Category: Construction Costs

The Scope and Future of Our Project on Costs

I was on a panel at Eno’s symposium on costs, talking with other teams investigating comparative construction costs. We worked off a list of questions Eno’s Robert Puentes had sent us before, knowing that the list was too long for five people (me, Eric, Laura Tolkoff, Ethan Elkind, Romic Aevaz) to cover in an hour. So for more completeness, here are my responses – and pay attention specifically to issues of scope and what we should be doing in the future. In particular, as we’re getting funded to do other things, we will likely have room in the budget to add a few more cases, and hire people who can put them together.

What were your key takeaways on the extent of our cost premium, and key cost drivers?

I blogged this just before the panel. The only major headers I’ll add are poor interagency coordination in the United States, especially for projects that are or touch commuter rail, and a political system full of real and imagined veto points. The imagined veto points are not unique to the US – the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands all have visible problems with excessive tunneling on high-speed rail projects coming from NIMBY demands, NIMBY demands that at least in the first two cases are paper tigers that the state can ignore if it doesn’t mind a few news cycles with negative headlines.

Questions on scope

There were three separate questions on this, since our approaches differ – Eno has more cases covered in less depth (and we made sure to pick disjoint comparison cases from theirs), Berkeley focuses on California projects. So we went through questions about what our respective scopes and limitations are:

  1. Could you walk us through the general scope and bounds of your work?
  2. What were some of the limitations you ran into when collecting information on costs/timeline, and what recommendations would you have to improve data reporting for projects?
  3. What are some of the lingering questions or areas for future study that your teams have flagged?

The answer to all three is that our scope – the six cases – looks at specific issues rather than general ones. The forest comprises trees and cannot be studied as an ecosystem until one understands the biology of the tree species therein. But then, understanding the biology of the tree species requires understanding the ecosystem they have evolved in; the reason we do cases simultaneously is that hearing about issues arising in one place informs our work on other places.

That said, I think it matters that none of our six cases is typical. Medium-cost environments like France, Germany, and Japan are unfortunately not in scope; I’ve read a lot of work on cot issues plaguing Grand Paris Express, but unfortunately not in any global or even just European comparative sense. All of our cases are Western (for infrastructure purposes Turkey is a Western country); this matters because, while European and East/Southeast Asian costs are broadly the same, both covering the entire global range short of American costs, there are notable differences in how they build, so it’s plausible that there re things one side does right that the other doesn’t in both directions. All of our cases are first-world or, in Istanbul’s case, 1.5th-world.

This means that we would like to add cases. Attractive targets include anything in Spain, to beef up our set of low-cost examples, and then cases that represent examples we didn’t study, that is places that are medium-cost, non-Western, or not in or in the penumbra of the developed world. My suspicion is that medium-cost examples will interpolate practices – Germany and France both vaguely appear to mix good Scandinavian or Southern European behavior with bad British and American behavior, each in its own way. But I do not know and that’s why we’d like to add cases. In middle-income countries like Russia, Mexico, Brazil, and China, and in low-income ones like India or the Philippines, I do not really know what to expect and my only explanation so far is completely different from any first-world pattern.

We should have a budget for this, but I don’t yet know how many cases we can juggle in addition to where we’re going to shift the main of our attention starting in early 2022, that is high-speed rail and a synthesis for the Northeast Corridor. Most likely other people will write the cases (for pay of course) and we will supervise in between looking at the history and technical data of the Northeast Corridor.

Consensus and Costs

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

What is the argument from consensus?

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

Why is this wrong?

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

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

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

The consequences

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

Express Rail Tunnels and Regional Rail Capacity

In three cities that I know of, there are plans to deal with an incipient regional rail capacity crunch by building a new tunnel: Tel Aviv, Hamburg, London. The route in question in all cities already has regional rail service making frequent urban stops as well as longer-distance intercity trains. Setting Tel Aviv aside – new tracks are not necessary there at all – both Hamburg and London have a choice of what to build in the tunnel. In both cases, the answer must be intercity rail and not regional rail. This affects Crossrail 2 in London, currently shelved but still in active planning, as well as plans for Hamburg Hauptbahnhof-Altona capacity improvements.

The dominant factor in the cost of an expensive urban railway in a constrained environment is the stations. Low-cost countries build very cheap stations, but that’s true in outlying areas, urban as they may be, and not in city center areas under and around older subways. What’s more, Britain and Germany are not low-cost countries. German costs are somewhat higher than the global median, British costs among the world’s highest. Thus, keeping down station costs is paramount – and express tunnels have fewer stations than local tunnels.

Normally, the express vs. local issue is not relevant to a new urban rail line. Yes, more stations are more expensive, but on a line designed to open up service to a new area, more stations also provide more access, so the extra cost is often worth it. This is true even for urban subways that act as relief lines, like Second Avenue Subway, a relief line for the Lexington Line: more stations provide better local access and therefore increase the line’s relief value.

However, when the problem comes from regional or longer-distance capacity, all of this goes out the door. Crossrail 2 includes a long tunnel from Central London all the way to Wimbledon not because of purely local needs but because of very high rail usage along the South West Main Line. In Hamburg the problem is similarly about the main line between Hauptbahnhof and Altona – local traffic is saturated on the S-Bahn, and all other trains have to squeeze on the remaining two tracks of the Verbindungsbahn. Thus, capacity expansion should involve a tunnel with the fewest number of stations, on the most express services.

And yet both cities are doing it wrong. Hamburg is planning an S-Bahn tunnel, with the existing S-Bahn route then given over to regional trains, to be segregated away from the intercity trains. But there are already two Hauptbahnhof-Altona S-Bahn routes – that’s not where the service need is. Instead, new tunnels should go between the stations without stopping, to reduce costs, hosting intercity trains while regional trains take over the existing intercity tracks.

London is likewise planning on an undulating connection between Clapham Junction and Wimbledon, with links to other parallel north-south lines in the area. This is not good planning – those new stations are inordinately expensive and not needed for network connectivity. If there is no way to six-track the South West Main Line above-ground by replacing the sloped berm with retaining walls, it’s the fastest trains that should go underground, to save money on stations. Crossrail 2 is a £31.2 billion project; I don’t think Paris has spent this money on all Métro and RER lines in the region to date combined, and Grand Paris Express, at a broadly similar cost, includes 160 km of tunnel. It’s necessary to economize and build the tunnels that are necessary, and not the ones London would like to have.

Cost- and Project-Centric Plans

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

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

What’s the problem?

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

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

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

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

Place-based extraction

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

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

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

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

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

Are jobs a cost or benefit?

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

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

The way forward

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

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

Paris, World Capital of Expensive Regional Trains

I have found something a European city does worse than the United States in public transit. Paris has just announced its new bilevel design for the RER B, currently the only line running single-deck trains due to restricted clearances. The new double-deckers, dubbed MI 20, are expected to cost 2.56b€ for 146 trainsets, each 104 meters long, for a total of 168,600€ per meter of train length.

I’ve criticized Paris’s use of double-deckers in the past. The cost premium for a double-decker, usually around 25-50%, at best matches the gain in seated capacity, and leads to other capacity problems with access and egress, which are of especial importance on urban rail like the RER. Not for nothing, bilevel trains are not used in Tokyo except for the occasional first-class car (“green car”), which is less crowded by design than the legendarily crowded subway and regional rail cars.

However, this is a lot worse than the usual premium. The only comparably expensive bilevel I can find is the Stadler KISS order for Caltrain, which at $230,000/m for the base order (and only $160,000/m for an equal-size option) comes at a large premium over usual KISSes (both around 130,000€/m) due to client interference and micromanagement coming from low competence by American railroaders.

But the KISS is a high-performance train, at the expensive end in Europe, too. Moreover, it is fully bilevel, whereas the MI 20 has a mix of single- and double-deck cars, with high-platform boarding. Comparable split-level trains go well below 130,000€/m. Canalblog has a compendium of recent Coradias: the single-level example for Milan is 6.25m€ per 84-meter train, or 74,400€/m, and the mixed single- and double-deck examples are 96,700€/m in Luxembourg and 117,600€/m in Germany. The mixed-deck Siemens Desiro HC has a range of costs: its RRX order is 1.7b€ for 82 150-meter trainsets, which is 138,200€/m, but a smaller order for the Berlin RegionalBahn is 300m€ for 21 six-car and 2 four-car trainsets, or 89,600€/m, which is a high but not unheard of cost for a single-decker, let alone a double-decker. The Desiro HC is being delivered to Israel as well, at a cost of 900m€ for 60 trainsets totaling 330 cars, or 109,100€/m.

There’s nothing special about Paris that justifies such a cost – the highest in the world so far, even beating the Americans. Rather, the problem is most likely that Paris thinks it’s special and won’t buy a standard platform. Canalblog points out that the Coradia Duplex formed the basis of the X’Trapolis, currently delivered for the RER D and E – and the X’Trapolis’s first tranche spent 29% of its budget on design and engineering, driving the cost up to a stratospheric 21.83m€ per train of length 112 or 130 meters. Even averaged over the entire order of 255 trainsets, at which point economies of scale kick in and the bespoke design is less harmful, the cost is 121,400€/m, which is 25% more than the more standard Luxembourg design.

Update: Clem Tillier asked me about Madrid’s recent Cercanías order. This is a mix of Stadler trains and Coradias, both mixed single- and double-deck; the Coradias, using the same platform as the Paris X’Trapolis trains and built in Spain rather than in France, cost 1.447b€/152 trainsets, or 95,200€/m, and the Stadlers, mixing KISS and FLIRT technology, cost 998m€ for 24 100-meter trains and 35 200-meter trains, or 106,200€/m.

In a megacity like Paris, it’s tempting to think one is special and must have special equipment. But the resulting high costs are particularly damaging in such a city. The RER B runs every 3 minutes at rush hour, which means that high rolling stock costs are proportionally a bigger problem than on a less frequent system. The cost premium of the order over standard single-deck trains is a factor of around 2; half the cost is 1.3b€, which would be enough to build some necessary tunnel extensions, like quad-tracking the combined two-track tunnel for the RER B and D between Châtelet-Les Halles and Gare du Nord, or if RER investment is not desired then around 6 km of tunnel for Grand Paris Express after the latest cost overruns.

France needs to let go of its pride and recognize that Paris is merely the largest city in the Union, with the same standards and regulations as the other 440 million of us who do not live in Ile-de-France. Vanilla Coradias and Desiros that work elsewhere should also work for the RER, with minor tweaks to take into account high platforms and the loading gauge, both of which the vendors are experienced in dealing with due to common intra-European variation. The people who sign extravagant contracts may feel special about the train design, but the passengers who end up not getting the investment the cost premium would have gone to are going to keep feeling packed on rush hour RERs. The region ought to do better and hire managers who are better than this.

The Other People’s Money Problem

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

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

OPM at ground level

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

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

OPM modifying projects

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

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

The issue of efficiency

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

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

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

The difference between nudging and planning

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

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

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

We Ran a Conference About Rail Modernization (Again)

Modernizing Rail 2021 just happened. Here’s a recording of the Q&A portion (i.e. most) of the keynote, uploaded to YouTube.

As more people send in materials, I’ll upload more. For now, here are the slides I’ve gotten:

A bunch of us tweeted the talks using the hashtag #ModernRail2021, including some that were not recorded.

Do Costs Run Over or Are They Underestimated?

The literature on cost overruns for infrastructure projects is rich, much more so than that for absolute costs. The best-known name in this literature is Bent Flyvbjerg, who in the early 2000s collated a number of datasets from the 1980s and 90s to produce a large enough N for analysis, demonstrating consistent, large cost overruns, especially for urban rail. Subsequently, he’s written papers on the topic, focusing on underestimation and on how agencies can prospectively estimate costs better and give accurate numbers to the public for approval. This parallels an internal trend in the US, where Don Pickrell identified cost overruns in 1990 already, using 1980s data; Pickrell’s dataset was among those analyzed by Flyvbjerg, and subsequent to Pickrell’s paper, American cost overruns decreased to an average of zero for light rail lines.

But a fundamental question remains: are cost overruns really a matter of underestimation, or a true overrun? In other words, if a project, say Grand Paris Express, is estimated to cost 22.6 billion € in 2012 (p. 7) and is up to 35.6 billion € today (p. 13), does it mean the cost was 35.6b€ all along and the 2012 analysis just failed to estimate it right? Or dos it mean the cost was 22.6b€ then, and then the budget ran over due to failures of planning that could have been avoided?

Transit agencies that just want to avoid the embarrassment of media headlines saying “they said it costs X but it costs 2X” care mostly about underestimation. This is also true of both generic project managers and political appointees, two groups that do not care about the details of how to build a subway, and think of everything in abstract terms in which a subway might as well be a box of shampoo bottles.

However, the concrete examples that I have seen or heard of for cost overruns look like overruns rather than underestimation. That is, those projects could have been done at the original cost, but planning mistakes drove the budget up, or otherwise created conditions that would enable other forces to drive the budget up.

The Netherlands: early commitment

Bert van Wee is among the world’s top researchers on cost overruns, even if he’s less well-known to the public than Flyvbjerg. He spoke to me about the problems of early commitment in Dutch planning, in which politicians commit to a project before design is finalized. Once the political decision has been made, it is easy for actors to extract surplus, because the state or city cannot walk away easily, while a 20% cost overrun is much easier to explain to the public. This problem plagued 2000s investments like HSL Zuid. To deter this, after 2009 the Netherlands passed reforms that attempt to tackle this problem, aiming to defer the formal political decision to later in the process.

This factor seems to correlate with absolute costs, if not with overruns. American planning is extremely politicized; Canadian planning is fairly politicized too, with individual subway projects identifiable as the brainchildren of specific politicians or parties; Southern European and Nordic planning is highly bureaucratized, with design driven by the civil service and politicians making yes or no decisions late in the process.

Sweden: changes in rules

According to a senior planner at Nya Tunnelbanan, the project has run over from 22.506 billion kronor in 2013 to 31.813 today, both in 2016 price levels; in US dollars, this is $2.551b/19.6 km to $3.606b/19.6 km, all underground. The reasons for the escalation come largely from tighter regulations as well as litigation:

  • Safety requirements have been tightened midway through the project, requiring a service tunnel in addition to the two track tunnels, raising excavation volume almost 50%
  • An environmental court ruling slowed down excavation further
  • Consensus with stakeholders took longer than expected
  • Excavated rock was reclassified midway through the project from useful building material to waste that must be disposed of

Focusing on underestimation is not really germane to what’s happened in Stockholm. The problem isn’t that early 2010s engineers failed to anticipate regulations that were not in force at the time. It’s that regulations were changed later. The rock removal process today actually increases greenhouse gas emissions, just because of the need to freight it away, let alone the systemwide effects on climate of making it harder to build subways.

California: scope creep and change orders

California High-Speed Rail is such a big project that its cost overruns, in multiple stages, were amply discussed in the media. The original announcements in the early 2010s, for example here, were largely about scope creep. At-grade segments turned into viaducts; above-ground segments, particularly in the Bay Area, were turned into tunnels. The reasons were mostly about agency turf battles.

Only in one case was the problem more about underestimation than overrun: the Central Valley segment had originally been planned to follow railroad rights-of-way, but had to be redesigned to have more viaducts and swerve around unserved small towns. This was bad planning, at two points: first, the original designs assumed trains could go at 350 km/h through unserved towns, which they don’t anywhere; and second, once the redesign happened, it was so rushed that land acquisition was time-consuming and acrimonious. Even then, much of the overdesign as identified by a Deutsche Bahn postmortem could have been prevented.

The second stage is more recent: the Central Valley construction contracts have long busted their budgets due to change orders. Change orders are a common problem in California, and in this case, it involved not only the change order king Tutor-Perini, but also the usually reasonable Dragados. The situation here must be ascribed to overrun rather than underestimation: a transparent process for handling changes, based on itemized costs, is an emerging best practice, known since the early 2000s to people who cared to know, and more recently seen in the economics literature for general infrastructure. That California failed to follow this practice – which, again, was available already in the late 2000s – is the source of malpractice. The original bids could have held if the process were better.

Absolute costs and cost overruns

Cost overruns are not the same as absolute costs. They are not even obviously correlated: witness the way the US eliminated most overruns on surface light rail projects in the 1990s and 2000s, to the point that projects with large overruns like the Green Line Extension are exceptional, while absolute costs have skyrocketed. But if we understand the problem to be about cost overruns from an ambitious but achievable budget rather than about underestimating a final cost that could not be improved on, then the study of the two topics is inherently intertwined.

Problems that recur in postmortems of cost overruns are not just about estimation. They’re about building better and cheaper. A bureaucratized planning process in which politicians retain the right to make yes-or-no decisions on complete design reduces cost overruns by reducing leakage and surplus extraction; the overruns such a process prevents are preventable extra costs, rather than higher initial estimates. The same is true of avoiding overbuilding, of not introducing extraneous regulations, of treating environmental questions as systemic and quantitative rather than as local under a do-no-harm principle. Even the question of change orders is more transparently about reducing absolute costs in the literature, since the overruns prevented tend to be seen in higher risk to the contractor leading to higher profit margin demands.

The upshot is that this makes the study of absolute costs easier, because we can reuse some of the literature for the related problem of cost overruns. But conceptually, it means that agencies need to be more proactive and treat early budgets as standards to be adhered to, rather than just blow up the budgets preemptively so that it’s easier to stick to them.

Quick Note: Do Costs Ever Go Down?

Bad agencies have a ratchet process in costs: they can go up, but not down. If there’s a cost saving, it does not reduce the budget, but only cancels out with unspecified cost increases. Agency heads and politicians trumpet their value engineering while costs never go down, leading to premium-cost, substandard quality projects.

Case in point: the Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel replacement project. The project used to be $750 million, in the 2000s, as a two-track passenger rail tunnel. Over the next decade, this turned into a four-track system with mechanical ventilation for diesel freight trains and enough clearance for double-stacked freight; costs ran over to $4 billion. Well, two months ago Amtrak announced a scope reduction back to two tracks, which it claims would save a billion dollars, cutting cost to… $4 billion.

This is not the first time this happens. Value engineering in California has had the same effect: every attempt to reduce scope – the blended plan for Northern California, plus various design compromises in both the Bay Area and the Central Valley – has failed to reduce costs. At most, they’ve prevented further cost overruns.

And in New York, the removal of the cavern underneath Penn Station in the planning process between the canceled ARC tunnel and the Gateway tunnel did not reduce costs at all. The cost estimate was $10 billion, much of which was the cavern; the cost estimate now is $10 billion for the bare tunnel with less scope than before. ARC was canceled on the grounds of potential cost overruns, and yet as soon as it took over the project, even while descoping the cavern, Amtrak presided over further increases in costs due to extras (Penn South, etc.).

It’s as if once there’s a number circulating out there, it will be spent, no matter what. If there’s a surplus, it will be blown on unspecified extras or on sheer inefficiency. Why spend $3 billion when the political system has already indicated that $4 billion is okay? Thus, 4-1 = 4, and, no doubt, if further value engineering is identified, the cost will stay $4 billion.

At no point does anyone say, okay, if there’s a cost saving, here’s the next slate of projects that the money can be spent on. Nor is there any proactive value engineering. Costs are only a problem insofar as they prevent the political system from saying yes, but even then, if there’s a number out there, even an outlandish one that nobody will say yes to (such as $117 billion for medium-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor), then it is the number. Any cuts from that are against inherently moral workers, communities, etc., in the service of inherently immoral outsiders and experts.

The Leakage Problem

I’ve spent more than ten years talking about the cost of construction of physical infrastructure, starting with subways and then branching on to other things, most.

And yet there’s a problem of comparable size when discussing infrastructure waste, which, lacking any better term for it, I am going to call leakage. The definition of leakage is any project that is bundled into an infrastructure package that is not useful to the project under discussion and is not costed together with it. A package, in turn, is any program that considers multiple projects together, such as a stimulus bill, a regular transport investment budget, or a referendum. The motivation for the term leakage is that money deeded to megaprojects leaks to unrelated or semi-related priorities. This often occurs for political reasons but apolitical examples exist as well.

Before going over some examples, I want to clarify that the distinction between leakage and high costs is not ironclad. Sometimes, high costs come from bundled projects that are costed together with the project at hand; in the US they’re called betterments, for example the $100 million 3 km bike lane called the Somerville Community Path for the first, aborted iteration of the Green Line Extension in Boston. This blur is endemic to general improvement projects, such as rail electrification, and also to Northeast Corridor high-speed rail plans, but elsewhere, the distinction is clearer.

Finally, while normally I focus on construction costs for public transport, leakage is a big problem in the United States for highway investment, for political reasons. As I will explain below, I believe that nearly all highway investment in the US is waste thanks to leakage, even ignoring the elevated costs of urban road tunnels.

State of good repair

A month ago, I uploaded a video about the state of good repair grift in the United States. The grift is that SOGR is maintenance spending funded out of other people’s money – namely, a multiyear capital budget – and therefore the agency can spend it with little public oversight. The construction of an expansion may be overly expensive, but at the end of the day, the line opens and the public can verify that it works, even for a legendarily delayed project like Second Avenue Subway, the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport, or the soon-to-open Tel Aviv Subway. It’s a crude mechanism, since the public can’t verify safety or efficiency, but it’s impossible to fake: if nothing opens, it embarrasses all involved publicly, as is the case for California High-Speed Rail. No such mechanism exists for maintenance, and therefore, incompetent agencies have free reins to spend money with nothing to show for it. I recently gave an example of unusually high track renewal costs in Connecticut.

The connection with leakage is that capital plans include renewal and long-term repairs and not just expansion. Thus, SOGR is leakage, and when its costs go out of control, they displace funding that could be used for expansion. The NEC Commission proposal for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor calls for a budget of $117 billion in 2020 dollars, but there is extensive leakage to SOGR in the New York area, especially the aforementioned Connecticut plan, and thus for such a high budget the target average speed is about 140 km/h, in line with the upgraded legacy trains that high-speed lines in Europe replace.

Regionally, too, the monetary bonfire that is SOGR sucks the oxygen out of the room. The vast majority of the funds for MTA capital plans in New York is either normal replacement or SOGR, a neverending program whose backlog never shrinks despite billions of dollars in annual funding. The MTA wants to spend $50 billion in the next 5 years on capital improvements; visible expansion, such as Second Avenue Subway phase 2, moving block signaling on more lines, and wheelchair accessibility upgrades at a few stations, consists of only a few billion dollars of this package.

This is not purely an American issue. Germany’s federal plan for transport investment calls for 269.6 billion euros in project capital funding from 2016 to 2030, including a small proportion for projects planned now to be completed after 2031; as detailed on page 14, about half of the funds for both road and rail are to go to maintenance and renewal and only 40% to expansion. But 40% for expansion is still substantially less leakage than seen in American plans like that for New York.

Betterments and other irrelevant projects

Betterments straddle the boundary between high costs and leakage. They can be bundled with the cost of a project, as is the case for the Somerville Community Path for original GLX (but not the current version, from which it was dropped). Or they can be costed separately. The ideal project breakdown will have an explicit itemization letting us tell how much money leaked to betterments; for example, for the first Nice tramway line, the answer is about 30%, going to streetscaping and other such improvements.

Betterments fall into several categories. Some are pure NIMBYism – a selfish community demands something as a precondition of not publicly opposing the project, and the state caves instead of fighting back. In Israel, Haifa demanded that the state pay for trenching portions of the railroad through the southern part of the city as part of the national rail electrification project, making specious claims about the at-grade railway separating the city from the beach and even saying that high-voltage electrification causes cancer. In Toronto, the electrification project for the RER ran into a similar problem: while rail electrification reduces noise emissions, some suburbs still demanded noise walls, and the province caved to the tune of $1 billion.

Such extortion is surplus extraction – Israel and Toronto are both late to electrification, and thus those projects have very high benefit ratios over base costs, encouraging squeaky wheel behavior, raising costs to match benefits. Keeping the surplus with the state is crucial for enabling further expansion, and requires a combination of the political courage to say no and mechanisms to defer commitment until design is more advanced, in order to disempower local communities and empower planners.

Other betterments have a logical reason to be there, such as the streetscape and drainage improvements for the Nice tramway, or to some extent the Somerville Community Path. The problem with them is that chaining them to a megaproject funded by other people’s money means that they have no sense of cost control. A municipality that has to build a bike path out of its own money will never spend $100 million on 3 km; and yet that was the projected cost in Somerville, where the budget was treated as acceptable because it was second-order by broader GLX standards.

Bad expansion projects

Sometimes, infrastructure packages include bad with good projects. The bad projects are then leakage. This is usually the politically hardest nut to crack, because usually this happens in an environment of explicit political negotiation between actors each wanting something for their own narrow interest.

For example, this can be a regional negotiation between urban and non-urban interests. The urban interests want a high-value urban rail line; the rest want a low-value investment, which could be some low-ridership regional rail or a road project. Germany’s underinvestment in high-speed rail essentially comes from this kind of leakage: people who have a non-urban identity or who feel that people with such identity are inherently more morally deserving of subsidy than Berlin or Munich oppose an intercity high-speed rail network, feeling that trains averaging 120-150 km/h are good enough on specious polycentricity grounds. Such negotiation can even turn violent – the Gilets Jaunes riots were mostly white supremacist, but they were white supremacists with a strong anti-urban identity who felt like the diesel taxes were too urban-focused.

In some cases, like that of a riot, there is an easy solution, but when it goes to referendum, it is harder. Southern California in particular has an extreme problem of leakage in referendums, with no short- or medium-term solution but to fund some bad with the good. California’s New Right passed Prop 13, which among other things requires a 2/3 supermajority for tax hikes. To get around it, the state has to promise somthing explicit to every interest group. This is especially acute in Southern California, where “we’re liberal Democrats, we’re doing this” messaging can get 50-60% but not 67% as in the more left-wing San Francisco area and therefore regional ballot measures for increasing sales taxes for transit have to make explicit promises.

The explicit promises for weak projects, which can be low-ridership suburban light rail extensions, bond money for bus operations, road expansion, or road maintenance, damage the system twice. First, they’re weak on a pure benefit-cost ratio. And second, they commit the county too early to specific projects. Early commitment leads to cost overruns, as the ability of nefarious actors (not just communities but also contractors, political power brokers, planners, etc.) to demand extra scope is high, and the prior political commitment makes it too embarrassing to walk away from an overly bloated project. For an example of early commitment (though not of leakage), witness California High-Speed Rail: even now the state pretends it is not canceling the project, and is trying to pitch it as Bakersfield-Merced high-speed rail instead, to avoid the embarrassment.

The issue of roads

I focus on what I am interested in, which is public transport, but the leakage problem is also extensive for roads. In the United States, road money is disbursed to the tune of several tens of billions of dollars per year in the regular process, even without any stimulus funding. It’s such an important part of the mythos of public works that it has to be spread evenly across the states, so that politicians from a bygone era of non-ideological pork money can say they’ve brought in spending to their local districts. I believe there’s even a rule requiring at least 92% of the fuel tax money generated in each state to be spent within the state.

The result is that road money is wasted on low-growth regions. From my perspective, all road money is bad. But let’s put ourselves for a moment in the mindset of a Texan or Bavarian booster: roads are good, climate change is exaggerated, deficits are immoral (German version) or taxes are (Texan version), the measure of a nation’s wealth is how big its SUVs are. In this mindset, road money should be spent prudently in high-growth regions, like the metropolitan areas of the American Sunbelt or the biggest German cities. It definitely should not be spent in declining regions like the Rust Belt, where due to continued road investment and population decline, there is no longer traffic congestion.

And yet, road money is spent in those no-congestion regions. Politicians get to brag about saving a few seconds’ worth of congestion with three-figure million dollar interchanges and bypasses in small Rust Belt towns, complete with political rhetoric about the moral superiority of regions whose best days lay a hundred years ago to regions whose best days lie ahead.

Leakage and consensus

It is easy to get trapped in a consensus in which every region and every interest group gets something. This makes leakage easier: an infrastructure package will then have something for everyone, regardless of any benefit-cost analysis. Once the budget rather than the outcome becomes the main selling point, black holes like SOGR are easy to include.

It’s critical to resist this trend and fight to oppose leakage. Expansion should go to expansion, where investment is needed, and not where it isn’t. Failure to do so leads to hundreds of billions in investment money most of which is wasted independently for the construction cost problem.