While looking for South Korean cost data for a major update of my construction costs posts, I stumbled upon a newspaper article excoriating Seoul’s extravagant construction, comparing it unfavorably with the US. Per Joong-Ang, the US neglect of infrastructure is a form of frugality that South Korea should imitate; the National Mall’s poorly maintained, weedy lawns are treated as something to admire. Moreover, Seoul subway construction is more extravagant than in the Washington Metro:
I got on a train at the Smithsonian Metro station. All the stations there have the same architectural styles. They are the 1976 creation of American architect Harry Weese. High ceilings and open spaces are their trademarks. They are known for their practicality. But they are very modest compared to the subway stations of Seoul. The platforms are dimly lighted. It’s hard to read a book there. The walls are concrete, with none of Korea’s flashing signboards. The architecture is very quiet.
After I returned to Seoul, I got on the subway at Guryong Station in Gangnam District, southern Seoul. Marble proliferates at the entrance. A public table is covered with glass. Every day, about 3,600 people use the station, which cost 55 billion won ($51.2 million) to build.
Of course, in reality, Korean construction costs are a fraction of American ones. Guryong Station is an infill subway station in a dense urban neighborhood, opening about a year after the rest of the Bundang Line; it cost about $75 million in 2010 PPP dollars. The US sometimes builds at-grade infill commuter stations for more than that, and those do not have marble entrances or glass tables (update: New York Avenue in Washington is another example of more expensive US infill, this time an elevated station). Building just the shell of an infill subway station on the 7 extension simultaneously with the rest of the extension was estimated at $500 million. Similarly, the Sin-Bundang Line, a driverless rapid transit line, cost 1,169 billion won, about $1.4 billion, for about 18 km; the line is described as “largely underground,” and its city terminus is under a dense secondary CBD. In contrast, in Washington, the suburban Silver Line, with very little tunneling, is $6.8 billion (in 2009-2018 dollars) for 37 km. $183 million per km versus about $80.
There are two takeaway lessons from this. The first is that to gauge whether something is cheap or extravagant we need to know the normal range of costs and compare, rather than looking at the quality of construction. Seoul may build very extravagant-looking stations, but it builds them cheaply for some reason.
The second, more important lesson is that people perceive costs the way they perceive local corruption. The US is indeed the world’s most expensive country to build transit in, which Americans can easily believe since they do not trust their government very much. At the opposite corner, Switzerland is quite cheap: a rejected mountain tunneling project in Neuchatel was CHF 850 million for 17 km, and a recently completed urban tunnel in Lucern was CHF 250 million for 1.32 km; accounting for the Swiss franc’s 87% overvaluation relative to PPP, these are $28 and $121 million per km respectively. And as far as I hear from Swiss commenters, the Swiss are proud of the success of their public transportation system. Indeed, Swiss levels of trust in government and institutions are very high.
In contrast, in cheap countries where people do not trust the government, people do not readily accept that construction costs are low. When I talk to Spaniards who are not railfans, they talk about corrupt and extravagant infrastructure projects, and do not believe that both high-speed rail and subway construction costs in Spain are so low. (It doesn’t help that Barcelona’s L9/10, despite still being about average-cost, went over budget by a factor of over 3.) This is no different from the Joong-Ang attitude toward Korean costs: the government self-evidently doesn’t work, and so a $75 million infill subway station is self-evidently a boondoggle.
The situation in the opposite corner – high trust/low perceptions of corruption, high costs – exists as well, in Singapore. The sixth MRT line, soon to begin construction, is S$18 billion for 30 km; the PPP exchange rate between Singapore and US dollars is about 1:1. The line is automated and fully underground, but about half of it is under very wide arterial roads and portions of it are in undeveloped rather than built-up land; it shouldn’t cost this much. The fifth line, currently under construction, is cheaper, S$12 billion for 40-42 km, but still much more expensive than the non-Anglophone average.
And yet, although Singapore’s not far behind Japan in its construction costs, I doubt Singaporeans are as willing to consider their construction practices expensive as Americans, Britons, and Japanese are. I know for a fact that international commentators who hold Singapore in high regard for its efficient government would not be willing to think of it as an expensive-construction country.
All this makes good transit activism somewhat frustrating, in that people will not usually recognize efficient government in absolute numbers. Percentages, certainly – people understand cost overruns and (much less common) cost underruns, and as we’ve seen in Canada people can compare different technologies. But absolute numbers are not as well-understood, and neither are international comparisons of the same technology, where cost differences revolve around questions of project management, contracting practices, labor rules, and details of geology and surrounding infrastructure; people have only recently begun to think in terms of per-km costs in New York, and in the rest of the US I have not seen such thinking. When a transit agency proposes a project, people automatically think it’s expensive, and some will also say it’s necessary, regardless of whether it actually is either. I don’t think reactions to Second Avenue Subway at $5 billion would be materially different from what they were when Phase 1 alone grew to $5 billion.
The upside is that in budget negotiations, the amounts given to transportation are based on absolute shares of the budget rather than on the needs of specific megaprojects, which means that lower costs would translate to more projects built for the same budget. People might not notice that costs have gone down, and might still complain that every subway line is a boondoggle, but more lines would be built and more people would ride those lines. Just the perception of government competence would not change.