I write a lot about stereotypes in the context of construction costs. Countries with a reputation for corruption, such as Spain, South Korea, Greece, and Italy, often build subways very cheaply. Germany, for all its stereotype of efficiency, has high costs and some dysfunctional decisionmaking in what to build. Singapore, the self-styled most efficient government, pays its transport minister more than a million dollars per year to make excuses for why it has such high construction costs.
In the Nordic countries, the stereotype is correct: those countries have transparent, clean governments, and also build infrastructure cheaply.
All four mainland Nordic capitals have recent or ongoing metro expansion projects:
Stockholm just opened Citybanan, a regional rail connection including 6 km of tunnel with two deep stations in Central Stockholm and a 1.4 km bridge. The total cost was 16.8 billion SEK in 2007 terms, which in today’s PPP terms is about $330 million per km. It’s expensive for a suburban subway but not for regional rail.
Copenhagen is currently wrapping up construction on the fully underground, driverless City Circle Line. It is a circular but not circumferential line through city center. With repeated schedule slips, the budget is now 24.8 billion DKK, or $3.4 billion in PPP terms, which is $220 million per km.
Stockholm is expanding its metro in three directions. The fully underground extensions are together 19 km and 22.4 billion SEK, which in PPP terms is $130 million per km.
Helsinki has just opened an expansion of its metro westward to Espoo. This is a 13.5 km, 8-station fully underground line with a water crossing. After cost overruns, the current cost estimate is €1,186 million, which is in PPP terms $115 million per km.
Oslo recently opened a short connection, called Lørenbanen. It’s 1.6 km long and includes a single new station, for a total of NOK 1.33 billion, including 150 million for modernization of an existing connecting line. In PPP terms this is just $90 million per km in today’s money.
Other rail infrastructure
Sweden is investing heavily in mainline rail modernization. This includes a planned high-speed rail network connecting the country’s three biggest cities, which are spaced far apart and not on a line, requiring the total system to be 740 km long. The cost projection as of 2015 is 125 billion SEK, which in PPP terms is $14 million per km; I do not know if it is in 2015 prices or expected year of construction prices. This cost figure is comparable to that of Madrid-Barcelona and about half the at-grade norm for Europe.
Sweden is simultaneously investing in its mainline network, rather than neglecting it in favor of just HSR the way France is. A document from 2009 lists some of these on p. 38 based on the national plan of 2010-21, which did not include HSR. Of note, two full double-track projects are coming it at about $10 million per km or slightly more. In contrast, in Berlin, suburban S-Bahn double-tracking is around twice as expensive per the list on PDF-pp. 73-77 of the official wishlist.
In Denmark, a recent double-tracking project cost 675 million DKK for 20 km, or $4.6 million per km, even cheaper than in Sweden. The project includes not just double track but also an upgrade to 160 km/h.
Denmark is also investing heavily in electrification – see here for a list of projects, without costs. Costs for some of these projects are provided by Railway Gazette. The Fredericia-Aalborg line is 249 km and 4.7 billion DKK, the Roskilde-Kalundborg line is 56 km and 1.2 billion DKK, and the Esbjerg-Lunderskov line is 57 km and 1.19 billion DKK; all three lines are double-track. The longer line is $2.6 million per km, the shorter two are $2.9 million. This is much cheaper than in the core Anglosphere but more expensive than projects for which I have data in France, Israel, and New Zealand.
It’s cheap, but do people ride it?
Absolutely. Low construction costs can occur for projects that nobody has any reason to build, they’re so low-ridership, while some high-cost projects remain cost-effective if they have extremely high ridership, like Second Avenue Subway Phase 1.
In the case of the Nordic capitals, the recent extensions are well-patronized. The ridership prognosis for the City Circle Line is 289,000 per weekday, which means its cost is $11,800 per rider. The link above for the Stockholm T-bana extension projects 170,000 riders per day, which I believe means weekday rather than literal day; in that case, the projected cost per rider is $14,500. Løren’s ridership is 8,000 per day, which one former resident says is just boardings without alightings, which means total ridership is actually 16,000, making the cost of the line just shy of $9,000 per rider. And Helsinki’s West Metro is projected to get 100,000 daily riders, which means its cost is about $15,500 per rider.
Moreover, Stockholm’s overall use of public transportation is very healthy. The first 6 pages of this PDF comprise a report on modal split in Stockholm, out of all trips, not just work trips. In 2015, 32% of all trips in Stockholm County were by public transport, 38% were by car, 9% were by bike, and 16% were on foot. There had been a notable shift from cars to the other modes since 2004.
Converting this statistic to work trip mode share, the most stable metric and the one reported for the US, Canada, UK, and France, requires some additional work. However, where both statistics are available, they do provide some insight: in Hamburg in 2008, the overall car mode shares for all trips and for just work trips were similar (48% for work trips vs. 42% for all trips in the city, 65% vs. 63% in the suburbs); work trips alone exhibit much higher transit mode share (33% vs. 18% in the city, 16% vs. 8% in the suburbs), at the expense of non-motorized trips, which are disproportionately for short errands. It is very likely that the work trip public transport mode share in Stockholm County is comparable to Ile-de-France’s 43%, in a metro area one fifth the size.
Transit ridership in the other Nordic capitals is weaker, though still impressive for their size. Copenhagen lags in transit but has a strong bike network. Oslo had 118 million metro riders in 2017 (source, PDF-p. 31 – per same link you can also see the operating costs per car-km work out to just short of PPP$4, compared with a typical first-world range of $4-7), plus some additional commuter rail ridership (65 million nationwide, not just around Oslo). Helsinki had 63 million annual metro passengers in 2015, before the extension opened, and somewhat fewer additional commuter rail passengers, for a total ridership of perhaps 120 million. Both of the smaller cities have about the same metro area rail ridership per capita as New York, which is about fifteen times their size.
What does this mean?
Scandinavia has a reputation for efficient government at home as well as abroad. Right-wing pundits are far more likely to look for aspects of its governance that play to their desire for privatization, such as Sweden’s school voucher system or the contracting out of urban rail, than to assert that Scandinavia is a socialist failure. Unlike autocracies that have cultivated such reputation, the Nordic countries fully deserve this praise when it comes to building infrastructure cost-effectively. Sweden appears to consistently build rail for half the per-unit cost of Germany.
And yet, I don’t see that much praise for Nordic infrastructure. There are people in the English-speaking world making grandiose claims about how democratic countries need to be more like China and about how authoritarianism is just more efficient. I don’t know of any making that claim about how Nordic social democracy is more efficient, with its depoliticized state apparatus, multiparty elections, high levels of transparency, bureaucratic legalism, and near-universal collective bargaining.
Across all levels of public transportation investment, from high-speed rail down to routine track upgrades, we see inexpensive, efficient projects in the Nordic countries. They achieve high levels of rail usage without megacities in which only masochists drive, and keep expanding their networks in order to complete the green transition. Public transit managers in not just the laggard that is the US but also Germany and other relatively solid countries should make sure to study how things work in Scandinavia and how they can import Nordic success.
New York’s high construction costs are not just a problem for public transit. Roads exhibit the exact same problem. Case in point: replacing 2.5 km of the deteriorating Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) in Brooklyn Heights is slated to cost $3-4 billion, take 6-8 years, and require temporarily closing the pedestrian promenade supported on top of the highway. This is not even a tunnel – some local NIMBYs have proposed one in order to reduce the impact of construction, but the cost would then be even higher. No: the projected cost, around $1.5 billion per kilometer, is for an above-ground highway replacement.
The section in question is between the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the Brooklyn Bridge; the Promenade is the northern half of this section.
Is it worth it?
There exist infrastructure projects that are worth it even at elevated cost. Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 cost $4.6 billion where it should have cost $700 million, but the expected ridership was very high, 200,000 per day, and so far ridership is on track to meet projections: the three new stations had a total of 138,000 boardings and alightings between them in 2017, and the revamped 63rd Street station went up by another 8,000. The BQE replacement is not such a project. Current traffic on the highway is stated as 153,000 vehicles per day, so on a per-vehicle basis it’s similar to Second Avenue Subway’s per-rider projection, around $23,000. But cars are not transit and cities need to understand that.
The construction of a subway creates noise and traffic disruption, but once the subway is up, all of that is done. Even elevated trains cause limited problems if built properly from materials that minimize noise – the trains on the viaducts on the Paris Metro are less noisy than the cars on the street below. There are operating costs involved with subways, but fixed costs are so dominant that even in New York a busy line like Second Avenue Subway should be at worst revenue-neutral net of costs; for reference, in Vancouver the projection for the Broadway subway extension’s operating costs is well below the revenue from the projected extra ridership.
Cars are not like that. They are noisy and polluting, and greenwashing them with a handful of expensive electric cars won’t change that. There are benefits to automobility, but the health hazards cancel out a lot of that. The Stern Review estimates the cost of unmitigated climate change at 20% of global GDP (e.g. PDF-p. 38), which in current terms approaches $500 per metric ton of CO2. The US has almost the same emissions intensity per dollar of production as the rest of the world; the negative impact of cars coming from climate change alone is comparable to the total private cost of transportation in the US, including buying the car, maintenance, fuel, etc. Now add car accidents, noise, and local air pollution.
In a region where cars are an absolute lifeline, there’s a case for building connections. The costs are low since grading a road for medium speed with level crossings is not expensive. In cities, the situation is different. Drivers will grumble if the BQE is removed. They will not lose access to critical services.
Is anyone proposing removing the BQE?
Yes, there are some proposals to that effect, but they’re so far only made haltingly. Council Speaker and 2021 mayoral frontrunner Corey Johnson’s report on municipal control of the subway includes the following line: “Before spending $4 billion to reconstruct a 1.5 mile stretch of highway, the City should study alternatives to the reconstruction of this Robert Moses-era six lane road, including the removal of the BQE in its entirety.” The halting part here is that to study does not mean to enact; Johnson himself opposes repurposing car lanes for bus service in his own district.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who has relied on a lot of the information I have brought up in this space in his reports, proposes to keep the BQE but only allow access to trucks. Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan agrees with the idea and even pitches it as a brave alternative to the car. In other words, per the comptroller and former commissioner, billions of dollars are to be spent on the reconstruction of a somewhat narrower structure for 14,000 trucks per day. Stringer’s report even says that the comparable urban freeways that have been removed did not allow trucks in, which is incorrect for the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco and for the Voie Georges Pompidou in Paris (look for “camions” here). In reality, if closing the BQE means adding just 14,000 vehicles to surface streets, then it’s an almost unmitigated success of road dieting, since it means much less pollution and noise.
The Regional Plan Association proposes its usual quarter-measures as well, sold under the guise of “reimagining.” It does not mention closure at all – it proposes rebuilding the structure with four lanes, down from the current six, and even dares to cite the closure in Paris as precedent. Everything in its analysis points out to the benefits of full closure and yet the RPA feels too institutional to propose that. Presumably if the RPA had opined on lynchings in the midcentury American South it would have proposed a plan to cut total lynchings by 25% and if it had opined on Fourth Republic-era colonialism in Algeria it would have proposed to cut the incidence of torture by a third while referencing the positive precedent of British decolonization in India.
What should replace the BQE?
The BQE should be removed all the way from the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to the Williamsburg Bridge. Its curves in Downtown Brooklyn with the loops to the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges consume valuable real estate, and farther east they divide neighborhoods. The new Navy Yard developments are disconnected from the rest of Brooklyn because of the BQE.
Going east through Fort Greene, the BQE is flanked on both sides by Park Avenue. Buildings face the street, though many of the lots are empty or low-value. Thus, the surface streets have to stay. Selling what is now Park Avenue as parcels for residential and commercial development and mapping a street on the BQE’s 30-meter footprint is probably not viable. Instead, most of the footprint of the expressway should be parceled into lots and sold, converting Park Avenue into a one-way pair with streets about 12-15 meters in width each. East-west buses will continue running on Flushing and Myrtle, and north-south buses should probably not make stops at Park.
In contrast, going south through South Brooklyn, buildings do not face the abutting surface street, Hicks. They present blank walls, as if it was midblock. This is a prime opportunity to narrow the street as if the highway has never been there, creating an avenue perhaps 20 or 30 meters in width. The wider figure is more appropriate if there are plans for bus lanes and bike lanes; otherwise, if buses stay on Columbia, 20 is better.
In South Williamsburg, the road is nearly block-wide. The neighborhood is pro-development due to high birthrates among the Haredi population. Thus the footprint of the freeway must be used for private housing development. The area next to the Marcy Avenue subway station on the J/M/Z is especially desirable for the non-Haredi population, due to the proximity to Manhattan jobs. The city should retain an avenue-width roadway for Williamsburg Bridge access from the south, but beyond that it should restore the blocks of the neighborhood as they were before the BQE was built.
Heal, don’t placemake
If there’s a common thread to the various proposals by local politicians and shadow agencies (that is, the RPA), it’s an attempt at placemaking, defined to be any project that they can point to and say “I built that!”. A BQE rebuilt slightly narrower, or restricted to trucks, achieves that goal, with some greenwashing for what remains a waste of billions of dollars for motorist convenience.
But the same can be said of a park, as in one architect’s proposal for the BQE. I can see a case for this in Brooklyn Heights, where the Promenade is an important neighborhood destination, but elsewhere, the case is extraordinarily weak. In South Brooklyn, the most important benefit of removing the BQE is easier pedestrian access to the waterfront; recreation space should go there. Fort Greene and the Navy Yard are both rich in parks; BQE removal makes the large parks on both sides of the motorway easier to access. And Williamsburg is hungry for private development, whether near the subway for Manhattan workers or elsewhere for Haredi families.
Thirty years from now, nobody is going to walk on the remade street grid of South Williamsburg or the narrowed Hicks Street and wonder which politician set this up. But people may well notice the lower rents – and they may well notice them within a few years of the deconstruction of the road and the sale of the land for housing development. Ultimately city residents do notice if things are improving or deteriorating. It’s on the city to nudge infrastructure development in the direction of less pollution and fewer boondoggles.
It is much harder to find estimates of construction costs for elevator access to metro stations than to find estimates for the costs of new tunnels. Accessibility isn’t as flashy, so it does not get reported in the international trade press. If you’re a humble blogger who has no idea what the Japanese phrases for “elevator,” “wheelchair accessibility,” and “construction costs” are, you have no way of figuring out how much it cost Tokyo to get its legacy subway network to be about 80-90% accessible. Thankfully, there are enough European cities where I do know those phrases that I do have a list. It comprises just eight cities, two in the US and six in Europe, and in at least one case (Milan) I don’t fully trust the numbers.
New York:the current capital plan spends $740 million on 19 stations, and a single elevator is $10 million if I understand Curbed correctly. The headline figure is $39 million per station.
Boston: MBTA head of systemwide accessibility, Laura Brelsford, told me that Symphony is a $25 million, 4 elevator project, and that Copley and Arlington were in the $30-40 million range each. I can’t find a link, unfortunately.
London: here is a source saying a £76 million fund would make 12 stations step-free, but I don’t know which stations. This source states a higher figure, £200 million for 13 stations, which in PPP terms is about $22 million per station. The lower figure is only $9 million per station.
Paris: nothing is accessible except M14 and the RER and there are no plans to make anything accessible, but a disability rights organization estimates the cost of making all 303 Metro stations accessible at €4-6 billion. Subtracting M14-only stations this is also about $22 million per station at the midpoint.
Madrid: a 2016-20 plan breaks down costs per station. They’re about €5 million per station per line it serves (so a 3-line transfer is €15 million), and a single elevator is €1.5 million. The relevant numbers are on PDF-pp. 12-17. This document used to exist in English too but the URL broke and the Web Archive doesn’t have it. Lumping all remaining stations together, few of which are transfers, gives €531.9 million for 93 stations, or $7.5 million per station.
Berlin: follow the link from my tweetstorm. The U-Bahn is about to complete step-free access by 2020. The cost is €800,000 per elevator, €2 million per station, or $2.6 million per station.
Barcelona: I have three separate sets of numbers, and am placing the city on this list with the lower two. Here is a source describing the installation of elevators at 14 stations for €26.8 million. Here is a source describing a single station on a different line to be made accessible for €2.1 million. In contrast, a document describing the plan for universal accessibility states the cost up to 2009 at €390.97 million euros (PDF-p. 87) for 73 stations (PDF-p. 83). The first two sources average to $2.5 million per station, but the third one, covering more stations, including complex transfer points, averages $7 million per station in what I imagine are in 2009 prices.
Milan: this article seems to be saying that elevator installation at 21 stations is budgeted at €24.5 million, all on Lines 1 and 2, which are shallow cut-and-cover lines built under narrow medieval streets. I’m not sure whether all of these are elevators, though – the Milan Metro site says that it has elevators at some stations and stairlifts at others. This totals $1.5 million per station.
The low construction cost of elevator accessibility in Berlin is notable since the city’s tunneling costs are not so low. I am still trying to talk to local transit officials about this, but my surface understanding is that fewer elevators are needed per station. The city uses island platforms rather than side platforms and has shallow subsurface stations with access from raised street medians, so a single elevator covers the entire station.
That said, Paris and New York both have extensive cut-and-cover construction under very wide streets, much like Berlin. A multiple of 2 over Berlin costs is to be expected as they have side platforms, and thus all station infrastructure needs to be doubled. However, Paris’s costs are (apparently) higher than Berlin’s by a factor of 9 and New York’s by a factor of 15. Paris is not a high-cost city when it comes to tunneling, and it’s possible that the activists just estimated it based on London costs, or that the government made up a high number in order to sandbag the calls for step-free accessibility.
I’ve spoken my piece about why American infrastructure construction is so expensive. This is very much a work-in-progress, but it represents about the extent of my current knowledge on the subject. I want to follow up on this by talking about stereotypes and how they affect what people believe is possible when it comes to construction costs. I wrote about this to some extent here, 4.5 years ago, noting that my impression is that people on the Internet are far more willing to believe that there is efficient construction in Northern Europe than in Southern Europe even though the latter actually has lower construction costs.
Here I want to delve somewhat deeper into what stereotypes I’ve seen and how they lead people astray when it comes to infrastructure. It’s a lot more than just Southern and Northern Europe. Each of the following sections describes an aspect of infrastructure planning that doesn’t conform to American stereotypes.
The US has weak property rights
Americans are taught from a young age that America is about freedom. They’re taught about the American struggle against British tyranny, about the life-liberty-property triad, and about all manners of national origin stories that get extended to a ridiculous extent. The result is that Americans and even some immigrants who made it big in America and absorbed American ideas readily believe that they are the freest nation in the world in all ways. Faced with the reality that (for example) Germany has far stronger privacy protections, the reaction is either indifference (among most people in the US) or an attempt to castigate privacy as actually a weird imposition (among some tech boosters).
The same issue occurs with property rights. Objectively speaking, American law does not have strong protections for property rights. Japan has stronger individual protections in property rights. In addition to strong legal protections, there are strong extralegal protections in countries that have some tolerance of street protests; France is famously such a country, at least if the protesters are white, but Japan had airport riots delaying the construction of Narita and earlier riots blocking the expansion of an American military base.
In contrast to these cases, in the US, when the state wants your property, it will get it. Lawsuits can cause delays but not stop a project the state is committed to. Moreover, the state is allowed to time the market. The only thing the government is not allowed to do is excess takings – that is, taking more property than needed to build infrastructure in order to sell it at a profit later. If your property has low value due to past government activity, the government does not need to pay you extra. As mentioned in The Big Roads, the United States built the Interstates through redlined black inner-city neighborhoods because land there was cheaper; after the race riots of the 1960s Washington-area road builders even wanted to build a new round of roads since land would be especially cheap, and they were stopped only by political opposition to such optics rather than by any legal or extralegal challenge.
NIMBYism in the US in the context of infrastructure has to be understood as not a reaction to a state that is too weak but to one that is too strong. The denizens of rich suburbs like the sundown town Darien, Connecticut rely on the state to prop up their property values through exclusion, and any change that threatens such exclusion may cause losses that they have no way to recover. Lacking any way to legally prevent the state from slicing through the town to build faster roads and trains, they have to use political influence to prevent infrastructure from being built.
The US does not have safe railway operations
I made a post eight years ago scrubbing lists of rail accidents from Wikipedia and comparing the US, the EU, Japan, China, and India. I don’t believe the numbers are true for India or China as not everything may be reported in English sources, although I do believe they’re true for Chinese high-speed rail; but for Japan, the EU, and the US, the numbers are solid. American trains are several times less safe for passengers than European ones, and more than a full order of magnitude less safe than Japanese ones.
The US in theory has a culture of safety-first, but in reality it’s more safety theater than safety. Rail signaling is primitive, and automatic train protection (“positive train control,” or PTC) is not required in terminal zones with restricted speed, leading to fatal crashes. The favorite way to deal with danger is to slap an arbitrary speed limit – for example, to permit trains to use a bridge that has just been burned down but at restricted speed, with exactly the result you’d expect.
This is difficult for Americans to believe, especially with respect to Asia. I’ve repeatedly seen people insist that Japan does not prioritize safety, and the idea that China does not seems universal in the developed world. Richard Mlynarik’s report of a Caltrain official who, when told Japan turns trains faster than the official thought was possible, responded “Asians don’t value life the way we do,” seems par for the course when it comes to Western attitudes. Westerners are certain that Asians are not fully human but are part machine, with no individuality, perhaps thinking that since Westerners can’t tell East Asians apart East Asians can’t tell one another apart either.
China is not particularly efficient
The epitome of the American stereotype of dangerous tyrannical efficiency today is China. Ray Lahood, Obama’s first-term secretary of transportation, even mentioned that in connection with high-speed rail. In reality, Chinese infrastructure construction costs do not seem especially low. Not much information makes it to English-language media, and unlike in French or German I don’t know how to look up construction costs in Chinese, but the lines for which I can find data seem to be in line with the global average. Metro Report has an article mentioning two Shanghai Metro extensions: the all-underground Line 9 extension at $225 million per km, and the 46% underground Line 17 at $123 million per km, with very wide stop spacing.
Moreover, high-speed rail in China is on the expensive side. There are studies asserting that it isn’t, but they do not control for PPP. The Beijing-Shanghai high-speed line cost 218 million yuan, or about $55 billion adjusted for PPP, making it about $42 million per km, a high figure for a line with almost no tunnels (only 1.2% of the line’s length).
The other famously efficient East Asian dictatorship, Singapore, has high infrastructure costs as well, judging by what’s going on with the Thomson MRT Line.
Americans fixate on China because it’s so big and because they consider it a rival. But there is no reason to expect the best results to come from a large country. Most countries are small, so we should expect both the most successful and the least successful ones to be small. The actually cheap places to build infrastructure in, like Spain and South Korea, don’t really pattern-match to any American or European self-perception, so it’s much easier to ignore them than to look at Chinese or German efficiency.
Corruption does not work the same way everywhere
The United States has a fair amount of political corruption, but it’s not exceptional for this in the developed world. There’s widespread American belief that the public sector is incompetent, and Americans who have compared American and generic first-world public projects correctly think this is especially true of the American public sector, but this is not exactly about corruption. My quip on the subject is that Italy has low construction costs – and Italy’s high corruption levels are no mere stereotype, but are mirrored in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Moreover, low costs and high corruption perceptions seem endemic to Southern Europe and South Korea.
I’m not familiar with the precise nature of corruption everywhere. But what I’ve read from Italy and Greece suggests that it’s different from what happens in the United States. In diagnosing Italy’s stagnation over the last generation, Bruno Pellegrino and Luigi Zingales note that Italy has a widespread problem of tax avoidance, leading private companies to mostly hire within extended clans rather than by merit; the reason for the recent stagnation, they posit, is that the computer revolution has made hiring by merit especially important. In Greece the same problem of tax avoidance is endemic – see some links through Wikipedia – and Stathis Kalyvas’s paper about clientelism and political populism notes that Greece does not really have large prestigious private businesses with workers vs. bosses politics the way the US, Japan, South Korea, and the European core do.
In Southern Europe, or at least in Greece and Italy, it looks like corruption is endemic to the private sector. The public sector is affected by clientelism, but perhaps infrastructure construction is so removed from politics that there is no unusual corruption there, and thus engineers can innovate their way into lower costs, as postwar Milan did. If the public sector in Italy is as efficient in Germany, it will have lower costs than Germany simply because market wages in Italy are lower thanks to the private sector’s low productivity. This is not a complete story, since it specifically predicts that Italy should have a growing construction cost gap with Germany as their wages diverge, whereas at least based on the smattering of projects I’ve seen Italy was cheaper even in the 1990s and early 2000s, when wages were similar in both countries. Moreover, Scandinavia has low corruption, high wages, and low construction costs. But this is suggestive of how come countries with wages on the margin of the first world tend to consistently have lower construction costs.
The nature of American corruption is different. The private sector has little of it. Tax avoidance exists in the US, but not to the same extent as in Italy or Greece. Managerial fraud at big business exists, but is nowhere near the levels of Mediterranean small businesses. Instead, the public sector is inefficient, due to different problems – not quite clientelism, which describes party loyalty as a condition of hiring, but hiring based on personal loyalty to the governor or mayor. What’s more, since the problem goes all the way to the top, expecting the same authoritarian state and municipal officials to successfully privatize infrastructure to unleash private-sector productivity is fruitless.
The bureaucratic state can guarantee fairer outcomes than litigation
When writing my post about the causes of high American construction costs, I read different takes on the American tradition of adversarial legalism. A paper by Shep Melnick, which I linked in my post, asserts that adversarial legalism is good for various oppressed minorities, focusing on lawsuits forcing better accessibility for people with disabilities, looking at special education as an example.
And yet, if we look at the usual liberal standard of fair outcomes rather than fair processes, the outcomes in the United States do not seem especially fair. Workplace discrimination levels against nonwhites range widely between countries as well as between different studies in the same country, but the US seems to be roughly within the European median; there is a large set of references in the OECD’s International Migration Outlook of 2013, PDF-pp. 11-12, as well as a smaller list in the OECD’s The Price of Prejudice, p. 16. The latter source also compares international gender gaps, and the US seems fairly average as well. Only in the employment gap between second-generation immigrants and children of natives does the US do especially well, and that’s in the context of an unusually high-skill mix of immigrants, like similar high performers Canada and Switzerland, neither of which has an especially low discrimination level in equal resume studies.
When it comes to Melnick’s question of disability rights, the US is increasingly falling behind thanks to high construction costs. Berlin is about to complete installing elevators at all U-Bahn stations, aided by a process that allows it to make a station accessible for €2 million. Madrid, where this cost is about €5 million per line served by each station, has a large majority of accessible stations already and is looking at full installation next decade. Compare this with the tardiness of New York, where layers of consent decrees and grandfather clauses have created a subway system that is about as old as Berlin’s and only 25% accessible.
Incuriosity affects all American groups
I literally just saw a comment on Reddit that tried to slot the idea that the US should learn from the rest of the world into political liberalism or Democratic partisanship (“blue tribe”). This is not an idiosyncratic connection. In 2006, at Yearly Kos, a performer used the expression “French-loving” as a self-description for American liberals, and the entire audience said “preach on” in agreement; this and similar epithets hurled by conservatives in the same era may have been a unique artifact of France’s opposition to the Iraq War, but years later Republicans would keep complaining that Democrats want the US to imitate European welfare states.
The reality is very different. American indifference to rest-of-world practice is national. So is English Canadian indifference to rest-of-world practice excluding the US and occasionally Britain. If anything, New York is even more solipsistic than the rest of the US. I’ve recurrently seen New Yorkers use the same dismissive language that Americans use for the world outside their country for anything outside the city. In contrast, Bostonians do try to look at how things work in the rest of the US and the same is true of people in Sunbelt cities that build light rail.
The upshot of this is that there is not much to look for in intra-American politics. The institutions of American partisanship are not useful for this. Some good ideas can come from people who happen to identify with a party, but the distance between the legal scholars criticizing adversarial legalism and the practice of tort reform, like that between the recommendations of academic environmentalists and the practice of green jobs programs, is vast.
Moreover, the elite centrist politics that claims to be above partisanship has to be seen as yet another partisan institution, working hard to limit the scope of debate to what the same elites that have failed to provide good government services will find comfortable. The same can be said for populism. There is nothing to look for on the populist left and right, because as movements they are not concerned with governing, and tend to boost voices that are long on rhetoric and short on knowledge. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does not need to be correct for leftists to admire her, for one since the veto points on implementation details are members of Congress well to her right; why should she make an effort to educate herself about fuel taxes or about the white supremacy of the Gilets Jaunes? And the less said about ideological experiments like Walker-era Wisconsin or Brownback-era Kansas, the better.
Ultimately, not everyone has the same stereotypes
I focus on American stereotypes, and to some extent pan-Western ones, because stereotypes differ by culture. Americans self-perceive as risk-taking and entrepreneurial. Israelis perceive Americans as hopelessly square and rulebound, even in comparison with Europeans. Westerners perceive all East Asians as rulebound and machine-like. Chinese and Malay people self-perceive as dog-eat-dog societies, at least in Southeast Asia, to the point that when I learned Mahatir Mohamed’s criticism of human rights in Asia in university, I learned his take as “we Asians don’t naturally cooperate and require an authoritarian government” rather than as the more typically Western belief that Asians are naturally obedient.
The incredulity I’ve encountered when trying to tell Americans how Israelis and Singaporeans perceive things is not just a matter of American solipsism. I’ve seen similar incredulity on this side of the Pond, for example when I told Spanish mathematicians, who are not railfans, that Spain has really low construction costs; they found it hard to believe, due to the widely-shared stereotype of Southern European corruption. By their nature, stereotypes appeal to base instincts, working through unexamined prejudices. Not for nothing, the people most invested in stereotypes, the racists, tend to be the most closed, to the point that openness to experience as a personality trait is almost a proxy for antiracist politics.
Neither widely-shared stereotypes (Japanese order, Southern European corruption, etc.) nor more internationally variable ones are enlightening when it comes to actual differences in infrastructure construction costs. The importance of international variability is that Westerners who are closed to the fact that how Asians perceive themselves is different from how Westerners perceive them are likely to be equally closed to a thousand details of governance, business, and engineering between successful and failed infrastructure programs.
The most importance difference in stereotypes when it comes to infrastructure is how Americans perceive the difference between Europe and the US and how Europeans perceive it. The US is certain it’s at the top of the world, so if there’s an aspect on which it isn’t, like life expectancy or public transit, then this aspect probably doesn’t matter much and the American entrepreneurial spirit will soon fix it anyway. Few people in the core European countries share this attitude. Americans need to choose between a sense of national pride and improving their infrastructure; for all the glory infrastructure can give, the methods with which they need to build it require letting go of their prejudices against the rest of the world.
Yesterday, New York City Council speaker and frontrunner in the 2021 mayoral race Corey Johnson released a document outlining his plan to seek city control of the subway and buses. In addition to the governance questions involved in splitting the state-run MTA between a city-owned urban transit agency and state- or suburb-owned commuter rail, it talks about what Johnson intends to do to improve public transit, befitting a mayor in full control of subway and bus operations. There are a lot of excellent ideas there, but also some not so good ones and some that require further work or further analysis to be made good.
Johnson proposes to spin the urban parts of the MTA into a new agency, called BAT, or Big Apple Transit. The rump-MTA will remain in control of suburban operations and keep MTA Capital Construction (p. 35), and there will be a shared headquarters. Some cooperation will remain, such as contributions toward cheaper in-city commuter rail fares, but there is no call for fully integrated fares and schedules: the recommendation “all trains and buses in the city will cost the same and transfers will be free” does not appear anywhere in the document.
Johnson also proposes that the BAT board will be required to live in the city and use transit regularly. There is a serious problem today with senior managers and board members driving everywhere, and the requirement is intended to end this practice. Cynically, I might suggest that this requirement sounds reasonable in 2019 but would have been unthinkable until the 2000s and remains so in other American cities, even though it would be far more useful there and then; the off-peak frequency-ridership spiral is nowhere nearly as bad in New York as it is in Washington or Boston.
One strong suggestion in this section involves appointing a mobility czar (p. 36), in charge of the NYC Department of Transportation as well as BAT. Given the importance of the subway, this czar would be in effect the new minister of transportation for the city, appointed by the mayor.
Ultimately, this section tends toward the weaker side, because of a problem visible elsewhere in the report: all of the recommendations are based on internal analysis, with little to no knowledge of global best practices. Berlin has city-controlled transit in full fare union with Deutsche Bahn-run mainline rail, but there has been no attempt to learn how this could be implemented in New York. The only person in New York who I’ve seen display any interest in this example is Streetsblog’s David Meyer, who asked me how DB and Berlin’s BVG share revenue under the common umbrella of the Berlin Transport Association (or VBB); I did not know and although I’ve reached out to a local source with questions, I could not get the answer by his filing deadline.
Finance and costs
This is by far the weakest section in the proposal. The MTA funds itself in large part by debt; Johnson highlights the problem of mounting debt service, but his recommendations are weak. He does not tell New Yorkers the hard truth that if they can’t afford service today then they can’t afford it at debt maturity either. He talks about the need to “address debt” but refrains from offering anything that might inconvenience a taxpayer, a rider, or an employee (pp. 42-43), and offers a melange of narrow funding sources that are designed for maximum economic distortion and minimum visible inconvenience.
In fact, he calls transit fares regressive (pp. 59, 61) and complains about century-long fare increases: real fares have risen by a factor of 2.1 since 1913 – but American GDP per capita has risen by a factor of 7.7, and operating costs have mostly risen in line with incomes.
He brings up ways to reduce costs. In operations these involve negotiations with the unions; even though the report mentions that drivers get paid half-time for hours they’re not working between the morning and afternoon peaks (“swing shift,” p. 48), it does not recommend increasing off-peak service in order to provide more mobility at low marginal cost. There is no mention of two-person crews on the subway or of the low train operator efficiency compared with peer cities – New York City Transit train operators average 556 revenue hours per year, Berlin U-Bahn operators average 829.
In capital construction the recommendations are a mixed bag of good and bad, taken from a not-great RPA report from a year ago. Like the RPA, Johnson recommends using more design-build, in flagrant violation of one of the rules set by global cost reduction leader Madrid. However, to his credit, Johnson zooms in on real problems with procurement and conflict resolution, including change orders (pp. 50-51), and mentions the problem of red tape as discussed in Brian Rosenthal’s article from the end of 2017. He suggests requiring that contractors qualify to bid, which is a pretty way of saying that contractors with a history of shoddy work should be blacklisted; I have heard the qualify-to-bid suggestion from some sporadic inside sources for years, alongside complaints that New York’s current bid-to-qualify system encourages either poor work or red tape discouraging good contractors. Unfortunately, there is no talk of awarding bids based on a combination of technical score and cost, rather than just cost.
Overall the talk of cost is better than what I’ve seen from other politicians, who either say nothing or use high costs as an excuse to do nothing. But it has a long way to go before it can become a blueprint for reducing subway construction costs, especially given the other things Johnson proposes elsewhere in the document.
Another mixed part of the document is the chapter about accessibility for people with disabilities. Johnson recounts the lack of elevators at most subway stations and the poor state of the bus network, featuring drivers who are often hostile to people in wheelchairs. However, while his analysis is solid, his recommendations aren’t.
First of all, he says nothing of the cost of installing elevators on the subway. An MTA press release from last year states the cost of making five stations accessible as $200 million, of $40 million per station. This figure contrasts with that of Madrid, where a non-transfer station costs about €5 million to equip with elevators, and a transfer station costs about €5 million per line served (source, PDF-pp. 11-12). In Berlin, which is not a cheap city for subway construction, the figure is even lower: about €2 million per line served, with a single elevator costing just €800,000.
And second, his proposal for finding money for station accessibility involves using the zoning code, forcing developers to pay for such upgrades. While this works in neighborhoods with ample redevelopment, not all city neighborhoods are desirable for developers right now, and there, money will have to come from elsewhere. For a document that stresses the importance of equality in planning, its proposals for how to scrounge funds can be remarkably inequitable.
That said, in a later section, Johnson does call for installing bus shelters (p. 74). A paper referenced in a TransitCenter report he references, by Yingling Fan, Andrew Guthrie, and David Levinson, finds that the presence of shelter, a bench, and real-time arrival information has a large effect on passengers’ perceived wait times: in the absence of all three amenities, passengers perceive wait time as 2-2.5 times as long as it actually is, rising to a factor of almost 3 for 10-minute waits among women in unsafe areas, but in the presence of all three, the factor drops to around 1.3, and only 1.6 for long waits for women in unsafe areas. Unfortunately, as this aspect is discussed in the bus improvement section, there is no discussion of the positive effect shelter has on people with disabilities that do not require the use of a wheelchair, such as chronic pain conditions.
I do appreciate that the speaker highlights the importance of accessibility and driver training – drivers often don’t even know how to operate a wheelchair lift (p. 63). But the solutions need to involve more than trying to find developers with enough of a profit margin to extract for elevators. Bus stops need shelter, benches, and ideally raised curbs, like the median Berlin tramway stations. And subway stations need elevators, and they need them at acceptable cost.
By far this is the strongest part of the report. Johnson notes that bus ridership is falling, and recommends SBS as a low-cost solution. He does not stop at just making a skeletal light rail-like map of bus routes to be upgraded, unlike the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations: he proposes sweeping citywide improvements. The call for bus shelter appears in this section as well.
But the speaker goes beyond calling for bus shelters. He wants to accelerate the installation of bus lanes to at least 48 km (i.e. 30 miles) every year, with camera enforcement and physically-separated median lanes. The effect of such a program would be substantial. As far as I can tell, with large error bars caused by large ranges of elasticity estimates in the literature, the benefits in Eric Goldwyn’s and my bus redesign break down as 30% stop consolidation (less than its 60% share of bus speedup since it does involve making people walk longer), 30% bus lanes, 30% network redesign, 10% off-board fare collection.
There is no mention of stop consolidation in the paper, but there is mention of route redesign, which Johnson wishes to implement in full by 2025. The MTA is in support of the redesign process, and allowing for integrated planning between NYCDOT and the MTA would improve the mutual support between bus schedules and the physical shape of the city’s major streets.
Moreover, the report calls for transit signal priority, installed at the rate of at least 1,000 intersections per year. This is very aggressive: even at the average block spacing along avenues, about 80 meters, this is 80 kilometers per year, and at that of streets, it rises to 200+ km. Within a few years, every intersection in the city would get TSP. The effects would be substantial, and the only reason Eric’s and my proposal does not list them is that they are hard to quantify. In fact, this may be the first time an entire grid would be equipped with TSP; some research may be required to decide how to prioritize bus/bus conflicts at major junctions, based on transportation research as well as control theory, since conditional TSP is the only way to truly eliminate bus bunching.
Reinforcing the point about dedicated lanes, the study calls for clawing back the space given to private parking and delivery. It explicitly calls for setting up truck routes and delivery zones in a later section (pp. 86-87); right now, the biggest complaint about bus lanes comes from loss of parking and the establishment of delivery zones in lieu of letting trucks stop anywhere on a block, and it is reassuring to see Johnson commit to prioritizing public transit users.
This is another strong section, proposing pedestrian plazas all over the city, an expansion of bike lanes to the tune of 80 km (50 miles) a year with an eye toward creating a connected citywide bike lane network, and more bike share.
If I have any criticism here, it’s that it isn’t really about city control of the MTA. The bus improvements section has the obvious tie-in to the fact that the buses are run by the MTA, and getting the MTA and NYCDOT on the same page would be useful. With bikes, I don’t quite understand the connection, beyond the fact that both are transportation.
That said, the actual targets seem solid. Disconnected bike lane networks are not really useful. I would never bike on the current network in New York; I do not have a death wish. I wasn’t even willing to bike in Paris. Berlin is looking more enticing, and if I moved to Amsterdam I might well get a bike.
The sections regarding costs require a lot of work. Overall, I get the impression that Johnson based his recommendations on what he’s seen in the local press, so the suggestions are internal to the city or occasionally domestic; the only international comparisons come from the RPA report or from Eric’s and my invocation of Barcelona’s bus redesign. This works for such questions as how to apportion the MTA’s debt service or how to redesign the bus network, but not so much for questions involving subway capital construction.
New York has a large number of fluent Spanish speakers. It should have no problem learning what Spanish engineers know about construction costs, and the same is true for other communities that are well-represented in the cities, such as Korean-, Russian-, Chinese-, Brazilian-, and Polish-New Yorkers. Moreover, in most big cities that don’t send large communities to New York, such as those of Northern Europe, planners speak English. Johnson should not shy from using the expertise of people outside New York, ideally outside the United States, to get subway construction costs under control.
The speaker’s plan is still a very good first step. The proposed surface improvements to buses, bikes, and street allocation are all solid, and should be the city’s consensus for how to move forward. What’s needed is something to tie all of this together with a plan to move forward for what remains the city’s most important transportation network: the subway.
I am embarking on a long-term project to investigate why US construction costs are high using case studies, so everything I’m going to say so far is tentative. In particular, one of my favorite theories for most of this decade seems to be false based on the addition of just two or three new data points. That said, having spent the last nine years looking at topline costs and a few itemized breakdowns does let me reach some initial conclusions, ones that I believe are robust to new data. The context is that some mainstream American pundits are asking why, and I realized that I’ve written more posts criticizing incorrect explanations than posts focusing on more plausible reasons.
1. Engineering part 1: station construction methods
The most important itemized fact concerning American construction costs is that New York’s premium over Paris is overwhelmingly about stations. I have itemized data for a single line in New York (Second Avenue Subway Phase 1) and a single line in Paris (Metro Line 1 extension), from which I have the following costs:
Tunneling: about $150 million per km vs. $90 million, a factor of 1.7
Stations: about $750 million per station vs. $110 million, a factor of 6.5
Systems: about $110 million per km vs. $35 million, a factor of 3.2
Overheads and design: 27% of total cost vs. 15%, which works out to a factor of about 11 per km or a factor of 7 per station
These costs have some reinforcement with other projects in both cities. When New York built the 7 extension, there were calls for an intermediate stop in addition to the single stop built, and at the time the city definitively canceled the extra station, its cost was given as $800 million. Moreover, in Paris, another extension for which I have per-station cost data, that of Metro Line 12, costs €175 million for 2 stations and no tunnels, about $110 million per station, including overheads; the same is true of two more stations not on M12 given in a French report about the costs of Grand Paris Express (PDF-p. 10).
The difference concerns construction methods. In Paris, as well as Athens, Madrid, Mexico City, Caracas, Santiago, Copenhagen, Budapest, and I imagine other cities for which I can’t find this information, metro stations are built cut-and-cover. While the tunnels between stations are bored, at higher cost than opening up the entire street, the stations themselves are dug top-down. This allows transporting construction materials from the top of the dig, right where they are needed, as well as easier access by the workers and removal of dirt and rock. There is extensive street disruption, for about 18 months in the case of Paris, but the merchants and residents get a subway station at the end of the works.
In contrast, in New York, to prevent street disruption, Second Avenue Subway did not use any cut-and-cover. The tunnels between stations were bored, as in nearly all other cities in the world that build subways, and the stations were mined from within the bore, with just small vertical shafts for access. The result was a disaster: the costs exploded, as can be seen in the above comparison, and instead of 18 months of station box-size disruption, there were 5 years of city block-size disruption, narrowing sidewalks to just 2 meters (7′ to be exact).
In London, the Crossrail project was forced to mine stations as well, as it passes underneath and around many older Underground lines. Only one station could be built cut-and-cover, Canary Wharf, built underwater at very deep level. These stations have comparable construction costs to those of Second Avenue Subway. One way around this problem is to build large-diameter bores, as in Barcelona on Line 9/10, which used a bore so big it could fit two tracks with platforms. However, L9/10 has high costs by Spanish standards, and moreover the vertical access to the stations is exclusively by elevator, with lower capacity than escalators and stairs. A technique for slant bores for escalators exists in St. Petersburg, but I do not know its cost.
2. Engineering part 2: mezzanines
The other big problem with American metro construction methods is the oversized stations. This problem also occurs in Canada, where Toronto uses cut-and-cover stations like most of the world and yet has very high costs, as these cut-and-cover stations are palatial. But I do want to caution that this is a smaller problem than station mining, especially in New York. The total amount of excavation in Paris is barely lower than in New York.
But whatever the dig size issue is, one problem persists: American subway stations have mezzanines, usually full-length. This problem goes back to the 1930s. According to a historical review published in JRTR, costs in New York per kilometer rose to $140 million in the 1930s; in the 1910s and 20s costs were only $45 million per kilometer but there was extensive elevated construction, so per underground kilometer they were perhaps $80 million. This contrasts with $30-35 million per km on lines built in London and Paris from the 1900s to the 1930s.
A big cost driver in the 1930s was the higher construction standards. The subway built wider curves, even wider than those used in London and Paris. There were underground flying junctions allowing a complex system of branching on local and express trains to serve many different origin-destination pairs. And stations had full-length mezzanines.
The mezzanines have since turned into an American standard, featuring on all subsequent subways that I know of. BART has them under Market Street. Boston has them at some of the newer stations, alongside high ceilings at parts of stations the mezzanines don’t reach.
Outside the US, cities with such large station digs have high costs as well Toronto has had palatial construction at some of its newer stations, such as Vaughan Metro Center, leading to high costs even with cut-and-cover stations: while the Vaughan extension cost only C$320 million per kilometer, further projects in Toronto are slated to cost far more, including the single-stop Scarborough subway for C$520 million per km (only 18% less than Second Avenue Subway adjusted for station spacing) and the Downtown Relief Line at C$800 million per km.
Moreover, my recollection of riding the MRT in Singapore, another high-cost country, is that its stations are palatial as well, more so than recent American ones, let alone French ones. Singapore has high construction costs: the under-construction Thomson Line is to cost S$600 million per km according to information from 2012, and since then there has been a schedule slip, though I can’t find more recent cost estimates, and I do know of rail infrastructure projects with schedule overruns that stay within budget. Individual stations in Singapore are fairly expensive, with the central one (Orchard) approaching American costs at S$500 million, and in a speech full of excuses for construction costs, Singaporean transport minister Khaw Boon Wan mentioned that the new line has more exits per station, signaling larger station footprints.
3. Management part 1: procurement
The best industry practice, outlined by Madrid Metro’s Manuel Melis Maynar, is to award contracts by a combination of cost, construction speed, and a technical score judged by an in-house oversight team. Moreover, in Madrid there is separation between design and construction, in order to permit construction teams to make small changes as they go along without being wedded to their own plans. With this system, Melis built a wave of metros for an underground construction cost of, in today’s terms, $80 million per kilometer (almost all but not 100% underground), including rolling stock, which I have attempted to exclude from other lines whenever possible.
The American practice is to award contracts by cost alone. This leads to one of two problems, depending on the coast.
In California, the problem is, in two words, Tutor-Perini. This contractor underbids and then does shoddy work requiring change orders, litigated to the maximum. Ron Tutor’s dishonesty is well-known and goes back decades: in 1992 Los Angeles’s then-mayor Tom Bradley called him the change order king. And yet, he keeps getting contracts, all of which have large cost overruns, going over the amount the state or city would have paid had it awarded the contract to the second lowest bidder. In San Francisco, cost overrun battles involving Tutor-Perini led to a 40% cost overrun. This process repeated for high-speed rail: Tutor submitted lowest but technically worst bid, got the contract as price was weighted too high, and then demanded expensive changes. It speaks to California’s poor oversight of contractors that Tutor remains a contractor in good standing and has not been prosecuted for fraud.
In New York, this is not a problem, as the state makes sure to avoid shoddy work through overexacting specs, down to specifying the materials to be used. Unfortunately, this kind of micromanagement reduces flexibility, increasing construction costs in two ways. First, the direct effect raises the hard costs of construction, by about 15-25% plus overheads and contingency according to many contractors interviewed for Brian Rosenthal’s New York Times article on the subject. And second, since many contractors are turned off by the red tape, there is less competition – the 7 extension had just a single bidder – and thus contractors can demand an extra profit on top.
Some American cities try to get around this problem by using design-build contracts. However, these merely move the locus of micromanagement from the public to private sector. Madrid eschews them and prefers using public oversight to macromanage contractors.
While this may well by the single most important institutional factor in New York, it is not universal in the United States. In Boston, a manager at the MBTA, Jaime Garmendia, reassured me that the agency would “would cease to do business with that contractor in a heartbeat” if anyone acted like Tutor.
4. Management part 2: conflict resolution
In Madrid, Melis Maynar insisted on itemizing construction contracts. Thus, every contract would have a pre-agreed cost per extra item if changes were needed. Since changes are inevitable, this provides fast conflict resolution without expensive courtroom battles and without too much risk on the contractor.
I know of one additional example of itemization: in a paper studying electricity generation contracts in India, Nicholas Ryan compares cases in which there was a pre-agreed system for price escalation in case of changes in input prices and cases in which there were one-off negotiations whenever the situation suddenly changed. Pre-agreed escalation based on input prices leads to lower costs, first because there is less risk to the contractor, second because the negotiation happens in a situation in which if the contractor walks away the state can find another without incurring too much of a sunk cost, and third because the process attracts more honest contractors than Tutor.
In the United States, itemizing does not happen. Contracts are by lump sum, and every time a change is needed, there is a new negotiation, which involves lawyers and potentially courtroom litigation. Robert Kagan calls this tradition adversarial legalism, and contrasts it with European bureaucratic legalism, in which regulators and judges have more power than individual lawyers. Kagan gives an example of litigation about the Oakland Harbor dredging project. Tellingly, a civil rights-centered critique of the concept, arguing that adversarial legalism produces more liberal outcomes for minorities and the disabled (in the context of special education) – but when it comes to transit, the United States lags in wheelchair accessibility.
This is not intended as a broad attack on American legalism, although I do think such legalism also leads to worse infrastructure decisions in general. This is a specific attack on the tradition of using lawsuits to resolve conflicts between contractors and the state, rather than agreeing on itemized costs in advance, a technique that is legal in the US and that international firms, which have successfully bid on many American projects at American costs, are already familiar with.
5. Management part 3: project management
Some problems are not about procurement or the law, but purely about managerial competence. In Boston, consensus concerning the Green Line Extension seems to be that its high costs are the result of poor project management. The Green Line Extension’s costs were at one point estimated at $3 billion for 6.4 km of light rail in preexisting mainline rail rights-of-way; it’s so expensive that it was misclassified as a subway in one Spanish analysis, which still found it was a premium over European subways.
The current estimate is down to $2.3 billion, of which $1.1 billion was wasted in the initial project, and only the remaining half is actual construction costs of the restarted project. Several Boston-area insiders, including the aforementioned Jaime Garmendia, explain that the MBTA had no prior experience in managing a large project, and did not hire an experienced manager for it, leading to a pileup of errors. When it finally hired a new manager and a new team and restarted the project, costs fell, but not before a billion dollars were wasted.
The remaining cost of the extension, $190 million per km, is still very high for a light rail line. However, in conjunction with the other problems detailed here, this is not so surprising.
6. Management part 4: agency turf battles
There is little cooperation between different public transit providers in the US in the same region. Usually, the effect is only on operations. Whereas in Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland the fare within a metro area depends on the start and end point and perhaps on whether one rides in first or second class but not on whether one uses a bus, a tram, a subway, or a commuter rail line, in the United States fares are mode-dependent and transfers between separate agencies are not free. Nor do American agencies coordinate schedules between different modes of transit even within the same agency: the MBTA is forbidden to coordinate suburban bus and commuter rail schedules.
While this by itself does not impact construction costs, it can lead to overbuilding when construction for one agency impinges on another agency’s turf. This problem is particularly acute when mainline rail is involved, as there is an institutional tradition of treating it as a separate fief from the rest of public transit: “commuter rail is commuter rail, it’s not public transit,” said MBTA then-general manager Frank DePaola in 2016. Extensive turf battles may also occur between different commuter rail operators run as separate units, for example in New York. The same tradition occurs in Canada, where Toronto regional rail modernization plans came from an overarching planning agency, which had to force the commuter rail engineers and managers to go along.
I covered turf battles in a post from the end of 2017. In short, two distinct problems may occur. First, there may be visible overbuilding: for example, plans for California High-Speed Rail included a gratuitous tunnel in Millbrae, near the airport, in order to avoid reducing BART’s territory even though BART has three tracks at a station where it needs only one or at most two; overall, area advocate Clem Tillier found $2.7 billion in high-speed rail cost savings between San Francisco and just south of San Jose. The same problem afflicts plans for extra regional rail capacity in New York: the commuter railroads do not want to share turfs, forcing the construction of additional station tracks in Midtown Manhattan at great cost.
The second problem is that without coordination of capital planning and operations, schedules for construction may be constrained. I believe that this contributes to the high cost of Boston’s Green Line Extension, which is high by American light rail standards. Without agreement on construction windows, right-of-way modifications such as moving bridge foundations to make room for extra tracks become difficult.
7. Institutions part 1: political lading with irrelevant priorities
There is a kind of overbuilding that comes not from American engineering practices that became accepted wisdom in the 1930s, but from active interference by politicians. I caution that I do not know of any case in which this has seriously impacted tunneling costs, the topic I feel more qualified to compare across the world. However, this has been a problem for other public transportation and livable streets projects, especially on the surface.
When a city announces a new public transit initiative, it comes with the expectation of an infusion of money. Usually this money comes from outside sources, such as higher-level governments, but even when it is purely local, individual stakeholders may treat it as money coming from other parts of the city. In this environment, there is an incentive to demand extra scope in order to spend other people’s money on related but unnecessary priorities. The most common example of this is the demand for street reconstruction to be bundled with light rail and even bus rapid transit.
The advocacy organization Light Rail Now claims that bundling street reconstruction has raised some American light rail costs. Moreover, I know examples of this happening for BRT. The Albuquerque project ART, which I covered in the context of electric buses, is one such example: it cost $135 million for 25 km, of which about 13 km were reconstructed to have wider sidewalks, trees, and street lighting. Moreover, in Tampa, the highway department insists that the transit agency find money for repaving roads with concrete if it wishes to run buses more frequently.
This is not just an American problem: the Nice tramway, which at €64 million per km for the first line is France’s costliest, spent 30% of its budget not on the tramway itself but on drainage, rebuilding a public plaza, and other related but unnecessary amenities.
Commuter rail exhibits this problem in droves. Either local suburbs or agencies that are captive to them insist on building large transit centers with plentiful parking, retail that is not necessary if trains arrive on time, and a sense of place. Spartan stations, equipped only with level boarding, shelter, and a convenient spot for connecting buses to drop people off on the street or at a bus bay, cost a few million dollars apiece in Boston and Philadelphia. In contrast, veritable palaces cost many tens of millions: the four stations of Penn Station Access, in the low-car-ownership Bronx, are projected to cost a total of $188 million per the 2015-9 capital plan (PDF-p. 225); in West Haven, an infill station cost $105 million including land acquisition.
8. Institutions part 2: political incentives
Politicians in the United States do not have an incentives to control costs. On the contrary, if anyone complains, their incentives are to accommodate even if costs rise as a result. While the American legal system favors the state over the individual in property takings, for example in contrast with the Japanese system, the political system favors NIMBYs and really anyone who complains. Infrastructure construction takes a long time and the politician who gets credit for it is rarely the one who started it, whereas complaints happen early. This can lead to many of the above-named problems, especially overbuilding, such as tunneling where elevated segments would be fine or letting agency turf battles and irrelevant demands dictate project scope.
Politicians have the ability to remove obstructive officials, as Governor Andrew Cuomo did when LIRR head Helena Williams opposed Penn Station Access on agency turf grounds. But they rarely have the will to do so. Coordination and good government are not their top priorities. American politicians who are ambitious enough to embark on big infrastructure projects govern their respective states and cities like comets, passing by quickly while expecting to move on to a bigger position within a few years. They can build better institutions if they want, but don’t care to.
This goes beyond individual high-profile politicians. In planning for the NEC Future project, a planner who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said that there was an unspoken assumption that there must not be impact to the richest suburbs in Fairfield County, Connecticut; such impact can be reduced, but not eliminated, and to forestall political controversy with very rich suburbs the process left that segment for later, never mind that it is the slowest portion of the Northeast Corridor today outside major city areas.
This problem can be mitigated by raising the political cost of poor infrastructure construction decisions. One way to do so is using referendums. In Switzerland, all major infrastructure construction must be approved by referendum. Thus, if cost overruns occur, the state must return to the people and explain itself in asking for more money. In contrast, California High-Speed Rail went to ballot on $9 billion (plus $950 million for connecting transit) out of a budget that at the time was estimated at $42 billion in year-of-construction dollars. The state did not need to identify funding sources for the remaining $33 billion, and thus there was no incentive to control costs, as it was not possible to complete the project for the budget on hand no matter what.
9. Institutions part 3: global incuriosity
The eight above factors all explain why American infrastructure costs are higher than in the rest of the world, and also explain high costs in some other countries, especially Canada. However, one question remains: how come Americans aren’t doing anything about it? The answer, I believe, has to do with American incuriosity.
Incuriosity is not merely ignorance. Ignorance is a universal trait, people just differ in what they are ignorant about. But Americans are unique in not caring to learn from other countries even when those countries do things better. American liberals spent the second Bush administration talking about how health care worked better in most other developed countries, but displayed no interest in how they could implement universal health care so that the US could have what everyone else had, even when some of these countries, namely France and Israel, had only enacted reforms recently and had a population of mostly privately-insured workers. In contrast, they reinvented the wheel domestically, coming up with the basic details of Obamacare relying on the work on domestic thinktanks alone. The same indifference to global best practices occurs in education, housing policy, and other matters even among wonks who believe the US to be behind.
This is not merely a problem in public policy. In the private sector, the same problem doomed the American auto industry. American automakers have refused to adopt the practices of Japanese and German competitors even after the latter produced small cars better suited for post-1973 oil prices. They instead dug in, demanded and got government protection, and have been in effect wards of the American federal government for about 40 years.
American business culture does not care much for imitation, not does American society give high prestige to people who perfect something that someone else invented. The industry that teaches how to adopt best practices, consulting, has poor reputation in American culture. Instead, Americans venerate founders and innovators, an approach that works in industries where the US is in the global frontier, like tech or retail, but not in ones where it lags, like cars and the entire public sector. To avoid learning from others, Americans end up believing in myths about what is and isn’t possible: they insist they are so much richer than Europe that they have nothing to learn from across the Pond, and hang all their hopes on any flim-flam artist who comes from within American business culture who insists there is no real need for public transit or any of the other things Europe and high-income Asia do better.
In transit, we see it in politicians and agency officials who say things that are so funny they are sad, or perhaps so sad they are funny. Richard Mlynarik tells me of an official at either Caltrain or the California High-Speed Rail Authority, I forget which, who did not know Germany had commuter trains. Another Caltrain official, confronted with the fact that in Japan trains turn faster than Caltrain thought possible, responded “Asians don’t value life the way we do” – never mind that Japan’s passenger rail safety per passenger-km is about 1.5 orders of magnitude better than the US’s. In stonewalling about its safety regulations, since positively reformed, an FRA official insisted American trucks are heavier than European ones, where in fact the opposite is the case. Boston’s sandbagged North-South Rail Link process included a best practices section but insisted on only including North American examples, since European ones would make America look bad. To advocate for transit among Americans is to constantly hear things are not possible that in fact happen in various parts of Europe on a daily basis.
Canada is not much better than the US. Americans’ world is flat, with its corners in Boston, Seattle, San Diego, and Miami. Canadians’ world includes the United States and Canada, making it flat with the northern ends of the quadrilateral stretched a few hundred kilometers to the north. A study of a long-overdue extension of Vancouver’s Millennium Line to UBC has four case studies for best practices, all from within North America. This is despite the fact that in the developed world the system most similar to Vancouver’s SkyTrain in technology and age is the Copenhagen Metro, whose construction costs are one half as high as those of Vancouver despite cost and schedule overruns.
Meiji Japan sent students to the West to assimilate Western knowledge and catch up, avoiding the humiliations inflicted upon China in the same era and instead becoming a great power itself. The historian Danny Orbach, who wrote his dissertation on the historical arc leading from the Meiji Restoration to Japan’s World War Two atrocities, argues that Japan was able to modernize because it understood early that it was not at the center of the world, whereas China and the Ottoman Empire did not and thus only realized they were technologically inferior to the West too late, at the signing of the unequal treaties or at dismemberment. The United States at best thinks it’s the center of the world and at worst thinks it’s the only thing in the world, and this has to change.
Can this be reformed?
The answer is absolutely. There are no examples of good transit under construction in the United States, but there are many partial successes. The California State Rail Plan is moving toward coordinated planning, and Massachusetts has some inklings of reform as well. Boston’s ability to restart the Green Line Extension is to be commended, and the large gap in cost between the original project and the current one should encourage other American transit agencies to hire good project managers with a track record and pay them competitively; paying high six figures to a manager or even more can easily justify itself in ten-figure savings.
The legal problems can be reformed as well without turning the United States into something it is not. Politicians would have to be more courageous in telling constituents no, but so many of them have no chance of losing reelection that they can afford to piss off a small proportion of the population. Contracts could include itemized costs to control change orders. California already awards contracts based on a mix of cost and a technical score, it just needs to adjust the weights and figure out how to avoid doing business with Ron Tutor, and if possible prosecute him.
However, all of this depends on solving the last of the above nine problems. Americans have to understand that they are behind and need to imitate. They can try to innovate but only carefully, from a deep understanding of why things are the way they are in such global transit innovation centers as Spain, South Korean, Japan, Switzerland, and Sweden. They have to let go of the mythology of the American entrepreneur who does not listen to the experts. They can solve the problem of high construction costs if they want, but they need to first recognize that it exists, and that internal politics and business culture are part of the problem rather than the solution.
By a more than 2-1 vote among my Patreon backers, the third installment in my series about national traditions of building urban rail is the British one, following the American and Soviet ones. While rapid transit in Britain outside London is even smaller than in the US outside New York, the British tradition is influential globally for two reasons: first, Britain invented the railway as well as urban rapid transit, and second, Britain had a vast empire much of which still looks up to it as a cultural and scientific metropole.
Nonetheless, despite the fact that all rapid transit traditions technically descend from London’s, it is worthwhile talking about the British way. What London built inspired and continues to inspire other cities, but many, mainly in the United States, Japan, and Continental Europe, diverged early, forming distinct tradition. As I noted in the post about the Soviet bloc, Moscow was heavily influenced by British engineering, and its own tradition has evolved separately but began as a more orderly way of reproducing the London Underground’s structure in the 1930s.
In taxonomy, this is called a paraphyletic group. Monophyly means a taxon descending from a single ancestor, for example mammals; paraphyly means a taxon descending from a single ancestor excluding certain monophyletic subgroups, for example reptiles, which exclude mammals and birds, both of which descend from the same common ancestor.
The invention of rapid transit
Like most other things Britain became known for, like constitutional government and colonialism, rapid transit evolved gradually in London. Technically, the first railway in London, 1836’s London and Greenwich, meets the definition of urban rapid transit, as trains made some local stops, ran every 20 minutes, and were grade-separated, running on brick arches. However, it is at best an ancestor of what we think of as rapid transit, since it lacked the really frequent stops of the Underground or the New York els.
The first proper rapid transit line in London, the Metropolitan line, opened in 1863. It, too, lacked some features that are standard on nearly all rapid transit systems today: most importantly, it was not self-contained, but rather had some through-service with intercity rail, and was even built dual-gauge to allow through-service with the Great Western Railway, which at the time had broad gauge. Trains ran every 10 minutes, using steam locomotives; to limit the extent of smoke in the tunnels, the line was not fully underground but had a long trench between King’s Cross and Farringdon.
The Met line and the second Underground line, 1868’s District line, were both built cut-and-cover. However, whereas Met line construction went smoothly, the District line had to carve a right-of-way, as the city did not have adequate wide streets for serving the proposed route. The areas served, Kensington and Chelsea, were even then a tony neighborhood with expensive real estate, and the construction costs exploded due to land acquisition. In today’s terms the Met line cost about $32 million per kilometer and the District $90 million, a record that among the historical lines I know of remained unbroken until New York built the Independent Subway System in the 1930s.
The Met and District met to form a circle, and in general, London loved building circular lines. In addition to what would be called the Circle line until a revision last decade, there were two circles farther out, called the Middle Circle and Outer Circle. These were run by mainline railroads; there was still no legal distinction between the two urban railroads and the mainlines, and through-service and even some freight service continued on the Met well into the 20th century, which the company used as an excuse to delay its merger with the other Underground companies.
Even electric rapid transit took time to take shape. After the bad experience with the District line, there was no more cut-and-cover in Central London. The next line to open, 1890’s Northern line, required the invention of deep boring and electric traction; it was not the first rail line to use electricity, but was the first excluding streetcars. However, while the line looked like a normal self-contained rapid transit line, it was pulled by electric locomotives; electric multiple units only came a few years later, starting haphazardly in Liverpool in 1893 (each car required separate controls) and in the more conventional way on the Chicago L in 1897.
Spontaneous order and radial network design
Among the inventions that came out of London was the radial network design. Unlike the physical inventions like underground rail and electric traction, this was not a deliberate choice. It evolved through spontaneous order, owing to the privately-funded nature of British railways. A British railway had to obtain the approval of Parliament to begin construction, which approval would also permit compulsory purchase of land along the way, but funding was entirely private. An early proposal for an underground railway, an 1860s route running what would later become the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line, was approved but could not secure funding and thus was not built.
The upshot is that with private planning, only the strongest lines were built. The strongest travel demand was to the center of London, and thus the lines were all radial, serving either the City of London or the West End. There was no circumferential service. While there were many circles and loops, these were conceived as reverse-branches allowing some railroads to access multiple Central London terminals, or as ways to join two radials like the Met and District without having to go through the difficult process of turning a train underground in a world in which all trains had to be pulled by locomotives.
The same preponderance of radial lines can be seen in other privately-planned contexts. Today, the best-known example is the matatu network of Nairobi. It is informal transit, but has been painstakingly mapped by urbanists, and the network is entirely radial, with all lines serving city center, where the jobs requiring commuting are.
Despite the private planning, London has only a handful of missed connections between lines: it has eight, but only one, between the Met line and the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line, is a true miss between two lines – the other seven are between parallel outer branches or between two lines that intersect a few times in close succession but only have one transfer (namely, the Bakerloo and Met). This is not because private planners build connections spontaneously – Parliament occasionally demanded some minor route changes, including interchange stations at intersections.
The role of regional rail
Like rapid transit, regional rail evolved in London in a haphazard fashion. The London and Greenwich was a mainline railway and the Met line had some mainline through-service, and even the deep-level tube lines are compatible enough with mainline rail that there is some track-sharing, namely between the Bakerloo line and the Watford DC line. The trench between King’s Cross and Farringon was widened to four tracks and turned into a north-south through-route in the 1870s but then abandoned in the 1920s and only reactivated in the 1980s as Thameslink.
The upshot is that London ended with the bones of a regional rail network but no actual service. The ideal was self-contained Underground lines, so even when connections suggested themselves they were not pursued. For example, the original proposal for an underground line between Euston and Charing Cross involved some through-service to the railways at both ends, but when the line was finally built as the Charing Cross branch of the Northern line it was not connected to the mainline and only took over minor branches in suburban North London.
While British planners did eventually plan for through-service – plans for Crossrail date to World War Two or just afterward – by then London was not innovating but rather imitating. By the war, Berlin had already had two S-Bahn through-lines, Munich was planning one, and Tokyo had three. The modern design for Crossrail is best compared with the RER A, in a city London has treated as its primary competitor for a long time now.
Exporting London’s network design
Moscow was heavily influenced by London early on. Later on, Singapore and Hong Kong both drew on British engineering expertise. London’s status as the first city to build rapid transit may have influenced Moscow, but by the 1920s New York had surpassed it in city size as well as urban rail ridership. Moscow’s drawing on London was as I understand it accidental – the chief engineer happened to have London connections – but in Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, and so on the relationship is colonial, with extensive cultural cringe.
In all of these non-British cities, the British design as exported was cleaner. What I mean is, the systems have a radial structure like London, but the radii are cleaner in that two lines will generally cross just once, especially in Moscow; it’s not like London, where the Central line is always north of the District line, meeting once in a tangent at Bank and Monument, or where the Victoria line and Northern line cross twice.
Another cleaner aspect is the transfer experience. Singapore and Hong Kong both make extensive use of cross-platform transfers between otherwise perpendicular lines; London only does sporadically, on the Victoria line.
A third aspect is uniformly wide interstations. London’s average interstation is about 1.25 km, which is what I think of as the standard because it is very close to the average in Tokyo and Mexico City as well, and at the time I started tracking this statistic in the late 2000s, the Chinese systems were still small. Moscow’s average is 1.7 km, and Singapore’s is similar. Hong Kong is actually divergent there: the MTR mixes core urban lines averaging about the same as in London with the more widely-spaced historically mainline East and West Rail lines and the airport express.
The relative paucity of circumferential rail is hard to judge in the export cases. Moscow came up with the idea for the Circle Line natively; there is an urban legend that it was accidentally invented by Stalin when he left a coffee cup on the map and it stained it in the shape of a circle. Hong Kong doesn’t have much circumferential rail, but its geography is uniquely bad for such service, even more so than New York’s. Singapore does have a Circle Line, but it’s one of the two worst-designed parts of the MRT, with a reverse-branch (the other one is the self-intersecting, connection-missing Downtown Line).
At the same time, it’s worth viewing which aspects British-influenced systems are getting rid of when designing cleaner version of the Underground. The most important is regional rail. Singapore has none: it has a legacy narrow-gauge rail line to Malaysia, but has never made an effort to take control of it and develop it as an urban regional rail line.
Another negative aspect exported by London is the preponderance of deep boring. I made the same complaint when discussing the Soviet bloc: while London is poor in wide arterials that a cut-and-cover subway could go underneath, Moscow is rich in them, and the same is true of Singapore.
Does this work?
London invented rapid transit as we know it, but it did so gradually and with many seams. In some sense, asking if this works is like asking if rapid transit as a technology works, for which the answer is that it is a resounding success. But when it comes to the details, it’s often the case that London has accidental successes as well as accidental mistakes.
In particular, the fact that London almost invented regional rail is a source of endless frustration and extensive retro-crayon. The Met line is almost a 19th-century Crossrail, the Widened Lines are almost a 19th-century Thameslink, and so on. Instead, as time went on the trend has been toward more self-contained lines, which is good for reliability but not when there are self-contained slow tracks of mainlines to hook into, as is planned for Crossrail and as has sporadically been the case for the Watford DC line.
The British focus on radial systems has generally been good. To the extent London has underused metro lines, it’s not because they are poorly-routed as some of the lines in Paris are, but because they serve areas that have many urban rail lines and not a lot of population density; London is not a dense city, going back to the Victorian era, when it standardized on the rowhouse as the respectable urban housing form rather than the mid-rise apartment of Continental Europe or New York.
To the credit of British-influenced planning, Singapore has managed to fit a circumferential line into its system with good connections, just with an awkward reverse-branch. London’s own circumferential transit, that is the Overground, misses a large number of Underground connections due to its separate origin in freight bypasses and mainline rail reverse-branches, where Parliament saw no point in requiring interchange stations the way it did on the Tube. However, the cleaner version seen in Singapore only misses connections involving the Downtown Line, not the Circle Line.
What is perhaps the worst problem with the British style of design is the construction cost. The Northern line was not expensive – in today’s terms it cost around $35 million per km, give or take. However, after WW2 a gap opened between the cost of cut-and-cover and bored metros. The Milan method for cut-and-cover built a subway for around $45 million per km a few years before London bored the Victoria Line for $110 million. Britain exported its more expensive method, which must be treated as one factor behind high construction costs in Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand; in New Zealand the regional rail tunnel is expensive even as electrifying the system was not.
In the future, cities that wish to build urban rail would be wise to learn from the network design pioneered by London. Urban rail should serve city centers, with transfers – and as in the subsequent refinements of cities that adapted London’s methods to their own needs, there should be some circumferential transit as well. But if mainlines are available, it would be wise to use them and run trains through on the local tracks where available. Moreover, it would be unwise to conduct deep boring under wide streets; elevated or cut-and-cover construction is well-suited for such avenues, causing some street disruption but producing considerable less expensive lines.
All reform agendas run into the same problem: someone needs to implement the reform, and this someone needs to be more politically powerful than the entrenched interests that need reform. The big political incentive for a leader is to swoop in to fix an organization that is broken and get accolades for finally making government work. But whether this work depends on what exactly is broken. If the fish rots from the tail, and better management can fix things, then reformist politicians have an easy time. The problem is that if the fish rots from the head – that is, if the problem is the political leaders themselves – then there is no higher manager that can remove underperforming workers. My contention is that when it comes to poor American public transit practices, the fish usually rots from the head.
Whither fixing construction costs?
I wrote my first comment documenting high New York construction costs at the end of 2009. By 2011 this turned into my first post in my series here with some extra numbers. By the time I jumped from commenting to blogging, the MTA had already made a reference to its high costs in a 2010 report called Making Every Dollar Count (p. 11): “tunneling for the expansion projects has cost between three and six times as much as similar projects in Germany, France and Italy.” New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has been plagiarizing my 2011 post since 2013.
However, the early recognition has not led to any concrete action. There has not been any attention even from leaders who could gain a lot of political capital from being seen as fixing the problem, such as governors in California, New York, and Massachusetts, as well as successive New York mayors. That Governor Cuomo himself has paid little attention to the subway can be explained in terms of his unique personal background from a car-oriented city neighborhood, but when it’s multiple governors and mayors, it’s most likely a more systemic issue.
What’s more, there has been plenty of time to come up with an actionable agenda, and to see it pay dividends to help catapult the career of whichever politician can take credit. The MTA report came out 9 years ago. An ambitious, forward-thinking politician could have investigated the issue and come up with ways to reduce costs in this timeframe – and in the region alone, four politicians in the relevant timeframe (Mayors Bloomberg and de Blasio, Cuomo, and Governor Christie) had obvious presidential ambitions.
Evidently, there has been action whenever a political priority was threatened. The LIRR had long opposed Metro-North’s Penn Station Access project, on the grounds that by sending trains through a tunnel used by the LIRR, Metro-North would impinge on its turf. As it was a visible project and a priority for Cuomo, Cuomo had to remove the LIRR’s obstruction, and thus fired LIRR President Helena Williams in 2014.
So what’s notable is that construction costs did not become a similar political priority, even though rhetoric of government effectiveness and fighting waste is ubiquitous on the center-left, center, and center-right.
That successive powerful American leaders have neglected to take on construction costs suggests that there is no benefit to them in fixing the problem. The question is, who benefits from high costs, then?
The answer cannot be that these politicians are all corrupt. The inefficiency in construction does not go to any serious politician’s pockets. Corruption might, but that requires me to believe that all relevant mayors and governors take bribes, which I wouldn’t believe of Italy, let alone the United States. One or two crooks could plausibly lead to cost explosion in one place, but it is not plausible that every serious politician in the New York area in the last decade has been both corrupt and in on the exact same grift.
Another answer I’d like to exclude is powerful interest groups. For example, if the main cause of high American construction costs were unions, then this would explain why governors all over the more liberal states don’t make an effort to build infrastructure more cheaply. However, there are enough high-cost states with right-wing politics and anti-union laws. The other entrenched interest groups are quite weak nationwide, for example planners, who politicians of all flavors love to deride as unelected bureaucrats.
The pattern of competence and incompetence
In my dealings with New York, I’ve noticed a pattern: the individual planners I talk to are curious, informed, and very sharp, and I don’t just mean the ones who leak confidential information to me. This does not stop at the lower levels: while most of my dealings with planners were with people who are my age or not much older, one of my sources speaks highly of their supervisor, and moreover my interactions with senior planners at the MTA when Eric Goldwyn and I pitched our bus redesign were positive. Eric also reports very good interactions with bus drivers and union officials.
In contrast, the communications staff is obstructive and dishonest. Moreover, the most senior layer of management is simply incompetent. Adam Rahbee describes it as “the higher up you get, the less reasonable people are” (my paraphrase, not a direct quote); he brings up work he proposed to do on reworking on the subway schedules, but the head of subway operations did not have the budget to hire an outside consultant and the higher-up managers did not even know that there was a problem with trains running slower than scheduled (“running time”).
A number of area observers have also noticed how MTA head Ronnie Hakim, a Cuomo appointee, was responsible to much of the recent spate of subway slowdowns. Hakim, with background in law rather than operations, insisted speed should not be a priority according to Dan Rivoli’s sources. The operations staff seem to hate her, judging by the number and breadth of anonymous sources naming her as one of several managers who are responsible for the problem.
The pattern is, then, that the put-upon public workers who run the trains day in, day out are fine. It’s the political appointees who are the problem. I don’t have nearly so many sources at other transit agencies, but what I have seen there, at least in Boston and San Francisco, is consistent with the same pattern.
Quite often, governors who aim to control cost institute general hiring freezes, via managers brought in from the outside, even if some crucial departments are understaffed. For example, Boston has an epidemic of bus bunching, is staffed with only 5-8 dispatchers at a given time, and can’t go up to the necessary 15 or so because of a hiring freeze. The 40 or so full-time dispatchers who are needed to make up the difference cost much less than the overtime for bus drivers coming from the bunching, to say nothing of the extra revenue the MBTA could get if, with the same resources, its buses ran more punctually. In the name of prudence and saving money, the MBTA wastes it.
The risk aversion pattern
The above section has two examples of political interference making operations worse: a hiring freeze at the MBTA (and also at the MTA), and Ronnie Hakim deemphasizing train speed out of fear of lawsuits. There is a third example, concerning capital planning: Cuomo’s interference with the L shutdown, well covered by local sources like Second Avenue Sagas, in which the governor effectively took sides in an internal dispute against majority opinion just because engineering professors in the minority had his ear. All three examples have a common thread: the negative political interference is in a more risk-averse direction – hiring fewer people, running slower trains, performing ongoing maintenance with kludges rather than a long-term shutdown.
The importance of risk-aversion is that some of the problems concerning American construction costs are about exactly that. Instead of forcing agencies that fight turf battles to make nice, political leaders build gratuitous extra infrastructure to keep them on separate turf, for example in California for high-speed rail. Only when these turf battles risk a visible project, such as the LIRR’s opposition to Penn Station Access, do the politicians act. Costs are not so visible, so politicians let them keep piling, using slush funds and raiding the rest of the budget.
In New York, the mined stations, too, are a problem of risk-aversion. Instead of opening up portions of Second Avenue for 18 months and putting it platforms, the MTA preferred to mine stations from a smaller dig, a five-year project that caused less street disruption over a longer period of time. An open dig would invite open political opposition from within the neighborhood; dragging it over five years may have caused even more disruption, but it was less obtrusive. The result: while the tunneling for Second Avenue Subway was about twice as expensive as in Paris, the stations were each seven times as expensive. The overall multiplier is a factor of seven because overheads were 11 times as expensive, and because the stop spacing on Second Avenue is a bit narrower than on the Paris Metro extension I’m comparing it with.
In contrast with the current situation in New York, what I keep proposing is politically risky. It involves expanding public hiring, not on a massive level, but on a level noticeable enough that if one worker underperforms, it could turn into a minor political scandal in which people complain about big government. It involves promoting smart insiders as well as hiring smart outsiders – and those outsiders should have industry experience, like Andy Byford at New York City Transit today, not political experience, like the MBTA’s Luis Ramirez or the FRA’s Sarah Feinberg; by itself, hiring such people is not risky, but giving them more latitude to operate is, as Cuomo discovered when Byford began proposing his own agenda for subway investment.
On the engineering level, it involves more obtrusive construction: tunnels and els, not bus lanes that are compromised to death – and the tunnels may involve cut-and-cover at stations to save money. Regional rail is obtrusive politically, as modernization probably requires removal of many long-time managers who are used to the current way of doing things (in Toronto, the engineers at GO Transit obstructed the RER program, which was imposed from Metrolinx), and in New York the elimination of Long Island and the northern suburbs’ respective feudal ownership of the LIRR and Metro-North. The end result saves money, but little kings of hills will object and even though American states have the power to overrule them, they don’t want the controversy.
The fish rots from the head
American transportation infrastructure does not work, and is getting worse. The costs of building more of it are extremely high, and seem to increase with every construction cycle. Operating costs for public transit run the gamut, but in the most important transit city, New York, they are the highest among large world cities, and moreover, the cheapest option for extending high-quality public transit to the suburbs, regional rail, is not pursued except in Silicon Valley and even there it’s a half-measure.
The problems are political. Heavyweight politicians could use their power to force positive reforms, but in a number of states where they’ve been able to do so on favorable terms, they’ve done no such thing. On the contrary, political influence has been negative, installing incompetent or dishonest managers and refusing to deal with serious long-term problems with operations and maintenance.
The reason politicians are obstructive is not that there’s no gain in improving the state of public services. On the contrary, there is a huge potential upside to getting credit for eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse and delivering government projects for much cheaper than was thought possible. But they look at minor controversies that could come from bypassing local power brokers, who as a rule have a fraction of the influence of a governor or big city mayor, or from building bigger projects than the minimum necessary to be able to put their names or something, and stop there.
One animal analogy for this is that the fish rots from the head: the worst abuses come from the top, where politicians prefer slow degradation of public services to a big change that is likely to succeed but risks embarrassment or scandal. The other animal analogy is that, through a system that rewards people who talk big and act small, American politics creates a series of chickenshit leaders.
Lately I’ve seen some very aggressive people on social media assert that high American transit construction and operating costs are the fault of unions, and thus, the solution is to break the unions using the usual techniques of subterfuge and breaking implicit promises. A while back, maybe a year ago, I even saw someone argue that gadgetbahn (monorails, PRT, Hyperloop, etc.) is specifically a solution to union agreements covering traditional transit but not things that are marketed as new things. This is an incorrect analysis of the problem, and like many other incorrect analyses, the solutions that would follow were this analysis correct are in fact counterproductive.
American costs are high even without unions
The majority of American transit construction occurs in parts of the country with relatively strong unions. This is for historical reasons: American cities with large prewar cores are both more unionized and more densely populated than newer Sunbelt cities. Thus, a table with cities and their subway construction costs, such as what one might get cobbling together my posts, will show very high costs mostly in cities with American unions.
However, American cities with weak unions build transit too, it’s just unlikely to come with subway tunnels. We can look at above-ground urban rail construction costs in a variety of American states with right-to-work laws. There is one recent above-ground metro line in a right-to-work state, the Washington Silver Line in Virginia, and another proposal, an extension of MARTA. Let’s compare their costs with those of other mostly at-grade urban rail lines in unionized West Coast states:
- The second phase of the Silver Line cost $2.8 billion, or about $150 million per km.
- The proposed MARTA extension is projected to cost about $110 million per km.
- Portland’s Milwaukie MAX extension, which Wikipedia says cost $1.5 billion for 11.7 km, or $130 million per km.
- San Diego’s mixed elevated and rail right-of-way Blue Line extension is currently budgeted at $2.1 billion, or $120 million per km.
- The canceled BART extension to Livermore in a freeway median would have cost $1.6 billion, or $180 million per km.
We can go lower than this range by looking at street-running light rail lines, which are popular in such Sunbelt cities as Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and Charlotte, but then we can compare them with light rail lines in Minneapolis, which has no right-to-work laws.
- Dallas’s Orange Line cost either $1.3 billion or $1.8 billion, or $2.8 billion, so either $58 or 80 million per km.
- Houston’s Green and Purple Lines together cost $1.3 billion, about $80 million per km.
- Phoenix’s light rail extension to Gilbert Road is $186 million, about $60 million per km. A canceled extension to Glendale was projected to cost $900 million to $1 billion, around $90 million per km.
- Charlotte’s light rail extension cost $1.1 billion, about $75 million per km.
- Minneapolis’s light rail extensions, the Blue Line extension and the Southwest LRT, are $1.5 and $2 billion respectively, or about $75 and $80 million per km.
Let’s also look at commuter rail. Dallas’s Cotton Belt Line, a diesel line in a disused freight right-of-way, is projected to cost $1.1 billion for 42 km. The cost, $26 million per km, is within the normal European range for greenfield high-speed rail without tunnels, and more than an order of magnitude higher than some German examples from Hans-Joachim Zierke’s site. In Massachusetts, the plans for South Coast Rail cost around $3 billion for 77.6 km before some recent modifications cutting both cost and length, about $40 million per km; this would have included electrification and right-of-way construction through an environmentally sensitive area, since bypassed to cut costs.
Finally, what of operating costs? There, the Sunbelt is unambiguously cheaper than the Northeast, Chicago, and California – but only by virtue of lower market wages. The cost ranges for both sets of states are wide. In Chicago and San Francisco, the operating costs of rapid transit are not much higher than $5/car-km per the NTD, which is normal or if anything below average by first-world standards. Light rail looks more expensive to operate in old unionized cities, but only because Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco’s light rail lines are subway-surface lines with low average speeds, which are more expensive to run than the faster greenfield light rail lines built elsewhere in North America. The lowest operating costs on recently-built light rail lines in the US are in Salt Lake City, San Diego, and Denver, and among those only the first is in a right-to-work state.
Non-labor problems in American transit
I urge everyone to look at the above lists of American transit lines and their costs again, because it showcases something important: high American costs are not a uniform problem, but rather afflict some areas more than others. Commuter rail construction costs are the worst, casually going over European levels by a full order of magnitude or even more. Subway operating costs are the best, ranging from no premium at all in some cities (Chicago) to a factor-of-2 premium in others (New York). Light rail construction costs are in the middle. The variety of cost premiums suggests that there are other problems in play than just labor, which should hit everything to about the same extent.
When I’m asked to explain high American construction costs, I usually cite the following explanations:
- Poor contracting practices, which include selection of bidders based exclusively on cost, micromanagement making companies reluctant to do business with New York public works, and design-build contracts removing public oversight and encouraging private-sector micromanagement.
- Poor project management: Boston’s Green Line Extension is now budgeted at about $1 billion for 7.6 km, but this is on the heels of an aborted attempt from earlier this decade, driving up total money spent beyond $2 billion.
- Indifference to foreign practices: Americans at all levels, including transit agencies, shadow agencies like the Regional Plan Association, and government bodies do not know or care how things work in other countries, with the partial exception of Canada and the UK, which have very high costs as well. The area where there has been the greatest postwar innovation in non-English-speaking countries, namely commuter rail, is the one where the US is the farthest behind when it comes to cost control. Explanation #1 can be folded into this as well, since the insistences on cost + technical score bid selection and on separation of design and construction are Spanish innovations, uncommon and obscure in the English-speaking world.
- Overbuilding: extra infrastructure required by agency turf battles, extra construction impact required by same, and mined stations. Other than the mined stations, the general theme is poor coordination between different agencies, which once again is especially bad when commuter rail is involved for historical reasons, and which in addition to raising costs also leads to lower project benefits.
Labor is a factor, but evidently, the intransigent BART unions coexist with low operating costs, as do the Chicago L unions. American unions are indifferent to productivity more than actively hostile to it, and in some cases, i.e. bus reforms in New York, they’re even in favor of treatments that would encourage more people to ride public transit.
But union rules force transit agencies to overstaff, right?
In the Northeast, there are unambiguous examples of overstaffing. Brian Rosenthal’s article for the New York Times found horror stories, and upon followup, frequent commenter and Manhattan Institute fellow Connor Harris has found more systematic cases, comparing the ~25 people it takes to staff a tunnel-boring machine in New York with the 12 required in Germany. The unions themselves have pushed back against this narrative, but it appears to be a known problem in the infrastructure construction industry.
So what gives? In Texas, the unions are too weak to insist on any overstaffing. Texas is not New York or even California. Without knowing the details of what goes on in Texas, my suspicion is that there is an informal national standard emerging out of mid-20th century practices in the cities that were big then. I see this when it comes to decisions about construction techniques: features that came out of the machinations of interwar New York, like the full-length subway mezzanine, spread nationwide, raising the cost of digging station caverns. I would not be surprised to discover something similar when it comes to staffing. Obvious economies like running driver-only train are already widespread nearly everywhere in the US, New York being the exception. Less obvious economies concerning maintenance regimes are harder to implement without very detailed knowledge, which small upstart Sunbelt transit agencies are unlikely to have, and if they invite consultants or other experts, they will learn to work in the same manner as the big American transit agencies.
The reality that the entirety of the American transit industry is used to doing things a certain way means that there needs to be a public discussion about staffing levels. There are jobs that look superfluous but are in fact crucial, and jobs that are the opposite. The cloak-and-dagger mentality of anti-union consultants does not work in this context at all. Experimentation is impossible on a safety-critical system, and nothing should be changed without double- and triple-checking that it works smoothly.
Anti-union explanations are harmful, not neutral
While union overstaffing does drive up tunneling costs in the United States, there are many other factors in play, which must be solved by other means than union-busting. By itself, this would make union-busting either neutral or somewhat positive. However, in reality, the politics of union-busting wreck government effectiveness in ways that make the overall cost problem worse.
The people who try to tell me the problem is all about the unions are not, as one might expect, Manhattan Institute hacks. Connor himself knows better, and Nicole Gelinas has been making narrow arguments about pension cuts rather than calling for sweeping changes to leave unions in the dust. Rather, the loudest anti-union voices are people who either are in tech or would like to be, and like using the word “disruption” in every sentence. The Manhattan Institute is pretty open about its goals of union-busting and race-baiting; in contrast, the people who tell me gadgetbahn is necessary to avoid union agreements insist on never being public about anything.
The rub is that it’s not possible to solve the coordination problem of public transit agencies without some sort of public process. Adding gadgetbahn to the mix creates the same result as the XKCD strip about 14 competing standards. The more the people building it insist that they’re disruptive synergistic innovators inventing the future with skin in the game, the less likely they are to build something that’s likely to be backward-compatible with anything or cohere to form a usable network.
Nor is it possible to assimilate good industry practices by cloak and dagger politics. The universe of industry practices is vast and the universe of good practices isn’t much smaller. The only way forward is via an open academic or quasi-academic process of publication, open data, peer review, and replication. A single consultancy is unlikely to have all the answers, although with enough study it could disseminate considerable knowledge.
There needs to be widespread public understanding that the United States is behind and needs to import reforms to improve its transportation network. This can happen in parallel with a process that weakens unions or for that matter with a process that strengthens them, but in practice the subterfuge of managers looking for union-busting opportunities makes it difficult to attack all cost drivers at once. Whatever happens with conventional left-right politics, there is no room for people who reduce the entirety or even the majority of America’s transit cost problem to labor.
Six and a half years ago, the Federal Railroad Administration announced that it was going to revise its passenger train regulations. The old regulations required trains to be unusually heavy, wrecking the performance of nearly every piece of passenger rolling stock running in the United States. Even Canada was affected, as Transport Canada’s regulations mirrored those south of the border. The revision process came about for two reasons: first, the attempt to apply the old rules to the Acela trains created trains widely acknowledged to be lemons and hangar queens (only 16 out of 20 can operate at any given time; on the TGV the maximum uptime is 98%), and second, Caltrain commissioned studies that got it an FRA waiver, which showed that FRA regulations had practically no justification in terms of safety.
The new rules were supposed to be out in 2015, then 2016, then 2017. Then they got stuck in presidential administration turnover, in which, according to multiple second-hand sources, the incoming Republican administration did not know what to do with a new set of regulations that was judged to have negative cost to the industry as it would allow more and lower-cost equipment to run on US tracks. After this limbo, the new rules have finally been published.
What’s in the new regulations?
The document spells out the main point on pp. 13-20. The new rules are similar to the relevant Euronorm. There are still small changes to the seats, glazing, and emergency lighting, but not to the structure of the equipment. This means that unmodified European products will remain illegal on American tracks, unlike the situation in Canada, where the O-Train runs unmodified German trains using strict time separation from freight. However, trains manufactured for the needs of the American market using the same construction techniques already employed at the factories in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden should not be a problem.
In contrast, the new rules are ignoring Japan. The FRA’s excuse is that high-speed trains in Japan run on completely dedicated tracks, without sharing them with slower trains. This is not completely true – the Mini-Shinkansen trains are built to the same standards as the Shinkansen, just slightly narrower to comply with the narrower clearances on the legacy lines, and then run through to legacy lines at lower speed. Moreover, the mainline legacy network in Japan is extremely safe, more so than the Western European mainline network.
On pp. 33-35, the document describes a commenter who most likely has read either my writings on FRA regulations or those of other people who made the same points in 2011-2, who asked for rules making it possible to import off-the-shelf equipment. The FRA response – that there is no true off-the-shelf equipment because trains are always made for a specific buyer – worries me. The response is strictly speaking true: with a handful of exceptions for piggybacks, including the O-Train, orders are always tailored to the buyer. However, in reality, this tailoring involves changes within certain parameters, such as train width, that differ greatly within Europe. Changes to parts that are uniform within Europe, such as the roofing, may lead to unforeseen complications. I don’t think the cost will be significant, but I can’t rule it out either, and I think the FRA should have been warier about this possibility.
The final worry is that the FRA states the cost of a high-speed train is $50 million, in the context of modification costs; these are stated to be $300,000 for a $50 million European high-speed trainset and $4.7 million for a Japanese one. The problem: European high-speed trainsets do not cost $50 million. They cost about $40 million. Japanese sets cost around $50 million, but that’s for a 16-car 400-meter trainsets, whereas European high-speed trainsets are almost always about 200 meters long, no matter how many cars they’re divided into. If the FRA is baking in cost premiums due to protectionism or bespoke orders, this is going to swamp the benefits of Euronorm-like regulations.
But cost concerns aside, the changes in the buff strength rules are an unmitigated good. The old rules require trainsets to resist 360-945 metric tons of force without deformation (360 for trains going up to 200 km/h, 945 beyond 200 km/h), which raises their mass by several tons per cars – and lightweight frames require even more extra mass. The new ones are based on crumple zones using a system called crash energy management (CEM), in which the train is allowed to deform as long as the deformation does not compromise the driver’s cab or the passenger-occupied interior, and this should not require extra train mass.
How does it affect procurement?
So far, the new rules, though telegraphed years in advance, have not affected procurement. With the exception of Caltrain, commuter railroads all over the country have kept ordering rolling stock compliant with the old rules. Even reformers have not paid much attention. In correspondence with Boston-area North-South Rail Link advocates I’ve had to keep insisting that schedules for an electrified MBTA must be done with modern single-level EMUs in mind rather than with Metro-North’s existing fleet, which weighs about 65 metric tons per car, more than 50% more than a FLIRT per unit of train length.
It’s too late for the LIRR to redo the M9, demanding it be as lightweight as it can be. However, New Jersey Transit’s MultiLevel III is still in the early stages, and the railroad should scrap everything and require alternate compliance in order to keep train mass (and procurement cost) under control.
Moreover, the MBTA needs new trains. If electrification happens, it will be because the existing fleet is so unreliable that it becomes attractive to buy a few EMUs to cover the Providence Line so that at least the worst-performing diesels can be retired. Under no circumstance should these trains be anything like Metro-North’s behemoths. The trains must be high-performance and as close as possible to unmodified 160 km/h single-level regional rail rolling stock, such as the DBAG Class 423, the Coradia Continental, the Talent II, or, yes, the FLIRT.
Metra is already finding itself in a bind. It enjoys its antediluvian gallery cars, splitting the difference between one and two decks in a way that combines the worst of both worlds; first-world manufacturers have moved on, and now Metra reportedly has difficulty finding anyone that will make new gallery cars. Instead, it too should aim at buying lightly modified European trains. These should be single-level and not bilevel, because bilevels take longer to unload, and Chicago’s CBD-dominant system is such that nearly all passengers would get off at one station, Millennium Station at the eastern edge of the Loop, where there are seven terminating tracks and (I believe) four approach tracks.
Ultimately, on electrified lines, the new rules permit trains that are around two thirds as heavy as the existing EMUs and have about the same power output. Substantial improvements in train speed are possible just from getting new equipment, even without taking into account procurement costs, maintenance costs, and electricity consumption. Despite its flaws, the new FRA regulation is positive for the industry and it’s imperative that passenger railroads adapt and buy better rolling stock.