How Failed Leaders Can Look Like Doers
Congratulations – you’ve finally finished a major project. The project was not done well – it cost too much and took too long. But somehow, the people responsible for the mess get to claim credit for success and are treated as great leaders who took tough decisions. Why?
The issue here is that poorly-executed projects look like great challenges. Maybe it’s a very short subway line that somehow cost like a multi-line megaproject. Maybe it’s a replacement-level city airport that took three times as long to build as anticipated. Maybe it’s a tank that’s only been used in parades even as the military is fighting a land war where it would be useful if it worked – a land war that is itself a major project even when the target is a poor country less than one third the population of yours. Maybe it’s a corporate IT project that’s dragged for so long that the software is almost out of support; this is far from a purely public-sector problem – every corporate manager and every person who’s worked for a corporate manager knows many such examples.
These are not, objectively speaking, huge challenges. Objectively speaking, Second Avenue Subway was 2.7 km of tunnel and three stations in a dense but not historic urban environment, under a straight avenue much wider than the width of a two-track tunnel with station platform, with no undercrossings of older subway tunnels, in conventional hard rock geology. A medium-cost city like Paris or Berlin would build this and a few other similar lines at once (to be fair, Berlin would probably be building other lines and not Second Avenue Subway, judging by its project prioritization). But New York can’t build, and therefore this 2.7 km tunnel is in today’s money a $6 billion project.
Once the project has been so mismanaged, it looks like something much bigger than it really is. It took many years and had a lot of administrative headaches (which were mostly self-inflicted). Its budget was so large that it was overseen at the highest levels of the government or corporation that built it, by heavyweight leaders who everyone in the organization has learned to lower their head around and who therefore don’t face serious criticism for their own poor decisionmaking. Those heavyweight leaders, insulated from what people really think of their competence level, then go ahead and portray themselves as doers, who managed to get such a difficult project done – when the only reason it was difficult is that they existed.
Good projects don’t have any of this. They look easy. They also tend to be small by local standards, because organizations expand to their limits, and so if you’re Paris and 200 km of Grand Paris Express are just beyond your managerial limit, you will still do that, and then those short Métro extensions of a few stations at a time look trivial and are beneath the notice of the political heavyweights who it’s impolite to speak in the company of.
Good project are also run by professionals who face regular, uncontrolled criticism, and not by heavyweights who surround themselves with lackeys and yes-men. So on top of looking easy, they also tend not to be run by the sort of toxic personality who having sabotaged the organization’s capacity then turn around and claim credit for the completion of the project. Manuel Melis Maynar knows exactly what his value is, but he’s an engineering professor rather than a marketing blowhard.
A better attitude than “at least they got [difficult-looking project] done” is then to look at the project’s true challenge – in the case of a subway it’s its length with some controls for undercrossings, network complexity, and the historic and geological sensitivity of the site. If the project was unduly expensive or lengthy for the challenge, those who claim credit for it are ideally to be treated as lepers rather than heroes, and should be replaced by people who were responsible for less telegenic but better-run comparanda. As always, it’s better to imitate success than to imitate failure.
Quick Note: Catalunya Station
Barcelona’s commuter rail network has a few distinct components. In addition to the main through-running sections, there are some captive lines terminating at one of two stations, Espanya and Catalunya. Catalunya is especially notable for its very high throughput: the system feeding it, the Barcelona-Vallès Line, has two running tracks, fanning out onto five station tracks, of which only three are used in regular service. Despite the austere infrastructure, the station turns 32 trains per hour on these tracks. I believe this is the highest turnback rate on a commuter rail network. The Chuo Line in Tokyo turns 28 trains per hour on two rather than three tracks but it’s with the same two running tracks as the Catalunya system, and with considerably less branching.
I bring this up because I was under the impression Catalunya turned 24 rather than 32 trains per hour when writing about how Euston could make do with fewer tracks than planned for High Speed 2. But several people since have corrected me, including Shaul Picker (who looked at the timetables) and planning engineer Joan Bergas Massó (who, I believe, wrote them).
The current situation is that the Vallès Line includes both proper commuter lines and metro, sharing tracks. The commuter part of the system comprises two branches, Terrassa carrying S1 and short-turning trains on S7 and Sabadell carrying S2 and short-turning trains on S6; some trains skip stops, but it’s not a consistent pattern in which S1 and S2 run express and S6 and S7 run local. A branch entirely within the city is signed as a metro line, designated L7. Currently, all L7 trains use track 4, turning 8 trains per hour, while the other lines use tracks 1 and 2, turning 24 trains per hour in total.
I stress that while this is a commuter line – it goes into suburbia and descends from a historic steam train rather than a greenfield metro – it is not connected with the mainline network. So it’s easier to turn trains there than on an intricately branched system; the Chuo Line is not as hermetically sealed but is similar in having little other traffic on it than the rapid trains from Tokyo to its in-prefecture western suburbs. Nonetheless, there are multiple branches and stopping patterns; this is not a metro system where all trains are indistinguishable and passengers only care about the interval between trains rather than about the overall schedule.
Our Construction Costs Reports are Out!
Both the New York-specific report and the overall synthesis of all five cases plus more information from other cities are out, after three years of work.
At the highest level, it’s possible to break down the New York cost premium based on the following recipe:
To explain the animation a bit more:
- New York builds stations that are 3 times too expensive – either 3 times too big (96th Street) or twice as big but with a mining premium (72nd and 86th Streets). The 2.06 factor is what one gets when one takes into account that stations are 77% of Second Avenue Subway hard costs. This is independent of the issue of overall train size, which is longer in New York than in most (though not all) comparison cities.
- New York’s breakdown between civil structures and systems is about 53.5:46.5, where comparable cases are almost 3:1. This is caused by lack of standardization of systems and finishes, which ensures that even a large project has no economies of scale. This is a factor of about 2.3 increase in system costs, which corresponds to an overall cost increase of a factor of about 1.35. Together with the point above, this implies that the tunneling premium in New York is low, compared with system and station cost premiums, which I did notice in comparison with one Parisian project five years ago.
- Labor is 50% of the hard costs in the Northeastern United States; in our comparison cases, it ranges between 19% and 31%, and in Stockholm, which as the highest-wage comparison city is our closest analog for the United States, Citybanan’s contract costs were 23% labor. The difference between 50% labor and 25% labor is a factor of 3 difference in labor, coming from a combination of blue- and white-collar overstaffing and some agency turf battles that are represented as more workers, and a factor of 1.5 difference in overall costs.
- Procurement problems roughly double the costs; the factor of 1.85 is 2/1.08, dividing out by the usual 8% profit factor in Italy. Those problems can be broken out in different ways, but include red tape imposed by American agencies, red tape imposed by some specific regulations, a risk compensation factor whenever risk is privatized (just not itemizing costs by itself adds 10-20%, and there are other aspects of risk privatization).
- Third-party design costs add more. There are two ways to analyze it, both of which give about the same figure of a factor of 1.2 increase in costs: first, third-party design and management costs add 21% to Second Avenue Subway’s hard costs where various European comparanda add 7-8%, but the 21% should be incremented to 31% by adding the factor of 1.5 labor premium; and second, the inclusion of all soft costs combined is around 25% extra in Italy and 50% extra in New York, with the caveat that what counts as soft costs and what’s bundled into the hard costs sometimes differ.
I urge people to quote the cost premium as, at a minimum, a factor of 9-10, and not 9.34; please do not mistake the precision coming from needing to multiply numbers for accuracy.
I also urge people to read the conclusion and recommendations within the synthesis, because what we’ve learned the best practices are is not the same as what many reformers in the Anglosphere suggest. In particular, we urge more in-house hiring and deprivatization of risk, the exact opposite of the recipe that has been popularly followed in English-speaking countries in the last generation with such poor results.
Finally, if people have questions, please ask away! I read all comments here, and check email, and will vlog tomorrow on Twitch at 19:00 Berlin time and write any followups that are not already explained in the reports.
FDP and Vice Signaling
Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) just tweeted that more investment in roads is good – because if traffic flows more smoothly then there will be less greenhouse gas emissions. Reaction was not positive, and as of when I’m writing, 16 hours later, it is mildly ratioed. People understand that this is wrong. Lindner himself probably gets this too. Understanding what’s going on here requires talking about bullshit in the philosophical sense of Harry Frankfurt, and about something that I don’t have a better name for than vice signaling.
Is it true?
Absolutely not. It’s standard in transport studies that the construction of more highways in high-demand areas induces more traffic, as people take advantage of the greater convenience of driving. Drivers drive to new destinations that they forwent or chose to take public transport to, and new developments are built in areas opened by new highway development.
There may be exceptions to this in declining areas. The United States loves building new grade-separated interchanges in declining regions. This doesn’t generate new demand, because traffic is already uncongested, and the purpose of roadbuilding there is a political statement more than transport policy. But that’s not Germany. The roads under discussion here are in growth regions: there’s a plan to widen the beltway around Munich, A99, to 10 lanes, and the federal and Berlin FDP have both badgered Berlin to build a further stage of A100 parallel to the Ringbahn, which the city wants not to under the influence of the Green Party. Both motorway projects are likely to lead to adverse mode shift if built, and Lindner knows this.
There’s a developmental argument that induced demand is actually good. Matt Yglesias has made it before, saying that if road building induces more traffic then it means people get to take more trips and are better off. Many roadbuilders have made that very argument, and others were aware of it; Robert Moses, for example, was perfectly aware that his parkways and bridges were inducing more car traffic, and was fine with it, because he thought more driving was good. But that’s not what Lindner is saying: Lindner is saying that building new motorways and keeping them without a speed limit reduces greenhouse gas emissions, which is just bullshit.
The term “bullshit” has a precise meaning in analytic philosophy, due to Harry Frankfurt. It comprises a type of deception about the speaker’s mindset, rather than about the facts, unlike an ordinary lie. A politician who denies a scandal they are involved with is lying: their goal is to get you to believe that they are innocent of this scandal. A politician who, having been caught in said scandal, launches a series of schlock patriotic speeches is bullshitting: their goal is to get you to think they are fundamentally aligned with your values. From Frankfurt’s original essay, we have,
Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the “bullshit artist.”
The statement “widening roads reduces CO2 emissions” is this kind of bullshit. It is not quite a lie: it is false, but Lindner is not especially concerned with whether it is true or false. His goal is not to persuade people that building another section of A100 and widening A99 is good for climate; nobody who cares about climate change thinks that. Rather, his goal is to position himself as the sort of person who doesn’t listen to climate advocates and will just push for road widenings. The deception is part of the positioning: if he’d said that he understands the Greens’ argument against road investment but roads are important for economic development, he’d come off as too reasonable, which is not his intention.
Sounding deliberately unreasonable is the domain of populist politicians, and Frankfurt himself and many of his followers have noticed how political bullshit is on the rise as populism grows more normalized. Nigel Farage, for example, bullshitted that smoking isn’t bad for your health. And FDP is a populist party, despite its liberal origins and relatively moderate political positioning; it swung from deficit scold at the start of the current government to tax scold precisely as inflation rose last year, the opposite of what one should expect of a Washington Consensus-following economically orthodox party.
There’s a pseudo-academic term going around the web, virtue signaling. The idea is that individuals and organizations engage in actions to signal that they’re better people than they really are; companies hire consultants on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) without ever doing anything about their glass ceiling and harassment problems.
But it may be more fruitful to discuss its opposite – that is, vice signaling. This is when people take actions to portray themselves as terrible people, for any number of reasons:
- Loyalty: criminal gangs are deliberately threatening and often require that prospective members commit murder (this is a requirement to become a made man in the Italian-American mafia), because this forces new members to have crossed both a moral and a legal event horizon from which they can’t come back; populist political movements don’t require crimes, but do require ridiculous beliefs
- Novelty: this is what in the online language of the early 2010s was called the Slate Pitch – a take that aims to be novel by saying something really out there, often by writers who can’t separate themselves from the rest of the pack by any more productive means
- Love of power: some people lie to you, with your full knowledge that they’re lying, just to flex that they can get away with it
Lindner loves this kind of vice signaling, I think out of novelty more than anything. FDP could be a party of YIMBYism, fiscal conservatism, and digital governance; younger members of the party who identify with neoliberalism wish that it were that party. The problem is that the difference between such a party and SPD is not large; Scholz ran on building more housing Germany-wide, and there’s a fair amount of consensus in favor of this in the party’s wings. SPD’s worst attributes so far are its officious leadership anchored in the Lower Saxony clique and consequently its sluggish governance and refusal to do more to support Ukraine – but FDP has the exact same problems, Lindner having told Ukraine when it asked for aid as the war started that there was no point since they’d fall in hours either way.
So to distinguish themselves from everyone else, FDP engages in vice signaling about climate and transport. They’re not trying to convince anyone that their policies are good for climate change. Rather, they’re doing the exact opposite: they’re trying to convince center-right voters that they’re an internal opposition within a coalition that is engaging in modal shift in federal funding priorities, and that they are explicitly against any climate action, because cars are good and only annoying hippies prefer trains.
Quick Note: High Speed 2 and Euston
There was reporting in the Sun, since officially denied, that Britain is planning to cut Euston from its high-speed rail project and run trains only as far a Old Oak Common, a future development site west of Central London. I assume given the source and lack of any other confirmation that the plans are to run to Euston as planned. But what if the story is not completely fake news, and there are plans to cut on construction at Euston? I can see a cut being positive value engineering, using space at the station more efficiently.
What’s the issue with High Speed 2?
High Speed 2 is an extremely expensive line. Among proper intercity high-speed rail lines (as opposed to suburban lines running at medium speed), it is the most expensive in our database per kilometer. The projected cost as of 2019-20 is about the same as that of all lines built to date in Germany and France combined; Germany has about 1,000 km of newly-built high-speed lines and France 2,500, whereas HS2 is planned to be 530 km.
The high costs are related to some massive scope creep, including tunnels in relatively flat terrain through the Chilterns, dug essentially because the area has rich NIMBYs and the British state decided not to fight them. Those are already in advanced enough construction that I don’t think descoping them and building the line at-grade with compulsory purchase of land is viable. However, some of the scope is new stations, which British defenders of the system insist are necessary. Birmingham is to get an entirely new station at Curzon Street, and London Euston is to get a substantial increase in size, with additional tracks and approaches. This is said to be necessary for capacity reasons.
Are new stations necessary for capacity?
No. Euston today has 16 platform tracks; it had 18 before HS2 construction started. The S-Bahn-quality Watford DC line can use two; the remaining slow services at the station amount to around 10-12 trains per hour, which S-Bahn-quality terminals like Saint-Lazare on the RER E and Catalunya on the Barcelona Rodalies network can comfortably turn on four tracks; those two comparisons turn 16 and 24 trains per hour on four tracks, respectively. The services out of Euston branch more than the RER and Rodalies, but this is mostly a mix of stopping patterns, largely on the same legacy line.
Then there’s HS2 itself. The line is expected to get very high ridership, justifiably: all cities along the line are larger than their comparison cases on the LGV Sud-Est, often substantially, and the projection is that very high capacity is required, on the order of 16 trains per hour. This stretches high-speed rail to its limit: the Shinkansen, which mixes local and express trains on double track, peaks around 14-15 trains per hour, and the complexly branched TGV around 12. HS2 expects to do better perhaps through better signals but also through having a simpler stopping pattern on its most congested section, between London and the bifurcation at Birmingham Interchange, on which trains are to run nonstop.
However, 16 trains per hour can still turn on about six platform tracks. This is not easy: the Tohoku Shinkansen turns 14 on four tracks, but this is a limit case, famous not just in rail media but also in business media as successful optimization of infrastructure. Nonetheless, given how constrained the site is, it’s useful to learn from the best and not the average. If it’s possible to descope the plans to add new tracks to Euston, this should be done; present plans for Euston cost billions.
Is this happening?
Maybe. Britain is aware of the situation at Tokyo Station, although it seems more interested in looking for reasons not to learn than in learning. Perhaps very high costs are leading to a reevaluation, in which Euston can be made smaller than in current plans and trains can turn more efficiently.
But again, the ultimate source on this said nothing of this sort, and is unreliable. So who knows?
Free Public Transport, Fare Integration, and Capacity
There’s an ongoing debate about free public transport that I’m going to get into later, but, for now, I want to zoom in on one aspect of the 9€ ticket, and how it impacted public transport capacity in Germany. A commenter on the Neoliberal Reddit group claimed that during the three months of nearly free public transport fares, there was a capacity crunch due to overuse. But in fact, the impact was not actually significant on urban rail, only on regional trains, in a way that underscores the importance of fare integration more than anything.
What was the 9€ ticket?
Last year, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, fuel prices shot up everywhere. This created populist pressure to alleviate the price of fuel through temporary tax cuts, which further exacerbated last year’s high inflation. The center-right element within the German coalition, FDP, moved away from its traditional position as deficit scold and demanded a cut in the fuel tax; as a compromise, the Greens agreed to it on condition that during the three months of reduced fuel tax, June through August, public transport fares would be cut as well. Thus the 9€ monthly was born.
The 9€ ticket applied throughout Germany. The key feature wasn’t just the deep discount but also the fact that on one ticket, people could travel all over Germany; normally, my Berlin monthly doesn’t let me ride the local trains in Leipzig or Munich. This stimulated massive domestic tourism, since people could travel between cities on slow regional trains for free and then also travel around their destination city for free as well.
The 9€ ticket clearly raised public transport ridership in the three months it was in effect. This led to demands to make it permanent, running up against the problem that money is scarce and in Germany ticket fares generate a significant proportion of public transport revenue, 7.363 billion € out of 14.248 billion € in expenses (source, p. 36).
One partial move in that direction is a 29€ monthly valid only within Berlin, not in the suburbs (zone C of the S-Bahn) or outside the system; unlike the 9€ ticket, which was well-advertised all over national and local media and was available at every ticketing machine, the 29€ monthly is only available via annual subscription, which requires a permanent address in the city, and the regular machines only sell the usual 86€ monthly and don’t even let you know that a cheaper option exists. The subscription is also not available on a rolling basis – one must do it before the start of the month, which is not advertised, and Ant6n‘s family was caught unaware one month.
Negotiations for a nationwide 49€ ticket are underway, proceeding at the pace of a German train, or perhaps that of German arms deliveries to Ukraine. This was supposed to start at the beginning of 2023, then in April, and now it’s expected to debut in May. I’m assuming it will eventually happen – German trains get you there eventually, if hours late occasionally.
What’s the impact on capacity?
The U- and S-Bahn systems didn’t at all get overcrowded. They got a bit more crowded than usual, but nothing especially bad, since the sort of trips induced by zero marginal cost are off-peak. Rush hour commuters are not usually price-sensitive: whenever one’s alternative to the train is a car, the difference between a 9€ monthly and an 86€ one is a fraction of the difference between either ticket and the cost of owning and using a car, and at rush hour, cars are limited by congestion as well. Off-peak ridership did visibly grow, but not to levels that congest the system.
But then the hourly regional trains got completely overcrowded. If you wanted to ride the free trains from Berlin to Leipzig, you’d be standing for the last third of the trip. This is because the regional rail system (as opposed to S-Bahn) is designed as a low-capacity coverage-type system for connecting to small towns like Cottbus or Dessau.
The broader issue is that there is always a sharp ridership gradient between large cities and everywhere else, even per capita. In some places the gradient is sharper than elsewhere; the difference between New York and the rest of the United States is massive. But even in Germany, with a smaller gradient than one might be used to from France or the UK or Japan, public transport ridership is disproportionately dense urban or perhaps suburban, on trams and U- and S-Bahns.
The regional trains are another world. Really, European and Japanese trains can be thought of as three worlds: very high-use urban and suburban rail networks, high-use intercity rail connecting the main cities usually at high speed, and low-usage, highly-subsidized regional trains outside the major metropolitan regions. Germany has relatively good trains in the last category, if worse than in Switzerland, Austria, or the Netherlands: they run hourly with timed connections, so that people can connect between them to many destinations, they just usually don’t because cities the size of Dessau don’t generate a lot of ridership. The 9€ ticket gave people a free intercity trip if they chained trips on these regional trains, at the cost of getting to Leipzig in a little less than three hours rather than 1:15 on the ICE; the regional trains were not expanded to meet this surge traffic, which is usually handled on longer intercity trainsets, creating standing-room only conditions on trains where this should not happen off-peak or perhaps ever.
The issue of fare integration
The overcrowding seen on the regional trains last summer is really an issue of fare integration, which I hope is resolved as the 49€ gives people free trips on such trains permanently. A cornerstone of good public transport planning is that the fare between two points should be the same no matter what vehicle one uses, with exceptions only for first-class cars if available. Ein Ticket für alles, exclaims the system in Zurich, to great success. Anything else slices the market into lower-frequency segments, providing worse service than under total fare integration. Germany understands this – the Verkehrsverbund was invented in Hamburg in 1965, and subsequently this idea was adopted elsewhere until the country has been divided into metropolitan zones with internal fare integration.
The regional trains that cross Verkehrsverbund zones have their own fares, and normally that’s okay. Intercity trains were never part of this system, and that’s okay too – they’re not about one’s usual trip, and so an intercity ticket doesn’t include free transfers to local public transport unless one pays extra for that amenity. The fares between intercity trains and chains of regional trains were not supposed to be integrated, and normally that’s fine too, because any fare savings from chaining trips on slower trains are swamped both by the headache of buying so many tickets and by the difference in trip time and reliability.
The 9€ ticket broke that system, and the 49€ ticket will have the same effect: for three months, trips on slower trains were free, leading to overcrowding on a low-capacity network that normally isn’t that important to the country’s overall public transport system.
Worse, the operating costs of slow trains are higher than those of fast trains: they are smaller and so have a higher ratio of crew to passengers than ICEs, and their slowness means that crew and maintenance costs per kilometer are higher than those of fast trains. Even energy costs are higher on slow trains, because high-speed lines run at 300 km/h over long stretches, whereas regional lines make many stops (which had very little usage compared with the train’s volume of passengers last summer) and have slow zones rather than cruising at 130 or 160 km/h over long stretches. So the system gave people a price incentive to use the higher-cost trains and not the lower-cost ones.
This is the most important thing to resolve about any future fare reductions. Some mechanism is needed to ensure that the most advantageous way to travel between two cities is the one that DB can provide the most efficiently, which is IC/ICE and not RegionalBahn.
Our Construction Costs Report
This is awkward.
I was hoping to already release the Transit Costs Project report, but we ran into difficulties after we released and then immediately unreleased; we sent the report to the MTA for feedback, we got feedback, and then we went on a binge of edits. This led to a long cycle of almosts; I thought it would be done at the end of December, then 10 days ago, then tomorrow. The revisions were not huge – there are people who read the original version and the gap between what they’ve seen and what we’re about to release is real but is also far from the difference between complete knowledge (which we don’t have and most likely never will) and complete ignorance.
We still have minor edits to do, but they’re small, on the order of less than a full day’s work for all three of us, and we can promise that the full report – including the New York report and the synthesis of all reports combined – will be out on February 6th.
Separately, I’m going to be in New York for about a month after, mostly for non-work reasons. The timing is that there’s an election in Berlin on the 12th, a redo of the city election from 2021 (oddly, not electing for a full term but for the remainder of the term that began in 2021), in which I hope the Greens do better if only so that they’re slightly ahead of SPD and not slightly behind and can replace the scandalized Franziska Giffey as mayor. If I can vote by mail, I’ll be in New York starting a little before the election; if I can’t, I’ll be starting a little later. This will include at least one more in-person event to present our findings and our recommendations for the region and the MTA, at a time to be determined but likely in the second half of February.
There’s a lot of stuff we didn’t get into the report, because of lack of space; we could have info-dumped and made the synthesis novel-length, but some things had to go (and I will defend every decision to exclude things, and if they turn out to have been necessary, then blame me for being wrong about it). So even if you read the reports you should definitely come to events and ask me specific questions about things that are related to construction costs, such as other projects in the same cities we studied, or issues of the interplay between costs and benefits, or how this applies to urban rail construction going forward.
Paris-Berlin Trains, But no Infrastructure
Yesterday, Bloomberg reported that Macron and Scholz announced new train service between Paris and Berlin to debut next year, as intercity rail demand in Europe is steadily rising and people want to travel not just within countries but also between them. Currently, there is no direct rail service, and passengers who wish to travel on this city pair have to change trains in Frankfurt or Cologne. There’s just one problem: the train will not have any supportive infrastructure and therefore take the same eight hours that trains take today with a transfer.
This is especially frustrating, since Germany is already investing in improving its intercity rail. Unfortunately, the investments are halting and partial – right now the longest city pair connected entirely by high-speed rail is Cologne-Frankfurt, a distance of 180 km, and ongoing plans are going to close some low-speed gaps elsewhere in the system but still not create any long-range continuous high-speed rail corridor connecting major cities. With ongoing plans, Cologne-Stuttgart is going to be entirely fast, but not that fast – Frankfurt-Mannheim is supposed to be sped up to 29 minutes over about 75 km.
Berlin-Paris is a good axis for such investment. This includes the following sections:
- Berlin-Halle is currently medium-speed, trains taking 1:08-1:16 to do 162 km, but the flat, low-density terrain is easy for high-speed rail, which could speed this up to 40-45 minutes at fairly low cost since no tunnels and little bridging would be required.
- Halle-Erfurt is already fast, thanks to investments in the Berlin-Munich axis.
- Erfurt-Frankfurt is currently slow, but there are plans to build high-speed rail from Erfurt to Fulda and thence Hanau. The trip times leave a lot to be desired, but newer 300 km/h trains like the Velaro Novo, and perhaps a commitment to push the line not just to Hanau but closer to Frankfurt itself, could do this section in an hour.
- Frankfurt-Saarbrücken is very slow. Saarbrücken is at the western margin of Germany and is not significant enough by itself to merit any high-speed rail investment. Between it and Frankfurt, the terrain is rolling and some tunneling is needed, and the only significant intermediate stops are Mainz (close enough to Frankfurt it’s a mere stop of opportunity) and Kaiserslautern. Nonetheless, fast trains could get from Frankfurt to the border in 45 minutes, whereas today they take two hours.
Unfortunately, they’re not talking about any pan-European infrastructure here. Building things is too difficult, so instead the plan is to run night trains – this despite the fact that Frankfurt-Saarbrücken with a connection to the LGV Est would make a great joint project.
Bad Public Transit in the Third World
There’s sometimes a stereotype that in poor countries with low car ownership, alternatives to the car are flourishing. I saw a post on Mastodon making this premise, and pointed out already in comments that this is not really true. This is a more detailed version of what I said in 500 characters. In short, in most of the third world, non-car transportation is bad, and nearly all ridership (on jitneys and buses) is out of poverty, as is most walking. While car ownership is low, the elites who do own cars dominate local affairs, and therefore cities are car-dominated and not at all walkable, even as 90%+ of the population does not own a car.
What’s more, the developing countries that do manage to build good public transportation don’t stay developing for long. The same development model of Japan, the East Asian Tigers, and now China has built both rail-oriented cities and high economic growth, to the point that Japan and the Tigers are fully developed, and China is a solidly middle-income economy. The sort of places that stay poor, or get stuck in a middle-income trap, also tend to have stagnant urban rail networks, and so grow more auto-oriented over time.
The situation in Southeast Asia
With the exception of Singapore, nowhere in Southeast Asia is public transit good. What’s more, construction costs have been high for elevated lines and very high for underground ones, slowing down the construction of metro systems.
In Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, motorization is high and public transit usage is weak. Paul Barter’s thesis details how both cities got this way, in comparison with the more transit-oriented model used in Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The thesis also predicts that the poorer megacities of Southeast Asia – Jakarta and Manila – will follow the auto-oriented path as they develop, which has indeed happened in the 13 years since it was written.
The situation in those cities is, to be fair, murky. Manila has a large urban rail under construction right now, with average to above average costs for elevated lines and high ones for subways. But the system it has today consists of four lines, two branded light rail, one branded MRT, and one commuter line. In 2019, the six-month ridership on the system was 162 million. A total of 324 million in a metro area the size of Manila is extraordinarily low: the administrative Metro Manila region has 13.5 million people, and the urban or metropolitan area according to both Citypopulation.de and Demographia is 24-26 million. On the strictest definition of Metro Manila, this is 24 trips per person per year; on the wider ones, it is about 13, similar to San Diego or Portland and only somewhat better than Atlanta.
Jakarta is in the same situation of flux. It recently opened a half-underground MRT line at fairly high cost, and is modernizing its commuter rail network along Japanese lines, using second-hand Japanese equipment. Commuter rail ridership was 1.2 million a day last year, or around 360 million a year, already higher than before corona; the MRT had 20 million riders last year, and an airport link had 1.5 million in 2018. This isn’t everything – there’s also a short light metro called LRT for which I can’t find numbers – but it wouldn’t be more than second-order. This is 400 million annual rail trips, in a region of 32 million people.
The future of these cities is larger versions of Bangkok. Thailand is sufficiently middle-income that we can see directly how its transport system evolves as it leaves poverty, and the results are not good. Bus ridership is high, but it’s rapidly falling as anyone who can afford a car gets one; a JICA report about MRT development puts the region’s modal split at 5% MRT, 36% bus, and the rest private (PDF-p. 69) – and the income of bus riders is significantly lower than that of drivers (PDF-p. 229), whereas MRT riders are closer to drivers.
Even wealthier than Bangkok, with the same auto-oriented system, is Kuala Lumpur. There, the modal split is about 8% bus, 7% train, and the rest private. This is worse than San Francisco and the major cities of Canada and Australia, let alone New York or any large European city. The national modal split in England, France, Germany, and Spain is about 16% – the first three countries’ figures predate corona, but in Spain they’re from 2021, with suppressed public transport ridership. Note that rail ridership per capita is healthier in Kuala Lumpur than in Jakarta or Manila – all rail lines combined are 760,000 riders per day, say 228 million per year, in a region of maybe 7 million people. This is better than a no-transit American city like San Diego, but worse than a bad-transit one like Chicago or Washington, where the modal split is about the same but there is no longer the kind of poverty that is common in Malaysia, let alone in Indonesia, and therefore if people ride the trains it’s because they get them to their city center jobs and not because they’re poor.
Even in Singapore, the best example out there of a transit-oriented rich city, it took until very recently for MRT coverage to be good enough that people willingly depend on it; it only reached NUS after I graduated. In the 1990s, the epitome of middle-class Singaporean materialism was described as owning the Five Cs, of which one was a car; traffic suppression, a Paul Barter describes, has centered fees on cars, much more car purchase than car use (despite the world-famous congestion pricing system), and thus to those wealthy enough to afford cars, they’re convenient in ways they are not in Paris, Berlin, or Stockholm.
The situation in Africa
African countries between the Sahara and the Kalahari are all very poor, with low car ownership. However, they are thoroughly car-dominated.
From the outside, it’s fascinating to see how the better-off countries in that region, like Nigeria, are already imitating Southeast Asia. Malaysia overregulated its jitneys out of existence because they were messy and this bothered elites, and because it wanted to create an internal market for its state-owned automakers. Nigeria is doing the same, on the former grounds; to the extent it hasn’t happened despite years of trying, it’s because the state is too weak to do more than harass the drivers and users of the system.
It’s notable that the Lagos discourse about the evils of the danfo – they are noisy, they are polluting, they drive like maniacs – there is little attention to how cars create all the same problems, except at larger scale per passenger served. The local notables drive (or are driven); the people who they scorn as unwashed, overly fecund, criminal masses ride the danfo. Thanks to aggressive domination by cars and inattention to the needs of the non-driving majority, Lagos’s car ownership is high for how poor it is – one source from 2017 says 5 million cars in the state, another from 2021 says 6.5 million vehicles between the state and Kano State. The denominator population in the latter source is 27 million officially, but unofficially likely more; 200 vehicles per 1,000 people is plausible for Lagos, which to be clear is not much less than New York or Paris, on an order of magnitude lower GDP per capita. Tokyo took until about 1970 to reach 100 vehicles per 1,000 people, at which point Japan had almost fully converged with American GDP per capita.
This is not specific to Lagos. A cousin who spent some time in Kampala told me of the hierarchy on the roads: pedestrians fear motorcycles, motorcycles fear cars, cars fear trucks. There is no pedestrian infrastructure to speak of; a rapid transit system is still a dream, to the point that a crayon proposal that spread on Twitter made local media. That the vast majority of Ugandans don’t own cars doesn’t matter; Kampala remains dominated by the few who do.
Transit and development
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the sort of developing countries that build successful urban rail systems don’t stay poor for long. Part of it is that public transportation is good for economic development, but that’s not most of it – the United States manages to be rich without it except in a handful of cities. Rather, I suspect the reason has to do with state capacity.
More specifically, the reason cities with 100-200 cars per 1,000 people are thoroughly dominated by cars is that those 10-20% drivers (or people who are driven) are the elites. Their elite status can come from any source – passive business income, landlordism, active business income, skilled professional work – but usually it tilts toward the traditional, i.e. passive. These groups tend to be incredibly anti-developmental: they own small businesses, sometimes actively and sometimes passively, and resent being made redundant through economies of scale. India has problems with economic dwarfism and informality, and this is typical of poor countries; if anything, India is better than most at developing a handful of big businesses in high-value added industries.
The upshot is that the sort of people who drive, and especially the sort of drivers who are powerful enough to effect local changes to get incremental upgrades to roads at the expense of non-drivers, are usually anti-developmental classes. The East Asian developmental states (and Singapore and Hong Kong, which share many characteristics with them) clamped down on such classes hard, on either nationalist or socialist grounds; Japan, both Koreas, and both Chinas engaged in land reform, with characteristic violence in the two socialist states and without it but still with forcible purchase in the three capitalist states. The same sort of state that can eliminate landlordism can also, as a matter of capital formation, clamp down on consumption and encourage personal savings, producing atypically low levels of motorization well into middle-income status. Singapore, whose elite consumption centers vacations out of the country, has managed to do so even as a high-income country – and even more normal Tokyo and Seoul have much higher rail usage and lower car usage than their closest Western analog, New York.
India is in many ways anti-developmental, but it does manage to grow. Its anti-developmentalism is anti-urban and NIMBY, but it is capable of building infrastructure. Its metro program has problems with high construction costs (but Southeast Asia’s are generally worse) and lack of integration with other modes such as commuter rail, which the middle class denigrates as only befitting poor people; but the Delhi Metro had 5.5 million daily riders just before corona, slightly behind New York in a slightly larger metro area, perhaps a better comparison than Jakarta and Manila’s San Diego.
It’s the slower-growing developing countries that are not managing to even build the systems India has, let alone East Asia. They don’t have high car use, but only because they are poor, and in practice, they are thoroughly car-dominated, and everyone who doesn’t have a car wants one. A rich country really is not one where even the poor have cars but where even the rich use public transportation – and those countries aren’t rich and don’t grow at rates that will make them rich.
High Costs are not About Precarity
I’ve seen people who I think highly of argue that high construction costs in the United States are an artifact of precarity. The argument goes that the political support for public transportation there is so flimsy that agencies are forced to buy political support by spending more money than they need. This may include giving in to NIMBY pressure to use costlier but less impactful (or apparently less impactful) techniques, to spread money around with other government agencies and avoid fighting back, to build extravagant and fancier-looking but less standardized stations, and so on. The solution, per this theory, is to politically support public transportation construction more so that transit agencies will have more backing.
This argument also happens to be completely false, and the solution suggested is counterproductive. In fact, the worst cost blowouts are for the politically most certain projects; Second Avenue Subway enjoyed unanimous support in New York politics.
Cost-effectiveness under precarity
Three projects relevant to our work at the Transit Costs Project have been done exceptionally cost-effectively in an environment of political uncertainty: the T-bana, the LGV Sud-Est, and Bahn 2000.
The original construction of the T-bana was done at exceptionally low cost. We go over this in the Sweden report to some extent, but, in short, between the 1950s and 70s, the total cost of the system’s construction was 5 billion kronor in 1975 prices, which built around 100 km, of which 57% are underground. In PPP 2022 dollars, this is $3.6 billion, or $35 million/km, not entirely but mostly underground. This was low for the time: for example, in London, the Victoria line was $122 million/km and the Jubilee line was $172 million/km (source, p. 78), and Italian costs in the 1960s and 70s were similar, averaging $129 million/km before 1970.
The era of Social Democrat dominance in Swedish politics on hindsight looks like one of consensus in favor of big public projects. But the T-bana itself was controversial. When the decision was made to build it in the 1940s, Stockholm County had about 1 million people; at the time, metros were present in much larger cities, like New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo, and it was uncertain that a city the size of Stockholm would need such a system. Its closest analog, Copenhagen, did not build such a system until the 1990s, when it was a metro region of 2 million. It was uncertain that Stockholm should need rapid transit, and there were arguments for and against it in the city. Nor was there any transit-first policy in postwar Sweden: urban planning was the same modernist combination of urban renewal, automobile scale, and tower-in-a-park housing, and outside Stockholm County, the Million Program projects were thoroughly car-oriented.
Construction costs in Sweden are a lot higher now than they were in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Nya Tunnelbanan is $230 million/km, compared with a post-1990s Italian average of $220 million; British costs have exploded in tandem, so that now the Underground extensions clock at $600 million/km. Our best explanation is that the UK adopted what we call the globalized system of procurement, privatizing planning functions to consultants and privatizing risk to contractors, which creates more conflict; the UK also has an unusually high soft cost factor. From American data (and not just New York) and some British data, I believe that the roughly 2.5 cost premium of the UK over Italy is entirely reducible to such soft costs, procurement conflict, risk compensation, and excessive contingency. And yet, Sweden itself, with some elements of the same globalized system, maintains a roughly Italian cost level, albeit trending the wrong way.
And today, too, the politics of rail expansion in Sweden are uncertain. There was controversy over both Citybanan and Nya Tunnelbanan, neither of which passed a cost-benefit analysis (for reasons that I believe impugn the cost-benefit analysis more than those projects); it was uncertain that either would be funded. Controversy remained over plans to build high-speed rail connecting Stockholm with Gothenburg and Malmö, and the newly-elected right-wing government just canceled them in order to prioritize investment in roads. Swedish rail projects today remain precarious, and have to justify themselves on cost and efficiency grounds.
Like nearly all other rich countries, France was hit hard by the 1973 oil crisis; economic growth there and in the US, Japan, and most of the rest of Western Europe would never be as high as it was between the end of WW2 and the 1970s (“Trente Glorieuses“). On hindsight, France’s response to the crisis models can-go governance, with an energy saving ad declaring “in France we don’t have oil, but we have ideas.” The French state built nuclear power plants with gusto, peaking around 90% of national electricity use – and even today’s reduced share, around 70%, is by a large margin the highest in the world. At the same time, it built a high-speed rail network, connecting Paris with most other provincial cities at some of the highest average speeds outside China between major cities, reaching about 230 km/h between Paris and Marseille and 245 km/h between Paris and Bordeaux; usage per capita is one of the highest in Europe and, measured in passenger-km, not too bad by East Asian standards.
But in fact, the first LGV, the LGV Sud-Est, was deeply controversial. At the time, the only high-speed rail network in operation was the Shinkansen, and while France learned more from Japan than any other European country (for example, the RER was influenced by Tokyo rail operations), the circumstances for intercity were completely different. SNCF had benefited from having done many of its own experiments with high-speed technology, but the business case was murky. SNCF had to innovate in running an open system, with extensive through-running to cities off the line, which Japan would only introduce in the 1990s with the Mini-Shinkansen.
Within the French state, the project was controversial. Anthony Perl’s New Departures details how there were people within the government who wanted to cancel it entirely as it was unaffordable. At the end, the French state didn’t finance the line, and required SNCF to find private loans on the international market, though it did guarantee those loans. It also delayed the line’s opening: instead of opening the entire line from Paris to Lyon in one go, it opened two-thirds of it on the Lyon side in 1981 and the last third into Paris in 1983, requiring trains to run on the classical line at low speed between Paris and Saint-Florentin for two years; in that era, phased opening was uncommon, and lines generally opened to the end at once, such as between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka.
Construction was extraordinarily inexpensive. In PPP 2022 dollars, it cost $8.4 million/km. This is, by a margin, the lowest-cost high-speed rail line ever built that I know about. The Tokaido Shinkansen cost 380 billion yen, or in PPP 2022 dollars $40 million/km, representing a factor of two cost overrun that forced JNR’s head to resign. Spain has unusually low construction costs, and even there, Madrid-Seville was $15.7 million/km. SNCF innovated in every way possible to save money. Realizing that high-speed trains could climb steeper grades, it built the LGV Sud-Est with a ruling grade of 3.5%, which has since become a norm in and around Europe, compared with the Shinkansen’s 1.5-2%; the line has no tunnels, unlike the classical Paris-Lyon line. It built the line on the ground rather than on viaducts, and balanced cut and fill locally so that material cut to grade the line could be used for nearby fill. Thanks to the line’s low costs and high ridership, the financial return on investment for SNCF has been 15%, and social return on investment has been 30% (source, pp. 11-12).
This cost-effectiveness would never recur. The line’s success ensured that LGV construction would enjoy total political backing. The core features of LGV construction are still there – earthworks rather than viaducts, 3.5% grades, limited tunneling, overcompensation of landowners by about 30% with land swap deals to defuse the possibility of farmer riots. But the next few lines cost about $20 million/km or slightly less, and this cost has since crept up to about $30 million/km or even more. This remains low by international standards (but not by Spanish ones), but the trend is negative.
SNCF is coasting on its success from a generation ago, secure that funding for LGVs and state support in political contention is forthcoming, and the routing decisions have grown worse. In response to NIMBYism in Provence, the French state assented to a tunnel-heavy route, including a conversion of Marseille from an at-grade terminal to an underground through-station, akin to Stuttgart 21, which has not been done before in France, and the resulting high costs have led to delays on the project. Operations have grown ever more airline-style, experimenting with low-cost airline imitation to the point of reducing fare receipts without any increase in ridership. One of the French consultants we’ve spoken with said that their company’s third-party design costs are 7-8% of the hard costs, which figure is similar to what we’ve seen in Italy and to the in-house rate in Spain – but the same consultant told us that there is so much bloat at SNCF that when it designs its own projects, the costs are not 7% but 25%, a figure in line with American rates.
Switzerland has Europe’s strongest passenger rail network by all measures: highest traffic measured by passenger-km per capita, highest modal split for passenger-km, highest traffic density. Its success is well-known in surrounding countries, which are gradually either imitate its methods or, in the case of Germany, pretending to do so. It has achieved its success through continuous improvement over the generations, but the most notable element of this system was implemented in the 1990s as part of the Bahn 2000 project.
The current system is based on a national-scale clockface system (“Takt”) with trains repeating hourly, with the strongest links, like the Zurich-Bern-Basel triangle, running every half hour. Connections are timed in those three cities and several others, called knots, so that trains enter each station a few minutes before the connection time (usually the hour) and depart a few minutes after, permitting passengers to get between most pairs of Swiss cities with short transfers. Reliability is high, thanks to targeted investments designed to ensure that trains could make those connections in practice and not just in theory. Further planning centers adding more knots and expanding this system to the periphery of Switzerland.
Switzerland is famous for its consensus governance system – its plural executive is drawn from the four largest parties in proportion to their votes, with no coalition vs. opposition politics. But the process that led to the decision to adopt Bahn 2000 was not at all one of unanimity. There had been plans to build high-speed rail, as there were nearly everywhere else in Western Europe. But they were criticized for their high costs, and there was extensive center-right pressure to cut the budget. Bahn 2000 was thus conceived in an environment of austerity. Many of its features were explicitly about saving money:
- The knot system is connected with running trains as fast as necessary, not as fast as possible. Investments in speed are pursued only insofar as they permit trains to make their connections; higher speeds are considered gratuitous.
- Bilevel trains are an alternative to lengthening the platforms.
- Timed overtakes and meets are an alternative to more extensive multi-tracking of lines.
- Investment in better timetabling and systems (the electronics side of the electronics-before-concrete slogan) is cheaper than adding tunnels and viaducts.
Swiss megaprojects have to go to referendum, and sometimes the referendums return a no; this happened with the Zurich U-Bahn twice, leading to the construction of the S-Bahn instead. All Swiss planners know in a country this small and this fiscally conservative, any extravagance will lead to rejection. The result is that they’ve instead optimized construction at all levels, and even their unit costs of tunneling are low; thanks to such optimization, Switzerland has been able to build a fairly extensive medium-speed rail system, with more tunneling per capita than Germany (let alone France), and with two S-Bahn trunk tunnels in Zurich, where no German city today has more than one.
The American situation
The worst offenders in the United States are not at all politically precarious. There is practically unanimous consensus in New York about the necessity of Second Avenue Subway. At no point was the project under any threat. There is an ideological right in the city, rooted less in party politics and more in the New York Post and the Manhattan Institute, with a law-and-order agenda and hostility to unions and to large government programs, but at no point did they call for cancellation; the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas has proposed pension cuts for workers and rule changes reducing certain benefits, but not canceling Second Avenue Subway.
At intercity scale, the same is true of Northeast Corridor investment. The libertarian and conservative pundits who say passenger rail is a waste of money tend to except the Northeast Corridor, or at least its southern half. When the Republicans won the 2010 midterm election, the new chair of the House of Representatives Transportation Committee, John Mica (R-FL), proposed a bill to seek private concessionaires to run intercity rail on the corridor. He did not propose canceling train service, even though in the wake of the same election, multiple conservative governors canceled intercity rail investments in their state, both high-speed (Florida) and low-speed (Wisconsin, Ohio).
In fact, both programs – New York subway expansion and the Northeast Corridor – are characterized by continuity across partisan shifts, as in more established consensus governance systems. The Northeast Corridor is especially notable for how little role ideological or partisan politics has played so far. New York has micromanagement by politicians – Andrew Cuomo had his pet projects in Penn Station Access and the backward-facing LaGuardia air train, and now Kathy Hochul has hers in the Interborough Express – but Second Avenue Subway was internal, and besides, political micromanagement is a different problem from political precarity.
And neither of these programs has engaged in any cost control. To the contrary, both are run as if money is infinite. The MTA would surrender to NIMBYs (“good neighbor policy”) and to city agencies looking to extract money from it. It built oversize stations. It spent money protecting buildings from excessive settlement that have been subsequently demolished for redevelopment at higher density.
The various agencies involved in the Northeast Corridor, likewise, are profligate, and not for lack of political support. Connecticut is full of NIMBYs; one of the consultants working on the plan a few years ago told me there was informal pressure not to ruffle feathers and not to touch anything in the wealthiest suburbs in the state, those of Fairfield County. In fact, high-speed rail construction would require significant house demolitions in the state’s second wealthiest town, Darien – but Darien is so infamously exclusive (“Darien rhymes with Aryan,” say other suburbanites in the area) that the rest of the region feels little solidarity with it.
NIMBYs aside, there has not been any effort at coordinating the different agencies in the Northeast along anything resembling the Swiss Takt system. This is not about precarity, because this is not a precarious project; this is about total ignorance and incuriosity about best practices, which emanate from a place that doesn’t natively speak English and doesn’t trade in American political references.
The Green Line Extension
Boston’s GLX is a fascinating example of cost blowouts without precarity. The history of the project is that its first iteration was pushed by Governor Deval Patrick (D), with the support of groups that sued the state for its delays in planning the project in the 1990s, as a court-mandated mitigation for the extra car traffic induced by the construction of the Big Dig. Patrick instituted a good neighbor policy, in which everything a community group wanted, it would get. Thus, stations were to become neighborhood signatures, and the project was laden with unrelated investments, called betterments, like a $100 million 3 km bike lane called the Somerville Community Path.
At no point in the eight years Patrick was in power was there a political threat to the project. It was court-mandated, and the extractive local groups that live off of suing the government favored it. The Obama administration was generous with federal stimulus funding, and the designs were rushed in order to use stimulus funding to pay for the project’s design, which would be done by consultants rather than with an expansion of in-house hiring. It’s in this atmosphere of profligacy that the project’s cost exploded to, in today’s money, around $3.5 billion, for 7 km of light rail in existing rights-of-way (albeit ones requiring overpass reconstruction).
The project did fall under political threat, after Charlie Baker (R) won the 2014 election. Baker’s impact on Massachusetts governance is fascinating, in that he unambiguously cut its budget significantly in the short run, but also had both before (as budget director in the 1990s) and during (through his actions as governor) wrecked the state’s long-term ability to execute infrastructure, setting up a machine intended to privatize the state and avoiding any in-house hiring. Nonetheless, the direct impact of precarity on GLX was to reduce scope: the betterments were removed and the stations were changed from too big to too small. The final cost was $2.3 billion, or around $2.8 billion in 2022 dollars, and half of that was sunk cot from the previous iteration.
There was no expectation that the project would be canceled – indeed, it was not. A Republican victory was unexpected in a state this left-wing. Then, as Baker was taking office, past governors from both parties expressed optimism that he would get not just GLX done but also the much more complex North-South Rail Link tunnel. Nor did contractors have their contracts yanked unexpectedly, which would get them to bid higher for risk compensation. Baker cold-shouldered not jut NSRL but also much smaller investments in commuter rail, but at no point was anyone stiffed in the process. No: the Patrick-era project was just poorly managed.
As one caveat, I want to point out a place where precarity does lead to poor project cost-effectiveness: the project selection stage, in the context of tax referendums, especially in Southern California. None of this leads to high per-kilometer costs – Los Angeles’s are exactly as bad as in the rest of the United States – but it does lead to poor project selection, as an unintended consequence of anti-tax New Right politics.
The California-specific issue is that raising taxes requires a referendum, with a two-thirds vote. Swiss referendums are by simple majority, or at most double majority – but in practice most referendums that have a popular vote majority, even a small one, also have a double majority when needed, and in the last 15 years I believe the only two times they didn’t had the double majority veto overturning a 1.5% margin and a 9% margin.
California’s requirement of a two-thirds majority was intended to stop wasteful spending and taxation, but has had the opposite effect. In and around San Francisco, the voters are sufficiently left-wing that two-thirds majorities for social policy are not hard to obtain. But in Southern California, they are not; to build public transportation infrastructure, Los Angeles and San Diego County governments cannot rely on ideology, but instead cut deals with local, non-ideological actors through promising them a piece of the package. Los Angeles measures for transit expansion are, by share of money committed, largely not about transit expansion but operations, new buses, or leakage to roads and bridges; then, what does go to transit expansion is divvied by region, with each region getting something, no matter how cost-ineffective, while core improvements are neglected and so are cross-regional connections (since the local extractive actors aren’t going to ride the trains and can’t tell a circumferential project is useful for them).
This is not a US-wide phenomenon. It’s not even California-wide: this problem is absent from the Bay Area, where BART decided against an expansion to Livermore that was unpopular among technically-oriented advocates, and would like to build more core capacity if it could do so for much less than a billion dollars per km. New York does not have it at all (for one, it doesn’t require two-thirds majorities for budgeting).
At intercity scale, this precarity does cause Amtrak to maximize how many states and congressional districts it runs money-losing daily trains in. But wasting money on night trains and on peripheral regions is hardly a US-only problem – Japan National Railways did that until well past privatization, when its successors spun off money-losing branch lines to prefecture-subsidized third sector railways. This is not at all why there is no plan for Northeastern intercity rail that is worth its weight in dirt: Northeastern rail improvements have been amply funded relative to objective need (if not relative to American costs), and solid investments in the core coexist with wastes of money on the periphery of the network in many countries.
The issue of politicization
The precarious, low-cost examples all had to cut costs because of fiscal pressure. However, in all three, the pressure did not include any politicization of engineering questions. Sweden was setting up a civil service modeled on the American Bureau of Public Roads, currently the Federal Highway Administration, which in the middle of the 20th century was a model of depoliticized governance. France and Switzerland have strong civil service bureaucracies – if anything SNCF is too self-contained and needs reorganization, just not if it’s led by the usual French elites or by people from the airline industry.
Importantly, low-cost countries with more clientelism and politicization of the state tend to be more deferential to the expertise of engineers. Greece has a far worse problem of overreliance on political appointees than the United States, let alone the other European democracies; but engineering is somewhat of an exception. Hispanic and Portuguese-speaking cultures put great prestige on engineering, reducing the extent of political micromanagement, even in countries without strong apolitical civil service bureaucracies. Even in Turkey, the politicization of public transportation is entirely at macro level: AKP promises to prioritize investment in areas that vote for it and has denied financing to the Istanbul Metro since the city flipped to the opposition (the city instead borrows money from the European Investment Bank), but below that level there is no micromanagement.
The American examples, in contrast, show much more political micromanagement. This is part of the same package as the privatization of state planning in the globalized system; in the United States often there was never the depoliticization that most of the rest of the developed and middle-income world had, but on top of that, the tendency has been to shut down in-house planning departments or radically shrink them and replace them with consultants. The consultants are then supervised by political appointees with no real qualifications to head capital programs, and the remaining civil servants are browbeaten not to disagree with the political appointees’ proclamations.
Those political appointees rarely measure themselves by any criteria of infrastructure utility. Even in New York they and the managers don’t consistently use the system; in Los Angeles, they use it about as often as the executive director of a well-endowed charity eats at a soup kitchen. To them, the cost is itself a measure of success – and this is true of other agencies, which treat obtaining other people’s money as a mark of achievement and as testament to their power. This behavior then cascades to local advocacy groups, which try to push solutions that maximize outside funding and are at bet indifferent and at worst actively hostile to any attempt at efficiency.
Just giving more support to agencies in their current configuration is not going to help. To the contrary, it only confirms that profligacy gets rewarded. A program of depoliticization of the state is required in tandem with expanding in-house hiring and reversing the globalized system, and the political appointees and the managers and political advocates who are used to dealing with them don’t belong in this program.