Category: Good/Interesting Studies

What the Spinetta Axe Reveals About Cost Control

The Macron administration commissioned a report about the future of SNCF by former Air France chief Jean-Cyril Spinetta. Spinetta released his report four days ago, making it clear that rail is growing in France but most of the network is unprofitable and should be shrunk. There is an overview of the report in English on Railway Gazette, and some more details in French media (La Tribune calls it “mind-blowing,” Les Echos “explosive”); the full proposal can be read here. Some of the recommendations in the Spinetta report concern governance, but the most radical one calls for pruning about 45% of SNCF’s network by length, which carries only 2% of passenger traffic. Given the extent of the proposed cut, it’s appropriate to refer to this report as the Spinetta Axe, in analogy with the Beeching Axe.

I wrote a mini-overview on Twitter, focusing on the content of the Axe. In this post I’m going to do more analysis of SNCF’s cost control problem and what we can learn from the report. The big takeaway is that cost control pressure is the highest on low-ridership lines, rather than on high-ridership lines. There is no attempt made to reduce SNCF’s operating costs in Ile-de-France or on the intercity main lines through better efficiency. To the British or American reader, it’s especially useful to read the report with a critical eye, since it is in some ways a better version of British and American discussions about efficiency that nonetheless accept high construction costs as a given.

SNCF is Losing Money

The major problem that the report begins with is that SNCF is losing money. It is not getting state subsidies, but instead it borrows to fund operating losses, to the tune of €2.8 billion in annual deficit (p. 28), of which €1.2-1.4 billion come from interest expenses on past debt and €1 billion come from taxes. Its situation is similar to that of Japan National Railways in the 1970s, which accumulated debt to fund operating losses, which the state ultimately wiped out in the restructuring and privatization of 1987. The report is aiming to find operating savings to put SNCF in the black without breaking up or privatizing the company; its proposed change to governance (turning SNCF into an SA) is entirely within the state-owned sector.

Unlike the Beeching report, the Spinetta report happens in a context of rising rail traffic. It opens up by making it clear that rail is not in decline in France, pointing out growth in both local and intercity ridership. However, SNCF is still losing money, because of the low financial performance of the legacy network and regional lines. The TGV network overall is profitable (though not every single train is profitable), but the TERs are big money pits. Annual regional contributions to the TER network total €3 billion, compared with just €1 billion in fare revenue (p. 30). The legacy intercity lines, which are rebranded every few years and are now called TETs, lose another €300 million. Some of the rising debt is just capital expenses that aren’t fully funded, including track renovation and new rolling stock; even in the Paris region, which has money, rolling stock purchase has only recently been devolved from SNCF to the regional transport association (p. 31).

In fact, the large monetary deficit is a recent phenomenon. In 2010, SNCF lost €600 million, but paid €1.2 billion in interest costs (p. 27); its operating margin was larger than its capital expenses. Capital expenses have risen due to increase in investment, while the operating margin has fallen due to an increase in operating costs. The report does not go into the history of fares (it says French rail fares are among Europe’s lowest, but its main comparisons are very high-fare networks like Switzerland’s, and in reality France is similar to Germany and Spain). But it says fares have not risen, for which SNCF’s attempt to provide deliberately uncomfortable lower-fare trains must share the blame.

The Spinetta Axe

The Spinetta report proposes multiple big changes; French media treats converting SNCF to an SA as a big deal. But in terms of the network, the biggest change is the cut to low-performing rail branches. The UIC categorizes rail lines based on traffic levels and required investment, from 1 (highest) to 9 (lowest). Categories 7-9 consist of 44% of route-km but only 9% of train-km (p. 48) and 2% of passengers (p. 51). Annual capital and operating spending on these lines is €1.7 billion (about €1 per passenger-km), and bringing them to a state of good repair would cost €5 billion. In contrast, closing these lines would save €1.2 billion a year.

But the report is not just cuts. Very little of SNCF’s operating expenditure is marginal: on p. 34 the report claims that marginal operating costs only add up to €1 billion a year, out of about €5.5 billion in total operating costs excluding any and all capital spending. As a result, alongside its recommendations to close low-ridership lines, it is suggesting increasing off-peak frequency on retained lines (p. 54, footnote 53).

There is no list of which lines should be closed; this is left for later. Page 50 has a map of category 7-9 lines, which are mostly rural branch lines, for example Nice-Breil-Tende. But a few are more intense regional lines, around Lyon, Toulouse, Rennes, Lille, and Strasbourg, and would presumably be kept and maintained to higher standards. Conversely, some category 5-6 lines could also be closed.

The report is equally harsh toward the TGV. While the TGV is overall profitable, not all parts of it are competitive. Per the report, the breakeven point with air travel, on both mode share and operating costs, is 3 hours one-way. At 3:30-4 hours one way, the report describes the situation for trains as “brutal,” with planes getting 80% mode share (p. 61). With TGV operating costs of €0.06/seat-km without capital (€0.07 with), it is uncompetitive on cost with low-cost airlines beyond 700 km, where EasyJet and Air France can keep costs down to €0.05/seat-km including capital and Ryanair to €0.04.

And this is where the report loses me. The TGV’s mode share versus air is consistently higher than that given in the report. One study imputes a breakeven point at nearly 4 hours. A study done for the LGV PACA, between Marseille and Nice, claims that as of 2009, the TGV had a 30% mode share on Paris-Nice, even including cars; its share of the air-rail market was 38%. This is a train that takes nearly 6 hours and was delayed three out of four times I took it, and the fourth time only made it on time because its timetable was unusually padded between Marseille and Paris. On Paris-Toulon, where the TGV takes about 4 hours, its mode share in 2009 was 54%, or 82% of the air-rail market.

SNCF has some serious operating cost issues. For example, the conventional TGVs (i.e. not the low-cost OuiGo) have four conductors per 200-meter train; the Shinkansen has three conductors per 400-meter train. The operating costs imputed from the European and East Asian average in American studies are somewhat lower, about $0.05-6/seat-km, or about €0.04-5/seat-km, making HSR competitive with low-cost airlines at longer range. However, there is no attempt to investigate how these costs can be reduced. One possibility, not running expensive TGVs on legacy lines but only on high-speed lines, is explicitly rejected (p. 64), and rightly so – Rennes, Toulouse, Mulhouse, Toulon, Nice, and Nantes are all on legacy lines.

This is something SNCF is aware of; it’s trying to improve fleet utilization to reduce operating costs by 20-30%. With higher fleet utilization, it could withdraw most of its single-level trains and have a nearly all-bilevel fleet, with just one single-level class, simplifying maintenance and interchangeability in similar manner to low-cost carriers’ use of a single aircraft class. However, this drive is not mentioned at all in the report, which takes today’s high costs as a given.

Efficiencies not Mentioned

The biggest bombshell I saw in the report is not in the recommendations at all. It is not in the Spinetta Axe, but in a table on p. 21 comparing SNCF with DB. The two networks are of similar size, with DB slightly larger, 35,000 route-km and 52,000 track-km vs. 26,000 and 49,000 on SNCF. But DB’s annual track maintenance budget is €1.4 billion whereas SNCF’s is €2.28 billion. Nearly the entire primary deficit of SNCF could be closed just by reducing track maintenance costs to German levels, without cutting low-usage lines.

Nonetheless, there is no investigation of whether it’s possible to conduct track maintenance more efficiently. Here as with the TGV’s operating expenses, the report treats unit costs as a fixed constant, rather than as variables that depend on labor productivity and good management.

Nor is there any discussion of rolling stock costs. Paris’s bespoke RER D and E trains, funded locally on lines to be operated by SNCF, cost €4.7 million per 25 meters of train length, with 30% of this cost going to design and overheads and only 70% to actual manufacturing. In Sweden, the more standard KISS cost €2.9 million per 25-meter car.

Low-ridership dilapidated rural branch lines are not the only place in the network where it’s possible to reduce costs. Rolling stock in Paris costs too much, maintenance on the entire network costs too much, TGV operating costs are higher than they should be, and fleet utilization in the off-peak is very low. The average TGV runs for 8 hours a day, and SNCF hopes to expand this to 10.

The Impetus for Cost Control

The Beeching Axe came in the context of falling rail traffic. The Spinetta Axe comes in the context of rapidly growing SNCF operating costs, recommending things that could and probably should have been done ten years ago. But ten years ago, SNCF had a primary surplus and there was no pressure to contain costs. By the same token, the report is recommending pruning the weakest lines, but ignores efficiencies on the strong lines, on the “why mess with what works?” idea.

The same effect is seen regionally. French rolling stock costs do not seem unusually high outside Paris. But Ile-de-France has money to waste, so it’s spending far too much on designing new rolling stock that nobody else has any use for. This is true outside France as well: the high operating costs of the subway in New York are not a US-wide phenomenon, but rather are restricted to New York, Boston, and Los Angeles, while the rest of the country, facing bigger cost pressure than New York and Boston, is forced to run trains for the same cost as the major European cities. It is also likely that New York (and more recently London) allowed its construction costs to explode to extreme levels because, with enough money to splurge on high-use lines like 63rd Street Tunnel and Second Avenue Subway, it never paid attention to cost control.

This approach to cost control is entirely reactive. Places with high operating or capital costs don’t mind these costs when times are good, and then face crisis when times are bad, such as when the financial crisis led to stagnation in TGV revenue amidst continued growth in operating costs, or when costs explode to the point of making plans no longer affordable. In crisis mode, a gentle reduction in costs may not be possible technically or politically, given pressure to save money fast. Without time to develop alternative plans, or learn and adopt best industry practices, agencies (or private companies) turn to cuts and cancel investment plans.

A stronger approach must be proactive. This means looking for cost savings regardless of the current financial situation, in profitable as well as unprofitable areas. If anything, rich regions and companies are better placed for improving efficiency: they have deep enough pockets to finance the one-time cost of some reforms and to take their time to implement reforms correctly. SNCF is getting caught with its pants down, and as a result Spinetta is proposing cuts but nothing about reducing unit operating and maintenance costs. Under a proactive approach, the key is not to get caught with your pants down in the first place.

The RPA’s Fourth Regional Plan

The RPA has just put up its Fourth Regional Plan, recommending many new subway and commuter rail lines in New York, ranging from good (125th Street subway, Brooklyn-Lower Manhattan regional rail) to terrible (Astoria Line extension to the west rather than to LaGuardia, which gets a people mover heading away from Manhattan). I have a poll for Patreon supporters for which aspects I should blog about; I expect to also pitch some other aspects – almost certainly not what I said in my poll – to media outlets. If you support me now you can participate in the poll (and if you give $5 or more you can see some good writings that ended up not getting published). If you want to be sneaky you can wait a day and then you’ll only be charged in January. But you shouldn’t be sneaky and you should pledge today and get charged tomorrow, in December.

It’s hard to really analyze the plan in one piece. It’s a long plan with many components, and the problems with it don’t really tell a coherent story. One coherent story is that the RPA seems to love incorporating existing political priorities into its plan, even if those priorities are bad: thus, it has the AirTrain LaGuardia, favored by Cuomo, and the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX), favored by de Blasio, and even has tie-ins to these plans that don’t make sense otherwise. Some of the regional rail money wasters, such as Penn Station South and the new East River tunnels from Penn Station to the LIRR, come from this story (the LIRR is opposed to any Metro-North trains going to Penn Station under the belief that all slots from points east to Penn Station belong to Long Island by right). However, there remain so many big question marks in the plan that are not about this particular story that it’s hard to make one criticism. I could probably write 20,000 words about my reaction to the plan, which is about 15 published articles, and there are, charitably, 5 editors who will buy it, and I’m unlikely to write 10 posts.

I’ll wait to see how the poll on Patreon goes, and what editors may be interested in. There are interesting things to say about the plan – not all negative – in areas including rail extensions, transit-oriented development, and livable streets. But for now, I just want to zoom in on the crayon aspects. I previously put up my 5-line map (4 MB version, 44 MB version). The RPA proposal includes more tunnels, for future-proofing, and is perhaps comparable to a 7-line map I’ve been working on (4 MB version, 44 MB version):

I was mildly embarrassed by how much crayon I was proposing, which is why what I put in my NYU presentation 3 weeks ago was the 5-line system, where Line 1 (red) is the Northeast Corridor and the Port Washington Branch, Line 2 (green) is much the same but through the new Hudson tunnels, Line 3 (orange) is the Empire Connection and the Hempstead Branch, Line 4 (blue) connects the Harlem Line and Staten Island, Line 5 (dark yellow) connects the Erie Lines with the Atlantic Branch and Babylon Branch, and Line 6 (purple) is just East Side Access. In the 7-line system, Line 6 gets extended to Hoboken and takes over the Morris and Essex Lines, and Line 7 (turquoise) connects the Montauk Line with the Northern Branch and West Shore Line via 43rd Street, to prune some of the Line 5 branches.

With all this extra tunneling, the map has 46 new double-track-km of tunnel. With just Lines 1-5, it has 30; these figures include Gateway and the other tunnels highlighted in yellow (but not the highlighted at-grade lines, like Lower Montauk), but exclude East Side Access. In contrast, here’s what the RPA is proposing:

Counting the Triboro-Staten Island tunnel and Gateway starting from the portal (not at Secaucus as the map portrays), this is 58 route-km, and about 62 double-track-km of tunnel (the Third Avenue trunk line needs four tracks between 57th and Houston at a minimum), for substantially the same capacity. The difference is that the RPA thinks Metro-North needs two more tracks’ worth of capacity between Grand Central and 125th, plus another two-track tunnel in the Bronx; from Grand Central to Woodlawn, the Fourth Regional Plan has 19 km, slightly more than 100% of the difference between its tunnel length and mine. My plan has more underwater tunnel, courtesy of the tunnel to Staten Island, but conversely less complex junctions in Manhattan, and much more austere stations (i.e. no Penn Station South).

As I said, I don’t want to go into too much detail about what the RPA is doing, because that’s going to be a series of blog posts, most likely a series of Streetsblog posts, and possibly some pieces elsewhere. But I do want to draw a contrast between what the RPA wants for regional rail and what I want, because there are a lot of similarities (e.g. look at the infill on the Port Washington Branch in both plans), but some subtle differences.

What I look for when I think of regional rail map is an express subway. I’ve been involved in a volunteer effort to produce a regional rail plan for Boston, with TransitMatters, in which we start by saying that our plan could be a second subway for Boston. In New York, what’s needed is the same, just scaled up for the city’s greater size and complexity. This means that it’s critical to ensure that the decision of which lines go where is, for lack of a better word, coherent. There should be a north-south line, such as the Third Avenue trunk in the Fourth Regional Plan or my Line 4; there should be an east-west line, such as the lines inherited from the legacy Northeast Corridor and LIRR; and so on.

The one big incoherence in my plan is the lack of a transfer station between Line 4/6 and Line 1/3 at Madison and 33rd. This is on purpose. Line 2 connects Penn Station and Grand Central, Madison/33rd is well to the south of Midtown’s peak job density, and Lines 4 and 6 shouldn’t be making more stops than the 4 and 5 subway lines, which go nonstop between Grand Central and Union Square.

The other weirdness is that in the 7-line system, unlike the 5-line system, there is no way to get between the Northern Branch or the West Shore Line and the rest of New Jersey without going through Manhattan. In the first map of this system that I made on my computer, Line 7 has an awkward dip to serve the same Bergenline Avenue station as Line 2. But I think what I posted here, with two separate stations, is correct: Lines 6 and 7 are lower priorities than a subway under Bergenline Avenue, which would make intra-state connections much easier. It’s difficult to depict rail extensions at different scales on one geographically accurate map, and doing a schematic map like the London Underground isn’t useful for depicting new lines, which should make it clear to readers where they go. But the 7-line system must be accompanied by subway extensions, some covered by the RPA (Utica, Nostrand) and some not (Bergenline, again).

I recently had to give a short description of my program for good transit, and explained it as, all aspects of planning should be integrated: operations and capital planning, buses and light rail and subways and regional rail, infrastructure and rolling stock and scheduling, transit provision and development. When I make proposals for regional rail, they may look out there, but the assumption is always that there’s a single list of priorities; the reason I depict a 7-line map, or even a 9-line map (in progress!), is to be able to plan lines 1-3 optimally. Everything should work together, and if agencies refuse to do so, the best investment is to make sure those agencies make peace and cooperate. The RPA plan sometimes does that (it does propose some regional rail integration), but sometimes it’s a smörgåsbord of different politically-supported proposals, not all of which work together well.

NEC Future: Moving Sideways

The Northeast Corridor high-speed rail investment studies are moving forward, and four days ago the FRA released an early environmental impact study on the subject, as part of the NEC Future program. The study moves in part in the right direction, in that it considers many different segment-level improvements (for example, specific bypasses of curvy segments), but it still isn’t quite going in the right direction. It’s not a bad study in itself, but it does have a lot of drawbacks, and I would like to discuss the ultimate problems with its approach.


The EIS studies three alternatives, as well as an obligatory No Build option.

Alternative 1 includes minimal investment: capacity improvements already under consideration, including new Hudson tunnels; grade-separation of at-grade rail junctions, including Shell interlocking between the Metro-North New Haven Line to Grand Central and the NEC, which imposes a severe speed limit (30 mph, the worst outside major city stations) and a capacity constraint; and a limited I-95 bypass of the legacy NEC route in eastern Connecticut, to avoid the existing movable bridges. The bulk of the expense under this alternative, excluding the predominantly commuter-oriented new Hudson tunnels, involves replacing or bypassing obsolete or slow bridges with faster segments. I have advocated such an approach in certain cases for years, such as the Cos Cob Bridge; if anything, Alternative 1 does not do this enough, but I do appreciate that it uses this solution.

Alternative 2 constructs HSR along the NEC route, except for a major deviation to serve Hartford. It is also bundled with various bypasses and new stations elsewhere: under this alternative, Philadelphia and Baltimore get new stations, with extensive urban tunneling to reach those stations. Alternative 3 does the same, but considers more deviations, including a tunnel between Long Island and New Haven, and an inland route through Connecticut, closer to I-84 than to I-95 and the legacy NEC; it also constructs dedicated HSR tracks between New York and Washington.

The EIS does not include cost figures. It includes travel time figures on PDF-p. 51, which seem to be based on unfavorable assumptions: Alternative 2, called Run 5, does New York-Boston in 2:17 for trains making a few major-city intermediate stops; the Alternative 3 proposals vary widely depending on alignment, of which the fastest, the I-84 inland route, takes 1:51, again making intermediate stops.

The Good

First, the EIS includes service plan elements, stating the projected frequency of regional and express trains using the tracks. It also talks about clockface scheduling and proposes a pulse in Philadelphia, allowing timed transfers in all directions between local and express intercity trains as well as trains on the Keystone corridor. It goes further and discusses regional rail on the intercity tracks in the alternatives that include extensive new construction. In these ways, it focuses on regionwide rail integration far more than previous plans.

Second, in general, the correct way to think about NEC investment is component by component. The EIS gets closer to this ideal, by considering many different route combinations north of New York, and advancing several of them under the Alternative 3 umbrella.

And third, the concept of Alternative 1 is solid. In many cases, it is possible to bundle a trip time or capacity improvement into the replacement of an obsolete structure at very low additional cost. The example I keep coming back to is the Cos Cob Bridge, but it is equally true of the movable bridges east of New Haven. I also greatly appreciate that Alternative 1 recognizes the importance of grade-separating railroad junctions.

The Bad

Ultimately, the EIS does not take the three good concepts – integrated service planning, component-by-component thinking, and bundling trip-time improvements when the marginal cost of doing so is low – to their full conclusion. Thus, there is no attempt at running intercity trains at high speed on shared track with commuter rail with timed overtakes, as I have proposed for both the inner New Haven Line and the Providence Line. On the contrary, the plan for capacity investment on the Providence Line includes extensive three-tracking, rather than limited, strategic four-track bypass segments. This cascades to the trip times, which are quite slow between New York and New Haven (1:08, for an average speed of 103 km/h), and a bit slower than they could be between Providence and Boston (24 minutes, whereas about 21 is possible with about zero investment into concrete).

The concepts of Alternatives 1, 2, and 3 represent bundles of levels of investment. This is the wrong approach. Alternatives 2 and 3 include new tunneled city-center stations in Baltimore and Philadelphia; but wouldn’t we want to consider city-center station tunnels in those two cities separately? It’s possible for one to turn out to be cost-effective but not the other. It’s possible for neither to be cost-effective, but for other improvements included in Alternative 2, such as curve modification around Metropark and Metuchen, to pencil out.

There’s far more interaction between different macro-level alignments, by which I mean such questions as “inland route or coastal route?” and “serve Hartford on the mainline or put it on a branch?”, than between such micro-level investments as individual curve modifications and urban tunnels. This means that instead of discrete alternatives, there should be one umbrella, taking in Alternative 2 and 3 variants, proposing all of those options as possibilities. A future study, with detailed cost figures, could then rank those options in terms of trip time saving per unit of cost, or in terms of social and financial ROI. This way, there would be concrete proposals for what a $5 billion plan, a $10 billion plan, a $20 billion plan, and so on would be.

The Ugly

Two elements in the study are inexcusable. First, the service plan description explicitly keeps Amtrak’s current separation of premium-fare Regionals and even-more-premium-fare Acelas. This is not how the rest of the world structures HSR: even when the HSR fares are substantially higher than the legacy rail fares, as in Spain, the fare per passenger-km is not very high, and is not targeted exclusively at business travelers. In France, the intercity fare (including TGVs, which are the bulk of French intercity traffic) was on average €0.112 per passenger-km in 2011. Premium service is provided on the same TGVs as standard service, in first-class cars. In contrast, Amtrak charges about $0.29 per passenger-km on the Regional and $0.53 on the Acela.

And second, the investment alternatives appear to include more tunneling than is necessary. I will focus on the Hartford-Providence-Boston segment in Alternative 2, since it is less sensitive to assumptions on commuter rail track-sharing than the segments overlapping the New Haven Line. It is possible to go all the way from Hartford to the western margin of the Providence built-up area without any tunneling, and without outrageous bridging; see a past post of mine on the subject here, which concludes that it’s better to just go parallel to I-95 for trip time reasons. In Providence, tunnels are unavoidable, but can still be limited to short segments, mixed with elevated routes along pre-impacted freeway corridors. When I looked at it two years ago, I saw an alignment with just 2 km of tunnel, in Providence itself. In contrast, run A in figure 9 on PDF-p. 56 says that tunnels are about 27% of new construction between Hartford and Boston, which consists of, at a minimum, about 100 km of track between Hartford and Providence.


The EIS is a step in the right direction, insofar as it does consider issues of integrated service planning and prioritizing construction based on where it can be cheaply bundled into bridge replacement. However, it fails to consider cost limitations, as seen in the excessive tunneling proposed even in areas where high-speed tracks can run entirely above ground. It’s considering more options, which is good, but, Alternative 1, while representing a golden concept, is not sufficiently developed.

What I would like to see from a study in this direction is a mixture of the following:

  • Discussion of how to avoid tunnels, including various tradeoffs that have to be made (for example, above-ground construction may require more takings). Generally, I want to see much less tunneling than is currently proposed.
  • A well-developed incremental option, similar to Alternative 1 but more extensive, including for example I-95 bypasses all the way from New Haven to Kingston and along strategic segments of the New Haven Line, such as in Port Chester and Greenwich.
  • Greater integration with regional rail; one litmus test is whether the Providence Line is proposed to be three-tracked for long stretches, or four-tracked at a key bypass station (the options are Sharon and the Route 128-Readville segment), and another is discussion of high-acceleration electric multiple units on the Providence Line and the Penn Line.
  • Unbundling of projects within each alignment – there is no need to, for example, consider the Philadelphia and Baltimore tunnels together (I also think neither is a good idea, but that’s a separate discussion). The view should be toward an optimal set of projects within each alignment, since macro-level decisions such as whether to serve Hartford are more political than micro-level ones of which curves to fix. This permits explicit discussions such as “would you be willing to spend $2 billion and slow through-trains by 9 minutes to serve Hartford?”.

Except for the first, all are kind of present in this study, but in insufficient amount for me to view it as truly a step forward. The ultimate goal must be HSR in the Northeast on a reasonable budget – closer to $10 or even $20 billion than to the Amtrak Vision’s proposed $150 billion – and this requires carefully looking at which scope is required and which is not. The EIS has elements that can be used toward that goal, but ultimately it is a step sideways, not forward or in the wrong direction.

What is the MTA Reinventing, Anyway?

In the last few years New York’s MTA has gone through multiple cycles in which a new head talks of far-reaching reform, while only small incremental steps are taken. The latest is the MTA Transportation Reinvention Commission, which has just released a report detailing all the way the MTA could move forward. Capital New York has covered it and hosts the report in three parts. Despite the florid rhetoric of reinvention, the proposals contained in the report are small-scale, such as reducing waste heat in the tunnels and at the stations on PDF-pp. 43-44 of the first part. At first glance they seem interesting; they are also very far from the reinvention the MTA both needs and claims to be engaging in.

Construction costs are not addressed in the report. On PDF-p. 53 of the first part, it talks about the far-reaching suburban Grand Paris Express project for providing suburb-to-suburb rapid transit. It says nothing of the fact that this 200-km project is scheduled to cost about 27 billion euros in what appears to be today’s money, which is not much more than $150 million per km, about a tenth as much as New York’s subway construction. (Grand Paris Express is either mostly or fully underground, I am not sure.) The worst problem for transit in the New York area is that its construction costs are an order of magnitude too high, but this is not addressed in the report.

Instead of tackling this question, the report prefers to dwell on how to raise money. As is increasingly common in American cities, it proposes creative funding streams, on the last page of the first part and the first six pages of the second part: congestion pricing, cap-and-trade, parking fees, a development fund, value capture. With the exception of congestion pricing, an externality tax for which it makes sense for revenues to go to mitigation of congestion via alternative transportation, all of these suffer from the same problem: they are opaque and narrowly targeted, which turns them into slush funds for power brokers. It’s the same problem as the use of cap-and-trade in California.

One of the most fundamental inventions of modern government is the broad-based tax, on income or consumption. Premodern governments funded themselves out of tariffs and dedicated taxes on specific activities (as do third-world governments today), and this created a lot of economic distortion, since not all activities were equally taxed, and politically powerful actors could influence the system to not tax them. The transparent broad-based tax, deeded to general revenue through a democratic process, has to be spent efficiently, because there are many government departments that are looking for more money and have to argue why they should get it. Moreover, the tax affects nearly all voters, so that cutting the tax is another option the spending programs must compete with. The dedicated fund does neither. If the broad-based tax is the equivalent of market competition, a system of dedicated funds for various government programs is the equivalent of a cartel that divides the market into zones, with each cartel member enjoying a local monopoly. In this way there’s a difference between the hodgepodge of taxes the MTA levies and wants to levy and Ile-de-France’s dedicated 1.4-2.6% payroll tax: the payroll tax directly affects all Francilien workers and employers, and were it wasted, a right-wing liberal politician could win accolades by proposing to cut it, the way New York Republicans are attacking the smaller payroll tax used to fund the MTA.

The proposals of where to spend the money to be raised so opaquely are problematic as well. There is a set of reforms, based on best practices in Continental Europe and Japan, that every urban transit system in the first world should pursue, including in their original countries, where often only some of those aspects happen. These include proof-of-payment fare collection on buses, commuter trains, and all but the busiest subway systems; all-door boarding on buses; mode-neutral fares with free transfers; signal priority and bus lanes on all major bus routes, with physically separated lanes in the most congested parts; a coherent frequent bus network, and high off-peak frequency on all trains; and through-service on commuter rail lines that can be joined to create a coherent S-Bahn or RER system. As far as I can tell, the report ignores all of these, with the exception of the vague sentence, “outfitting local bus routes with SBS features,” which features are unspecified. Instead, new buzzwords like resiliency and redundancy appear throughout the report. Redundancy in particular is a substitute for reliability: the world’s busiest train lines are generally not redundant: if they have parallel alternatives those are relief lines or slower options, and a shutdown would result in a major disruption. Amtrak, too, looks for redundancy, even as the busiest intercity rail line in the world, the Tokaido Shinkansen, has no redundancy, and is only about to get some in the next few decades as JR Central builds the Chuo Shinkansen for relief and for higher speeds.

The only foreigners on the Commission are British, Canadian, and Colombian, which may have something to do with the indifference to best industry practices. Bogota is famous for its BRT system, leveraging its wide roads and low labor costs, and Canada and to a lesser extent the UK have the same problems as the US in terms of best industry practices. Swiss, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Korean members might have known better, and might also have been useful in understanding where exactly the cost problems of the US in general and New York in particular come from.

The final major problem with the report, in addition to the indifference to cost, the proposal for reactionary funding sources, and the ignorance of best industry practices, is the continued emphasis on a state of good repair. While a logical goal in the 1980s and 90s, when the MTA was coming off of decades of deferred maintenance, the continued pursuit of the maintenance backlog today raises questions of whether maintenance has been deferred more recently, and whether it is still deferred. More oversight of the MTA is needed, for which the best idea I can think of is changing the cycles of maintenance capital funding from five years, like the rest of the capital plan, to one year. Long-term investment should still be funded over the long term, but maintenance should be funded more regularly, and the backlog should be clarified each year, so that the public can see how each year the backlog is steadily filled while normal replacement continues. This makes it more difficult for MTA chiefs to propose a bold program, fund it by skimping on maintenance, and leave for their next job before the ruse is discovered.

I tag this post under both good categories (“good transit” and “good/interesting studies”) and bad ones (“incompetence” and “shoddy studies”) because there are a lot of good ideas in the report. But none of them rises to the level of reinvention, and even collectively, they represent incremental improvement, of the sort I’d expect of a city with a vigorous capital investment program and industry practices near the world’s cutting edge. New York has neither, and right now it needs to imitate the best performers first.

Metro-North-Everything Compatibility

The Regional Plan Association has a new study warning that Metro-North’s infrastructure is falling apart, and demands $3.6 billion in immediate spending on state of good repair. In general, my line on deferred maintenance is “you mean the agency deferred maintenance all those years and didn’t tell us?”. But in this case, despite the language, most of the proposed spending is improvements, namely rehabilitation or replacement of old movable bridges with low speed limits, rather than ongoing maintenance folded into long-term capital spending.

$2.8 billion of the proposed program is for replacing five bridges: Pelham Bay, Cos Cob (over the Mianus), Walk (over the Norwalk River), Saga (over the Saugatuck), and Devon (over the Housatonic). I believe all five should be replaced in the medium term, but the cost proposed is much higher than it should be. $560 million per bridge is quite high, and out of line with Amtrak found on PDF-pp. 29 and 56 of the Northeast Corridor Master Plan. Amtrak cites the cost of replacing the Pelham Bay Bridge alone at $100 million, and the cost of both replacing it and modifying curves on the Hell Gate Line at $500 million. It cites the cost of replacing both the Saga and Walk Bridges at $600 million.

Now, the RPA lists Saga as the easiest bridge to replace since it’s two two-track bridges, so work can be done one bridge at a time with less disruption to ongoing service, but conversely Pelham Bay is also quite cheap according to Amtrak.

But there’s a more serious problem, which is the avoidance of talking about service plans for commuter and intercity rail. If there is serious effort at adding Metro-North service to Penn Station or at raising intercity rail speeds, then the worst speed and capacity restrictions should get priority, and the infrastructure construction should be based on what promotes the desired service plans. It is very expensive and probably cost-ineffective to six-track everything from New Rochelle to Stamford, to allow three speed regimes: local, express, and intercity. I have argued before that it’s better to leave it at four tracks and bypass bad curves, around Port Chester, and make this the six-track segment. This is of course independent of maintenance issues, but suggests which bridge replacements are necessary to support these bypasses (Cos Cob) and which aren’t (the rest are less critical, especially Walk, which intercity trains should bypass on a straighter I-95 segment).

Likewise, there’s a capacity crunch west of Stamford but not one east of Stamford, and this again suggests Cos Cob as the most important priority. Finally, the slowest segment of the NEC away from immediate station areas is the western corner of Connecticut, from the state line to Stamford; Stamford’s curves are mild, while those heading out of Port Chester all the way across the Mianus are quite bad, and straightening the segment would also require straightening the bridge, which can be done easily if it’s replaced. Despite all this, the RPA and Amtrak are saying Cos Cob needs rehabilitation and not replacement, which misses opportunities to both improve reliability and speed up a slow segment.

Moreover, there is no mention of grade-separating Shell Interlocking, just south of New Rochelle. While not a state of good repair issue even in theory, the interlocking’s tight curves impose a limit of either 30 or 45 mph (so, 50-70 km/h), depending on source, in an area that could otherwise support 200 km/h or more. It is very difficult to straighten New Rochelle to sufficient curve radius for that, but 150 requires only minor takings. This may be necessary, independent of speed issues, to raise capacity enough to allow Metro-North service to both Grand Central and Penn Station. It’s possible to schedule trains through the flat junction, but this imposes an additional constraint on the schedule, on top of track-sharing with Amtrak and, in the East River Tunnels, the LIRR.

Relative Costs of Transit Construction

The relative costs of different technologies of transit are not fixed. Although there are some rules of thumb for the ratio of tunneling cost to above-ground transit cost, the actual ratio depends on the city and project, and this would favor the mode that’s relatively cheaper. Likewise, the ratio of operating to capital costs is not always fixed, and of course long-term real interest rates vary between countries, and this could again favor some modes: more expensive construction and cheaper operations favor buses, the opposite situations favor rail.

In general, els cost 2-2.5 times as much as at-grade light rail, subways 4-6 times as much, according to Table 6 in this Flyvbjerg paper; Table 5, sourced to a different previous paper, estimates per-km costs, and has ratios of 1.8 and 4.5 respectively.

However, specifically in Vancouver, the premiums of elevated and underground construction appear much lower. The cost estimates for rail transit to UBC are $2.9 billion for an almost entirely underground extension of SkyTrain and $1.1 billion for at-grade light rail along Broadway, both about 12 km. Elevated construction is in the middle, though closer to the light rail end: the estimates for the two all-elevated SkyTrain extension alternatives into Surrey are $900 million for 6 km for rapid transit alternative 3 and $1.95 billion for 15.5 km for alternative 1. The under-construction Evergreen Line, which is 11 km long of which about 2 are in tunnel, is $1.4 billion.

In the rest of Canada, this seems to be true as well, though the evidence is more equivocal since the projects that are considered above-ground are often elevated rather than at-grade. The Canadian above-ground projects that Rob Ford’s Eglinton subway is compared with are not wholly above ground. Calgary’s West LRT, which with the latest cost overrun is $1.4 billion (a multiple of the preexisting three-line system) for 8 km, includes a 1.5 km tunnel, a short trench, and some elevated segments. Edmonton’s North LRT is $750 million for 3.3 km, of which about 1 km is in tunnel and the rest at-grade. But while it’s hard to find the exact ratio because of those mixed projects, the costs are not consistent with the ratios found in Flyvbjerg’s sources.

Outside Canada, those ratios seem to hold up better. American above-ground transit projects, such as the Portland Milwaukie extension and the Washington Silver Line, are as expensive as Calgary and Edmonton’s light rail, but American subways are much more expensive than Toronto’s Eglinton subway ($325 million/km, 77% underground and the rest elevated): Manhattan tunneling is more difficult, so its $1.3-1.7 billion/km cost may not be representative, but conversely, BART to San Jose’s $4 billion for about 8 km of tunnel is for tunneling partially under a wide railroad right-of-way, with no crossings of older subway infrastructure as is the case for Eglinton at Yonge.

Conversely, French tunneling costs are comparable to or lower than Canadian ones, but at-grade light rail is far less expensive than in North America. The RER E extension was at least as of 2009 budgeted at €1.58-2.18 billion for 8 km of tunnel (see PDF-page 79 here; this excludes €620 million in improvements to the existing commuter lines the tunnel will be linked with) – somewhere between the per-km costs of Vancouver and Toronto subways, but in a much denser environment with more infrastructure to cross. But the cost range for Parisian trams is much lower, about €30-50 million per km, in line with the subway:tram cost ratio of 4-6; the cost range in other French cities tends to be a little lower.

What this means is that in Canada in general, and in Vancouver in particular, questions about what mode to build should have higher-end answers than elsewhere. It doesn’t mean that the Eglinton subway is justified, but it does bias suburban rail lines in Vancouver toward elevated SkyTrain extensions rather than light rail, and inner extensions toward SkyTrain subways. For the same cost of building a subway under Broadway, Translink couldn’t build too much additional light rail; it could build two lines, say on Broadway and 41st, or maybe three if both non-Broadway routes are short, but certainly nothing like the entire network that SkyTrain opponents believe is the alternative, citing European tramway construction costs.

Are Forecasts Improving?

In response to my takedown of Reason, specifically my puzzlement at the estimates of inaccuracy in traffic forecasts, alert reader Morten Skou Nicolaisen sent me several papers on the subject. While there is past research about traffic shortfalls, for example this paper by Flyvbjerg (hosted on a site opposing the Honolulu rapid transit project), Flyvbjerg’s references are papers from twenty years ago, describing mostly subway projects in developing countries, but also rapid transit and light rail projects in the US built in the 1970s and 80s. Unlike Flyvbjerg, who posits that planners are lying, the authors of the papers he references have other theories: currency exchange rate swings, the challenges of underground construction, inaccurate forecasts of future economic growth, outdated traffic models based on postwar road traffic models. See section 6 of Walmsley and Pickett, and sections 3.3 and 4.2 of Fouracre, Allport, and Thomson (see also the range of costs for underground construction in developing countries in section 3.3).

The question is then whether things have improved since 1990. Since the first study to point out to cost overruns and ridership shortfalls in the US was by Pickrell, the question is whether post-Pickrell lines have the same problems, or whether there are better outcomes now, called a Pickrell effect.

The answer, as far as ridership is concerned, is very clearly that ridership shortfalls are no longer a major problem. See recent analysis by Hardy, Doh, Yuan, Zhou, and Button; see specifically figure 1. Cost overruns also seem to be in decline and are no longer big, although a multiple regression analysis finds no Pickrell effect for cost, just for ridership.

In particular, there is no comparison between projects from 30 years ago, most of which are underground, and present-day developed-world high-speed and urban rail lines.

The Rockaway Cutoff

When I went to an IRUM meeting nearly two years ago, the participants crowed about the possibility of restoring rail service on the Rockaway Cutoff. New York urban planner and technical activist David Krulewitch recently posted his proposal in a comment, showcasing multiple ways of reusing it for faster connections between Midtown and the Rockaway branches of the A, serving JFK and/or the Rockaways. Although the possibility has raised excitement among most local transit activists (some of whom have posted fantasy maps in the various subway forums including such an extension), I’m more skeptical.

First, the potential for JFK service is limited. The reason is that the Rockaway Cutoff only reaches Howard Beach, making it just a faster version of the A. The AirTrain is technologically incompatible with any other transit system in the region: it’s a vendor-locked Bombardier technology, of the same type used on the first two SkyTrain lines in Vancouver, in which the trains are driverless and propelled by linear induction motors placed between the tracks. This system allows trains to climb steeper than usual grades, and the maximum grade used on the AirTrain is 5.5%, considerably more than the usual for a normal subway or regional EMU (though less than the absolute maximum).

In addition, the needs of the mainline regional system and the subway are different from those of an airport people mover. A people mover needs very high frequency at all times, which is why such systems are normally driverless. In contrast, most subways are not driverless, and I do not know of a single mainline railroad that is driverless. Driverless operation requires some serious upgrades to electronics, and those upgrades are pointless if used only on a single line. If instead the JFK connection has a driver, then frequency will necessarily be very low, since there isn’t too much airport demand, and this will depress demand even further.

Although the current AirTrain system suffers from the lack of a one-seat ride to Manhattan, the situation is not too bad. Jamaica offers a very frequent LIRR connection to Manhattan at all hours, and Howard Beach offers a frequent if not fast connection to Brooklyn. This requires multiple transfers to reach most destinations, but this is not a major problem for locals who are traveling light. It’s a bigger problem for locals with luggage and even more so for tourists, but a one-seat ride to Penn Station, as proposed in LIRR connection proposals, is not too useful since most hotels are too far north. Even Grand Central is at the southern margin of Midtown proper.

For an honest estimate of how much demand there is, let us look at airports with very good transit connections. At Charles de Gaulle, 6 million passengers board at the RER station per year, 20% of airport traffic, and another 3 million use the TGV. At Frankfurt, 11% of passengers use the S-Bahn, and 15% use the ICE. Neither airport has a subway connection. Heathrow, which does have an Underground connection, has a total of 13 million Underground boardings and alightings, 20% of traffic (see data here); I do not know the ridership of the two mainline rail connections to Central London, but a thesis studying air-rail links puts the mode share as of 2004 at 9%. Assuming the train usage in Paris, New York could expect JFK to see 4.6 million boardings, or 9.2 million boardings and alightings; assuming that in London, New York could expect 13 million. The AirTrain’s current ridership is 5.3 million. Although the extra ridership would be useful at low cost, the higher cost of allowing mainline or subway trains to use the AirTrain tracks may be too high.

More importantly, 13 million passengers a year – an upper bound more than a median estimate in light of Frankfurt and Paris’s lower ridership – do not make for very high frequency by themselves, and therefore JFK could at best be an anchor rather than the primary ridership driver. Airport-only trains would be quite lonely; one of Krulewitch’s proposal’s most positive aspects is that it never even mentions premium express services such as Heathrow Express, which tend to underperform expectations as passengers prefer to ride cheaper local trains. Thus, not only would it be expensive to do an infrastructure and technology retrofit to permit direct Midtown-JFK service, but also the market for it would not be very large.

This brings us to the second possible market: the intermediate stops on the Rockaway Cutoff. They may seem useful, but in fact the development is elsewhere. Observe the land use maps of Queens Community Boards 6 and 9, which host most of the Cutoff: along the Cutoff’s right of way, the primary uses are single-family residential, with only a little commercial. Moreover, the commercial development is often very auto-oriented, for example at Metropolitan Avenue. Indeed, the only proposed station with significant dense development is Rego Park, which is on the LIRR Main Line and could be restored without restoring an entire line. Rezoning near the other stations is possible, but why not rezone near existing subway stations first?

In general, development in the US along linear corridors follows arterial roads, not railroads that haven’t seen passenger service in many decades. In the area in question, the primary north-south commercial artery is Woodhaven Boulevard; for service to the intermediate areas, the proposal should be evaluated against a light rail line on Woodhaven, providing local service from Queens Boulevard to Howard Beach and hitting multiple subway transfer points but not the airport.

The third market posited, fast service to the Rockaways, is the weakest. The stations in the Rockaways are some of the least busy in the subway system, with only a few hundreds of thousands of annual boardings each. They only support 15-minute service, with half of the A trains terminating at Ozone Park; since there are two Rockaway branches, the less busy only gets a shuttle except at rush hour, when there is enough demand for a few direct trains. Even with 15-minute service, it’s expensive to serve an area so far away with a flat fare; until a series of fare unifications, the subway charged a higher fare to stations in the Rockaways.

The problem with the Rockaways is that stations are too far from Manhattan and too lightly populated for it to be otherwise. Moreover, service along the LIRR to Penn Station using the Cutoff is about 18 km long measured from the intersection of the Cutoff with the A at Liberty, and service along the R is 16 km to Lexington and 19.5 to Times Square; service along the A is about 21.5 km long to Penn Station and 22 km long to Times Square, longer but not very much so. The main advantage of the R is that it hits Midtown proper better, rather than skirting it on 8th Avenue, but there’s practically no speed advantage – about 6 kilometers of travel distance and 2 station stops, translating to perhaps ten minutes.

As appealing as sending a single local subway service from the Queens Boulevard Line along the Cutoff to serve the Rockaways and give direct service to every branch, there would be a large demand mismatch; moreover, service to Forest Hills, which has nearly twice as many riders as all Rockaway stations combined, would be degraded.

LIRR service to the Rockaways could be better, but only if it’s modernized. The way it’s run today – infrequently, not very quickly, and expensively – it has no appeal. Far Rockaway has 4,500 weekday boardings on the subway (with a travel time of 1:06-1:14 to Times Square), and 158 average of boardings and alightings on the LIRR (with a travel time of 0:50-1:00 to Penn Station). Cutting another ten minutes from the LIRR travel time to Far Rockaway isn’t going to change anything as long as operating patterns remain as they are.

But if operating patterns are modernized, is there a point in service along the Cutoff? It saves very little distance measured to Far Rockaway: 21 vs. 24.5 km. It’s more useful farther west in the Rockaways, but those are less useful areas to serve – those are the areas with the lowest subway ridership, whereas Far Rockaway’s ridership is merely below average. Although the ridership would not be as pitiful if LIRR charged subway fares for in-city service and provided reasonably high speed and frequency, and it could be studied further as a case of an in-city S-Bahn line, there are more worthwhile S-Bahn destinations on the LIRR, for examples southeastern Queens, Hempstead, Bayside, and Great Neck. The main problem is that the Rockaway Beach branch would still have too little ridership to justify high frequency, and the round-robin proposal would have the same frequency-splitting effect on the stations except Far Rockaway and its immediate vicinity as running two separate branches; each station may have frequent service, but half the trains would take too long.

Finally, the three above-described markets – JFK, neighborhoods between Rego Park and Howard Beach, and the Rockaways – cannot all be served at the same time. The intermediate neighborhoods are free, but it’s impossible to serve both JFK and the Rockaways without an additional branching, reducing frequency even further. This means that the two markets can’t be combined to create more powerful demand. It’s one or the other – either the 13 million boardings and alightings one could optimistically expect of JFK, or the 4.5 million boardings times an appropriate growth factor one could expect of the Rockaways. Neither is high by S-Bahn standards; measured in ridership per terminus excluding short-turns, the least busy RER line, the RER C, has 20 million riders per terminus.

Because of the low potential ridership of the Rockaway Cutoff, I suggest New York transit advocates look elsewhere first. Service to JFK could be beefed up with sending surplus Amtrak trains to Jamaica for an interchange, and service to the Rockaways first with modernizing regional rail and second with having it take over the Far Rockaway branch of the A if there’s demand. If there’s higher than expected growth in demand, then the Cutoff could be activated, at as a low a cost in 15 years as today. But for now, the low cost of activating the Rockaway Cutoff comes hand in hand with low benefits.

Transfer Penalty Followup

My previous post‘s invocation of Reinhard Clever’s lit review of transfer penalties was roundly criticized on Skyscraper City Page for failing to take into account special factors of the case study. Some of the criticism is just plain mad (people don’t transfer from the Erie Lines to the NEC because trains don’t terminate at Secaucus the way they do at Jamaica?), but some is interesting:

This is what the paper says:

Go Transit commuter rail in Toronto provides a good example for Hutchinson’s findings. In spite of being directly connected to one of the most efficient subway systems in North America, Go’s ridership potential is limited to the number of work locations within an approximately 700 m radius around the main railroad station. Most of the literature points to the fact that the ridership already drops off dramatically beyond 400 m. This phenomenon is generally referred to as the “Quarter Mile Rule.”

Let’s look at WHY that is. If you live North of downtown and work North of about Dundas Street, it is probably faster for you to take the subway to work. So people aren’t avoid the commuter train because it imposes a transfer, but just because the subway is faster. Same thing if you live along the Bloor-Danforth line. Toronto’s subway runs at about the same average speed as NYC’s express trains. If one lives east or west of the city along the lakeshore, they are going to take the GO Train to Union Station and transfer to the subway to reach areas north of Dundas. I really doubt these people are actually “avoiding” the GO Train, though if there is evidence to the contrary I’d like to see it.

Toronto also has higher subway fares than NYC.

The issue is whether the subway and commuter rail in Toronto are substitutes for each other. My instinct is to say no: on each GO Transit line, only the first 1-3 stations out of Union Station are in the same general area served by the subway, and those are usually at the outer end of the subway, giving GO an advantage on time. Although the Toronto subway is fast for the station spacing, it’s only on a par with the slower express trains in New York; on the TTC trip planner the average speed on both main subway lines is about 32 km/h at rush hour and 35 km/h at night.

Unfortunately I don’t know about GO Transit usage beyond that. My attempt to look for ridership by station only yielded ridership by line, which doesn’t say much about where those riders are coming from, much less potential riders allegedly deterred by the transfer at Union Station. So I yield the floor to Torontonians who wish to chime in.

Update: a kind reader sent me internal numbers. The busiest stations other than Union Station are the suburban stations on the Lakeshore lines, led by Oakville, Clarkson, and Pickering; the stations within Toronto, especially subway-competitive ones such as Kipling, Oriole, and Kennedy, are among the least busy. Some explanations: the subway is cheaper, and (much) more frequent; Toronto’s GO stations have no bus service substituting rail service in the off-peak, whereas the suburban stations do; Toronto’s stations have little parking.

Congestion, Freeways, and Size, Redux

As a followup to my previous post about the TTI’s new congestion report, I finally did a multivariate regression analysis, with the dependent variable being cost and the independent variables being size and freeway lane-miles per capita. Such an analysis reduces the regression coefficient between freeways and congestion even more, to -42.5 from the uncontrolled -233. More interestingly, if we log all numbers (population, congestion cost, and freeways), the regression coefficient becomes a positive 0.02 – that is, adding freeways is correlated with making congestion a little worse.

Of course, it’s not literally true that adding freeways makes congestion worse. There’s a correlation if we look at the variables in some way, but it’s not going to have any statistical significance. Therefore tweaking variables slightly can make a correlation go from weakly positive to weakly negative.

In univariate regression, we can think about the square of the correlation as the percentage of the variance that is explained by the regression line. Freeway lane-miles per capita explain 3.8% of the variance in congestion (and logging either variable makes this number smaller); with 101 urban areas surveyed, it’s statistically significant, but barely so. But after controlling for population, this proportion drops to 0.7%. Thus, any sentence of the form “adding one freeway lane-mile per thousand people only cuts $42.5 from the annual congestion cost per capita” is inherently misleading: the correlation is so weak that some cities can reduce congestion without building the requisite amount of roads, or building any roads at all (for example, nearly all American cities in the last five years, congestion having crashed in the oil price boom and the recession), while others can keep building but see congestion increase (for example, Houston since the 1980s, and even today).

It goes without saying that such analysis is not going to appear in the TTI report itself. The TTI gets funding from APTA and the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. It pays lip service to congestion pricing as a solution to congestion, and instead talks a lot about building public transportation and even more about building freeways to keep up with demand. American cities may be building freeways faster than their population growth, but cities that enact no traffic restraint and just pour concrete can expect demand to grow faster than population as people become more hypermobile.