council of Ministers is the epitome of the democratic deficit is true at all lower levels as well, down to a single city.
Local representation does not work in France
Marco puts a parenthetical in his tweet: “or the region president for IDF-mobilités.” This makes the entire difference. In Ile-de-France, the transport association is governed at the level of the entire region, which has a single elected regional government with competitive partisan elections and high-profile campaigns; the current president of the region, Valérie Pécresse, was the national presidential candidate of Les Républicains last election. The dominant players within Ile-de-France Mobilités, RATP and SNCF, are both owned by the French state, and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne was the politically-appointed head of RATP in the Hollande era, which was her stepping stone from a string of advisor positions to a ministry under Macron. This is not at all a situation with much localism.
Where there is localism in the Paris region, it promotes pettiness and NIMBYism. The increase in the rate of housing production in the region starting in the mid-2010s was promoted by the state and by the region, over the objections of suburban mayors, who were livid at the idea of more housing in their enclaves, especially social housing. The state never so coerced the city, where housing growth remains anemic, but Anne Hidalgo has likewise built social housing in rich arrondissements over the objections of their local mayors.
In fact, the model in which there is a single metropolitan government that is responsible at once for multiple services, is being implemented in Lyon. The traditional department it’s part of, Rhône, isn’t really coterminous with the metropolitan area, while some suburbs spill over to neighboring departments; for planning purposes, France set up the intergovernmental Urban Community of Lyon in 1969, comprising Lyon and its inner suburbs (equivalent not to Ile-de-France but to the combination of Paris and the Petite Couronne), but then in 2015 it replaced it with the Lyon Metropolis, with direct elections of a single government.
Elsewhere in France, inter-municipal relations remain more intergovernmental, and local mayors are in the loop on many decisions. But provincial France is hardly an example of success in transit governance. The modal splits in regions like Marseille, Nice, Lille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Strasbourg are all in the mid teens. They have little to recommend them as models over similar-size cities in the German-speaking and Nordic worlds.
This is something that’s recognized in France too – hence the formation of the Lyon Metropolis. France has excessive fractionalization of municipalities – it has around 35,000 communes, where Italy and Spain have 8,000 each and Germany has 11,000. It’s had little municipal consolidation since the Revolution; this way, Paris has fewer people than Berlin or Madrid, while possessing a metro area about the size of Berlin’s and Madrid’s combined. Local traditions make it hard to do further consolidation, often for petty reasons (Paris is wealthier than most of its suburbs and in the postwar era the poorer suburbs voted for communists); instead, where it cares that things should work, France sets up direct institutions with enough heft that people can vote for one government and expect that it should have the last say on big political questions.
Local representation does not work in the United States
The United States does not quite use the provincial French system of direct representation of mayors on transit boards. However, it has analogs, with extensive local empowerment. And those analogs do not work.
For example, in and around Springfield, Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) is governed on the basis of representation of each municipality within the region. These are not the directly-elected mayors of those municipalities but it doesn’t matter – the problems do not stem from how they are elected but from which interests they answer to. The problem starts with the fact that nearly all PVTA ridership is in the urban core – Springfield itself and a small handful of working-class suburbs like Holyoke – but the representation structure gives snob suburbs veto power, which they use to block any consolidation plan focusing service on where people ride.
Worse, the suburbs of PVTA have a combination of two political attitudes that explodes any possibility of good governance. They are snobs and NIMBYs, opposing any attempt to make buses useful for poor urbanites trying to access service jobs in their jurisdictions. But they also have left-wing identity politics and want to be seen as progressive places where there are alternatives to the car. Therefore, they demand that PVTA serve every municipality in the region, but often just peripherally, so that they can say “we have buses”; those buses have practically no ridership, and serve to trigger Massachusetts’ accessibility requirement, in which paratransit must be provided on demand not just within 0.75 miles of a bus or urban rail stop as in the federal ADA but also within the entire town’s jurisdiction.
Marco says that the solution to bad politics is good politics. But the problem with PVTA and similar intergovernmental agencies is not that local representation is based on local appointment or recommendation rather than the direct mandate of the mayor. The mayor wouldn’t be any better than what is currently available, because at the end of the day, when a small enclave in a wider region gets to self-govern, the people it represents will be selected for pettiness (since the great majority of people who socialize outside the municipality are effectively disenfranchised) and snobbery (since the enclaves safeguard their insulation from poorer people). In some places, the worst NIMBYism may even be spearheaded by a county executive, if the county is itself an enclave, which Westchester County, New York is.
Transportation and Localism
In New York City, 92% of workers commute out of their community board. Representation at such level has a democratic deficit that exceeds that of the EU; the ministers who comprise the Council were after all elected in their respective countries, in democratic elections in which the important portfolios are doled out to acceptable parties and politicians. Fractional suburbs like those of France or the parts of the United States that have public transit are little different from city neighborhoods in this way. To continue with the example of PVTA, the two largest suburbs of Springfield by population are Chicopee and Westfield. Chicopee has 24,431 employed residents and 18,228 jobs, but only 4,131 of those live and work in the city, or 17%; Springfield has 17,656 employed residents, 14,863 jobs, and 3,820 people working and living in the city, or 22%. In effect, the mayors of both cities are elected in enclaves in which the most empowered people are not at all representative of the jurisdictions.
This situation is especially bad when it comes to transportation. There, the interests of those 17-22% of the Springfield suburbs who work locally, not to mention the 8% of New Yorkers who work in-community board, diverge the most from the general interest. People who live and work in an outlying local area do not really ride public transportation; people who commute to a city center do. This is not just a feature of transit cities – the transit modal split for people working in Downtown Los Angeles is not awful (I remember reading it was 50% in the 2000s-10s), they’re just swamped by people who work in places that don’t even rise to the category of a secondary center.
Even when the time comes to build a transit network that works for people who don’t work in city centers, it still is intended for the majority, which doesn’t work locally. PVTA and other non-Boston Massachusetts agencies (called RTAs) struggle with span of service – buses stop running anytime between 6 and 8 pm to shopping malls that close at 10. Regional representation could catch those riders, who would have a single point of contact to vote for; local representation cannot, because they are formally disenfranchised where they work and in practice disempowered where they live.
Americans – not Marco, but some of the people who responded to him on Twitter – are paranoid that regional representation in an auto-oriented area would lead to the defunding of transit.
But we can concretely compare what happens when auto-oriented suburbs have local representation (as in most of the US) and what happens when they’re incorporated into a larger whole and can then vote there (as in Ile-de-France, or Berlin, or Toronto). Kai Wegner became mayor of Berlin after an explicitly pro-car campaign; what this means in practice is a halt on some road diet projects, the latter pushed by Green voters who work close to where they live and care about bikes more than about public transit. The far more populist, far more pro-car Rob Ford became mayor of Toronto powered by resentment of David Miller’s Transit City concept, which had the same failings as the agenda of the Berlin Greens; Ford’s election caused far more damage in its politicization of transit, leading to repeated changes in the Eglinton rail plan just so that Ford could prove that he existed, than at the basic level of defunding transit or closing the streetcars (which Ford promised to do and then didn’t).
We can even see the interplay between local and regional in Ile-de-France. The pro-car suburban mayors tried to sue Paris to stop its road diets, alleging that they are discriminatory against them, and one might expect that those suburbs, if given a seat at the table, would favor pro-car policy. But in practice, the same voters who vote for these mayors at the local level also vote for Pécresse at the regional level, and Pécresse hasn’t compelled Paris to remotorize and is a lot YIMBYer than any of those suburban mayors. The issue is less that people in those places are pro-car and more that local representation consistently returns people who drive more than the average and who represent a minority that drives more than the average, and in the absence of such local representation, even someone like Rob Ford can’t do much damage through his transportation policy. (Doug Ford, in contrast, has done considerably more damage in micromanaging the megaprojects to the point that Toronto is careening past the $1 billion/km mark.)
The need for professionalism in democracy
Professional civil service arises in part from the fact that it’s not possible to have meaningful local representation in an urban area. A city the scale of Berlin can have a democratic election, since people generally live and work in the city, and not many commute in from or out to elsewhere. The same is true of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, or even New York City, which has less than half the population of its metro area and yet this is enough that the populations of disempowered in- and out-commuters are limited. It’s true of Lyon Metropolis. It’s true of the combination of Paris and the Petite Couronne, which France occasionally considers amalgamating into a single Grand Paris and mostly doesn’t because the elected layer of Ile-de-France is so far sufficient and there is a lot of identity politics involved in the formal separation of the city from the suburbs.
And at this scale, it’s impossible for a single government to control everything. Berlin, New York, and so on have the populations of small countries. Such countries can elect a government, but the span of control of the elected ministers comprises an order of magnitude of 100 people across all ministries combined.
Thus, the need for a professional civil service. This is why the role of politicians in a healthy political environment is to macro- and not micromanage. They can make big yes-or-no decisions, and that’s it – decisions on alignments should be left to professionals, who are hired and promoted based on apolitical criteria. A Wegner or Ford can choose to fund roads more and transit less and halt or even reverse road diets, but the details have to come from experts, because the span of control of the Wegner cabinet is far too small for there to be any real democratic check on the sort of advisors who in the United States are politically appointed.
What’s more, even when they do make decisions, the tendency of politicians to do things just to prove that they exist is, always, bad for governance. In some cases, including what we’ve seen in Boston when we wrote the Green Line Extension report, megaprojects even act as siphons for bad ideas, while contemporary small projects beneath the notice of politicians are done more smoothly and efficiently. The danger is that the practices developed for the megaprojects then later poison the local infrastructure ecosystem, as when some of the decisions made for Grand Paris Express are now leading to overdesign for shorter Métro extensions.
The ideal role for elected leaders is to set overall funding levels and then just let the professionals work. If the professionals are failing, it’s fine to replace them with other professionals, chosen based on past successes in the same field (in the US, this has to mean foreigners), rather than chums who the politicians are comfortable with, like the repulsive political appointees I’ve seen in New York and Boston.
In the same way that most people writing about EU governance understand that Parliament has democratic legitimacy and the Council is the opposite, it’s critical to understand that localism subtracts from civilian democratic control of the state, through its elevation of petty voices. And if subdividing territory into local fiefs doesn’t work, the alternative is to subdivide it thematically and let subject-matter experts handle planning. Marco, and I think other people who are much more uncomfortable with top-down unitary civil services than he is (after all, Italy is governed by such civil service and builds infrastructure very well), errs in portraying this depoliticization as antithetical to democracy; it’s to the contrary the tool with which democracy governs anything bigger than an isolated village.
Meme Weeding: Polarization
I’ve heard some people, including some in decently powerful government positions, excuse poor American public transportation performance by saying that it’s hard to work in a politically polarized environment. This is related to excuses made in the early 2010s, blaming the failure of high-speed rail in the United States on Republican governors who canceled programs after winning the 2010 midterm, never mind that all-Democratic California has not been able to build it either. But the complaints about polarization are not just specious. They also betray deep ignorance and incuriosity about the rest of the world, including specific countries that we at the Transit Costs Project have referenced repeatedly.
What is polarization, anyway?
Political polarization generally refers to a system in which there are two blocs, roughly evenly matched, each characterized by hating the other to the point of not fully (or at all) accepting its legitimacy. The blocs can alternate in power, as in the United States today, or one can usually prevail over the other, as in the Second and Third Party Systems in American history.
Usually this also includes large left-right ideological differences, which in the 20th century could even take the characteristic of support for communism versus fascism, as in multiple Latin American systems. However, systems in which the differences in ideology are more rhetorical than practical, as in 1980s-1990s Greece, can also be characterized as polarized. In fact, polarization (that is, delegitimization of the other side) is often a strategy employed by populist politicians to maintain mass support as a substitute for concrete action.
By most accounts, the United States is seeing high and growing party polarization. This contrasts with depolarized systems like those of Belgium and the Netherlands, which are historically tri- rather than bipolar and therefore have long traditions of shifting coalitions and consensus, or Germany and Austria, which have two blocs but still have a lot of cross-aisle cooperation and many grand coalitions.
Polarization in low-cost countries
While American political practitioners usually contrast the American situation today with that of the elite consensus of the postwar era, we should be more comparative and look at how polarization varies over space and not just time. And by that standard, most of the low-construction cost countries are obviously polarized: Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, South Korea. Even the Nordic countries are more polarized than Americans give them credit for, leaving Switzerland as the only truly depolarized low-construction cost country.
In Italy, moreover, polarization has grown even as construction costs have fallen. The First Italian Republic was depolarized: Democrazia Cristiana won every election and governed by choice of which coalition partners to work with, which could include the Socialists (a situation called “integral left”) or not; bringing in the Communists was unthinkable. It was also legendarily corrupt, to the point that DC should be thought of as a corruption party more than a center-right party like CDU here or VVD in the Netherlands. The corruption led metro construction costs to explode in the 1970s as contracts were given based on bribery rather than any objective criteria. It’s moreover this explosion in costs that led to the investigations that brought down the system, mani pulite.
The Second Italian Republic, birthed by those corruption investigations, has high levels of left-right polarization. The main policy plank of the right is that it hates the left; thus, the right’s leader until recently, Berlusconi, did not engage in any of the neoliberal reforms of good governance that his Northern European and French allies hoped he would. The left has been more neoliberal but it’s explicitly very moderate, governing in coalition with various populists who can be swayed over. The system trended toward two blocs. And now Italy can build infrastructure more affordably, due to the same good-government anti-corruption reforms that passed in the wake of mani pulite.
Turkey is even more polarized, to the point that the main political question in the election in two weeks is not exactly a left-right issue like the role of Islam in society or any socioeconomic issue, but whether Turkey should be a democracy or an autocracy governed by Erdoğan; the candidate of the democracy camp (“Nation Alliance”), Kılıçdaroğlu, has surrounded himself with disaffected former Erdoğan allies and with an entirely right-wing party, İyi, alongside his traditional center-left allies.
What’s more, Erdoğan has not let opposition cities just build infrastructure. Izmir has long been governed by CHP; the state lightly fudged numbers to make its subway construction costs look slightly higher than they are, using pessimistic cost projections. CHP won the elections in Istanbul and Ankara recently, and in Istanbul, the state stopped letting the city use state-owned parks for city-built subway lines and even denied funding for some future lines; Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu got these lines financed through loans from the European Investment Bank, which hates Erdoğan to the point that Istanbul borrows money internationally at lower interest rates than the state. Despite gross politicization, costs have remained low, and the civil service has functioned through this (and Elif’s interviews in Turkey included both AKP and CHP supporters).
Corruption and dominant parties
The situation of DC in Italy, in which its domination of the First Republic even with coalition partners led to corruption, generalizes.
In the United States, regional differences in voting and lack of regional differences in party ideology have made many states safe for one party or another. In those states, there is no polarization, since one party governs everything and has little to nothing to fear from the opposition: California, Texas, New York, Illinois, and increasingly Florida and Ohio all fall into this camp.
The result is that the dominant party in all of these states is a corruption party. It’s easy to be corrupt when you know in advance who you need to buy off, and when it’s not really possible for anyone to run for governor and polarize against you and your bribery of elected officials. In red states there’s occasionally an ideological sop to movement conservatism, usually exclusively the annual culture war topic (in 2023 it’s trans athletes), but nothing really about any of the broader agenda of the economists at right-wing think tanks; in blue states there’s not even a sop.
Why are they like this?
Polarization doesn’t raise construction costs. It’s most likely neutral, and the dominant-party alternative is worse. So why do Americans blame it? I suspect that, like when left-wing Americans try to make high costs a matter of health care, it’s about reducing a complex issue to an American feature that all middlebrow American politicos know to hate. Truthiness trumps knowledge here.
The Transit Lobby and Fares
Randal O’Toole has a weird blog post about our construction costs report. I say weird, because it complains that we didn’t ask certain questions that we actually did, in the executive summary: “what kind of political and decision-making process allows for such expensive projects to be approved in the first place?” in his language. It also is under the impression that Sweden and Italy are authoritarian states. I bring this up because the post suggests two reasons: the transit lobby, and user fees. These are both wrong, and I’d like to cover why.
The user fee issue
O’Toole harps on user fees:
At heart, and I keep harping on this, the real problem is the disassociation of costs from user fees. If costs have to be paid for out of user fees, then expensive and obsolete technologies will automatically be rejected. But if there is no relationship between costs and real measurable benefits, then there is no need to control costs at all. Any agency leader who supports lower-cost solutions loses out because their agency’s budget will be smaller and any politician who tries to control costs loses out because they bring less money into the pockets of potential campaign contributors.
The reason we don’t talk about this in the report is that high-subsidy transit systems don’t generally cost more to build and operate than low-subsidy ones. The norms in Asia are that rapid transit service should be operationally profitable; Japan won’t even build subways unless they can show a 30-year payback period, i.e. 3.3% financial return on investment in an economy whose natural rate of interest is maybe 1.5%. The norms in Europe are that intercity rail should be profitable but anything else is a social service that should receive subsidies.
And as it happens, there’s no systemic cost difference between Europe and rich Asia. Construction costs span the entire non-US range in both places: South Korea has very low construction costs and so do Southern Europe, Turkey, and the Nordic countries; Singapore and Hong Kong compete for highest costs outside the United States and so does Britain. In Hong Kong, if anything, the MTR’s development profits have enabled it to waste more money on construction, since it still gets state money for construction on top of the development profits, which have no accountability.
Transit ideology and modal warfare
O’Toole and other Americans with similar pro-car, anti-rail views like Wendell Cox and Robert Poole has an obsession with counting some kind of subsidy metrics. He talks about the transit lobby, and he ends up misunderstanding how the politics of mass transit works elsewhere. But, in short, modal warfare is not usually about construction of subway lines, but about road diets and bike lanes.
For example, in Germany, Kai Wegner just did very well in the Berlin election on a platform of more parking spots and opposition to everything the Green Party does. CDU came first for the first time since 1999. But Wegner supports more U-Bahn construction and attacked the left-wing coalition for dithering on the subject. His transport ideology is not the same as that of American mode warriors; it’s cars-and-trains urbanism, with cars getting more attention than trains. Social democracy for that matter has the same ideology, but with a greater role for trains – and it’s this ideology that built around 100 km of majority-underground metro in Stockholm for $3.6 billion in 2022 dollars.
I bring up Germany because we’re seeing the linkage between fares and operations vanish in real time, due to fallout from the 9€ ticket from last summer; see coverage on this blog here and here. Before corona, public transport fares covered around half of operating costs Germany-wide (source, p. 36), and some of the big city rapid transit system broke even (at least the Berlin U-Bahn and I think also the Munich U-Bahn). The perceived success of the 9€ ticket is changing Germany’s transit advocacy ideology – but in the exact opposite direction from more construction, whatever the cost. No: the same advocates who center low fares oppose subway construction, viewing it as a sop to cars-and-trains urbanism and preferring surface light rail instead. The same is true in the United States: the sort of people who support free transit and sue agencies that raise fares usually also think rail investment is racist and money for transit should go to bus operations.
The transit lobby
As soon as it’s clear that there are different ideologies of mass transit, the question of the transit lobby gets murkier. O’Toole, rooted in modal warfare, says of construction costs “The real answer, I suspect, is that the transit lobby has persuaded the public that transit is all good and no bad. This in turn persuaded politicians that they can spend as much as they want on transit (unlike freeways) with no political backlash.” But there’s a strong lobby in support of urban rail construction everywhere, across the entire cost range, including in our low-cost examples.
The US doesn’t really have a stronger transit lobby than Sweden or Italy or Turkey (or Germany or France or Japan, etc.), unless one defines “transit lobby” as “builds unusually expensive transportation infrastructure.” The typical federal funding formula in the United States is 80% cars, 20% transit; in Germany it was around 55% cars, 42% rail, 3% canals in the Grand Coalition. In Sweden, cities have transitioned to tolerating more disruption for drivers and less for pedestrians on the feminist grounds that drivers are disproportionately men. The ability of transit riders to both get a larger share of the funding and make the cities more walkable and bikable at the expense of the convenience of car drivers is unusually weak in the United States by developed-world standards.
In some cases, it goes the other way: a weak transit lobby leads to higher costs, due to political impositions. In Tampa, an attempt by the transit agency to increase bus frequency somewhat and provide bus shelter had to be pitched as BRT, and then the DOT extracted surplus and demanded that the agency get federal BRT funding for repaving all lanes used by the buses with concrete – lanes that were to be shared with cars and trucks, rather than dedicated to bus service. This has led some advocates to propose that a stronger transit lobby is what’s needed to improve transit efficiency… except that New York is the worst.
There are real political reasons for why the US has such high infrastructure construction costs; this is not just transit – road tunnels cost a lot more per km in Boston and Seattle than in Berlin and Stockholm and Paris and Madrid. We go over them in the report. I urge people to go read it and focus on issues of politicization, bad-and-worsening procurement norms, lack of interest in interagency coordination, and the subordination of expert civil servants to incurious political appointees. The modal warfare that O’Toole engages in is pretty irrelevant in either direction; in countries with functional infrastructure construction programs, people who are that political never have any input other than a very broad yes-or-no decision over megaprojects, and not even that level of input over smaller projects (Nordic decisionmaking about road construction is notably depoliticized).
What Does It Mean to Run the State Like a Business?
There’s a common expression, run it like a business, connoting a set of organizational reforms that intend to evoke private-sector efficiency. Unfortunately, the actual implementation as far as I’ve seen in public transportation agencies has always fallen short. This is not because the private sector is inherently different from the public sector – it is, but not in ways that are relevant here (for example, in marketing). Rather, it’s because the examples I’ve seen always involve bringing in an outside manager with experience in private-sector management but not in the industry, which tends to be a bad practice in the private sector too. Many of the practices bundled with this approach, like the hiring freeze, are harmful to the organization and well-run private firms do not engage in them.
So, instead, what would it mean to run public transportation like a business?
A public transit agency that wants to access the high productivity of frontier private-sector industries in the United States had better imitate common features to large corporations. These include all of the following:
1. Smoother HR. Jobs need to fill quickly, with a hiring process that takes weeks rather than months or years. HR should follow private-sector norms and not civil service exams, which represent the best reform ideas of the 1910s and are absent from the strongest bureaucratic public sector norms out there. Moreover, the pay needs to be competitive and largely in cash, not benefits. Some European countries (like Sweden) get away with having a fully laden cost of employment that’s about twice the gross salary because their tax structures have such high employer-side payroll taxes that this is more or less also the case for the private sector; but in the US, the private-sector norm is a multiplier of about 1.3 and not 2 and the public sector needs to do the same. Benefit cuts should go one-to-one to higher base pay, which should be competitive with high-productivity industries – public transit agencies should want to hire the best engineers, not the engineers who couldn’t get work in the private sector.
2. Promotion by merit and not seniority. Seniority systems in private businesses are a feature of relatively low-productivity countries like Japan, whereas the more productive American and Northern European private sectors promote by merit and have paths for someone to have decisionmaking power in their early 30s if they’re good. In contrast, American public transportation providers are bound by rigid notions of seniority at all levels – including even how bus and train drivers are scheduled (in the German-speaking world, schedulers set everyone’s work schedules on the principle of spreading out the painful shifts equally) – turning one’s 20s into a grueling apprenticeship, and even at my age people are always subordinate to a deadwood manager who last had an idea 20 years ago.
3. Hiring successful leadership, from within the industry if not through internal promotion. In some cases I can see hiring from adjacent industries, but so far this has meant national railroads like Amtrak and SNCF hiring airline executives, who do not understand some critical ways trains differ from planes and therefore produce poor outcomes. The practice of hiring people whose sole expertise is in turnarounds must cease; in Massachusetts, Charlie Baker’s foisting of Luis Ramirez on the MBTA was not a success. In the United States, the best example of a successful outside hire for leadership is Andy Byford, who Andrew Cuomo then proceeded to treat with about the same level of respect that he has for the consent of women in the room with him and for the lives of residents of New York nursing homes. This is really an extension of point #2: people with a track record of success in public transit should run public transit, and not hacks, washouts, and personal friends and allies of the governor.
4. Professional development. A planner earning $60,000 a year, who should probably be earning $90,000 a year, gets to regularly fly to a conference abroad for $2,500 including hotel fees to learn how other countries do things. The core of a high-value-added firm is its employees; the biggest risk when one invests in them is that they then take their skills and go elsewhere, but public transit is a local monopoly and if a New York planner takes their skills and moves to Philadelphia, on net New York has lost nothing, since SEPTA is complementary to its services rather than a competitor.
Note that this list avoids any of the usual tropes of hiring freezes, rank-and-yank systems, or the imposition of a separate class of managerial overlords who get to tell the experienced insiders what to do. These are not features of successful, high-productivity businesses. Some are features of failing companies, like the hiring freeze. Others are a feature of long dead industrial traditions, superseded by more modern ones: the class system in which the recently-hired MBA is always superior to the experienced worker, faithfully reproduced in most militaries with their officer-enlisted distinction, is inferior to the classless system in which people are hired and among them the most successful and most interested in a leadership role are more rapidly promoted.
The above points are about how a public transit agency should restructure itself. But the private sector has some insights about how external funding, such as federal funding in the US, should work.
Central to this is the venture capital insight that the quality of the team of founders matters at least as much as the proposal they bring in front of the VC team. If public transit agencies are to be run as frontier businesses (such as biotech or software-tech), then it stands to reason that federal funding should look at how the VC system funds them. In addition to following the above agency norms for their own hires, grantors like the FTA and FRA should then look at who exactly they’re funding. This means at least three things:
1. YIMBYer regions get more money than NIMBYer ones. New York can still get some money if it has exceptionally strong proposals, but overall, regions with stronger transit-oriented development, which in the US mainly means Seattle, should be getting more funding than regions without. This is on top of the purely public-sector negotiation process, common in the Nordic countries, in which an area that wants rail access to city center jobs is required to plan for more housing, even over local NIMBY objections. The Nordic process is a negotiation, whereas what I’m proposing here is a process in which the FTA and FRA get discretion to invest more money in regions that have pro-growth, pro-TOD politics without rezoning-by-rezoning negotiation.
2. Regions with recurrent corruption problems get defunded. If there’s a history of poor project management (for example, at California High-Speed Rail), or of actual corruption (as in Florida with Rick Scott), or of leakage of federal funds to unrelated goals such as creation of local jobs or overpriced betterments, then outside funding should not be forthcoming. There are other places that need the money and don’t abuse federal funds.
3. Regions with healthy ecosystems of transit advocacy get more money than regions without. NGOs are part of the local governance structure, and this means the FTA and FRA should be interested in the quality of advocacy. The presence of curious, technically literate, forward-looking groups like TransitMatters in Boston and 5th Square in Philadelphia should be a positive mark; that of populist ones like the Los Angeles Bus Riders’ Union with its preposterous claims that trains are racist should be a negative mark. This also extends to the local nonprofit grantors – if they are interested in good governance then it’s a sign the region’s overall governance is healthy and it will not only spend federal money prudently but also find new innovative ways to run better service that can then lead to a nationwide learning process. But if they are ignorant and incurious, as Boston’s Barr Foundation is (see incriminating article here by Barr board member Lisa Jacobson, falsely claiming Britain has no interest in equitable investment and the Netherlands has no interest in pedestrians), this suggests the opposite, and regions with such people in positions of power are likely to waste money that they are given.
Giving the state discretion
A lot of people are uncomfortable with the idea that the public sector should ever have the discretion to make its own decisions. In practice discretion is unavoidable; the American solution to the conundrum has been to bury everyone in self-contradictory paperwork and then any decision can be justified and litigated using some subset of the paperwork. So the same discretion exists but with far too high overheads and with a culture that treats clear language as somewhere between evil and unthinkable.
Because the idea of running the government like a business is disproportionately common among people who don’t like the public sector, programs that aim to do just that are bundled with programs that leash the state. The leash then means politicization, in which personal acquaintances of the mayor, governor, or other such heavyweight run agencies they are not qualified to work at, let alone manage; the professionals are then browbeaten into justifying whatever decision the political appointees come to, which is a common feature of dysfunctional businesses and a rare one at successful ones.
But successful businesses are not leashed. To run the government like a business means to imitate successful business ecosystems, and those are not leashed or politicized, nor are their core office workers subjected to a class system in which their own promotions are based on seniority and not merit whereas their overlords are a separate group of generalists who move from agency to agency. What it does mean is to hire the best people and promote the best among them, pay them accordingly, and give them the explicit discretion to make long-term planning and funding decisions.
I Gave Two Talks About Construction Costs Yesterday
We gave two talks about construction costs yesterday, as I said in my invite earlier this week. There are no slides to upload, so I’ll just give brief overviews.
The 11 am talk had with Aaron Gordon as moderator and comprised me, Eric, Elif, and Marco, in front of an audience of about 40, including a few people in official capacity from the MTA or the more reform-oriented sections of politics. It was recorded, and the video has been uploaded via the Marron channel. The four of us went over our backgrounds and what brought us to this issue, and then we talked about what we’d done – we tallied around 200 personal interviews and correspondences and countless academic and gray studies reviewed – and what the conclusions are (see above link for some of them).
Audience questions were markedly friendly, and so were followup conversations Eric had with people at the MTA about this; Eric and I had spent the previous day catastrophizing about what if we’d encounter a hostile audience with questions insisting that no, New York can’t possibly be an order of magnitude more expensive to build subways in than our comparison cases, but none of that happened there.
The political response is also interesting. I’m not going to name names but I’ve found it striking that there’s interest in this from both politicians who ideologically identify with the radical left and the Democratic Socialists of America and ones who ideologically identify with the neoliberal movement (currently rebranding itself as New Liberals, in parallel with the New Democrat Coalition).
In a way, it’s not too surprising. Both groups are motivated by ideology and not by the petty concerns that lead to NIMBYism and to the politics of delay for its own sake. More subtly, while the term neoliberalism evokes a retreat from state methods and toward privatization, in practice the people who use the label today talk about state capacity all the time, they just have a vision of the state that centers efficiency. The sight of a New York that can, on its present capital budget, build 200 km of rail tunnel in 10 years while also completing investments in accessibility and high-capacity signaling is uplifting to such movements, even if those movements may disagree about driverless trains.
This does not mean everyone is on board, unfortunately. I can’t tell what exactly goes on at the MTA; clearly, there are some people there who are unhappy, although I can’t tell who except in the broadest, least certain outline. In politics, I will say that the people I’ve talked to are not nearly as well-known or powerful as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the staff of Pete Buttigieg.
The 8 pm talk was much less formal and was just me in front of a crowd of about 25 that was more advocacy-oriented. It was from the start the secondary event, designed for people who would like to come but couldn’t make it during business hours. I expected 12 people and got 25, with an awkward signup process at the lobby of the building, for which I am grateful to security for being understanding. I managed to possess the AV system in the room with the help of an audience member and share my screen to showcase some more examples and talk more about our report, but there was no recording.
Audience questions covered a variety of topics: the applicability of our work to California High-Speed Rail (I went on a long rant about the problems of early commitment), how the different factors mentioned in the link at the start of this post interact, what the role of utilities is, etc.
A more interesting question, which I didn’t immediately have an answer to, was what advocates can do about it. People don’t vote based on subway construction costs, or at least not directly. I did bring up the political popularity of mani pulite and the anti-corruption reforms in Italy that have helped bring down costs, and, echoing more experienced activists who I’d asked, recommended that people raise the issue with their state legislator, member of City Council, or mayor if they’re in an inner suburb and not the city. In an American context, there is no criminal corruption that we’ve found, unlike in Italy in the 1970s and 80s, but instead of mani pulite, a popular process for making government more efficient is viable. Even people whose entire political career is built on wrecking the ability of the state to do anything talk about how It’s Time to Build or about Getting to Yes.
I want to say I’m optimistic based on what we saw, but not everything has gone as smoothly, and there are people in powerful positions who should not have them – they just didn’t show up this time. So we’ll see; I’ll know much more at the end of the year.
How to Spend Money on Public Transport Better
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.
Institutional Issues: Coordination
In this installment of institutional issues, I’m going to talk about coordination, following up from procurement, professional oversight, transparency, proactive regulations, and dealing with change.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.