Category: Incompetence

Can Intercity Trains into Boston Enter from Springfield?

From time to time, I see plans for intercity rail service into Boston going via Springfield. These include in-state rail plans to run trains between the two cities, but also grander plans to have train go between Boston and New Haven via Springfield, branded as the Inland Route, as an alternative to the present-day Northeast Corridor. In-state service is fine, and timed connections to New Haven are also fine for the benefit of interregional travel like Worcester-Hartford, but as an intercity connection, the Inland Route is a terrible choice, and no accommodation should be made for it in any plans. This post goes over why.

What is the Inland Route?

Via Wikipedia, here’s a map of the Northeast Corridor and connecting passenger rail lines:

Red denotes Amtrak ownership, and thus some non-Northeast Corridor sections owned by Amtrak are included, whereas the New Rochelle-New Haven section, while part of the corridor, is not in red because it is owned by state commuter rail authorities. Blue denotes commuter rail lines that use the corridor.

The Inland Route is the rail route in red and black from New Haven to Boston via Springfield. Historically, it was the first all-rail route between New York and Boston: the current route, called the Shore Line, was difficult to build with the technology of the 1840s because it required many river crossings, and only in 1889 was the last river bridged, the Thames just east of New London. However, as soon as the all-rail Shore Line route opened, mainline traffic shifted to it. Further investment in the Shore Line relegated the Inland Route to a secondary role, and today, the only passenger rail at all between Boston and Springfield comprises a daily night train to Chicago, the Lake Shore Limited. More recently, there has been investment in New Haven-Springfield trains, dubbed the Hartford Line, which runs every 1-2 hours with a few additional peak trips.

What rail service should run to Springfield?

Springfield is a secondary urban center, acting as the most significant city in the Pioneer Valley region, which has 700,000 people. It’s close to Hartford, with a metro population of 1.3 million, enough that the metro areas are in the process of merging; this is enough population that some rail service to both New York and Boston is merited.

In both cases, it’s important to follow best practices, which the current Hartford Line does not. I enumerated them for urban commuter rail yesterday, and in the case of intercity or interregional rail, the points about electrification and frequency remain apt. The frequency section on commuter rail talks about suburbs within 30 km of the city, and Springfield is much farther away, so the minimum viable frequency is lower than for suburban rail – hourly service is fine, and half-hourly service is at the limit beyond which further increases in frequency no longer generate much convenience benefit for passengers.

It’s also crucial to timetable the trains right. Not only should they be running on a clockface hourly (ideally half-hourly) schedule, but also everything should be timed to connect. This includes all of the following services:

  • Intercity trains to Hartford, New Haven, and New York
  • Intercity trains to Boston
  • Regional trains upriver to smaller Pioneer Valley cities like Northampton and Greenfield (those must be at least half-hourly as they cover a shorter distance)
  • Springfield buses serving Union Station, which acts as a combined bus-rail hub (PVTA service is infrequent, so the transfers can and should be timed)

The timed connections override all other considerations: if the demand to Boston and New York is asymmetric, and it almost certainly is, then the trains to New York should be longer than those to Boston. Through-running here is useful but not essential – there are at least three directions with viable service (New York, Boston, Greenfield) so some people have to transfer anyway, and the frequency is such that transfers have to be timed anyway.

What are the Inland Route plans?

There are perennial plans to add a few intercity trains on the New Haven-Springfield-Boston route. Some such trains ran in my lifetime – Amtrak only canceled the last ones in the 2000s, as improvements in the Shore Line for the Acela, including electrification of the New Haven-Boston section, made the Inland Route too slow to be viable.

Nonetheless, plans for restoration remain. These to some extent extend the plans for in-state Boston-Springfield rail, locally called East-West Rail: if trains run from Boston to Springfield and from Springfield to New Haven, then they might as well through-run. But some plans go further and posit that this should be a competitive end-to-end service, charging lower fares than the faster Northeast Corridor. Those plans, sitting on a shelf somewhere, are enough that Massachusetts is taking them into account when designing South Station.

Of note, no modernization is included in these plans. The trains are to be towed by diesel locomotives, and run on the existing line. Both the Inland Route and East-West plans assume frequency is measured in trains per day, designed by people who look backward to a mythologized golden age of American rail and not forward to foreign timetabling practices that have only been figured out in the last 50 years.

Is the Inland Route viable as an intercity route into Boston?

No. This is not even a slag on the existing plans; I’m happy assuming best practices in other cases, hence my talk of timed half-hourly connections between trains and buses above. The point is that even with best practices, there is no way to competitively run a New Haven-Springfield-Boston route.

The graphic above is suggestive of the first problem: the route is curvy. The Shore Line is very curvy as well, but less so; it has a bad reputation because its curves slow trains that in theory can run at 240 km/h down to about 150-180 km/h, but the Boston-Springfield Line has tighter curves over a longer stretch, they’re just less relevant now because the trains on the line don’t run fast anyway. In contrast, the existing Northeast Corridor route is fast in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The Inland Route is also curvy on the Boston-Worcester stretch, where consideration for slow trains is a must. The main way to squeeze extra speed out of a curvy line is to cant it, but this is less viable if there is a mix of fast and slow trains, since slow trains would be overcanted. This, in fact, is the reason Amtrak trains outside the Northeast are slower than they were in the middle of the 20th century – long-distance passenger trains have less priority for infrastructure design than slow freight trains, and so cant is limited, especially when there are hills. Normally, it’s not a problem if the slower trains are commuter trains, which run fast enough that they can just take the curve, but some curves are adjacent to passenger train stations, where passengers would definitely notice the train sitting still on canted track, leaning to the inside of the curve.

Then, there is the issue of how one gets into Boston. The Providence Line is straight and fast and can be upgraded to provide extra capacity so that fast intercity trains can overtake slow ones if need be. The Worcester Line has a two-track narrows in Newton, hemmed by I-90 with no possibility of expansion, with three stations on this stretch and a good location for a fourth one at Newton Corner. Overtakes are possible elsewhere (one is being designed just to the west, in Wellesley – see my sample timetable here), but they still constrain capacity. It’s comparably difficult from the point of view of infrastructure design to run a 360 km/h intercity train every 15 minutes via Providence and to run a 160 km/h intercity train every 30 minutes via Springfield and Worcester. Both options require small overtake facilities; higher frequency requires much more in both cases.

The Worcester Line is difficult enough that Boston-Springfield trains should be viewed as Boston-Worcester trains that go farther west. If there’s room in the timetable to include more express trains then these can be the trains to Springfield, but if there’s any difficulty, or if the plan doesn’t have more than a train every half hour to Worcester, then trains to Springfield should be making the same stops as Boston-Worcester trains.

Incentives for passengers

The worst argument I’ve seen for Inland Route service is that it could offer a lower-priced alternative to the Northeast Corridor. This, frankly, is nuts.

The operating costs of slower trains are higher than those of faster trains; this is especially true if, as in current plans, the slow trains are not even electrified. Crew, train maintenance, and train acquisition costs all scale with trip time rather than trip distance. Energy costs are dominated by acceleration and deceleration cycles rather than by cruise speed at all speeds up to about 300 km/h. High-speed trains sometimes still manage lower energy consumption per seat-km than slow trains, since slow trains have many acceleration cycles as track speeds change between segments whereas high-speed lines are built for consistent cruise speed.

The only reason to charge less for the trains that are more expensive to operate is to break the market into slow trains for poor people and fast trains for rich people. But this doesn’t generate any value for the customer – it just grabs profits through price discrimination that are then wasted on the higher operating costs of the inferior service. It’s the intercity equivalent of charging more for trains than for buses within a city, which practice is both common in the United States and a big negative to public transit ridership.

If, in contrast, the goal is to provide passengers with good service, then intercity trains to Boston must go via Providence, not Springfield. It’s wise to keep investing in the Shore Line (including bypasses where necessary) to keep providing faster and more convenient service. Creating a class system doesn’t make for good transit at any scale.

Quick Note: Heavy Touch and Control

There’s a distinction between light- and heavy-touch forms of management and control. Light-touch systems try to stay out of the details as far as they can; heavy-touch systems do the opposite. American business culture considers light touch to be superior, and I think this is especially prominent in the public sector, which has some ready-made examples of how the light touch approach works better – for example, in the military, it’s called mission command and is repeatedly shown to work better than more centralized command-and-control. Unfortunately, the same does not work for rail infrastructure. Why?

Heavy touch in infrastructure

In practice, a heavy-touch system in infrastructure construction, for example the way Germany, France, and Southern Europe work, has the following features:

  • The state agency maintains control of designs, and even when it outsources something to consultants, it owns the product and may tweak it or assume that future contractors will tweak it. There is little privatization of planning.
  • There is reluctance to devolve decisions to local governments; if SNCF or RENFE lets a regional government get involved in a rail plan, it’s because it’s an unprofitable regional line and the national railroad would rather not know it exists, and even DB happily unloads these same unprofitable regional lines on Land governments while focusing on intercity rail.
  • Regulators are technical and make specific decisions.

This is not the only way to organize things, but it’s the only way that works. The Nordic countries have been moving away from this system in the last generation, influenced by British governing ideology; the sources I reference in the Stockholm case study repeatedly treat privatization as self-evidently good and exhort Nordic agencies to be more like the UK and less like Germany and Switzerland, and meanwhile, in the last 20 years Nordic costs have exploded while German ones have been fairly stable.

I’ve talked about the issue of privatization of the state to consultants many times, most recently a month ago. This post is about something different: it’s about how regulators work, an issue on which Sweden appears little different from Germany to me, and profoundly different from the United States and its can’t-do government.

American light touch elements

To understand how American regulations work, we need to look at the regulators and grant funders, that is, the Federal Transit Administration and Federal Railroad Administration, henceforth abbreviated FTA and FRA. How do they work?

  • The chief regulators are never especially technical. The most sought after background, equivalent to a French grande école degree, is as far as I can tell a law degree from Yale. Engineers and planners always have to have a non-technical generalist watching over their shoulder, and this is the most prominent for the most politically sensitive projects.
  • FTA/FRA reviewers are in some cases not even allowed to probe into the funding package they are to decide on. One of the biggest projects relevant to what we’ve studied at the Transit Costs Project and what I’ve written on this blog has a multi-billion dollar package, one that will almost certainly be only partially funded due to competing priorities, but the regulators are not allowed to see any itemized breakdown to see what partial funding would even do. Nor are regulators allowed to say which priorities to build first if there’s only partial funding.
  • The higher regulators themselves believe that light-touch approaches are better and are reluctant to engage in any direct management – if they’d like to be more involved but are prohibited from doing so by the law or by constitutional interpretations, they have not said so.
  • There is little churn between operations and regulations – in fact, this separation is treated as sacrosanct, even as in all other aspects the governing ideology calls for breaking down silos (and thereby disempowering specialists in favor of generalists). The contrast here is with Sweden, where state planners who worked on Citybanan, a state project, have since moved on to work for Stockholm County on the county-led Nya Tunnelbanan.

None of this works. The people who make the big decisions on funding in this system do not have the ability to make professional judgments, only political ones, and agencies know this and don’t bother with technical soundness.

Heavy touch and expertise

The connection between heavy touch and expertise is, you can’t manage things directly if you don’t have a lot of subject matter knowledge. In this sense, light touch may not necessarily be by itself bad, but rather, like design-build project delivery, it is in practice used to mask incompetence at the top level. The non-technical boss, who is in all but name a political commissar, can make vague proclamations, not get into details, and not feel like they’re out of their league and must defer to the engineer in the room.

Quick Note: Los Angeles Spends $50,000 Per Bus Shelter

I saw a few months ago that Los Angeles was planning to equip its entire bus network with shelter, and rejoiced that such an underrated amenity finally gets the attention it deserves. Unfortunately, the cost of the program is now $50,000 per bus shelter; to lower the cost, the city is experimenting with a substandard shelter providing no protection from the elements for $10,000. In Victoria, as pointed out by one commenter on Twitter, a full shelter is around $15,000 in 2018 Canadian dollars, comparable to 2023 American ones.

Ordinarily, it would be a dog-bites-man story: of course the costs are at a premium of a factor of three over Canada (let alone a place that builds cheaply), it’s an American transit infrastructure project. But this one is significant because bus shelter is small in scope – it’s not a megaproject, and this means that rules of megaprojects do not apply to it.

For example, installing shelter at thousands of stops, as Los Angeles is doing, allows for repetition of a standard design that vendors can figure out on their own. This means that the usual privatization of decisionmaking should not be a problem. (It’s been pointed out to me that design-build works well for municipal parking garages, since they’re so streamlined at this point.)

Moreover, bus shelter, even repeated so many times, is still small enough scope that a small in-house team could handle it. LACMTA has been talking to us about how to scale up their in-house team, and we couldn’t give them concrete numbers, but I believe what they have for design review is in the teens, which is probably not enough for a subway extension but should be for a bus shelter program measured in the tens of millions of dollars or (with the cost blowouts factored in) very low hundreds of millions. Elsewhere, for example in Boston, we’ve seen agencies build small things affordably – Boston’s premium over Berlin for building infill commuter rail stations is a factor of maybe 1.5 – and fail at building large things such as urban rail expansion, because their design review team is sized for small and not large things.

Finally, there’s a problem with politicization, in which when politicians insert themselves into a piece of infrastructure, hoping to make it their legacy, it will end up raising costs with at best no and at worst negative benefit to users. Small items like this ordinarily do not have this problem, as they fly under the radar of politicians as well as surplus-extracting community groups.

So why is this so expensive?

I don’t know the details of this failure – all I know is a handful of links to the current cost. I suspect, judging by the tone used in press coverage, that it’s politicization. Note that the piece linked in the lead paragraph centers the issue of gender equity; this isn’t stupid (as the other link points out, bus shelter has a disproportionately positive impact on women), but it does suggest someone thought about the political implications of this. The piece also quotes the designers as having developed the new substandard option “with input from female riders,” suggesting some waste on community consultation.

If I’m right on this, then this suggests a great peril for any city that looks at small and large projects, finds that the small ones are more cost-effective, and decides to prioritize them over large ones. In a city that builds subway expansion and also installs bus shelter beneath anyone’s notice, the bus shelter may be achievable at reasonable cost. But as soon as the shelter turns into a splashy program, beloved by incompetent managers who figure it’s within their span of control and by politicians (who are by definition incompetent on managerial issues), it will acquire the same problems of politicization usually associated with megaprojects. In this case, it’s waste coming from community consultation. In other cases, it might be demands for neighborhood signatures, or intransigence by abutting property owners or by utilities figuring there is surplus to extract, or any of the other causes of cost overruns.

And in particular, downgrading your city’s investment plan just because the flashiest items have cost blowouts wouldn’t end the cost blowouts. If you can’t build subways, work on making yourself capable of building subways; avoiding that mess and building other things instead of subways would run into the same problems and soon you’d be paying $50,000 for a single bus shelter.

Local Elected Representation is Bad

I am in awe of Marco Chitti’s depth of knowledge and quality of analysis on matters of public transportation; what he’s written about coordinated planning on his blog, not to mention his Italian construction costs case study, is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in improving public transportation at any scale. So it’s against this background that I feel compelled to point out, regrettably, that he’s wrong when he calls for local representation on public transit planning boards. Specifically, he promotes a model in which a transport association’s decisions flow from a board that represents the mayors of the municipalities in the region. And this is a model that exists (he gives the example of provincial France) and just plain does not work. EU-level observers see this every time we are reminded that the Council of Ministers exists.

To the contrary, any path forward on public transportation requires the steady disempowerment of local electeds, including mayors of small municipalities or neighborhood-level representation in a larger city. The EU-level observation that the Council of Ministers is the epitome of the democratic deficit is true at all lower levels as well, down to a single city.

Local representation does not work in France

Marco puts a parenthetical in his tweet: “or the region president for IDF-mobilités.” This makes the entire difference. In Ile-de-France, the transport association is governed at the level of the entire region, which has a single elected regional government with competitive partisan elections and high-profile campaigns; the current president of the region, Valérie Pécresse, was the national presidential candidate of Les Républicains last election. The dominant players within Ile-de-France Mobilités, RATP and SNCF, are both owned by the French state, and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne was the politically-appointed head of RATP in the Hollande era, which was her stepping stone from a string of advisor positions to a ministry under Macron. This is not at all a situation with much localism.

Where there is localism in the Paris region, it promotes pettiness and NIMBYism. The increase in the rate of housing production in the region starting in the mid-2010s was promoted by the state and by the region, over the objections of suburban mayors, who were livid at the idea of more housing in their enclaves, especially social housing. The state never so coerced the city, where housing growth remains anemic, but Anne Hidalgo has likewise built social housing in rich arrondissements over the objections of their local mayors.

In fact, the model in which there is a single metropolitan government that is responsible at once for multiple services, is being implemented in Lyon. The traditional department it’s part of, Rhône, isn’t really coterminous with the metropolitan area, while some suburbs spill over to neighboring departments; for planning purposes, France set up the intergovernmental Urban Community of Lyon in 1969, comprising Lyon and its inner suburbs (equivalent not to Ile-de-France but to the combination of Paris and the Petite Couronne), but then in 2015 it replaced it with the Lyon Metropolis, with direct elections of a single government.

Elsewhere in France, inter-municipal relations remain more intergovernmental, and local mayors are in the loop on many decisions. But provincial France is hardly an example of success in transit governance. The modal splits in regions like Marseille, Nice, Lille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Strasbourg are all in the mid teens. They have little to recommend them as models over similar-size cities in the German-speaking and Nordic worlds.

This is something that’s recognized in France too – hence the formation of the Lyon Metropolis. France has excessive fractionalization of municipalities – it has around 35,000 communes, where Italy and Spain have 8,000 each and Germany has 11,000. It’s had little municipal consolidation since the Revolution; this way, Paris has fewer people than Berlin or Madrid, while possessing a metro area about the size of Berlin’s and Madrid’s combined. Local traditions make it hard to do further consolidation, often for petty reasons (Paris is wealthier than most of its suburbs and in the postwar era the poorer suburbs voted for communists); instead, where it cares that things should work, France sets up direct institutions with enough heft that people can vote for one government and expect that it should have the last say on big political questions.

Local representation does not work in the United States

The United States does not quite use the provincial French system of direct representation of mayors on transit boards. However, it has analogs, with extensive local empowerment. And those analogs do not work.

For example, in and around Springfield, Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA) is governed on the basis of representation of each municipality within the region. These are not the directly-elected mayors of those municipalities but it doesn’t matter – the problems do not stem from how they are elected but from which interests they answer to. The problem starts with the fact that nearly all PVTA ridership is in the urban core – Springfield itself and a small handful of working-class suburbs like Holyoke – but the representation structure gives snob suburbs veto power, which they use to block any consolidation plan focusing service on where people ride.

Worse, the suburbs of PVTA have a combination of two political attitudes that explodes any possibility of good governance. They are snobs and NIMBYs, opposing any attempt to make buses useful for poor urbanites trying to access service jobs in their jurisdictions. But they also have left-wing identity politics and want to be seen as progressive places where there are alternatives to the car. Therefore, they demand that PVTA serve every municipality in the region, but often just peripherally, so that they can say “we have buses”; those buses have practically no ridership, and serve to trigger Massachusetts’ accessibility requirement, in which paratransit must be provided on demand not just within 0.75 miles of a bus or urban rail stop as in the federal ADA but also within the entire town’s jurisdiction.

Marco says that the solution to bad politics is good politics. But the problem with PVTA and similar intergovernmental agencies is not that local representation is based on local appointment or recommendation rather than the direct mandate of the mayor. The mayor wouldn’t be any better than what is currently available, because at the end of the day, when a small enclave in a wider region gets to self-govern, the people it represents will be selected for pettiness (since the great majority of people who socialize outside the municipality are effectively disenfranchised) and snobbery (since the enclaves safeguard their insulation from poorer people). In some places, the worst NIMBYism may even be spearheaded by a county executive, if the county is itself an enclave, which Westchester County, New York is.

Transportation and Localism

In New York City, 92% of workers commute out of their community board. Representation at such level has a democratic deficit that exceeds that of the EU; the ministers who comprise the Council were after all elected in their respective countries, in democratic elections in which the important portfolios are doled out to acceptable parties and politicians. Fractional suburbs like those of France or the parts of the United States that have public transit are little different from city neighborhoods in this way. To continue with the example of PVTA, the two largest suburbs of Springfield by population are Chicopee and Westfield. Chicopee has 24,431 employed residents and 18,228 jobs, but only 4,131 of those live and work in the city, or 17%; Springfield has 17,656 employed residents, 14,863 jobs, and 3,820 people working and living in the city, or 22%. In effect, the mayors of both cities are elected in enclaves in which the most empowered people are not at all representative of the jurisdictions.

This situation is especially bad when it comes to transportation. There, the interests of those 17-22% of the Springfield suburbs who work locally, not to mention the 8% of New Yorkers who work in-community board, diverge the most from the general interest. People who live and work in an outlying local area do not really ride public transportation; people who commute to a city center do. This is not just a feature of transit cities – the transit modal split for people working in Downtown Los Angeles is not awful (I remember reading it was 50% in the 2000s-10s), they’re just swamped by people who work in places that don’t even rise to the category of a secondary center.

Even when the time comes to build a transit network that works for people who don’t work in city centers, it still is intended for the majority, which doesn’t work locally. PVTA and other non-Boston Massachusetts agencies (called RTAs) struggle with span of service – buses stop running anytime between 6 and 8 pm to shopping malls that close at 10. Regional representation could catch those riders, who would have a single point of contact to vote for; local representation cannot, because they are formally disenfranchised where they work and in practice disempowered where they live.

Americans – not Marco, but some of the people who responded to him on Twitter – are paranoid that regional representation in an auto-oriented area would lead to the defunding of transit.

But we can concretely compare what happens when auto-oriented suburbs have local representation (as in most of the US) and what happens when they’re incorporated into a larger whole and can then vote there (as in Ile-de-France, or Berlin, or Toronto). Kai Wegner became mayor of Berlin after an explicitly pro-car campaign; what this means in practice is a halt on some road diet projects, the latter pushed by Green voters who work close to where they live and care about bikes more than about public transit. The far more populist, far more pro-car Rob Ford became mayor of Toronto powered by resentment of David Miller’s Transit City concept, which had the same failings as the agenda of the Berlin Greens; Ford’s election caused far more damage in its politicization of transit, leading to repeated changes in the Eglinton rail plan just so that Ford could prove that he existed, than at the basic level of defunding transit or closing the streetcars (which Ford promised to do and then didn’t).

We can even see the interplay between local and regional in Ile-de-France. The pro-car suburban mayors tried to sue Paris to stop its road diets, alleging that they are discriminatory against them, and one might expect that those suburbs, if given a seat at the table, would favor pro-car policy. But in practice, the same voters who vote for these mayors at the local level also vote for Pécresse at the regional level, and Pécresse hasn’t compelled Paris to remotorize and is a lot YIMBYer than any of those suburban mayors. The issue is less that people in those places are pro-car and more that local representation consistently returns people who drive more than the average and who represent a minority that drives more than the average, and in the absence of such local representation, even someone like Rob Ford can’t do much damage through his transportation policy. (Doug Ford, in contrast, has done considerably more damage in micromanaging the megaprojects to the point that Toronto is careening past the $1 billion/km mark.)

The need for professionalism in democracy

Professional civil service arises in part from the fact that it’s not possible to have meaningful local representation in an urban area. A city the scale of Berlin can have a democratic election, since people generally live and work in the city, and not many commute in from or out to elsewhere. The same is true of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, or even New York City, which has less than half the population of its metro area and yet this is enough that the populations of disempowered in- and out-commuters are limited. It’s true of Lyon Metropolis. It’s true of the combination of Paris and the Petite Couronne, which France occasionally considers amalgamating into a single Grand Paris and mostly doesn’t because the elected layer of Ile-de-France is so far sufficient and there is a lot of identity politics involved in the formal separation of the city from the suburbs.

And at this scale, it’s impossible for a single government to control everything. Berlin, New York, and so on have the populations of small countries. Such countries can elect a government, but the span of control of the elected ministers comprises an order of magnitude of 100 people across all ministries combined.

Thus, the need for a professional civil service. This is why the role of politicians in a healthy political environment is to macro- and not micromanage. They can make big yes-or-no decisions, and that’s it – decisions on alignments should be left to professionals, who are hired and promoted based on apolitical criteria. A Wegner or Ford can choose to fund roads more and transit less and halt or even reverse road diets, but the details have to come from experts, because the span of control of the Wegner cabinet is far too small for there to be any real democratic check on the sort of advisors who in the United States are politically appointed.

What’s more, even when they do make decisions, the tendency of politicians to do things just to prove that they exist is, always, bad for governance. In some cases, including what we’ve seen in Boston when we wrote the Green Line Extension report, megaprojects even act as siphons for bad ideas, while contemporary small projects beneath the notice of politicians are done more smoothly and efficiently. The danger is that the practices developed for the megaprojects then later poison the local infrastructure ecosystem, as when some of the decisions made for Grand Paris Express are now leading to overdesign for shorter Métro extensions.

The ideal role for elected leaders is to set overall funding levels and then just let the professionals work. If the professionals are failing, it’s fine to replace them with other professionals, chosen based on past successes in the same field (in the US, this has to mean foreigners), rather than chums who the politicians are comfortable with, like the repulsive political appointees I’ve seen in New York and Boston.

In the same way that most people writing about EU governance understand that Parliament has democratic legitimacy and the Council is the opposite, it’s critical to understand that localism subtracts from civilian democratic control of the state, through its elevation of petty voices. And if subdividing territory into local fiefs doesn’t work, the alternative is to subdivide it thematically and let subject-matter experts handle planning. Marco, and I think other people who are much more uncomfortable with top-down unitary civil services than he is (after all, Italy is governed by such civil service and builds infrastructure very well), errs in portraying this depoliticization as antithetical to democracy; it’s to the contrary the tool with which democracy governs anything bigger than an isolated village.

Meme Weeding: Polarization

I’ve heard some people, including some in decently powerful government positions, excuse poor American public transportation performance by saying that it’s hard to work in a politically polarized environment. This is related to excuses made in the early 2010s, blaming the failure of high-speed rail in the United States on Republican governors who canceled programs after winning the 2010 midterm, never mind that all-Democratic California has not been able to build it either. But the complaints about polarization are not just specious. They also betray deep ignorance and incuriosity about the rest of the world, including specific countries that we at the Transit Costs Project have referenced repeatedly.

What is polarization, anyway?

Political polarization generally refers to a system in which there are two blocs, roughly evenly matched, each characterized by hating the other to the point of not fully (or at all) accepting its legitimacy. The blocs can alternate in power, as in the United States today, or one can usually prevail over the other, as in the Second and Third Party Systems in American history.

Usually this also includes large left-right ideological differences, which in the 20th century could even take the characteristic of support for communism versus fascism, as in multiple Latin American systems. However, systems in which the differences in ideology are more rhetorical than practical, as in 1980s-1990s Greece, can also be characterized as polarized. In fact, polarization (that is, delegitimization of the other side) is often a strategy employed by populist politicians to maintain mass support as a substitute for concrete action.

By most accounts, the United States is seeing high and growing party polarization. This contrasts with depolarized systems like those of Belgium and the Netherlands, which are historically tri- rather than bipolar and therefore have long traditions of shifting coalitions and consensus, or Germany and Austria, which have two blocs but still have a lot of cross-aisle cooperation and many grand coalitions.

Polarization in low-cost countries

While American political practitioners usually contrast the American situation today with that of the elite consensus of the postwar era, we should be more comparative and look at how polarization varies over space and not just time. And by that standard, most of the low-construction cost countries are obviously polarized: Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, South Korea. Even the Nordic countries are more polarized than Americans give them credit for, leaving Switzerland as the only truly depolarized low-construction cost country.

In Italy, moreover, polarization has grown even as construction costs have fallen. The First Italian Republic was depolarized: Democrazia Cristiana won every election and governed by choice of which coalition partners to work with, which could include the Socialists (a situation called “integral left”) or not; bringing in the Communists was unthinkable. It was also legendarily corrupt, to the point that DC should be thought of as a corruption party more than a center-right party like CDU here or VVD in the Netherlands. The corruption led metro construction costs to explode in the 1970s as contracts were given based on bribery rather than any objective criteria. It’s moreover this explosion in costs that led to the investigations that brought down the system, mani pulite.

The Second Italian Republic, birthed by those corruption investigations, has high levels of left-right polarization. The main policy plank of the right is that it hates the left; thus, the right’s leader until recently, Berlusconi, did not engage in any of the neoliberal reforms of good governance that his Northern European and French allies hoped he would. The left has been more neoliberal but it’s explicitly very moderate, governing in coalition with various populists who can be swayed over. The system trended toward two blocs. And now Italy can build infrastructure more affordably, due to the same good-government anti-corruption reforms that passed in the wake of mani pulite.

Turkey is even more polarized, to the point that the main political question in the election in two weeks is not exactly a left-right issue like the role of Islam in society or any socioeconomic issue, but whether Turkey should be a democracy or an autocracy governed by Erdoğan; the candidate of the democracy camp (“Nation Alliance”), Kılıçdaroğlu, has surrounded himself with disaffected former Erdoğan allies and with an entirely right-wing party, İyi, alongside his traditional center-left allies.

What’s more, Erdoğan has not let opposition cities just build infrastructure. Izmir has long been governed by CHP; the state lightly fudged numbers to make its subway construction costs look slightly higher than they are, using pessimistic cost projections. CHP won the elections in Istanbul and Ankara recently, and in Istanbul, the state stopped letting the city use state-owned parks for city-built subway lines and even denied funding for some future lines; Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu got these lines financed through loans from the European Investment Bank, which hates Erdoğan to the point that Istanbul borrows money internationally at lower interest rates than the state. Despite gross politicization, costs have remained low, and the civil service has functioned through this (and Elif’s interviews in Turkey included both AKP and CHP supporters).

Corruption and dominant parties

The situation of DC in Italy, in which its domination of the First Republic even with coalition partners led to corruption, generalizes.

In the United States, regional differences in voting and lack of regional differences in party ideology have made many states safe for one party or another. In those states, there is no polarization, since one party governs everything and has little to nothing to fear from the opposition: California, Texas, New York, Illinois, and increasingly Florida and Ohio all fall into this camp.

The result is that the dominant party in all of these states is a corruption party. It’s easy to be corrupt when you know in advance who you need to buy off, and when it’s not really possible for anyone to run for governor and polarize against you and your bribery of elected officials. In red states there’s occasionally an ideological sop to movement conservatism, usually exclusively the annual culture war topic (in 2023 it’s trans athletes), but nothing really about any of the broader agenda of the economists at right-wing think tanks; in blue states there’s not even a sop.

Why are they like this?

Polarization doesn’t raise construction costs. It’s most likely neutral, and the dominant-party alternative is worse. So why do Americans blame it? I suspect that, like when left-wing Americans try to make high costs a matter of health care, it’s about reducing a complex issue to an American feature that all middlebrow American politicos know to hate. Truthiness trumps knowledge here.

More on Consultants

We’ve gotten a lot of criticism from various quarters about our analysis and conclusions at the Transit Costs Project. The focus for this post is a criticism that isn’t usually made in public but looks like the biggest one among people in power in the American federal government: the issue of consultants. Writing in Slate about our report, Henry Grabar identified consultants as the ultimate reason the United States can’t build. This should be nuanced in that consultants are one of a few primary reasons, but the broad outline of the complaint is right: the overuse of consultants is a serious problem and must be replaced with large in-house bureaucracies in explicit rejection of the privatization of the state. And yet, there’s pushback. Why, and why is it wrong?

The current situation

In the English-speaking world today, the dominant view of infrastructure is that private companies are inherently more efficient than the state. In service of this ideology, large state organizations were left to rot and then privatized. The historic sequence is generally that as efficiency levels fall, political interest in investing in organizational capacity declines, and in-house organizations take the blame.

American and British societies both believe that specialist experts are inherently suspect and must always lower their gaze in the presence of a generalist who is paid and otherwise treated as a master of the universe, and thus those organizations would receive overclass appointees (US version) or generalist civil servants (UK version) who constantly belittle them and also have little ability to reform them from the inside. It’s remarkable how non-technical the members of the American overclass Eric and I have talked to are; one of them asked us straight out why we didn’t talk to more lawyers in our report where we talked to engineers, planners, procurement experts, and other specialists.

The result of this sequence is that usually at the time of privatization – say, when New York’s MTA let go of its 1,600 strong capital construction department in the early 2000s and downsized by about an order of magnitude – what is left is a hulk, easy pickings for the privatizer. What is left of that is even more of a hulk. The upshot is that in places that rely on consultants in lieu of in-house expertise, the quality of current public-sector leadership (that is, the various state political appointees, most federal political appointees, and even some permanent staff with pure management background) is low. The consultants are individually more competent than them, and this is readily apparent to anyone who’s talked with both sets of people; even the political appointees themselves get it and think their expertise is in managing the consultants.

What the consultants know

When the state doesn’t really like itself and privatizes key functions to consultants, the consultants look more competent. One federal official – not a political appointee, to be clear – told us straight out that the consultants have experience since they work on so many projects, domestically and internationally.

The problem is that what the consultants know is how things work on projects that use consultants. This is how an experienced consultant can say something as obviously wrong as “The standard approach to construction in most of Europe outside Russia is design-build.” Is this even remotely true? No. Parts of Europe are transitioning to design-build under British influence, universally seeing cost increases as they do so, but even in the Nordic countries and France this process is in its infancy, and in nearly all of the rest of Western Europe it’s not done at all. The upshot is that the US/UK consultant sphere is an expert on how to build public transportation in the failed US/UK way, and its international experience is largely (not entirely) US/UK-style badness.

But Americans are an incurious people. Even the ones who are aware of European and rich-Asian success in infrastructure and urbanism only really interact with it as tourists. So they can’t distinguish a government-built program like the TGV or nearly every European subway system from the few that are more consultant-driven like the Copenhagen Metro (at the time of its construction, Scandinavia’s highest-cost metro – though the rest of the Nordic world is catching up in both privatization and costs).

What’s more, the American preference for generalist knowledge means that what they see of the Copenhagen Metro is much more its use of unconventional financing than its use of driverless trains at very high frequency or its standardization of station components. Thus, looking at a metro that for all its expense by its regional standards was also cheaper than anything in the US going back to the 1970s, they take notes and imitate all the bad and none of the good.

The interaction between consultants

Okay, so in theory, if consultants’ recommendations are followed exactly and a turnkey system is built, in theory it should still be possible to imitate the medium costs of Denmark.

But in practice, the hallmark of consultants is private competition. This means there are different firms, and even though they are all broadly similar, they compete and each has a slightly different way of doing things and may have different recommendations for a specific project. And then each government agency in the United States hires a different consultant and the consultants clash and there is no way to resolve the conflict.

Seattle’s cost explosion in the last 10 years, going from semi-reasonable costs for U-Link to a world record for a majority-above-ground project for Ballard-West Seattle, comes from a somewhat different place from what we’ve seen in New York and Boston. For example, New York and Boston both have ample surplus extraction by local actors, but the extraction there happened before the plans were finalized and the Full Funding Grant Agreement was made; in the Seattle suburbs, one municipal fire department has demanded changes even after the FFGA and threatened not to certify the project. The issue of consultants there is likewise a new problem: a complex project – I think the Pacific Northwest intercity rail program but I forget – requires intergovernmental coordination and the different agencies hired different consultants, leading to substantial inter-contractor contention. The argument for privatizing state planning to large design-build contracts is that they avoid this contention, but here it’s recreated by the very presence of competition.

Nor is replacing competition with a single private consultant going to solve the situation. The private sector’s norms of how to deliver value depend on competition; all benchmarks used for how to successfully deliver to the customer are honed based on how to beat or at least match other firms that could get the contract if the firm fails. A private monopolist combines the worst aspects of the public sector (no competition) with those of the private sector (fundamentally adversarial relationship with the customer). As soon as a project is large enough that multiple agencies are involved, forcing them to all use the same consultant, even if the initial choice does feature competition between WSP, AECOM, Arup, and other such firms, means that for the duration of the project there’s such lock-in it has the same problems as a literal monopoly.

The way forward

If it’s not possible to successfully deliver infrastructure megaprojects through competition among private consultants or through a private monopoly, it follows that delivery must be done through the public sector. This means a public sector that is staffed up with thousands of permanent professional hires. Small cities can use big cities’ agencies or a federal agency as a public-sector consultant; in all cases, this must be domestic rather than international, since the social mission that makes many public monopolists good vanishes at the border and turns into predatory monopolistic behavior (for example, by SNCF toward other national railways).

Metropolitana Milanese, the infrastructure builder that also provides public-sector consulting services for the rest of Italy, has around 1,300 employees. The Anglo world can imitate that – never literally import the firm, but set up a similar construct, with advice by MM, RATP, and other public-sector engineering firms about how to do so and even some early hires. This needs to be done publicly and ostentatiously, to make it clear what’s going on for the sake of transparency and to lock in good changes. Instead of regulators who nudge, the state needs people who do; there is no alternative.

Doing Projects Right and Doing the Right Project

I’d like to develop a distinction between two modes of success or failure in infrastructure projects, which I’ve mentioned in brief in past post. An infrastructure project may be done right or wrong – that is, it could be built at a reasonable lifecycle cost and offer high quality of service or it could fail to do this, typically through very high upfront construction costs with no future benefit. But it could also be the right project to build or the wrong one – that is it could be the right priority for the region that builds it based on expected usage and future development or it could be a low priority, typically due to politicization of engineering and planning. Those are distinct judgments, and I’m not even sure they are strongly correlated.

The right project, done wrong

I’ve mentioned in a few past posts as well as videos that New York is for the most part building the right projects right now. Based on any reasonable cost per rider calculation, the highest priorities in the region excluding mainline rail are Second Avenue Subway phases 1 and 2, an extension of phase 2 under 125th Street, subway extensions under Nostrand and Utica Avenues, an orbital line following the Bay Ridge Branch toward Jackson Heights and Yankee Stadium, and a subway extension to LaGuardia Airport. Phase 1 has been built, and the current priorities are phase 2 and the orbital line under the moniker IBX, the latter giving the governor’s personal imprimatur to this important project. The only lower-priority extension built ahead of these is the 7 extension to Hudson Yards, which is a small fraction of the good projects by total cost.

In mainline rail, on the New Jersey side, the biggest priority is the Gateway tunnel and this is indeed what the state and Port Authority are most invested in. Even on the New York side, mainline rail is invested in in roughly the right priority order, especially if one fixes the assumption of bad present-day operations; the only real problem is that due to politics from the late 1990s, the MTA overinvested in New York-side mainline rail (that is, East Side Access) to secure suburban Republican support for Second Avenue Subway phase 1.

The problem for New York is that every single project it touches is executed in almost the worst way possible. It can’t build, and to an extent it doesn’t even want to build. The $50 billion in New York-side capital investment every five years are a large multiple of what peer cities spend, and what this buys is a few kilometers of subway every decade, escalating maintenance costs, and a vague promise to not quite finish making the subway accessible in the 2050s. But the little it does build is, for the most part, the right project.

New York is not the only city in this situation. The prioritization in Toronto seems fine to me, including the Downtown Relief Line rebranded as the Ontario Line, electrification and general modernization of commuter rail as part of the RER project, and rail on Eglinton. London, likewise, seems to be building projects in the right priority order, but it lost its ability to build in the 1980s and 90s so that its urban rail growth rate is roughly one new line per monarch and its step-free access program is proceeding at a slower pace than that of any peer except New York (which can’t build anything) and Paris (which can and does but doesn’t believe in accessibility).

Wrong projects

In contrast with the example of New York or Toronto, there are places where the prioritization is completely out of whack. The best example I can give of is Los Angeles. Like New York and other English-speaking cities, Los Angeles can’t build; unlike New York, it clearly wants to build, and has a large expansion program based on two separate sales tax referenda, with lines programmed through the 2060s due to the extreme construction costs. However, the capital prioritization is just wrong, in several ways:

  • The priority list puts low-usage extensions to the suburbs, like the Foothills Extension of the Gold Line and the West Santa Ana Branch, above core lines replacing high-usage buses like South Vermont and connectivity projects like linking Burbank and Pasadena directly.
  • The suburban extensions often use the wrong mode or alignment – Los Angeles loves freeway medians for light rail rights-of-way, is building some lines parallel to or even in the right-of-way of commuter rail in lieu of improving Metrolink, and was starting to run into capacity problems on the shared street-running section of the Expo and Blue Lines before corona even on an otherwise low-intensity system.
  • There is no transit-oriented development plan – the region is likely the NIMBY capital of the United States, and perhaps the developed world, with large swaths of valuable near-center land that’s about to get subway stations that’s still zoned single-family; in the state legislature, YIMBY bills increasing housing production typically get a large majority of the votes of politicians representing the Bay Area and a small minority of those representing the Los Angeles region.
  • Much of the referendum money is not even rail expansion, but road programs, including new freeway lanes.

The upshot is that while New York builds the right projects wrong, Los Angeles builds the wrong projects, besides its issue of very high construction costs.

In reality, most places are on a spectrum, or even evolve from one to the other based on political changes. San Francisco built the almost totally useless Central Subway due to demands by people in Chinatown who don’t even ride public transportation; the line is so short and deep that even ignoring its construction costs, its trip time benefit over the buses it’s replacing is maybe 30 seconds. However, the future projects it wants to build but can’t due to high costs – the Downtown Extension tunnel taking Caltrain from its present near-center terminus to the actual city center and a second BART tube across the Bay with an extension under Geary – are exactly the right priorities, and would have long been built anywhere that could tunnel for $250 million/km and not $1 billion/km.

Boston, likewise, is building the right priorities at the level of what lines are visible on the map, but it has the second of Los Angeles’s four problems in droves. The Green Line Extension should have been commuter rail; the commuter rail electrification project should be all-catenary and not the current plan of a combination of catenary and experimental battery technology; the deelectrification of the trolleybuses was just embarrassing. But the actual alignments – the Green Line Extension, the planned Red-Blue Connector, and the Regional Rail project – are the right priorities, at least.

The wrong project, done right

So far I’ve given American examples of poor construction practices. But there are also examples of places that build effectively but have poor prioritization. My own city, Berlin, is the best example I can think of: its construction costs are pretty average – higher than in Southern Europe, lower than anywhere that uses international English-dominant consultants – but its project prioritization is terrible.

The obviously lowest-cost-per-rider extension, that of U8 to Märkisches Viertel (see some references linked here), has been deprioritized due to bad politicking. The Green Party and the heir to the East German communist party, Die Linke, both oppose subway construction on ideological grounds and prefer trams, the Greens because they associate subway construction with making room on the surface for cars and Die Linke for a combination of being used to East German trams and general wrecker politics. In the outgoing coalition, the pro-subway Social Democrats pushed for the lines that were the most important for its own priorities and those happen to be in Spandau and at the airport rather than Märkisches Viertel; thus, the U8 extension was placed behind those.

As with the American examples in the previous two sections, here we must qualify judgment in that it’s rather common for cities to be on a spectrum. Even Berlin has better project prioritization than Los Angeles: for one, it is not as NIMBY, and the U7 airport extension does come with a transit-oriented development plan.

A more typical example is perhaps Paris. Paris’s project prioritization raises some questions, but there is no obviously low-hanging fruit like U8 that remains unbuilt due to East Germany and 1970s New Left dead-enders. The current expansion plans underrate core capacity, by which I mean separating the RER B and D tunnels, currently shared between Gare du Nord and Châtelet-Les Halles; but such a project would be disruptive if highly beneficial, and another core capacity project, namely the expansion of the RER E through the city to La Défense and western suburbs, is proceeding. The outward expansion of the Métro seems to be largely in line with what the most important priorities are; Grand Paris Express is a mix of good lines, that is Métro Lines 14, 15, and 16, and bad that is Line 17 to the airport and Line 18 linking two rich suburbs with little density in-between.

Moreover, the Paris suburbs, where practically all expansion is done, are fairly YIMBY. Francilien housing production in the late 2010s was 80,000-90,000 a year (in 2019 it was 82,000, or 6.7/1,000 people), with virtually no construction in the city proper – and moreover, the housing built in the suburbs tends to be infill replacing disused industrial land, or else it’s on top of planned Grand Paris Express or RER stations.


The poor project prioritization in the cities I’ve given the most attention to – Los Angeles but also Berlin and San Francisco and glimpses of Paris and New York – is entirely about politics. As the worst city of the bunch, Los Angeles has illuminating features that we can use to judge the others.

In Southern California, the most significant misfeature is the statewide requirement that all tax increases be approved in a referendum by a two-thirds majority. In San Francisco, the electorate is so left-wing that this hurdle is not hard to clear, and agencies can plan as always. In Los Angeles and San Diego, it is not, and to secure enough votes, agencies have to essentially bribe clientelistic actors with specific lines on a map that those actors will never use but still take credit for. This leads to all of the following misfeatures:

  • Ballot propositions that include not just expansion of the rail network but also subsidies to reduced fares for people with local New Left politics who identify politically against state planning, road expansion money for local notables who don’t mind rail expansion but think it’s too political to prioritize rail over cars, and long-term maintenance for unambitious bureaucrats who love spending that isn’t expected to produce concrete results.
  • An expansion program that gives each subregion its own line – in Los Angeles, this is the Orange Line BRT for the Valley, the Gold Line for San Gabriel Valley, and so on; the core is a subregion in its own right and can get a project too, like the Regional Connector subway, but it can’t be expected to get too many projects, and interregional connections are less important since the regions they serve already have their lines.
  • The planning is haphazard and avoids paradigmatic changes like modernizing the commuter rail system – Los Angeles has some advocates pushing for electrification, like Paul Dyson, and long-term plans to actually do it, but those plans are far behind what Caltrain electrification in the Bay Area (a perfect example of the right project done wrong) and what technical advocates are doing in Philadelphia and Boston.

In effect, a constitutional change intended to prevent California from wasting taxpayer money has had the opposite effect: the two-thirds majority requirement for tax hikes ensures that in Southern California, every petty actor is a veto point and therefore can get extra money. The New Left may comprise 1970s dead-enders trying and failing to reconcile their NIMBYism with the challenges of the 21st century, but it’s the New Right that destroyed the ability of the state to build anything.

With this in mind, we can look at the deviations in Berlin, San Francisco, and New York through the same lens. Berlin lacks any kind of New Right veto point system for investment; a majority in the Abgeordnetenhaus is sufficient, and its typical party of government, SPD, has decently developmental and YIMBY views, hobbled just now by an atypically bad leader and federal headwinds. However, the coalitions it’s in require it to provide sops to either NIMBYs (that is, the Greens) or drivers (that is, CDU). The outgoing all-left coalition deprioritized the U-Bahn to build trams, while the incoming CDU-SPD coalition wants U-Bahns but with park-and-rides and cessation of road diet programs. The difference is that the system in Los Angeles requires agencies to offer sops to both groups at once in addition to others.

One of the other actors, not present in Berlin beyond their influence on CDU, is the local notables. These are typically business owners, who as a constituency drive and overestimate the share of their customers who drive. In the United States (but not France or Germany) they may also trade on an ethnically marked identity, which is usually local and pro-car again since the (say) Chinese-Californians who take the train are usually Downtown San Francisco workers who socialize outside the neighborhood. The Central Subway was specifically a demand of such interests from Chinatown, who had opposed the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway and demanded something that would look like a replacement, and in a way is, in the sense that neither the freeway nor the Central Subway is of any use for urban travel. Here, the difference with drivers as an interest is that drivers want more car infrastructure that feels to them like it makes their trips more convenient, whereas local notables want to be seen extracting money from the city or state to prove to their clients that they are powerful; for the notables, the cost is itself the benefit.

Excessive empowerment of local notables – that is, any empowerment – leads to both poor project prioritization and high costs. I don’t think there’s a high correlation between the two judgments, but it’s telling that the best example I know of of bad prioritization is high-cost Los Angeles, while medium-cost Berlin is much less bad. The other political mechanisms seem independent of costs: a system in which the state and developmental interests are hobbled by NIMBYism or by actors who want to annoy Greta Thunberg will underbuild or build the wrong things, but NIMBYs rarely manage to meaningfully raise costs and were entirely absent from any of the mechanisms we’ve found for high costs in our New York and Boston reports.

Generational Investment and Politicized Delay

Investments that are pitched as once in a generation tend not to work very well. They’re delayed, they’re expensive in both absolute and relative terms, they’re compromised by competing demands that are rarely about good service. Looking at both the ongoing situation in the United States and Germany, I’m seeing parallels; one of my motivations for writing this post is New York-area problems, but the other is response by German tram advocates to my post about the Berlin U-Bahn expansion plan. In short: there’s nothing inherently easier about lower-intensity infrastructure like trams or legacy rail than about high-intensity alternatives like subways and high-speed rail.

There is an artifact of politicization there. At the end of the day, every generational investment is vulnerable to political micromanagement. If you build an U-Bahn, the streetcars will not be politicized; if you don’t and instead make the streetcars your urban rail centerpiece, they will be politicized instead. If your city has a problem with construction costs or with timelines, it’s likely political and therefore will attach to whatever mode you choose; downgrading to a lower-intensity mode will just make that mode as expensive as the higher-intensity mode used to be.

The issue of political micromanagement

There are countries that are capable of building infrastructure efficiently. All of them do so in a remarkable depoliticized manner, even extremely polarized Turkey, where AKP’s attempt to choke metro funding to Istanbul after the opposition won the election under Ekrem İmamoğlu failed and İmamoğlu got funding from the European Investment Bank. The engineers and planners choose the alignments and construction methods; the politicians say yes or no and have little or ideally no further input.

The upshot is that this is the most politically sustainable in an environment of regular ongoing construction. Setting up this system in a country that can’t build is hard and requires a lot of public breaking of implicit promises to political actors who think they matter but don’t. But if this preexists, then this is sustained through regular construction in which politicians show up twice, once for the groundbreaking and once for the opening, and never again. The civil service runs technical matters under the aegis of technical experts.

As soon as major politicians make more decisions than the most general ones, things go awry. This is for two reasons.

The first reason is that the politicians want to show that they are important and therefore like overruling or changing previous plans just because. Such changes are by themselves neutral: usually the changes are relative to a plan that was itself developed with political input (for example, changes in the alignment of Grand Paris Express in the early 2010s). However, they introduce delays, which raise costs, permit more cruft to accumulate, and lead to projects that solve yesterday’s problems.

The second reason is that petty actors are likelier to find audience with politicians, who don’t want to annoy them, than with civil servants. Those petty actors can include NIMBYs who demand more expensive methods to avoid real or perceived negative local impact, but also their opposite number, local groups that want a diversion of service to reach them or bigger construction to act as a signature piece. In the United States, there is a lot of preemptive surrender to such groups (“good neighbor policy”). Other groups just send input for its own sake. Others hog other people’s money (OPM), such as when the New York Parks Department and got $15 million to permit staging subway construction in a playground, or when an American municipal department insists on building more than the federal and state fire code requires. This happens regardless of the project, but politicians want to please and will not generally back the civil service against the petty actors, and if the politicians are involved, it’s also a signal that there’s plenty of OPM.

Of note, neither of these mechanisms depends on the technical details of the project. All that matters is that the project is perceived as big enough to merit political attention.

Also of note, local environmental organizations generally cause more environmental problems than they solve through their praxis of making it harder to govern. In Brussels, the construction of Métro Line 3 is delayed due to complaints by local NIMBYs, signal-boosted by Ecolo/Groen, that staging construction in a park hurts the neighborhood; this is then held up by the same green NIMBYs as evidence that subways take too long to build and decarbonization has to be done by 2030. The praxis of such organizations is deliberately adversarial and disruptive – whatever the city decides is its primary form of transport investment will be opposed.

Downgrades don’t solve the problem

There are German anti-subway NIMBYs who think that trams are literally as good as subways; one person on Reddit reacting to my post said that the Berlin average speeds I posted (streetcars 17.6 km/h, U-Bahn 30.5 km/h), sourced to BVG, are just an opinion. People like that are obviously risible. The more common anti-U-Bahn take recognizes that metro trains provide better service than trams, but questions whether it’s worth the higher cost. This is in places reasonable: cities don’t literally build a subway on every street, and there’s a growing system of using peripheral trams to feed metro trunks.

However, this analysis is only true at the relative level. If a city that builds subways also builds trams, the trams will look easier, precisely because they’re beneath the notice of politicians, who care about the highest-end projects. As soon as the city decides to forgo the subway and focus only on trams, the problem of political micromanagement instead attaches itself to the tram system.

This is also true of downgrades in quantity and not quality. A large metro expansion project, like Grand Paris Express or the Istanbul Metro investment program, is a flashy project that attracts political attention and sometimes includes weak lines, such as Métro Lines 17 and 18 in Paris. If there’s political controversy over the project, it will likely center the weakest lines, as these are the easiest to rally against, while often the critics will acknowledge that the strongest lines should still be built. The downgrade in quantity occurs when, in anticipation of future controversy over the program, it is decided to only build a small program comprising the strongest lines or even just a single line. The strongest line is genuinely strong, but if the problem comes from politicization, then this strong line will have many interests demanding tie-ins and OPM and often this line will then be more marginal just from the extra costs.

This is not hypothetical: this exact problem has happened in the United States in the last 45 years. Subway construction costs exploded in the 1970s: the Washington Metro’s per-km tunneling costs were in today’s money on the order of $300 million, continuing at this level through the 1990s (source; old costs are on PDF-p. 4 and 1990s costs are taken from segment 3 on PDF-p. 11). This was seen as too expensive for most cities, so they instead built light rail.

The early light rail program in the United States looked successful; its Canadian equivalent, of the same provenance, actually was successful. One of the planners involved, R. W. Rynerson, occasionally comments here, and points out that it was developed by American veterans who had been stationed in Germany and were intentionally adapting the German Stadtbahn concept to the North American context. The cities involved in this were all Western, because this system was ideal for cities that did not have preexisting urban rail and Western cities were newer; early examples include Edmonton, San Diego, Calgary, Portland, Denver, and Sacramento, with Los Angeles building a mix of light rail and subway and Seattle building a different mix.

This bought those cities maybe 15 years of reprieve. Subsequently, costs exploded. Once light rail was not just a simple way to plan future growth, under the aegis of trusted engineers, but rather a political program, the same politicization that made New York incapable of building beyond its Depression-era plan (that is, the IND) and Washington and San Francisco incapable of building beyond their Great Society-era plans (that is, the initial Metro and BART networks) now made those newer cities incapable of building. Portland opened the at-grade Orange Line of its light rail system in 2015 for $160 million/km in 2022 dollars. Minneapolis is taking forever to build its Southwest light rail line, with plenty of politicization of where and how to go. Boston built the Green Line Extension for $370 million/km in 2022 dollars, a higher real cost than that of tunnels in densely built-up parts of Washington in the 1990s – and it had severe politicization problems at all levels, even eclipsing the problem of insufficient project management capacity. Canada has had the same problem: Calgary’s light rail-centric investment was extraordinarily cheap in the late 20th century, but starting with the West LRT, costs have exploded so much that the city lost its ability to build and its modal split is stagnating around 16%.

Of note, American environmental and local-left organizations have not made light rail expansion easy. The first iteration of the Boston Green Line Expansion plan included $100 million, maybe $130 million in today’s money, for a short bike path, based on the demands of Somerville. In Los Angeles, left-NIMBYs oppose rail construction and have complained about transit-oriented gentrification. American left-NIMBYs have grown enamored of the idea of transit-oriented gentrification that they make demands of any city that builds light rail that it should pair it with spending on affordable housing and oppose any program that doesn’t include such additional funds, for example in Nashville in alliance with the anti-spending right. Any German readers who have any notions that such advocacy couldn’t happen here are invited to see the rhetoric that Green Party officials deploy against Tempelhofer Feld redevelopment.

If you can build, then build

The construction costs report we put out at the Transit Costs Project are pitched to an American audience, or very occasionally a Canadian or possibly British one, those countries sharing the American problem of poor project delivery and high soft costs. However, there are a lot of conclusions that can be drawn for the case of a medium-cost country that manifestly can build, like France or Germany. Such a country must look carefully at what goes on in the United States and to an extent the United Kingdom, as an example to avoid.

In particular, under no circumstances should cities downgrade, shrink, or slow down construction as a means of dealing with high project costs. The political problems are going to happen to the primary program no matter whether it is pitched as a metro- or tram-centric system.

Next to politics, the second most important thing to avoid is problems with project delivery. Here, I’m happy to report that Germany doesn’t seem to have such problems, except perhaps on the Munich S-Bahn, which has an even bigger political problem (namely, it’s a generational project for CSU politicians and was not properly overseen when CSU also controlled the federal transport ministry). Tellingly, other than the Munich S-Bahn, I’m not seeing substantial cost increases in actual (not projected) costs from the 1970s to the present in Germany. If an expansion program is larger than the city has recently had, it should staff up the civil service, hiring in-house to ensure the civil service retains lessons learned, and avoiding relying on private consultants or British-style Special Purpose Delivery Vehicles (SPDVs).

And if you can build, you should. Germany is a growing country with demand for further growth, especially in and next to its largest cities, such as Berlin. It should expand its U- and S-Bahn networks, using trams as a subsidiary feeder; that the trams look easier doesn’t make them so, not when they are turned into the centerpiece of the urban rail program – the same petty actors who induce delays to whatever the biggest project in town is do it no matter what the biggest project is.

New York’s MTA Hates Transparency

The New York Post just published its piece, by Nolan Hicks, doing some construction cost comparisons. Nolan spoke to me multiple times on the subject of finding proper comparisons to New York’s subway station construction; he settled on the single most difficult Roman station, at the Colosseum, as well as a more prosaic station at Grand Paris Express and one on the Battersea extension in London. The goal was to look at the issue of New York’s overbuilt stations, with their full-length mezzanines and excessive back office space; New York’s stations turn out to be three to four times too expensive in his analysis.

So far, so good. But then there’s the official response to the story, which tells me that MTA head Janno Lieber is bad at his job – presuming that he views his job as about delivering good service, rather than stonewalling and kissing ass.

The Post quotes Lieber as saying, “you have to be careful with that subculture” and “those people get a lot of their cost information from the internet.” This is not too different from what he said when asked about our report by Jose Martinez: he got aggressive, said that we “group sourced” our data, and disclaimed responsibility for things that happened long ago, in the 2000s (Lieber at the time worked on the new World Trade Center).

People on Twitter are roasting Lieber about the phrases “that subculture” and “those people,” but I mind those appellations a lot less than what they are about. Lieber is in effect complaining that we use public sources for costs, which we access via the Internet, the same way we talk to other people in 2023. Using the Internet, for example, I can poke around for Swedish construction contracts, which are transparent with published lists of bidders and the winning bid, or I can look for historic German construction costs as reported in official channels and reputable media, and Marco can look for the same in Italy including publicly itemized costs, and Elif can look for the same in Turkey. What Lieber means when he says “information from the Internet” is really “articles in trade media and newspapers of record and detailed government reports, calibrated with some in-depth case studies to ensure we didn’t miss anything important.”

It jars him, perhaps because he’s used to secrecy. The idea that a report about the cost overruns of Grand Paris Express would just be out there, while the project was still going on, available to the public to review, may confuse Americans who are used to their country’s much lower level of transparency. In the US, everything requires affirmatively filing a freedom of information request that agencies can and often will deny on flimsy grounds. In Sweden, everything is online and I’ve been able to learn exactly how things work there from talking to not many people thanks to the wealth of public information about procurement strategy and individual contracts. The same is true of the issue of back office space and overbuilt station boxes – the MTA has not released blueprints, whereas in Sweden they’re available to the public in 3D.

Perhaps this is why Lieber talks to reporters with aggression and derision that fit would-be autocrats trying to put democratic media in its place. The idea that people would put all this information out there, voluntarily, seems weird to both, in the same way that a politician in an autocracy might find it jarring that politicians in democracies are subject to free media scrutiny.

This culture of secrecy cascades to itemized contracts. In our work, we’ve found that low-construction cost countries itemize their most complex rail infrastructure contracts, and the items are public. In the United States, contracts are fixed-price, and when agencies have itemized estimates as private benchmarks, they keep them from the public as a trade secret. MTA Construction and Development head Jamie Torres-Springer defended this system in November, saying that if the MTA revealed the numbers, contractors might use them as a floor.

Torres-Springer clearly stated a doctrine of the institutional culture that he and Lieber know. We can rate, overall, whether this culture is worth retaining, through seeing whether New York can build. It, of course, cannot. Lieber takes credit for delivering some projects for less than the budgeted amount, but the budget was inflated with large contingency figures; when someone promises to build something for $70 million and delivers it for $65 million, you don’t give credit for going under budget when other systems deliver it for $12 million. (These are all rough costs of making a subway station that is not a transfer wheelchair-accessible using three elevators in New York and some comparison cases respectively.)

Meanwhile, other systems, outside the high-cost Anglosphere (update 3-28: here is Ontario engaging in the same repulsive behavior toward Global News on the costs of the Ontario Line), can deliver. Germany doesn’t want to build much infrastructure unfortunately, but when it wants, it gets it done at reasonable if not low costs – and those costs are barely higher now in real terms than they were in the 1970s, having inched from maybe 150 million euros per km of subway to 200. Paris is building 200 km of mostly underground driverless metro, for about the same cost as one five-year MTA capital plan. Istanbul builds many metro lines all at once and may be the world’s top city in total route-length built this decade if Chinese investment slows down – Turkey is not a rich country but it has figured out how to build cheaply so that it can afford it. Seoul is expanding so rapidly, using so many different networks, that I can’t even track how much it builds. Italy not only can keep building infrastructure despite not having much money, but also managed to cut its real costs by adopting transparency as a core principle in the 1990s; contra Torres-Springer, contractors use published itemized costs as an anchor and not a floor.

But New York is the city that can’t, in the state that can’t. It treats a three-station subway expansion as a generational project. It clings to its way of doing things in face of obvious evidence that this way does not work; when it wants to do something different, it privatizes the state to consultants and huge design-build contractors, which has consistently raised costs wherever it is implemented. It’s not even aware of how success looks. Its leadership is rather like a Russian general who, seeing the army throw countless soldiers to take individual blocks of Bakhmut, population 70,000, insists things are going great and there is no need for anyone to learn anything about NATO standards, before ordering another wave of assault.

The press is ahead of the curve on this, since it does not need to kiss ass. I’ve been a source for New York media and for US-wide wonk networks for years, and the great majority of journalists I’ve spoken with, veterans and newcomers, generalists and specialists, have been curious and intelligent and could tell me important things I didn’t know before, including, in particular, reporters on this beat at all major city papers, such as Nolan. I sadly cannot say the same of MTA management: the career civil servants are good below the managerial level, the managers are hit-or-miss, and the political appointees are more miss than hit. The way the latter try to pull rank on good journalists like Martinez and Nolan is supercilious, authoritarian, and just plain nasty.

And if New York wants to avoid looking as ridiculous as that Russian general, it had better learn how successful cities do it, and invite in people who are intimately familiar with these cities to take in-house leadership jobs to implement the required reforms. This means, among other things, fostering a culture of openness and transparency. No more putdowns of journalists who ask hard questions, no more hiding behind NDAs and trade secrets, no more black boxes with no itemization beyond “this contract is $1 billion.” It’s easier than for Russia – the American field-grade officers who could do every Russian general’s job better don’t at all have Russia’s interests at heart, whereas the Continental European and East Asian transit managers who New York can bring it can be hired to have the MTA’s interests at heart, just as Andy Byford was. Learn from the best and face the reality that right now New York is the worst.

Amtrak Releases Bad Scranton Rail Study

There’s hot news from Amtrak – no, not that it just announced that it hired Andy Byford to head its high-speed rail program, but that it just released a study recommending New York-Scranton intercity rail. I read the study with very low expectations and it met them. Everything about it is bad: the operating model is bad, the proposed equipment is bad and expensive, the proposed service would be laughed at in peripheral semi-rural parts of France and Italy and simply wouldn’t exist anywhere with good operations.

This topic is best analyzed using the triangle of infrastructure, rolling stock, and schedule, used in Switzerland to maximize the productivity of legacy intercity line, since Swiss cities, like Scranton, are too small to justify a dedicated high-speed rail network as found in France or Japan. Unfortunately, Amtrak’s report falls short on all three. There are glimpses there of trying and failing, which I personally find frustrating; I hope that American transportation planners who wish to imitate European success don’t just read me but also read what I’ve read and proactively reach out to national railways and planners on this side of the Atlantic.

What’s in the study?

The study looks at options for running passenger trains between New York and Scranton. The key piece of infrastructure to be used is the Lackawanna Cutoff, an early-20th century line built to very high standards for the era, where steam trains ran at 160 km/h on the straighter sections and 110 km/h on the curvier ones. The cutoff was subsequently closed, but a project to restore it for commuter service is under construction, to reach outer suburbs near it and eventually go as far as the city’s outermost suburbs around the Delaware Water Gap area.

Amtrak’s plan is to use the cutoff not just for commuter service but also intercity service. The cutoff only goes as far as the Delaware and the New Jersey/Pennsylvania state line, but the historic Lackawanna continued west to Scranton and beyond, albeit on an older, far worse-built alignment. Thus, the speed between the Water Gap and Scranton would be low; with no electrification planned, the projected trip time between New York and Scranton is about three hours.

I harp on the issue of speed because it’s a genuine problem. Google Maps gives me an outbound driving time of 2:06 right now, shortly before 9 pm New York time. The old line, which the cutoff partly bypassed, is curvy, which doesn’t just reduce average speed but also means a greater distance must be traversed on rail: the study quotes the on-rail length as 134 miles, or 216 km, whereas driving is just 195 km. New York is large and congested and has little parking, so the train can afford to be a little slower, but it’s worth it to look for speedups, through electrification and good enough operations so that timetable padding can be minimized (in Switzerland, it’s 7% on top of the technical travel time).


The operations and timetabling in the study are just plain bad. There are two options, both of which include just three trains a day in each direction. There are small French, Italian, and Spanish towns that get service this poor, but I don’t think any of them is as big as Scranton. Clermont-Ferrand, a metro area of the same approximate size as Scranton, gets seven direct trains a day to Paris via intermediate cities similar in size to the Delaware Water Gap region, and these are low-speed intercities, as the area is too far from the high-speed network for even low-speed through-service on TGVs. In Germany and Switzerland, much smaller towns than this can rely on hourly service. I can see a world in which a three-hour train can come every two hours and still succeed, even if hourly service is preferable, but three roundtrips a day is laughable.

Then there is how these three daily trains are timetabled. They take just less than three hours one-way, and are spaced six hours apart, but the timetable is written to require two trainsets rather than just one. Thus, each of the two trainsets is scheduled to make three one-way trips a day, with two turnarounds, one of about an hour and one of about five hours.

Worse, there are still schedule conflicts. The study’s two options differ slightly in arrival times, and are presented as follows:

Based on the results of simulation, Options B and D were carried forward for financial evaluation. Option B has earlier arrival times to both New York and Scranton but may have a commuter train conflict that remains unresolved. Option D has later departure times from New York and Scranton and has no commuter train conflicts identified.

All this work, and all these compromises on speed and equipment utilization, and they’re still programming a schedule conflict in one of the two options. This is inexcusable. And yet, it’s a common problem in American railroading – some of the proposed schedules for Caltrain and high-speed rail operations into Transbay Terminal in San Francisco proposed the same.

Equipment and capital planning

The study does not look at the possibility of extending electrification from its current end in Dover to Scranton. Instead, it proposes a recent American favorite, the dual-mode locomotive. New Jersey Transit has a growing pool of them, the ALP-45DP, bought most recently for $8.8 million each in 2020. Contemporary European medium-speed self-propelled electric trains cost around $2.5 million per US-length car; high-speed trains cost about double – an ongoing ICE 3 Neo procurement is 34 million euros per eight-car set, maybe $6 million per car in mid-2020s prices or $5 million in 2020 prices.

And yet somehow, the six-car dual-mode trains Amtrak is seeking are to cost $70-90 million between the two of them, or $35-45 million per set. Somehow, Amtrak’s rolling stock procurement is so bad that a low-speed train costs more per car than a 320 km/h German train. This interacts poorly with the issue of turnaround times: the timetable as written is almost good enough for operation with a single trainset, and yet Amtrak wants to buy two.

There are so many things that could be done to speed up service for the $266 million in capital costs between the recommended infrastructure program and the rolling stock. This budget by itself should be enough to electrify the 147 km between Dover and Scranton, since the route is single-track and would carry light traffic allowing savings on substations; then the speed improvement should allow easy operations between New York and Scranton every six hours with one trainset costing $15 million and not $35-45 million, or, better yet, every two hours with three sets. Unfortunately, American mainline rail operators are irrationally averse to wiring their lines; the excuses I’ve seen in Boston are unbelievable.

The right project, done wrong

There’s an issue I’d like to revisit at some point, distinguishing planning that chooses the wrong projects to pursue from planning that does the right projects wrong. For example, Second Avenue Subway is the right project – its benefits to passengers are immense – but it has been built poorly in every conceivable way, setting world records for high construction costs. This contrasts with projects that just aren’t good enough and should not have been priorities, like the 7 extension in New York, or many suburban light rail extensions throughout the United States.

The intercity rail proposal to Scranton belongs in the category of right projects done wrong, not in that of wrong projects. Its benefits are significant: putting Scranton three hours away from New York is interesting, and putting it 2.5 hours away with the faster speeds of high-reliability, high-performance electric trains especially so.

As a note of caution, this project is not a slam dunk in the sense of Second Avenue Subway or high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor, since the trip time by train would remain slower than by car. If service is too compromised, it might fail even ignoring construction and equipment costs – and we should not ignore construction or equipment costs. But New York is a large city with difficult car access. There’s a range of different trips that the line to Scranton could unlock, including intercity trips, commuter trips for people who work from home most of the week but need to occasionally show up at the office, and leisure trips to the Delaware Water Gap area.

Unfortunately, the project as proposed manages to be both too expensive and too compromised to succeed. It’s not possible for any public transportation service to succeed when the gap between departures is twice as long as the one-way trip time; people can drive, or, if they’re car-free New Yorkers, avoid the trip and go vacation in more accessible areas. And the sort of planning that assumes the schedule has conflicts and the dispatchers can figure it out on the fly is unacceptable.

There’s a reason planning in Northern Europe has converged on the hourly, or at worst two-hourly, frequency as the basis of regional and intercity timetabling: passengers who can afford cars need the flexibility of frequency to be enticed to take the train. With this base frequency and all associated planning tools, this region, led by Switzerland, has the highest ridership in the world that I know of on trains that are not high-speed and do not connect pairs of large cities, and its success is slowly exported elsewhere in Europe, if not as fast or completely as it should be. It’s possible to get away without doing the work if one builds a TGV-style network, where the frequency is high because Paris and Lyon are large cities and therefore frequency is naturally high even without trying hard. It’s not possible to succeed on a city pair like New York-Scranton without this work, and until Amtrak does it, the correct alternative for this study is not to build the line at all.