Category: Construction Costs

New Report on Construction Costs Misses the Mark

In the last few years, ever more serious and powerful actors have begun investigating the fact of high American infrastructure construction costs. First it was Brian Rosenthal’s excellent New York Times exposé, and then it was the Regional Plan Association’s flop of a study. At the same time, I was aware that the congressional Government Accountability Office, or GAO, was investigating the same question, planning to talk to sources in the academic world as well as industry in order to make recommendations.

The GAO report is out now, and unfortunately it is a total miss, for essentially the same reason the RPA’s report was a miss: it did not go outside the American (and to some extent rest-of-Anglosphere) comfort zone. Its literature review is if anything weaker than the RPA’s. Its interviews with experts are telling: out of nine mentioned on PDF-p. 47, eight live in English-speaking countries. Even when more detailed information about non-English-speaking countries is readily available, even in English, the GAO report makes little use of it. It is a lazy study, and people who ideologically believe the American federal government does not work should feel confident citing this as an example.

Cost comparisons

Brian himself already notes one of the reasons the report is so weak: Congress mandated a comparative study, but the report made no international comparisons at all. Instead, the report offered this excuse (PDF-p. 27):

The complexity of rail transit construction projects and data limitations, among other things, limits the ability to compare the costs of these projects, according to the stakeholders we interviewed. As highlighted above, each project has a unique collection of specific factors that drive its costs. According to FTA officials, each proposed transit project has its own unique characteristics, physical operating environment, and challenges. Some stakeholders said that the wide disparity in the relative effect of different cost factors renders cost comparisons between projects difficult. For example, representatives of an international transit organization said that because of the large number of elements that can affect a project’s costs and the differences in what costs are included in different projects’ data, projects should be compared only at a very granular level and that aggregate cost comparisons, such as between the costs per mile or costs per kilometer of different projects, are likely flawed. Some stakeholders also said that project costs should not be compared without considering the projects’ contexts, such as their complexity. For example, one academic expert contended that project costs cannot be compared without considering the context of each project, and that analysis of projects should focus on leading practices and lessons learned instead.

There is a big problem with the above statement: disaggregated costs for many aspects of urban rail construction do exist. The Manhattan Institute’s Connor Harris has done a lot of legwork comparing tunnel boring machine staffing levels and wages in New York and in Germany, and found that New York pays much higher wages but also has much higher staffing levels, 25-26 workers compared with 12. I have done some work looking at station costs specifically, and at the cost of installing elevators for wheelchair accessibility.

There is a lot of detailed comparative research about the costs of high-speed rail; the report even references one such meta-study undertaken within Europe, but omits the study’s analysis of causes of cost differences and instead asserts that it shows that comparing different projects is hard. In the interim, California contracted Deutsche Bahn to do a post-mortem of its elevated high-speed rail costs, which found that California needlessly built larger structures than necessary, explaining its cost premium over Germany.

Instead of probing these disaggregated estimates, the GAO preferred to say that they are too hard and move on.

Sanity checks

Even without disaggregation, there are some good sanity checks one can make about construction costs. The most important is that big projects – major subway expansions, regional rail tunnels, high-speed rail – cost an appreciable amount of the government’s budget. The budget for the 200-kilometer Grand Paris Express project is €35 billion, plus another €3 billion in contributions for related suburban rail extensions such as that of the RER E. There may be future cost overruns, but they will be reported in the media, just as the current overrun has been; it is extremely difficult to hide cost overruns measured in tens of billions in a Paris-size city, and even in a China-size country it may not be easy.

Is it plausible that GPX is inherently easier to build than New York’s $1+ billion/km subway tunnels? Yes. It’s equally plausible that it is inherently harder. Second Avenue Subway runs under a wide, straight throughfare, a situation that simplifies construction. In Israel, the ministry of transportation has long mentioned the ease of tunneling under wide, straight boulevards in connection with plans to extend the second line of the Tel Aviv subway to North Tel Aviv under Ibn Gabirol, and admitted this even when it opposed the extension on land use grounds.

The most important sanity check is that in a world with several dozens of cities with a wide variety of wealth levels, land use patterns, geologies, and topographies, no city has managed to match or even come close to New York’s construction costs. New York is not special enough to be an edge case in all or even most relevant geographic variables – it is dense but no denser than Seoul or Paris, it is wealthy but no wealthier than London or Paris or Munich and barely wealthier than Stockholm, it has hard rock but less hard than Stockholm (and in Stockholm the gneiss is cited as a cost saver – bored tunnels do not require concrete lining), etc.

Moreover, the cities that have the highest construction costs outside New York are almost without exception in the same set of countries: the US, Canada, Britain, Singapore, Australia. What’s likelier – that there is some special geographic feature common to the entire Anglosphere (including Quebec) but absent from all other developed countries, or that there is a shared set of legal and political traditions that developed in the last 50 years that impede cost-effective construction? Instead of probing this pattern, the GAO preferred to wash its hands and refuse to compare projects across countries.

Internal comparisons

In lieu of making international comparisons, the GAO has engaged in extensive internal comparison. It cites aspects that have raised the costs of Second Avenue Subway above other American subway projects, such as overdesign for stations. Apparently, it’s completely legit to compare two different cities’ construction if they’re in the same country.

Over and over again, it references its own domestic standards. The GAO has 12 design standards, e.g. on PDF-pp. 51-52 and 56-60; the report mentions that existing cost estimation methodologies by the Federal Transit Administration, or FTA, meet 7 of them; thus, it exhorts transit agencies to meet the other 5 standards.

The only problem is that there is no evidence supplied that those design standards are really useful. After all, the United States has very high costs, so why should anyone trust its standards? Even domestically, the report makes no effort to bring up successful examples of low overall costs coming from following prescribed standards. Seattle recently opened a light rail tunnel built for around $400 million per kilometer, a cost that would get most European project managers fired but that is still the lowest for an American urban rail tunnel built in this century. But the report never brings up Seattle at all, never mind that New York would salivate over the prospect of tunneling at Seattle’s cost.

The real internal comparisons then are not between different cities in the United States. Rather, they’re between different stages of cost estimation for the same project. There is published literature on cost overruns, most famously by Bent Flyvbjerg and his research group. The report cites Flyvbjerg. Moreover, one of the nine academic experts it consulted is Don Pickrell, who published a seminal paper on American cost overruns and ridership shortfalls in 1990. Pickrell was influential enough that a 2009 review found that not only had cost and ridership projections improved greatly in the intervening two decades, but also there was an improvement in ridership estimate quality attributable to Pickrell’s paper.

The GAO report is not the best source on cost overruns, but it is not completely useless there. Unfortunately, it remains useless when it comes to discussing absolute costs, a different topic from relative increases. Flyvbjerg’s original paper found that the US did not have higher cost overruns than Europe; but absolute costs in the US are several times as high. Flyvbjerg’s paper found that urban rail has higher cost overruns than road projects; but when a rail tunnel and a road tunnel are built in the same city, the road tunnel is more expensive by a factor of 1.5-2.5, at least in the four-city pilot I reported in 2017, owing to the need to build bigger bores with ventilation to carry heavy car traffic.

Lazy analysis, lazy synthesis

Americans who think of themselves as reformers like to point out real problems to solve, but then propose solutions that they made up without any connection with their analysis. The RPA study is one such example: even though one of its sources (namely, former Madrid Metro CEO Manuel Melis Maynar’s writeup about low Spanish costs) explicitly calls for separation of design and construction, its recommendations include a greater reliance on design-build. The same design-build recommendation appeared in a 2008 report in Toronto comparing the costs of the Sheppard subway, opened in 2002, with those of subways in Madrid; construction costs in Toronto have since tripled, while those of Madrid have barely risen.

To the GAO report’s credit, it does not recommend design-build. It even mentions the biggest drawback of design-build: it shifts cost risk to the private contractor, who compensates by demanding more public money up front. Nonetheless, it does not follow through and does not make the correct recommendation on this subject – namely, that cities and states should cease using this approach. It buries a recommendation for in-house expertise alongside a fad for peer review of projects.

Instead of lazily proposing design-build, the GAO lazily proposes two barely relevant tweaks (PDF-p. 43):

  • The FTA administrator should ensure that FTA’s cost estimating information for project sponsors is consistent with all 12 steps found in GAO’s Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide and needed for developing reliable cost estimates.
  • The FTA Administrator should provide a central, easily accessible source with all of FTA’s cost estimating information to help project sponsors improve the reliability of their cost estimates.

In other words, the report makes no recommendation about how to reduce costs, only about how to tell the public in advance that costs will be unaffordably high.

Why are these reports so bad?

This is not the first time a serious group releases an incurious study of American construction costs. What gives?

I suspect the answer has to be a combination of the following problems:

  • Reform factions often have a lot of internal ideas about how to improve things based on what they already know. They will cite new information if they feel like they must do so to save face, but they will not let new evidence change their conclusions. A little knowledge can be dangerous.
  • Finding information from outside the US, especially outside the English-speaking world, puts Americans (and Canadians) at a disadvantage. They know few to no foreigners, have little experience with cities abroad except as tourists, and do not speak foreign languages. Even when machine translation is decently accurate, which it is in the engineering literature in European languages, they are intimidated by the idea of dealing with non-English material. The process of learning is humbling, and some people prefer to remain proud and ignorant.
  • Open-ended analysis does not always lend itself to easy explanations or easy solutions. Even when solutions do present themselves, they may not flatter the people in power. Ten years ago I did not think senior management at American transit organs should be fired; today I think mass layoffs of the top brass, especially the political appointees, are somewhere between very useful and essential.

All three problems interact. For example, senior management is even less likely to be multilingual than junior staffers, who may be second-generation immigrant heritage speakers of a foreign language; thus, anything relying on foreign material disempowers the high-ups in favor of up-and-comers. The quick-and-easy-and-wrong solutions reformists seize upon if they find a little bit of knowledge let outfits like the GAO feel more powerful without actually challenging any obstructive politician or interest group, and if those solutions fail, they can always keep churning reports about implementation.

Last year, I did not know whether the GAO was capable of providing a blueprint for improving American infrastructure at lower cost. I assumed good faith because I had no reason not to. With this report, it is clear to me as well as to other observers of American public transit that the GAO is not so capable. Instead of doing what was in the country’s best interest, the people who commissioned and wrote the report delivered the minimal product that would get them kudos from superiors who do not know any better. They could have learned, or made a serious effort to learn, but that might challenge their assumptions or those of the high political echelons, and thus they preferred to say nothing and propose to do nothing.

Costs are Rising, US Highway Edition

There’s a preliminary paper circulating at Brookings, looking at American infrastructure construction costs. Authors Leah Brooks and Zachary Liscow have tabulated the real costs of the American Interstate program over time, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and find that they increased from $5.3 million per km ($8.5 million/mile) in 1958-63 to $21.3 million/km ($34.25 million/mile) in 1988-93.

Moreover, they have some controls for road difficulty, expressed in slope (though not, I believe, in tunnel quantity), urbanization, and river and wetland crossings, and those barely change the overall picture. They go over several different explanations for high American infrastructure costs, and find most of them either directly contradicted by their results or at best not affirmed by them.

I urge readers to read the entire paper. It is long, but very readable, and it is easy to skip the statistical model and go over the narrative, including favored and disfavored explanations, and then poke at the graphs and tables. I’m going to summarize some of their explanations, but add some important context from cross-national comparisons.

Why costs (probably) aren’t rising

The authors identify four hypotheses they rule out using their research, in pp. 19-23 (they say five but only list four):

Difficult segments postponed and built later – they have some controls for that, as mentioned above. The controls are imperfect, but the maps depicted on pp. 59-61 for the Interstate network’s buildout by decade don’t scream “the segments built after 1970 were harder than those built before.”

Time-invariant features – these include cross-national comparisons, since the United States has always been the United States. I will discuss this in a subsequent section, because two separate refinements of what I’ve seen from cross-national comparisons deal with this issue specifically.

Input prices – this is by far the longest explanation the authors deal with. Anecdotally, it’s the one I hear most often: “labor costs are rising.” What the authors show is that labor and materials costs did not rise much over the period in question. Construction worker wages actually peaked in real terms in 1973 and fell thereafter; materials costs jumped in the aftermath of the oil crisis, but came down later, and were back at pre-crisis levels by the 1990s (p. 48). Land costs did rise and have kept rising, but over the entire period, only 17.7% of total costs were preliminary engineering and land acquisition, and the rest were in construction.

Higher standards – the authors looked and did not find changes in standards leading to more extensive construction.

There are several more incorrect explanations that jump from the data. I was surprised to learn that throughout the 1970s and 80s, completion time remained mostly steady at 3-3.5 years of construction; thus, delays in construction cannot be the explanation, though delays in planning and engineering can be.

The authors themselves list additional explanations that have limited evidence but are not ruled out completely from their data, on pp. 32-35. Construction industry market concentration may be an explanation, but so far data is lacking. Government fragmentation, measured in total number of governments per capita, has no effect on the result (for example, California has high costs and not much municipal fragmentation); I’ll add that Europe’s most municipally fragmented country, France, has middle-of-the-road subway construction costs. State government quality, as measured by corruption convictions, has little explanatory power – and as with fragmentation, I’ll add that in Europe we do not see higher costs in states with well-known problems of clientelism and corruption, like Italy and Greece. Work rules requiring the addition of more workers may be relevant, but unionization and left-right politics are not explanatory variables (and this also holds for rail costs).

Economies of scale look irrelevant as well: there is negative correlation between costs and construction, but the causality could well go the other way. Finally, soft budget constraints are unlikely, as the federal government can punish states that mismanage projects and take more money; it’s possible that as the Interstate program ended states felt less constrained because there wouldn’t be money in the future either way (“end of repeated game”), but the fact that costs keep rising in subway construction suggests this is not relevant.

Favored explanations

Two explanations stand out to the authors. The first is that nearly the entire increase in construction costs over time can be attributed to a mix of higher real incomes and higher house prices. While the construction workers themselves did not see their wages rise in the late 1970s and 80s, a richer population may demand more highways, no matter the cost.

Higher real estate costs could have an impact disproportionate to the share of land acquisition in overall costs by forcing various mitigations that the paper does not control for, such as sound walls and tunnels, or by sending roads over higher-cost alignments.

The second explanation is what the authors call citizen voice. Regulatory changes in the 1960s and early 70s gave organized local groups greater ability to raise objections to planning and force changes, reducing community impact at the cost of higher monetary expenditures. The authors give an example from suburban Detroit, where a highway segment that disrupted a Jewish community center took 25 years to be built as a result of litigation.

The authors don’t say this explicitly, but the two explanations interact well together. The citizen voice is very locally NIMBY but is also pro-road outside a handful of rich urban neighborhoods. Higher incomes may have led to public acceptance of higher costs, but local empowerment through citizen voice is the mechanism through which people can express their preference for higher costs over construction inconvenience.

How time-invariant are national features, anyway?

The authors contrast two proposed explanations – higher incomes and property values, and stronger NIMBY empowerment – with what they call time-invariant features, which could not explain an increase in costs. But can’t they?

I spent years plugging the theory that common law correlates with high subway construction costs, and it does in the developed world, but upon looking at more data from developing countries as well as from before the last 25 years, I stopped believing in that theory. It started when I saw a datapoint for Indonesia, a civil-law country, but even then it took me a few more years to look systematically enough, not to mention to wait for more civil-law third-world countries to build subways, like Vietnam. By last year I was giving counterexamples, including Montreal, low rail electrification costs in some common law countries, and the lack of a London cost premium over Paris until the late 20th century.

In lieu of common law, what I use to explain high costs in the US relative to the rest of the world, and to some extent also in most first-world common law countries as well as third-world former colonies, is weak civil service. In the developed world, the theory behind this is called adversarial legalism, as analyzed by Robert Kagan. Adversarial legalism enforces the law through litigation, leading to a web of consent decrees. Some are naked power grabs: for example, in Los Angeles, a union sued a rolling stock vendor for environmental remediation and agreed to drop the lawsuit in exchange for a pledge that its factory be unionized, which may play a role in why the trains cost around 50% more than equivalent European products.

American litigiousness developed specifically in the 1970s – it’s exactly how what the authors of the paper call citizen voice is enforced. In contrast, on this side of the Channel, and to some extent even generally on this side of the Pond, laws are enforced by regulators, tripartite labor-business-government meetings, ombudsmen, or street protests. French riotousness is legendary, but its ability to systematically change infrastructure is limited, since rioting imposes a real cost on the activist, namely the risk of arrest and backlash; in contrast, it is impossible to retaliate against people who launch frivolous lawsuits.

I bring up the fact that I said most of this last year, and the rest at the beginning of this year, whereas I was not aware of the paper under discussion until it was released a few hours ago, to make it clear that I’m not overfitting. This is something that I’ve been talking about for around a year now, and a jump in American construction costs in the 1970s and 80s – something that also looks to be the case in subway construction – is fully compatible with this theory.

Costs are Rising

This is a partial data dump from an in-progress database I’m compiling for subway construction costs around the world. The key point is that costs are rising: in cities with enough historical data points we can see a secular increase in construction costs. The difference between expensive cities like New York and London is that their costs have been high for a while, whereas cheap ones like Madrid and Seoul are seeing construction cost growth from a very low basis.

As a note of caution, while growth in costs seems universal, the rate of growth is not the same everywhere. Some cities, most notably Singapore and Toronto, have seen a cost explosion in the last 15-20 years; others, most notably Seoul, have seen only a moderate increase in costs.

I also urge readers to look at some 20th century historical costs here, as in this post I am going to focus on the very end of the 20th century and the 21st century.

Paris: the original Metro Line 14 cost €1.174 billion for 9.2 km (link), built between the 1990s and 2007; deflated to 2012 euros, the baseline year used for ongoing extensions, this is around €160 million per km. More recent projects in Paris cost around the same, including the Line 1 extension and Grand Paris Express – but those are mostly suburban extensions, whereas M14 had to go underneath central Paris.

Toronto: Jonathan English, who has been working with me on Canadian construction costs issues, notes that the Sheppard subway, opened in 2002, cost C$1 billion for 5.5 km, but ongoing projects are far more expensive. The one-stop 6.2 km Scarborough subway is projected to cost around C$3.5 billion not including extra items for interfacing with the existing rapid transit line along the same alignment, which is to be dismantled. Not only is the nominal cost 3 times higher – and the real cost is still around twice as high – but also the Scarborough subway has just one station to be constructed, which makes it a simpler project.

Montreal: Jonathan equally looks at the cost explosion in Montreal. The Laval extension was built in the 2000s and opened in 2007, costing C$742 million for 5.2 km and 3 stations, or C$143 million per km, crossing under the Rivière des Prairies. In contrast, an extension of the Blue Line planned for next decade is to cost C$3.9 billion for 5.8 km and 5 stations, or C$672 million per km – and even adjusting for inflation only reduces the cost differential to a factor of about 3.

(In case Canadian readers wonder why I’m not covering Vancouver, even though the escalations on the Broadway subway have pushed its per-km cost well beyond that of the Canada Line, the reason is that the Canada Line was built cut-and-cover whereas the Broadway subway will be bored.)

Singapore: Singapore’s cost overrun history in the 21st century has been unusually severe. Built mainly in the 2000s, the original Circle Line cost S$10 billion for 33.3 km, or S$300m/km, an overrun of 50% over the original budget. Subsequently, the Downtown MRT Line, built from 2008 to 2017, cost S$21 billion for 42 km, and the Thomson Line S$24 billion for 43 km. The Thomson Line has a complex interchange at Orchard, but also long segments in easy suburban areas – Upper Thomson Road, after which it is named, is very wide and borders modernist housing projects on one side and a forest on the other. Moreover, the last stage of the Circle Line, completing the circle, is to cost S$4.85 billion for 4 km and 3 stations – depending on PPP rates, it may be the first line outside New York to cross the US$1 billion/km line.

Seoul: South Korean costs are fairly stable. JRTR has data for the Seoul Metro going back to its start in the 1970s. After adjusting for inflation, costs were initially about $70 million per km, and rose gently to $80-90 million. The cost increases are continuing, albeit at a slow pace. As best as I can tell, the 2020s’ expansion program is budgeted at about $110 million per km in PPP terms.

Madrid: in the 1995-2003 period the city built tunnels for very low costs. The 1995-8 program cost $55 million per km, all underground, and the 1999-2003 program cost €3.147 billion for 74.7 km, 77% underground, around $52 million per km based on the era’s PPP conversion rate. In the conditions of 2010 this would be roughly $65-70 million per km – but the Line 2 extension, built 2008-11, cost €315 million for 4.6 km and 4 stations, and the Line 9 extension, built 2009-15, cost €191 million for 3 km and 2 stations, about $80-90 million per km.

Update: since people have asked for high-speed rail data, it confirms the same story. Ferropedia has costs in Spain, which have risen from €4.88 million per kilometer in 2001 terms for Madrid-Seville, which opened in 1992, to about €15-20 million per kilometer in 2006-7 terms for subsequent lines from the 2000s and 2010s. France displays the same history of escalation: built in the early 1980s, the LGV Sud-Est cost €5.5 million per km, much less than the late 1980s and early 1990s’ LGVs Nord and Atlantique (which cost €10 million), let alone this decade’s LGV Est (which cost €16 million for Phase 1 and €19 million for Phase 2); all of these lines are through comparable terrain, with very little to no tunneling.

Assume Nordic Costs: London Edition

A month ago I made maps proposing some subway and regional rail extensions in New York and noting what they would cost if New York could build as cheaply as the Scandinavian capitals. Here is the same concept, but with London rather than New York. Here is everything in a single large map:

A full-size (74 MB) map can be viewed here.

Solid lines are existing or under construction, that is Crossrail and the Battersea extension; proposed lines are dashed. Commuter rail lines, that is Thameslink, the soon-to-open Crossrail, and four additional Crossrail tunnels labeled 2 through 5, are always depicted as having separate stations from the other modes, to avoid confusion where one Crossrail station has connections to two adjacent Tube stations (such as Farringdon-Barbican and Moorgate-Liverpool Street). It has many additional interchanges between lines and branches, including some that were left out on purpose, like a Crossrail 1 connection to Oxford Circus, omitted from the under-construction line to discourage riders from using the oversubscribed Victoria line; with four more cross-city lines, the capacity problems would be lessened substantially.

The overall picture is sparser than my New York map. The total projected cost of all of these projects, including some allocated for redoing stations on commuter branches to be given to Tube lines, is £6.8 billion, compared with $37 billion for the New York maps. The reason is that unlike New York, London already has excellent coverage thanks to extensive branching – what it needs is core capacity, which consists of city center tunnels that have high cost per kilometer but need not be long.

There is considerable overbuilding planned in London. Crossrail 2 as depicted on my map is a 6.5 km tunnel between the approach to Victoria Station and the approach to Kings Cross. But as planned, Crossrail 2 extends to a long tunnel parallel to the South West Main Line, a four-track line in a right-of-way that could if truly necessary accommodate six, as well as a long tunnel going north to take over the Lea Valley Lines, which on my map go into Crossrail 5. With gratuitous suburban tunnels and extremely high British construction costs, the budget for Crossrail 2 is around £30 billion, about 20 times what Scandinavia might spend on such a project. Even allowing for the possibility that crossing under three lines at once at Bank is more complex than crossing under two at T-Centralen, this is a difference of a full order of magnitude, counting both total required tunnel length and cost per km.

In addition, there is network simplification. On the Tube this consists of segregating the Northern line’s Bank and Charing Cross branches (already in planning pending the Battersea extension and reconstruction of Camden Town) and through breaking the Circle line into separate Metropolitan and District lines. The latter was estimated by a British blogger to cost £5 billion, based on a rubric in which the Met/District transfer at Aldgate (or Tower Hill) should by itself cost £1 billion; Crossrail and Second Avenue Subway stations cost around half that much, and the more complex T-Centralen and Odenplan stations on Citybanan cost less.

On mainline rail, the service plan is supposed to be deinterlined, as is Transport for London’s long-term goal. The slow tracks of the various mainlines feeding into Central London turn into Crossrail branches, or occasionally Underground extensions, such as Hayes and the Hounslow Loop. The fast tracks stay on the surface to avoid interfering with high-frequency regional metro service. For historic reasons Thameslink mostly stays as-is, with a combination of fast and stopping services, but the curve toward London Bridge should not be used – instead, passengers should have access to Crossrail 3 plus interchanges to the City at London Bridge and a new infill station at Southwark.

London owes it to itself to understand why its construction costs are so high that instead of solving its transport capacity problems with multiple cross-city tunnels in a decade, it’s taking multiple generations to build out such a system. There’s a lot of ongoing discussion about the last-minute delays and cost overruns on Crossrail, but the absolute costs even before the overrun were very high, the highest in the world outside New York City – and Crossrail 2 is set to break that record by a margin.

Assume Nordic Costs

I wrote a post last year proposing some more subway lines for New York, provided the region could bring down construction costs. The year before, I talked about regional rail. Here are touched-up maps, with costs based on Nordic levels. To avoid cluttering the map in Manhattan, I’m showing subway and regional rail lines separately.

A full-size 52 MB version of the subway map can be found here and a 52 MB version of the regional rail map can be found here.

Subways are set at $110 million per km underground, outside the Manhattan core; in more difficult areas, including underwater they go up to $200-300 million per km, in line with Stockholm Citybanan. Lacking data for els, I set them at $50 million per km, in line with normal subway : el cost ratios. The within-right-of-way parts of Triboro are still set at $20 million per km (errata 5/30: 32 out of 35 km are in a right-of-way and 3 are in a new subway, despite what the map text says, but the costs are still correct).

Overall, the subway map costs $22 billion, and the regional rail one $15 billion, about half as high as the figure I usually quote when asked, which is based on global averages. This excludes the $2 billion for separated intercity rail tracks, which benefit from having no stations save Penn (by the same token, putting the express rather than local lines in the tunnel is a potential cost saving for Crossrail 2). It also excludes small surface projects, such as double-tracking the Northern Branch and West Shore Line, a total of 25 and 30 km respectively, which should be $300-550 million in total, and some junction fixes. There may also be additional infill stations on commuter rail, e.g. at intersection points with new subway extensions; I do not have Nordic costs for them, but in Madrid they cost €9 million each.

The low cost led me to include some lines I would not include elsewhere, and decide marginal cases in favor of subways rather than els. There is probably no need for the tunnel connecting the local tracks of Eighth Avenue and Fulton Street Lines, but at just $1.2 billion, it may be worth it. The line on Northern Boulevard and the Erie Main Line should probably be elevated or in a private right of way the entire way between the Palisades and Paterson, but at an incremental cost of $60 million per km, putting the Secaucus and East Rutherford segments underground can be justified.

In fact, the low cost may justify even further lines into lower-density areas. One or two additional regional rail tunnels may be cost-effective at $300 million per kilometer, separating out branches like Port Washington and Raritan Valley and heading to the airports via new connections. A subway line taking over lanes from the Long Island Expressway may be useful, as might another north-south Manhattan trunk feeding University Avenue (or possibly Third Avenue) in the Bronx and separating out two of the Brighton Line tracks. Even at average costs these lines are absurd unless cars are banned or zoning is abolished, but at low costs they become more interesting.

The Nordic capitals all have extensive urban rail networks for their sizes. So does Madrid: Madrid and Berlin are similar in size and density, but Berlin has 151 km of U-Bahn whereas Madrid has 293 km of metro, and Madrid opened a second Cercanías tunnel in 2008 for around $100 million per km and is planning a third tunnel for next decade (source, PDF-pp. 104-108). Things that are completely ridiculous at American costs – say, any future subway expansion – become more reasonable at average costs; things that are completely ridiculous at average costs likewise become more reasonable at Nordic or Spanish costs.

Construction Costs in the Nordic Countries

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.

Subway tunnels

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.

Shut Down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway

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?

No.

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.

Construction Costs: Metro Accessibility

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.

American Construction Costs and National Stereotypes

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.

Corey Johnson’s Report on City Control of the Subway

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.

Governance

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.

Accessibility

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.

Bus improvements

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.

Livable streets

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.

Conclusion

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.