Two recent news items have driven home the point that American construction costs are out of control. The first is the agreement between the federal government and the states of New York and New Jersey to fund the Gateway project, at a cost of $20 billion. The second is the release of more detailed environmental impact studies for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor; I previously expressed tepidly positive sentiment toward the NEC Future concept, but now there are concrete cost projections: the only full HSR option, Alternative 3, is projected to cost $290 billion. As Stephen Smith noted on Twitter, Alternative 3 is twice as expensive per km as the mostly underground Chuo Shinkansen maglev. As such, I am going to ignore other issues in this post, such as whether to serve Hartford on the mainline or not: they are real issues, but are secondary concerns to the outrageous cost figures.
Although both Gateway and NEC Future have extreme costs – too high for me to be able to support either project – the causes of those high costs are different. Gateway includes not just a new tunnel across the Hudson but also substantial unnecessary scope in Penn Station South; however, I suspect that even if the scope is pared down to the minimum required to provide four tracks from Newark to New York, the budget would still be very high. The bare Gateway tunnel (including Penn South) is to my understanding $14-16 billion; the maximum cost that can be justified by the extra ridership, unless additional operating improvements (which can be done today) are in place, is about $7 billion. As with Second Avenue Subway, there is a real problem of high unit costs. I emphasize that there is too much scope in Gateway, but the scope alone cannot explain why 5 km of tunnel cost many billions, when expensive non-US projects such as Crossrail top at a billion dollars per km and the geologically more complex Marmaray tunnel cost (in PPP terms) about $400 million per km.
The situation with NEC Future is different, in two ways. First, if Gateway cuts a zero from the budget, I will consider it a solid project, perhaps even an inexpensive one given the wide river crossing. (For reference, in 2003 the projected cost was $3 billion). In contrast, if NEC Future cuts a zero from its budget, I will still consider it too expensive – perhaps worth it because of the benefits of HSR, but certainly too high to be built without further inquiry. $29 billion for 720 km is justified for a line with a fair amount of tunneling and entirely greenfield construction, whereas the NEC has long segments that are already nearly ready for HSR and requires very little tunneling.
But second, and more importantly, NEC Future’s unit costs are not high. Read appendix B.06, which discusses cost: on PDF-p. 28 it breaks down cost by item, and other than the tunnels, which at $400-500 million per km are several times as expensive as intercity rail tunnels usually are, the infrastructure items’ per-km costs are reasonable. And the NEC doesn’t require much tunneling in the first place: Connecticut may be hilly, but HSR can climb 3.5% grades and ride on top of the hills, and only in Bridgeport is tunneling really necessary. Make it perhaps 5 km of required tunneling, all around Bridgeport. When I said $10 billion would build full-fat HSR on the NEC, I assumed $200-250 million per km for the Bridgeport tunnel. I also assumed $750 million for new tunnels in Baltimore, whose cost has since risen to $4 billion in part due to extra scope (4 tracks rather than 2). So 2 extra billions come from more expensive tunneling, and 278 extra billions come from bloated scope. Perhaps a subset of the 278 comes from high unit costs for systems and electrification, but these are not the main cost drivers, and are also quite easy to copy from peer developed countries. In the rest of this post, I will document some of the unnecessary scope. I emphasize that while Alternative 3 is the worst, the cost projection for Alternative 1, at $50 billion, is still several times the defensible cost of improvements.
Let us turn to chapter 4, the alternatives analysis, and start on PDF-p. 54. Right away, we see the following wasteful scope in Alternative 2:
- Full four-tracking on the Providence Line, instead of strategic overtakes as detailed here.
- A bypass of the Canton Viaduct, which at a radius of 1,746 meters imposes only a mild speed restriction on trains with E5 and Talgo tilt capability, 237 km/h.
- An entirely new tunnel from Penn Station to Sunnyside, adding a third East River tunnel even though the LIRR is not at capacity now, let alone after East Side Access opens.
- A tunnel under Philadelphia, so as to serve the city at Market East rather than 30th Street Station.
- Two new HSR-dedicated tracks in New Jersey parallel to the NEC, rather than scheduling commuter trains on existing local tracks as detailed here.
- Two new HSR-dedicated tracks alongside much of the New Haven Line, even in areas where the existing alignment is too too curvy.
- Extensive tunneling between New Haven and Providence (see PDF-pp. 69-70 and 75), even in Alternative 1, even though HSR trains can climb the grades on the terrain without any tunnels outside the Providence built-up area if the tracks go west.
Alternative 2 also assumes service connecting New Haven, Hartford, and Providence, which I do not think is the optimal alignment (it’s slightly more expensive and slower), but is defensible, unlike the long proposed tunnels under Philadelphia, totaling around 30 km. The overall concept is also far more defensible than the tunnel-heavy implementation.
Alternative 3 adds the following unnecessary scope (see PDF-pp. 58 and 76-83):
- Full six-tracking between New York and Philadelphia and between Baltimore and Washington.
- Tunnel-heavy alignment options bypassing the New Haven Line, including inland options via Danbury or a tunnel across the Long Island Sound.
- The new Baltimore tunnels are longer and include a new Baltimore CBD station, where the existing station is at the CBD’s periphery.
- If I understand correctly, new platforms at New York Penn Station under the existing station.
- Tunnels under the built-up area of Boston.
According to the cost breakdown, at-grade track costs $20 million per km, embankments cost $25 million per km, elevated track costs about $80 million per km, and tunnels cost $400 million per km. When I draw my preferred alignments, I assume the same cost elements, except tunnels are cheaper, at $200 million per km. (I also add 20% for overheads on top of these base costs, whereas these documents add contingency on top of that.) This should bias the NEC Future toward above-ground options.
Instead, look at the maps in appendix A. Alternative 3 is PDF-pp. 76-81. The options for getting out of the New York urban area include an almost entirely tunneled inland alignment, and a tunnel under the Long Island Sound; making small compromises on trip time by using the New Haven Line, and making up time elsewhere by using better rolling stock, is simply not an option to the planners.
Let’s go back to Gateway now. Although the cost premium there is not as outrageous as for NEC Future, it is a good case study in what the US will fund when it thinks the project is necessary and when there is sufficient lobbying. Paris has the political will to spend about $35 billion on Grand Paris Express, and London is spending $22 billion on Crossrail and is planning to spend much more on Crossrail 2. Between Second Avenue Subway, the 7 Extension, Fulton Street Transit Center, the PATH terminal, East Side Access, and now Gateway, New York is planning to have spent $43 billion on public transit by the middle of next decade. And now people are talking about Second Avenue Subway Phase 2. The political will to build both rapid transit and HSR in the US exists; the government spends tens of billions on it. But due to poor cost effectiveness, what the US gets for its money is almost nothing.
The $20 billion that the federal government and both states are willing to set on fire for Gateway prove that, were there a plan to build HSR so that trains would go between Boston and Washington in three and a half hours on a budget of $10-15 billion, it would be funded. This is not a marginal case, where the best plan still elicits groans from anti-tax conservatives: those conservatives ride trains between New York and Washington and want them to be faster. Instead, it is purely about excessive costs. Gateway’s $20 billion could build the tunnel and also full HSR on the NEC, and the $290 billion that NEC Future wants to burn on HSR could build nearly a complete national HSR network, serving most metro areas above 1 million people. It’s no longer a question of political will; it’s purely a question of cost control. 95% cost savings are possible here, and this is the only thing advocates for better intercity rail in the US should be focusing on.
The Northeast Corridor high-speed rail investment studies are moving forward, and four days ago the FRA released an early environmental impact study on the subject, as part of the NEC Future program. The study moves in part in the right direction, in that it considers many different segment-level improvements (for example, specific bypasses of curvy segments), but it still isn’t quite going in the right direction. It’s not a bad study in itself, but it does have a lot of drawbacks, and I would like to discuss the ultimate problems with its approach.
The EIS studies three alternatives, as well as an obligatory No Build option.
Alternative 1 includes minimal investment: capacity improvements already under consideration, including new Hudson tunnels; grade-separation of at-grade rail junctions, including Shell interlocking between the Metro-North New Haven Line to Grand Central and the NEC, which imposes a severe speed limit (30 mph, the worst outside major city stations) and a capacity constraint; and a limited I-95 bypass of the legacy NEC route in eastern Connecticut, to avoid the existing movable bridges. The bulk of the expense under this alternative, excluding the predominantly commuter-oriented new Hudson tunnels, involves replacing or bypassing obsolete or slow bridges with faster segments. I have advocated such an approach in certain cases for years, such as the Cos Cob Bridge; if anything, Alternative 1 does not do this enough, but I do appreciate that it uses this solution.
Alternative 2 constructs HSR along the NEC route, except for a major deviation to serve Hartford. It is also bundled with various bypasses and new stations elsewhere: under this alternative, Philadelphia and Baltimore get new stations, with extensive urban tunneling to reach those stations. Alternative 3 does the same, but considers more deviations, including a tunnel between Long Island and New Haven, and an inland route through Connecticut, closer to I-84 than to I-95 and the legacy NEC; it also constructs dedicated HSR tracks between New York and Washington.
The EIS does not include cost figures. It includes travel time figures on PDF-p. 51, which seem to be based on unfavorable assumptions: Alternative 2, called Run 5, does New York-Boston in 2:17 for trains making a few major-city intermediate stops; the Alternative 3 proposals vary widely depending on alignment, of which the fastest, the I-84 inland route, takes 1:51, again making intermediate stops.
First, the EIS includes service plan elements, stating the projected frequency of regional and express trains using the tracks. It also talks about clockface scheduling and proposes a pulse in Philadelphia, allowing timed transfers in all directions between local and express intercity trains as well as trains on the Keystone corridor. It goes further and discusses regional rail on the intercity tracks in the alternatives that include extensive new construction. In these ways, it focuses on regionwide rail integration far more than previous plans.
Second, in general, the correct way to think about NEC investment is component by component. The EIS gets closer to this ideal, by considering many different route combinations north of New York, and advancing several of them under the Alternative 3 umbrella.
And third, the concept of Alternative 1 is solid. In many cases, it is possible to bundle a trip time or capacity improvement into the replacement of an obsolete structure at very low additional cost. The example I keep coming back to is the Cos Cob Bridge, but it is equally true of the movable bridges east of New Haven. I also greatly appreciate that Alternative 1 recognizes the importance of grade-separating railroad junctions.
Ultimately, the EIS does not take the three good concepts – integrated service planning, component-by-component thinking, and bundling trip-time improvements when the marginal cost of doing so is low – to their full conclusion. Thus, there is no attempt at running intercity trains at high speed on shared track with commuter rail with timed overtakes, as I have proposed for both the inner New Haven Line and the Providence Line. On the contrary, the plan for capacity investment on the Providence Line includes extensive three-tracking, rather than limited, strategic four-track bypass segments. This cascades to the trip times, which are quite slow between New York and New Haven (1:08, for an average speed of 103 km/h), and a bit slower than they could be between Providence and Boston (24 minutes, whereas about 21 is possible with about zero investment into concrete).
The concepts of Alternatives 1, 2, and 3 represent bundles of levels of investment. This is the wrong approach. Alternatives 2 and 3 include new tunneled city-center stations in Baltimore and Philadelphia; but wouldn’t we want to consider city-center station tunnels in those two cities separately? It’s possible for one to turn out to be cost-effective but not the other. It’s possible for neither to be cost-effective, but for other improvements included in Alternative 2, such as curve modification around Metropark and Metuchen, to pencil out.
There’s far more interaction between different macro-level alignments, by which I mean such questions as “inland route or coastal route?” and “serve Hartford on the mainline or put it on a branch?”, than between such micro-level investments as individual curve modifications and urban tunnels. This means that instead of discrete alternatives, there should be one umbrella, taking in Alternative 2 and 3 variants, proposing all of those options as possibilities. A future study, with detailed cost figures, could then rank those options in terms of trip time saving per unit of cost, or in terms of social and financial ROI. This way, there would be concrete proposals for what a $5 billion plan, a $10 billion plan, a $20 billion plan, and so on would be.
Two elements in the study are inexcusable. First, the service plan description explicitly keeps Amtrak’s current separation of premium-fare Regionals and even-more-premium-fare Acelas. This is not how the rest of the world structures HSR: even when the HSR fares are substantially higher than the legacy rail fares, as in Spain, the fare per passenger-km is not very high, and is not targeted exclusively at business travelers. In France, the intercity fare (including TGVs, which are the bulk of French intercity traffic) was on average €0.112 per passenger-km in 2011. Premium service is provided on the same TGVs as standard service, in first-class cars. In contrast, Amtrak charges about $0.29 per passenger-km on the Regional and $0.53 on the Acela.
And second, the investment alternatives appear to include more tunneling than is necessary. I will focus on the Hartford-Providence-Boston segment in Alternative 2, since it is less sensitive to assumptions on commuter rail track-sharing than the segments overlapping the New Haven Line. It is possible to go all the way from Hartford to the western margin of the Providence built-up area without any tunneling, and without outrageous bridging; see a past post of mine on the subject here, which concludes that it’s better to just go parallel to I-95 for trip time reasons. In Providence, tunnels are unavoidable, but can still be limited to short segments, mixed with elevated routes along pre-impacted freeway corridors. When I looked at it two years ago, I saw an alignment with just 2 km of tunnel, in Providence itself. In contrast, run A in figure 9 on PDF-p. 56 says that tunnels are about 27% of new construction between Hartford and Boston, which consists of, at a minimum, about 100 km of track between Hartford and Providence.
The EIS is a step in the right direction, insofar as it does consider issues of integrated service planning and prioritizing construction based on where it can be cheaply bundled into bridge replacement. However, it fails to consider cost limitations, as seen in the excessive tunneling proposed even in areas where high-speed tracks can run entirely above ground. It’s considering more options, which is good, but, Alternative 1, while representing a golden concept, is not sufficiently developed.
What I would like to see from a study in this direction is a mixture of the following:
- Discussion of how to avoid tunnels, including various tradeoffs that have to be made (for example, above-ground construction may require more takings). Generally, I want to see much less tunneling than is currently proposed.
- A well-developed incremental option, similar to Alternative 1 but more extensive, including for example I-95 bypasses all the way from New Haven to Kingston and along strategic segments of the New Haven Line, such as in Port Chester and Greenwich.
- Greater integration with regional rail; one litmus test is whether the Providence Line is proposed to be three-tracked for long stretches, or four-tracked at a key bypass station (the options are Sharon and the Route 128-Readville segment), and another is discussion of high-acceleration electric multiple units on the Providence Line and the Penn Line.
- Unbundling of projects within each alignment – there is no need to, for example, consider the Philadelphia and Baltimore tunnels together (I also think neither is a good idea, but that’s a separate discussion). The view should be toward an optimal set of projects within each alignment, since macro-level decisions such as whether to serve Hartford are more political than micro-level ones of which curves to fix. This permits explicit discussions such as “would you be willing to spend $2 billion and slow through-trains by 9 minutes to serve Hartford?”.
Except for the first, all are kind of present in this study, but in insufficient amount for me to view it as truly a step forward. The ultimate goal must be HSR in the Northeast on a reasonable budget – closer to $10 or even $20 billion than to the Amtrak Vision’s proposed $150 billion – and this requires carefully looking at which scope is required and which is not. The EIS has elements that can be used toward that goal, but ultimately it is a step sideways, not forward or in the wrong direction.
Last month, New York’s Regional Plan Association published a report, Overlooked Boroughs, proposing various transit improvements in New York outside the Manhattan core to complement the existing Manhattan-centric subway network. I’ve been thinking for a while what to say about the report. I don’t want to mock too much, since the RPA clearly tries to improve things. But the report falls short in every way, and plays into fads about buses. The one point of light is a brief mention of subways under Utica and Nostrand Avenues, but it is vague and doesn’t even make any of the maps the RPA is producing for additional rail and bus service. Even the RPA’s positive past contribution to the region’s transit proposals, Triboro RX, is replaced by the inferior Crossboro system. All this is on top of wooden analysis of preexisting transportation options.
The technical report talks about low transit usage for travel within the Outer Boroughs, which for the study’s purposes include Upper Manhattan. Figure 3 on page 7 breaks down mode choice as transit versus other modes. This works in Queens, but in Upper Manhattan and the South Bronx, car ownership rates are so low that local transit is competing with walking (and biking). In the Bronx in general, the mode share for borough-internal commutes is 40% transit and 36% car; in Brooklyn, the corresponding numbers are 42% and 32%. Eyeballing figure 3, Upper Manhattan’s transit share looks like 35%, but the car share is almost certainly much lower, given very low car ownership. This means there’s a huge volume of non-mechanized transportation in those regions.
The study does mention expanding bike infrastructure, on pp. 50-51, with an emphasis on bike share. However, its conclusion is directly at odds with the fact that non-mechanized transportation is quite popular in Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. It calls for incremental enlargement of the current system’s coverage, which consists of Manhattan south of 59th Street and the innermost parts of Brooklyn. It specifically warns against rapid expansion, “so as not to spread the program too thin,” and says the next areas for coverage should be the bridge landings in Brooklyn and Queens and the Upper East and West Sides. Inexplicably, low-income Bedford-Stuyvesant, which is adjacent to the current coverage area, is explicitly listed as a future phase and not a current priority.
A better proposal would call for rapid expansion of bike share and bike lanes; this costs money, but so does transit. Moreover, since the neighborhoods that would gain the most are low-income, the city should give some thought to how to make its bike share system easier to use for low-income residents. The current system requires a debit or credit card and puts a $101 security hold per pass. A city-subsidized system allowing qualified low-income residents to ride without a security hold is required; for example, the city could allow EBT cards to be used in lieu of a security hold, even if their holders then need to put in cash or a MetroCard to pay, in case the federal government disallows using the cards for biking and not just food stamps.
Then, a few pages after the analysis of intra-borough commutes, the report makes another mistake: on table 2, it lists mode shares for commutes between city boroughs and suburban counties, as well as likely transit options. Where commuter rail exists, it lists it as an option: thus, the Manhattan, Queens, or Brooklyn to Essex County rows list “subway to New Jersey Transit” as an option, despite the fact that New Jersey Transit is expensive and infrequent in the reverse-peak direction. Most likely, transit commuters from New York to Essex County work in or near Downtown Newark and take PATH, or at the airport and take a bus.
Now, the report does talk about commuter rail’s deficiency in attracting urban riders, both in the discussion surrounding tables 2 and 3 and in the proposal to improve commuter rail on pp. 49-50. But it says little about frequency for reverse commuting. Even when it does acknowledge the LIRR’s one-way peak service, it pulls its punches and only says it “recommends this project” (three-tracking the LIRR Main Line); proposing to instead do away with peak express service in order to permit reverse-peak service on the other track – as is practiced on the two-track segments of the Chuo Line – is beyond its scope. The punch-pulling is significant; as we will see over and over, the report repeatedly lets itself be defined by current practices and low-level current proposals.
Finally, the analysis of buses leaves something to be desired. The report talks at length about issues regarding span, frequency, and speed, on the list of nine characteristics that determine the attractiveness of transit. There’s no attempt to look systematically at what the busiest bus corridors in the city are. At some places, the corridors proposed match those of busy bus routes, for example the main crosstown routes in Brooklyn, the B35 and B6. At others, they neglect them entirely: as Alexander Rapp noted in comments recently, Grand Concourse, hosting the Bx1/2, is one of the busiest bus corridors in the city, even though it parallels the subway – it’s busier than Nostrand, which is now a Select Bus Service (SBS) route. The third busiest Bronx route, the Bx19, running on Southern to 145th in Manhattan, is also neglected.
We Just Call It “The Bus”
I think it’s Zoltána who said that what Americans call bus rapid transit, Londoners call “the bus.” As she noted in the past, three-door buses with all-door boarding are ubiquitous in Italy. German-speaking cities tend toward all-door boarding as well, as does Paris, but the buses usually have just two doors. All of this is years-old discussion, here and on related blogs such as Human Transit.
The significance of this is that it throws a wrench in any and all attempts to plan surface transit in New York around SBS, which is a bundle of features: enforced off-board fare payment, longer stop spacing, dedicated (but not physically separated) bus lanes. Vancouver engages in similar bundling with the B-Lines, but at least gets it right by not enforcing off-board fare payment: there are no machines printing tickets at any B-Line bus stop, but instead passengers can pay the driver at the front, or board from any door if they have a monthly pass or a transfer slip, which most do. But even Vancouver makes a mistake by requiring everyone to board from the front and pay the driver on all but a handful of bus lines. Vancouver, at least, establishes B-Line routes to mark where it considers building SkyTrain extensions in the future. In New York, it’s not about subway extensions; the planners really do think these features are special, and should be combined.
The RPA could have pushed for citywide off-board fare collection. Instead, it chose to smother any such push:
Set up off-vehicle fare payment using a proof of payment system. Passengers will not only board faster, but they will also be able to board using either front or back doors. However, the high cost of this option makes it impractical for system-wide implementation. Alternatively, the MTA should shift to touch or vicinity passes, the successor to the MetroCard, which is fast becoming obsolete.
First, the invocation of high cost in any plan that includes subway extensions, as this report does, is laughable. One-word replies to this point include any city where all buses already use proof of payment (POP), such as Paris, Berlin, Zurich, or Singapore. This is especially true now that the front end of smartcard technology is so cheap that there are top-up consumer items sold for $30. The cost of putting a card reader at every bus stop and at every bus door is, in 2015, trivial; what is not trivial is the cost of paying drivers to idle while bus riders are dipping their MetroCards at the front one by one.
If we accept citywide POP and bus stop consolidation – again looking at practices in Europe (and in Singapore), bus stops here are spaced every 400 meters and not 200-250 as in the US – then the rationale for SBS breaks down completely. All that’s left is corridors that require bus lanes, and those do not need to be continuous, as a bus can run partly on dedicated lanes and partly in mixed traffic.
Planning for the best corridors for specially upgraded surface transit requires thinking in terms of key bus corridors; the report does this because it assumes SBS is special, and the discussion with Alexander Rapp about Grand Concourse was about light rail. But if this is really just about bus lanes, then planning should be in terms of street segments. Bus lanes are required whenever there are busy buses on congested streets, and feasible when the streets are wide enough to permit car lanes and parking lanes in addition to the bus lanes. The importance of congestion means that a citywide bus lane map would be much more Manhattan-centric: potentially all Manhattan avenues and most two-way streets should have bus lanes since Manhattan traffic is so slow, even if there are key corridors elsewhere in the city with higher ridership.
At this point it’s useful to step back and think about relative advantages of surface transit (in this case buses) and rapid transit. Surface transit will always be slower, more expensive to operate, and far cheaper to deploy than rapid transit. This is why bus maps look like dense grids or meshes in every major city whereas subway maps only do in a small number of megacities.
The upshot is that there’s less need to force buses into a few key corridors. If New York were to build a subway or even light rail on a corridor, it would have to choose the routing in a way that would replace multiple parallel buses. For example, light rail on Tremont would replace both the Bx40/42 and the Bx36, which run on or parallel to Tremont in different parts of the Bronx. There’s no need to do that with bus-based transit: the Bx40/42 and the Bx36 can stay where they are. Route consolidation is only beneficial insofar as it boosts frequency, which means it’s required on minor routes but optional on major ones – this is why there’s a bus on every Manhattan avenue except Park, with no consolidation of the various one-way avenue pairs. The Bx40/42 runs every 10 minutes in the midday off-peak, and the Bx36 runs every 7-8 minutes, so there’s no need for a combined corridor.
Another key difference, ignored in the report, is that surface transit needs to run on straight, continuous streets whenever possible. Turns slow the bus down much more than they slow the subway (although they do increase the subway’s construction costs, since the subway would need to go under private property). This is partly because the bus is already slower, so the extra travel distance is more onerous, and partly because turning from one street to another requires red-light cycles that may not be easily eliminated via signal priority.
One upshot of this is that the report’s proposed bus map has some routes that are completely insane. Figure 14, on page 40, has two proposed new SBS routes in the Bronx: one paralleling the Bx36 and Bx40/42 in a circuitous manner, and going north-south in the East Bronx with several jogs and turns larger than 180 degrees. Nobody needs such circuitous routes.
Another upshot is the situation in Brooklyn. Brooklyn has five of the city’s top ten routes: the crosstown B35 and B6, and the radial B41 (Flatbush), B44 (Nostrand), and B46 (Utica). The latter three follow their streets nearly the entire way. The first two do not, as Brooklyn does not have continuously important crosstown arterial streets the way it has Flatbush, Nostrand, and Utica. Now, to be fair, the B6 is as fast as the three radials, all averaging 11 km/h on local buses and 12-13 on limited ones, but the B35 is much slower, 8 km/h local and 9 km/h limited; all average speeds are computed departing eastbound or northbound at noon. Between this and the B6’s somewhat zigzaggy route, the circumferentials are slowed more than the radials, which means rapid transit becomes more useful.
Enter Triboro RX, which appears in modified form (see below) in the report. Although it doesn’t closely parallel the B35 or B6, it provides a similar kind of service, and could poach significant ridership from both. This means that the introduction of rapid transit service there would make it less important to upgrade the B35 and B6 beyond the upgrades all other buses receive; conversely, such service would get much more ridership than we see today on buses, since it would offer such a large speed benefit. Of course the same is true of subway extension on Nostrand and Utica, but the rail bias over the existing 12-13 km/h options is a bit less than over a 9 km/h option; it’s only the easy tie-in to the 2, 3, 4, and 5 trains and the very high ridership of three closely parallel bus routes that make two subway lines pencil out.
Unfortunately, there’s no attempt at combined planning in the report. There’s no attempt to tie upgraded bus routes in Brooklyn and Queens to new transfer points created by Triboro. At the city’s other end, in the Bronx, Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 would make an East 125th Street terminus desirable for some Bronx buses; this is again not shown. Figure 14 on page 40 doesn’t show subway extensions, and figure 15 on page 44 doesn’t show SBS routes.
Finally, one notable inclusion is that of North Shore Branch SBS. Everything I could say about this I said three and a half years ago; it’s a terrible plan, and the fact that the RPA is going through with it instead of explaining why a second Staten Island Railway line would be better speaks volumes to how little the RPA is willing to come up with its own ideas instead of following whatever fads the city and MTA engage in.
Rail: Even When It’s Right, It’s Wrong
The report’s proposals for subway and commuter rail expansion have good kernels, but manage to make big mistakes on top of them, producing projects of limited transportation value. Here the RPA’s mistake is less overrelying on bad government planning (there is none as far as rail is concerned) and more overrelying on its own hype and that of similar organizations.
The plan for Second Avenue Subway is still in place. However, one key proposal regarding phasing worries me:
There is a strong argument to move quickly to build the north segment first as far as 116th Street, which would be relatively inexpensive since much of the tunnel is in place from earlier work, leaving the more expensive last piece to 125th Street for later. This report supports this argument.
Although in East Harlem, 116th Street is the key throughfare, a connection to 125th Street is crucial, for the transfer to Metro-North and the 4, 5, and 6 trains. It’s not even too much more expensive than a Phase 1.5 to 116th Street, since the 106th and 116th Street stations would still need to be dug, and the stations are the dominant part of Second Avenue Subway’s cost, three quarters of Phase 1 if I remember correctly.
Moreover, the report suggests various tie-ins, all on page 43: going west across 125th, going north into the Bronx, going south to Brooklyn via a new tunnel and taking over the Atlantic Branch of the LIRR. The first one would be golden, but isn’t even depicted on the associated map, figure 15 on page 44. As with the Nostrand and Utica subways discussed on the same page, the best ideas in the report are presented as afterthoughts and not depicted on any map. The Bronx extensions are harmless, but the routes shown on figure 15 are at times circuitous. The Atlantic Branch plan, fortunately not shown either, is the worst: the Atlantic Branch should be part of a modernized commuter rail plan. Despite the fact that the report does talk about commuter rail upgrades, it still considers cannibalizing a key route for a Second Avenue Subway extension.
The second key piece of rail infrastructure proposed, Triboro RX, is the RPA’s key contribution, dating back to 1996. Michael Frumin worked on this project and, together with Jeff Zupan, one of this report’s two authors, estimated its ridership at 76,000 commuters, each taking a roundtrip per weekday, for about 150,000 weekday boardings. Unfortunately, this report scraps many of the useful features of Triboro, replacing the line with Penn Design’s inferior Crossboro, which runs alongside the Northeast Corridor in the Bronx instead of completing the semicircle around Manhattan.
Moreover, for reasons I do not understand, the report widens the interstations on Triboro. The original plan called for a station every 800 meters, excluding the Hell Gate Bridge; including it, there would be about a station every kilometer. The current version of the route has a station every 1.8 km; even excluding the Bronx and Hell Gate portions, this is a station every 1.6 km. Broadway Junction, a key transfer point with connections to the A, C, and J, is deleted; trains run nonstop from New Utrecht to the Brooklyn Army Terminal; successive spokes in Brooklyn get no stations between them, even when the distance between the radial lines is such that most subway networks would put in a station in the middle.
Finally, commuter rail modernization falls flat. The RPA correctly calls for lower fares and higher off-peak frequencies – but then fails to follow through with demanding reductions in marginal operating costs. A discussion of high off-peak frequency and subway-competitive fares is a waste of time if each train is staffed with five conductors. A more reasonable number of conductors, zero, is required for this to financially pencil out.
But even if we ignore the costs, the plan does not look like a plan with modernized commuter rail. There are no infill stations proposed. High frequencies and mode-neutral fares would make Astoria a desirable commuter rail stop; but the stations mentioned on pp. 49-50 for Penn Station Access service are only the ones currently proposed in the Bronx, omitting Astoria. Similarly, despite wild plans, not depicted on maps, to construct a commuter rail branch on Utica, there’s no mention of simply adding a Utica stop to Atlantic Branch trains. Nobody is going to use Utica or Astoria for today’s fares or on today’s schedules, but frequent, cheap commuter rail service to these areas would be very popular.
All of the ideas proposed for rail are good, in principle. I’m glad that Second Avenue Subway is receiving priority, that Triboro is on this map, and that there’s talk of commuter rail modernization. But every when the RPA gets it right, it wrecks things with bad details about phasing, station placement, and lack of consideration of what commuter rail modernization would do to demand patterns.
Where are the Forward-Thinking Proposals?
The report simply cobbles together various proposals by organizations and politicians, without trying to turn them into a coherent whole: some bus upgrades here, some subway and commuter rail expansions there, no real attempt to even make the various modes work together. Even within each tranche, the report often rehashes current city plans, no matter how inappropriate.
Is the RPA thinking forward here? I don’t see any evidence of forward thought in the report. Where Paris is beginning construction on 200 kilometers of driverless rapid transit, mostly underground, the RPA is proposing 10 km of subway in future Second Avenue Subway phases and 40 km of rapid transit on existing right-of-way in Triboro RX. If New York could build subways at Paris’s prices, about $250 million per kilometer, Ile-de-France’s budget for Grand Paris Express, about $35 billion, would build the entirety of Second Avenue Subway eleven times over. There would be money for multiple radial and crosstown subway extensions and commuter rail tunnels (at Parisian costs, my commuter rail through-running tunnels would together be $20 billion or somewhat less); bus upgrades, done right, would show as a rounding error in streetscaping, and actually save money since higher speeds would reduce operating costs.
The Third Regional Plan did talk about things that other people were not proposing at the time. It had more Second Avenue Subway tie-ins, for one. Here all the RPA is doing is slapping its logo on a bad bus upgrade plan and reminding people that there’s a Second Avenue Subway project waiting to be finished. What happened to the RPA?
In the last few years New York’s MTA has gone through multiple cycles in which a new head talks of far-reaching reform, while only small incremental steps are taken. The latest is the MTA Transportation Reinvention Commission, which has just released a report detailing all the way the MTA could move forward. Capital New York has covered it and hosts the report in three parts. Despite the florid rhetoric of reinvention, the proposals contained in the report are small-scale, such as reducing waste heat in the tunnels and at the stations on PDF-pp. 43-44 of the first part. At first glance they seem interesting; they are also very far from the reinvention the MTA both needs and claims to be engaging in.
Construction costs are not addressed in the report. On PDF-p. 53 of the first part, it talks about the far-reaching suburban Grand Paris Express project for providing suburb-to-suburb rapid transit. It says nothing of the fact that this 200-km project is scheduled to cost about 27 billion euros in what appears to be today’s money, which is not much more than $150 million per km, about a tenth as much as New York’s subway construction. (Grand Paris Express is either mostly or fully underground, I am not sure.) The worst problem for transit in the New York area is that its construction costs are an order of magnitude too high, but this is not addressed in the report.
Instead of tackling this question, the report prefers to dwell on how to raise money. As is increasingly common in American cities, it proposes creative funding streams, on the last page of the first part and the first six pages of the second part: congestion pricing, cap-and-trade, parking fees, a development fund, value capture. With the exception of congestion pricing, an externality tax for which it makes sense for revenues to go to mitigation of congestion via alternative transportation, all of these suffer from the same problem: they are opaque and narrowly targeted, which turns them into slush funds for power brokers. It’s the same problem as the use of cap-and-trade in California.
One of the most fundamental inventions of modern government is the broad-based tax, on income or consumption. Premodern governments funded themselves out of tariffs and dedicated taxes on specific activities (as do third-world governments today), and this created a lot of economic distortion, since not all activities were equally taxed, and politically powerful actors could influence the system to not tax them. The transparent broad-based tax, deeded to general revenue through a democratic process, has to be spent efficiently, because there are many government departments that are looking for more money and have to argue why they should get it. Moreover, the tax affects nearly all voters, so that cutting the tax is another option the spending programs must compete with. The dedicated fund does neither. If the broad-based tax is the equivalent of market competition, a system of dedicated funds for various government programs is the equivalent of a cartel that divides the market into zones, with each cartel member enjoying a local monopoly. In this way there’s a difference between the hodgepodge of taxes the MTA levies and wants to levy and Ile-de-France’s dedicated 1.4-2.6% payroll tax: the payroll tax directly affects all Francilien workers and employers, and were it wasted, a right-wing liberal politician could win accolades by proposing to cut it, the way New York Republicans are attacking the smaller payroll tax used to fund the MTA.
The proposals of where to spend the money to be raised so opaquely are problematic as well. There is a set of reforms, based on best practices in Continental Europe and Japan, that every urban transit system in the first world should pursue, including in their original countries, where often only some of those aspects happen. These include proof-of-payment fare collection on buses, commuter trains, and all but the busiest subway systems; all-door boarding on buses; mode-neutral fares with free transfers; signal priority and bus lanes on all major bus routes, with physically separated lanes in the most congested parts; a coherent frequent bus network, and high off-peak frequency on all trains; and through-service on commuter rail lines that can be joined to create a coherent S-Bahn or RER system. As far as I can tell, the report ignores all of these, with the exception of the vague sentence, “outfitting local bus routes with SBS features,” which features are unspecified. Instead, new buzzwords like resiliency and redundancy appear throughout the report. Redundancy in particular is a substitute for reliability: the world’s busiest train lines are generally not redundant: if they have parallel alternatives those are relief lines or slower options, and a shutdown would result in a major disruption. Amtrak, too, looks for redundancy, even as the busiest intercity rail line in the world, the Tokaido Shinkansen, has no redundancy, and is only about to get some in the next few decades as JR Central builds the Chuo Shinkansen for relief and for higher speeds.
The only foreigners on the Commission are British, Canadian, and Colombian, which may have something to do with the indifference to best industry practices. Bogota is famous for its BRT system, leveraging its wide roads and low labor costs, and Canada and to a lesser extent the UK have the same problems as the US in terms of best industry practices. Swiss, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Korean members might have known better, and might also have been useful in understanding where exactly the cost problems of the US in general and New York in particular come from.
The final major problem with the report, in addition to the indifference to cost, the proposal for reactionary funding sources, and the ignorance of best industry practices, is the continued emphasis on a state of good repair. While a logical goal in the 1980s and 90s, when the MTA was coming off of decades of deferred maintenance, the continued pursuit of the maintenance backlog today raises questions of whether maintenance has been deferred more recently, and whether it is still deferred. More oversight of the MTA is needed, for which the best idea I can think of is changing the cycles of maintenance capital funding from five years, like the rest of the capital plan, to one year. Long-term investment should still be funded over the long term, but maintenance should be funded more regularly, and the backlog should be clarified each year, so that the public can see how each year the backlog is steadily filled while normal replacement continues. This makes it more difficult for MTA chiefs to propose a bold program, fund it by skimping on maintenance, and leave for their next job before the ruse is discovered.
I tag this post under both good categories (“good transit” and “good/interesting studies”) and bad ones (“incompetence” and “shoddy studies”) because there are a lot of good ideas in the report. But none of them rises to the level of reinvention, and even collectively, they represent incremental improvement, of the sort I’d expect of a city with a vigorous capital investment program and industry practices near the world’s cutting edge. New York has neither, and right now it needs to imitate the best performers first.
At the beginning of the month, New York State released its draft environmental impact statement for high-speed rail from New York to the Upstate cities. The costs of HSR as proposed by the state are excessive, and as a result the state has eliminated the high-speed option. It is only considering medium-speed options – the fastest is 125 mph, for the cost of full-fat high-speed rail; it sandbagged the full-speed options. Consider the following passage, from the main document, section 3.2.2:
The dedicated right-of-way of the very high speed (VHS) alternatives would result in significant travel time savings (5:17 and 4:23 respectively for 160 mph MAS and 220 mph MAS), and commensurately higher estimated ridership (4.06 and 5.12 million respectively for 160 mph MAS and 220 mph MAS).
The length of New York-Buffalo is about 690 km. At 4:23, it is an average speed of 157 km/h. To put things in perspective, the Hikari express trains in the 1960s achieved an average of 162 km/h (515 km in 3:10) in 1965, with a maximum speed of 210 km/h.
In section 3.3.5, the 125 mph alternative, which involves greenfield dedicated track from Albany to Buffalo, is said to have an average speed of 77 mph, or 124 km/h. Considering that British express trains on the legacy East Coast and West Coast Main Lines restricted to the same top speed average about 130-140 km/h, this is unimpressive.
Likewise, the cost estimates seem too high. The cost proposed for 125 mph is $14.71 billion. That’s on existing track south of Albany with minor improvements; as per exhibits 3-19 and 3-21, 83% of the cost is said to be Albany-Buffalo, a distance of 380 km on new track plus 76 on existing track. This makes sense for a full-speed, 350 km/h line. But the cost of the full-speed 220 mph option is $39 billion, around $55 million per km from New York to Buffalo in an area with a topography that justifies at most half that.
The study also sandbags the higher-speed options, from 125 mph up, by overplaying the importance of skipped small cities. A greenfield line cannot reasonably serve Schenectady, Amsterdam, and Rome. It could serve Utica, but with some takings because the sharp curve from the tracks at the downtown station to the I-90 right-of-way to the west. Lack of service to Utica would be a drawback, but the study for some reason thinks that those four stations would need their own dedicated intercity line to New York, using a connection to Metro-North, which is said on PDF-p. 37 to have capacity problems on the Hudson Line (the Hudson Line runs 12 trains per hour at the peak today, and is four-tracked). I am told that people drive all the way from Watertown to Syracuse to take Amtrak; none of the skipped four stations is that far from Albany or Syracuse. If a regional train is needed, it can connect at Albany.
The problem is that the alignments studied are uninspiring. I don’t just mean it as a synonym for bad. I mean they avoid locations that look difficult at first glance but are actually reasonably easy. CSX bypasses Albany already; it is not a problem to run high-speed trains at low speed on the existing line between Rensselaer and a spot west of Albany where the line could transition to the Thruway, and yet exhibit 3-20 shows a passenger rail bypass of Albany.
For the full-speed option, I do not know how much tunneling and bridging the state thinks is necessary for its west-of-Hudson I-87 alignment from New York to Albany, but there’s an alignment east of the Hudson with only about 7 km of tunnel, all through the Hudson Highlands. Briefly, such a line would go east of the built-up area in Dutchess County and points north, with a possible station at the eastern edge of the Poughkeepsie urban area and another near Rhinebeck, closer to the city and to the bridge to Kingston than the present Rhinecliff station. In Putnam and northern Westchester Counties, it would utilize the fact that the ridge lines go northeast to southwest to swing to the southwest, to hook up to the Hudson Line slightly north of Croton-Harmon. With a curve radius of 4 km, and a maximum grade of 3.5%, only two tunnels are needed, one under Peekskill of about 2 km and one under the crest in Putnam County of about 5 km. Some additional viaducts are needed through the valleys in the Hudson Highlands, but from Dutchess County north the line would be almost entirely at-grade.
There is generally a tunnel vision in American high-speed rail documents like this, consisting of any of the following features:
– Excessive avoidance of greenfield alignments, even in relatively flat areas. The flip side is excessive usage of freeway rights-of-way. The Syracuse-Rochester segment is actually greenfield in the study, which is good, but there is no thought given to greenfield New York-Albany alignments, which are frankly much easier east of the Hudson than west of the Hudson.
– Questionable assumptions about the abilities of existing track in urban areas to have higher capacity, which often leads to excessive multi-tracking (as in California); there is never any effort to construct an integrated timetable to limit the construction of new tracks.
– No rail-on-rail grade separations. The study talks about Spuyten Duyvil capacity problems, which are very real if traffic grows, but says nothing about the possibility of grade-separating the junction from the Empire Connection to the Metro-North mainline to Grand Central.
– With the exception of California, which erred in the other direction, uninspiring speeds. It’s actually hard to construct a 350 km/h line that only averages 157; actual high-speed lines around the world in the 270+ range average about 180 or higher.
It’s not surprising New York is sandbagging HSR. A year and a half ago, the Cuomo administration killed an HSR study on the grounds that in a recession, the state can’t afford to build such an expensive project. Given how long it takes from the initial study to the beginning of construction, the argument is so transparently wrong that it raises the question of what the real motivation was. But whatever the real reason was, the state is not interested in HSR, and wrote a lengthy environmental impact study to justify its disinterest.
The Regional Plan Association has a new study warning that Metro-North’s infrastructure is falling apart, and demands $3.6 billion in immediate spending on state of good repair. In general, my line on deferred maintenance is “you mean the agency deferred maintenance all those years and didn’t tell us?”. But in this case, despite the language, most of the proposed spending is improvements, namely rehabilitation or replacement of old movable bridges with low speed limits, rather than ongoing maintenance folded into long-term capital spending.
$2.8 billion of the proposed program is for replacing five bridges: Pelham Bay, Cos Cob (over the Mianus), Walk (over the Norwalk River), Saga (over the Saugatuck), and Devon (over the Housatonic). I believe all five should be replaced in the medium term, but the cost proposed is much higher than it should be. $560 million per bridge is quite high, and out of line with Amtrak found on PDF-pp. 29 and 56 of the Northeast Corridor Master Plan. Amtrak cites the cost of replacing the Pelham Bay Bridge alone at $100 million, and the cost of both replacing it and modifying curves on the Hell Gate Line at $500 million. It cites the cost of replacing both the Saga and Walk Bridges at $600 million.
Now, the RPA lists Saga as the easiest bridge to replace since it’s two two-track bridges, so work can be done one bridge at a time with less disruption to ongoing service, but conversely Pelham Bay is also quite cheap according to Amtrak.
But there’s a more serious problem, which is the avoidance of talking about service plans for commuter and intercity rail. If there is serious effort at adding Metro-North service to Penn Station or at raising intercity rail speeds, then the worst speed and capacity restrictions should get priority, and the infrastructure construction should be based on what promotes the desired service plans. It is very expensive and probably cost-ineffective to six-track everything from New Rochelle to Stamford, to allow three speed regimes: local, express, and intercity. I have argued before that it’s better to leave it at four tracks and bypass bad curves, around Port Chester, and make this the six-track segment. This is of course independent of maintenance issues, but suggests which bridge replacements are necessary to support these bypasses (Cos Cob) and which aren’t (the rest are less critical, especially Walk, which intercity trains should bypass on a straighter I-95 segment).
Likewise, there’s a capacity crunch west of Stamford but not one east of Stamford, and this again suggests Cos Cob as the most important priority. Finally, the slowest segment of the NEC away from immediate station areas is the western corner of Connecticut, from the state line to Stamford; Stamford’s curves are mild, while those heading out of Port Chester all the way across the Mianus are quite bad, and straightening the segment would also require straightening the bridge, which can be done easily if it’s replaced. Despite all this, the RPA and Amtrak are saying Cos Cob needs rehabilitation and not replacement, which misses opportunities to both improve reliability and speed up a slow segment.
Moreover, there is no mention of grade-separating Shell Interlocking, just south of New Rochelle. While not a state of good repair issue even in theory, the interlocking’s tight curves impose a limit of either 30 or 45 mph (so, 50-70 km/h), depending on source, in an area that could otherwise support 200 km/h or more. It is very difficult to straighten New Rochelle to sufficient curve radius for that, but 150 requires only minor takings. This may be necessary, independent of speed issues, to raise capacity enough to allow Metro-North service to both Grand Central and Penn Station. It’s possible to schedule trains through the flat junction, but this imposes an additional constraint on the schedule, on top of track-sharing with Amtrak and, in the East River Tunnels, the LIRR.
The relative costs of different technologies of transit are not fixed. Although there are some rules of thumb for the ratio of tunneling cost to above-ground transit cost, the actual ratio depends on the city and project, and this would favor the mode that’s relatively cheaper. Likewise, the ratio of operating to capital costs is not always fixed, and of course long-term real interest rates vary between countries, and this could again favor some modes: more expensive construction and cheaper operations favor buses, the opposite situations favor rail.
In general, els cost 2-2.5 times as much as at-grade light rail, subways 4-6 times as much, according to Table 6 in this Flyvbjerg paper; Table 5, sourced to a different previous paper, estimates per-km costs, and has ratios of 1.8 and 4.5 respectively.
However, specifically in Vancouver, the premiums of elevated and underground construction appear much lower. The cost estimates for rail transit to UBC are $2.9 billion for an almost entirely underground extension of SkyTrain and $1.1 billion for at-grade light rail along Broadway, both about 12 km. Elevated construction is in the middle, though closer to the light rail end: the estimates for the two all-elevated SkyTrain extension alternatives into Surrey are $900 million for 6 km for rapid transit alternative 3 and $1.95 billion for 15.5 km for alternative 1. The under-construction Evergreen Line, which is 11 km long of which about 2 are in tunnel, is $1.4 billion.
In the rest of Canada, this seems to be true as well, though the evidence is more equivocal since the projects that are considered above-ground are often elevated rather than at-grade. The Canadian above-ground projects that Rob Ford’s Eglinton subway is compared with are not wholly above ground. Calgary’s West LRT, which with the latest cost overrun is $1.4 billion (a multiple of the preexisting three-line system) for 8 km, includes a 1.5 km tunnel, a short trench, and some elevated segments. Edmonton’s North LRT is $750 million for 3.3 km, of which about 1 km is in tunnel and the rest at-grade. But while it’s hard to find the exact ratio because of those mixed projects, the costs are not consistent with the ratios found in Flyvbjerg’s sources.
Outside Canada, those ratios seem to hold up better. American above-ground transit projects, such as the Portland Milwaukie extension and the Washington Silver Line, are as expensive as Calgary and Edmonton’s light rail, but American subways are much more expensive than Toronto’s Eglinton subway ($325 million/km, 77% underground and the rest elevated): Manhattan tunneling is more difficult, so its $1.3-1.7 billion/km cost may not be representative, but conversely, BART to San Jose’s $4 billion for about 8 km of tunnel is for tunneling partially under a wide railroad right-of-way, with no crossings of older subway infrastructure as is the case for Eglinton at Yonge.
Conversely, French tunneling costs are comparable to or lower than Canadian ones, but at-grade light rail is far less expensive than in North America. The RER E extension was at least as of 2009 budgeted at €1.58-2.18 billion for 8 km of tunnel (see PDF-page 79 here; this excludes €620 million in improvements to the existing commuter lines the tunnel will be linked with) – somewhere between the per-km costs of Vancouver and Toronto subways, but in a much denser environment with more infrastructure to cross. But the cost range for Parisian trams is much lower, about €30-50 million per km, in line with the subway:tram cost ratio of 4-6; the cost range in other French cities tends to be a little lower.
What this means is that in Canada in general, and in Vancouver in particular, questions about what mode to build should have higher-end answers than elsewhere. It doesn’t mean that the Eglinton subway is justified, but it does bias suburban rail lines in Vancouver toward elevated SkyTrain extensions rather than light rail, and inner extensions toward SkyTrain subways. For the same cost of building a subway under Broadway, Translink couldn’t build too much additional light rail; it could build two lines, say on Broadway and 41st, or maybe three if both non-Broadway routes are short, but certainly nothing like the entire network that SkyTrain opponents believe is the alternative, citing European tramway construction costs.
In response to my takedown of Reason, specifically my puzzlement at the estimates of inaccuracy in traffic forecasts, alert reader Morten Skou Nicolaisen sent me several papers on the subject. While there is past research about traffic shortfalls, for example this paper by Flyvbjerg (hosted on a site opposing the Honolulu rapid transit project), Flyvbjerg’s references are papers from twenty years ago, describing mostly subway projects in developing countries, but also rapid transit and light rail projects in the US built in the 1970s and 80s. Unlike Flyvbjerg, who posits that planners are lying, the authors of the papers he references have other theories: currency exchange rate swings, the challenges of underground construction, inaccurate forecasts of future economic growth, outdated traffic models based on postwar road traffic models. See section 6 of Walmsley and Pickett, and sections 3.3 and 4.2 of Fouracre, Allport, and Thomson (see also the range of costs for underground construction in developing countries in section 3.3).
The question is then whether things have improved since 1990. Since the first study to point out to cost overruns and ridership shortfalls in the US was by Pickrell, the question is whether post-Pickrell lines have the same problems, or whether there are better outcomes now, called a Pickrell effect.
The answer, as far as ridership is concerned, is very clearly that ridership shortfalls are no longer a major problem. See recent analysis by Hardy, Doh, Yuan, Zhou, and Button; see specifically figure 1. Cost overruns also seem to be in decline and are no longer big, although a multiple regression analysis finds no Pickrell effect for cost, just for ridership.
In particular, there is no comparison between projects from 30 years ago, most of which are underground, and present-day developed-world high-speed and urban rail lines.
In response to the forthcoming FRA loan application by XpressWest (the rebranded Desert Xpress) for its high-speed rail line from the edge of the Los Angeles metro area to Las Vegas, Reason published a report claiming the project would fail. Coauthors Wendell Cox, who cowrote a fraudulent report about Florida HSR, and Adrian Moore, argue that costs will be higher and ridership lower than expected, leading to operating losses and bankruptcy. I still have some doubts about XpressWest’s business plan, but Cox and Moore skirt or ignore the real problems, and instead choose to attack it using numbers that are distorted and at times completely made up.
The smoking gun that something nefarious is going on is the attempt to remodel ridership in terms of competition with cars and planes. In table 2 on PDF-page 20, the report shows door-to-door travel times by the different modes to Las Vegas from various origins in Southern California, including Victorville itself, Riverside (80 km and a mountain pass away), and Los Angeles (130 km away). The assumption, which is for the most part correct, is that passengers drive to the airport or train station and need to factor in congestion, and the explicit assumptions on access time are spelled out in table A-1. The zinger is that while station and airport access times are computed by taking the free-flow Google Maps travel time and adding a congestion cushion, the assumed door-to-door travel times for people driving assume free-flow travel – and even this required me to pick a particular (albeit reasonable) location on the Strip that is closer in than the Google Maps point labeled Las Vegas.
For examples, the travel times by car given from Victorville, Riverside, and Los Angeles are 2:56, 3:47, and 4:20. Those are approximately equal to the free-flow travel times to the Palazzo on the Strip. Needless to say, traffic is not free-flow in Southern California. As of this writing, on Friday at 4:15 pm Pacific Time, Google Maps gives me a travel time of 4:23 from Los Angeles to the Palazzo free-flow but 5:13 in current traffic; figure the extra 50 minutes make it 5:10 over the 4:20 given in the study. The door-to-door travel time for a train from Los Angeles is given as 5:04 to Vegas and 4:04 from Vegas, the difference coming from not needing to budget as much time for the possibility of traffic and arrive extra-early. In other words, including realistic rush-hour conditions, driving is not 14 minutes faster than the train on average in each direction, but 36 minutes slower.
In addition, the report slightly overstates the train’s travel time, as 1:40. The environmental impact statement claims, on PDF-page 39 of FEIS chapter 2, that 150 mph electric trains (the alternative that has since been selected) will take 1:24. While this is an ambitious average speed for this top speed, it is achievable for a nonstop train. Subtract 16 minutes from train time and now driving all the way from Los Angeles is 52 minutes slower than the train. As an additional check on the model, Cox and Moore assume travelers must arrive at the train station 20 minutes before departure, in addition to the congestion cushion. This is not observed in HSR systems in such countries as France and Germany, where open station design means people can arrive a few minutes before departure. Figure 5 minutes and now driving is 1:07 slower than the train.
Let us now step back and examine the general argument of the report. Cox and Moore argue the following: there is a tendency for costs to escalate (as examined by Bent Flyvbjerg) and for ridership to fall short of predictions (they call it the International Average Error Forecast but supply no reference and give no indication of the computation involved, and given the above zinger regarding travel time nobody should trust this). The ridership model has flaws, and a series of sanity checks argue that ridership will fall far short while costs will escalate. It is therefore better, they claim, to expand I-15 instead to deal with rush hour capacity.
At every step of the way, the report makes substantial errors. Cox seems aggressively uninterested in the actual causes of cost escalation and ridership shortfalls, following Flyvbjerg’s note in his original paper that cost escalation can come from many sources but it is fairly certain that there will be some cost escalation in a megaproject.
We can do better, and examine recent HSR projects. In Spain, some meet projections and some do not. For example, the Madrid-Barcelona corridor was 25% below projections in 2010, and appears to have fallen farther behind in 2011 – but in 2008 the line was only 4% behind projections, and with a deep recession and 20% unemployment, Spain can be excused for having less economic activity than projected at the height of its bubble. Likewise, in Taiwan and South Korea the HSR lines have fallen far below projections made in the 1990s, when their economic growth was extremely fast – but even those projections failed a sanity check: Korea thought it would get more HSR riders than the Sanyo Shinkansen, which looks reasonable based on city sizes until one remembers that the Sanyo Shinkansen also connects to Tokyo at one end and the KTX does not; Taiwan had estimated similar ridership, even though its largest city, Taipei, had not many more people than the Sanyo Shinkansen’s distant-second largest city and only one third as many as Sanyo’s largest, Osaka. In contrast, French lines tend to overshoot projections, as can be seen in the above link for Taiwan.
In all cases it can take a few years for ridership to build up: Taiwan took 2 years to achieve profitability after depreciation but before interest (and is now profitable even after interest after a refinancing at a lower interest rate), which Cox and Moore spin as “The project suffered an accumulated loss of two-thirds of its private investment in the first 2.5 years of operation.”
Las Vegas did have a bubble, and is slowing down now, although it is nowhere near the level of depression Spain is in. The report in fact mentions that growth in hotel rooms and travel to Las Vegas has stalled (although part of it is due to the national recession, rather than a Nevada-specific crash). It comes close to mark, but even here it fails to note possible similarities and differences with case studies of shortfalls. However, since the report attacks not just projected 2035 growth but also base-case ridership for 2012, it does not deserve this charity, even as here it skirted a real problem rather than completely missing it.
To criticize the actual model, on PDF-page 34 Cox and Moore attack it for surveying a sample of 400 people and asking them if they would ride the train. They attack the general approach of stated-preference, without giving any reference for why it is bad (they include one sentence of criticism), and then offer the following platitude: “It would seem that a prediction of ridership using a ‘less than trainload’ sample would be insufficient on which to make multibillion dollar decisions.” This is not serious analysis; this is the same criticism that led people to disbelieve that George Gallup could forecast elections by polling just a few thousand voters. The relevant paragraph from the ridership model that they could does mention that 400 riders means they results are “less precise than the reported analysis indicates,” but the same passage says later, which they do not quote, that the problem comes from having polled only 51 air travelers, where they would like 150-200 people per mode. Fortunately they polled 300 drivers, and it is auto/rail mode split forecast that is hard, while air/rail is a fairly straightforward function of travel time – see figure 1 of an EU air/rail report.
Now, in lieu of the ridership model that the report criticizes, it offers sanity checks. These are normally a useful check on wildly inaccurate estimates, and if done in the 1990s would have made it clear Taiwan was not going to have 180,000 riders a day, and even its present-day traffic of 110,000 is a miracle. Cox and Moore offer two sanity checks. First is the aforementioned comparison to car and airplane travel time; that one can be disposed of due to fraudulent numbers. Another is a comparison to the Acela between New York and Washington. If the Acela only gets 2 million riders per year, they argue on page 35, how can Victorville-Las Vegas get 9 million?
Of course, people who have taken Amtrak know that the Acela is only about one-third of the ridership on the Northeast Corridor, and the time travel difference between Acela and Regional trains is small enough that the distinction is one of branding and service class. Amtrak claims on PDF-page 41 of its Northeast Corridor Master Plan that 70% of the corridor’s riders (of whom there are 11 million) are on the New York-Washington segment, so that’s already nearly 8 million, not 2 million. Further, the Acela is a slow train – its average speed, 130 km/h south of New York, is not much better than that of the legacy express trains that the TGV replaced; the average speed of the Regional is worse. To argue that XpressWest is just like Acela, Cox and Moore do not offer a serious model of the effect of access and egress times on ridership, but instead issue platitudes about a train that stops 40 miles outside the city.
To see how professionals model ridership, see for example Reinhard Clever’s thesis (the relevant pages are 26-33) as well as a short note of his regarding last-mile connectivity. Transfers, he argues, are less onerous at the origin end of the trip than at the destination end: if they must transfer, 55% of riders prefer to do so at the origin end, 22% in the middle, and 22% at the end. Likewise, commuters in auto-oriented suburbs of transit cities (the example given is Toronto) drive long distances to park-and-rides, but balk at transferring from the city-center station to the subway. Normally the origin end is likely to be the smaller city, but in the case of XpressWest, Las Vegas is the destination rather than the origin. As a result, it is unrealistic to expect significant ridership from Las Vegas residents traveling to Los Angeles (and XpressWest is not assuming any), but quite realistic to expect riders to go in the opposite direction.
Finally, the cost overrun projection is fraudulent. As Cox did in the report about Florida, on PDF-page 40 he is comparing a simple line in a freeway median to the Central Valley segment of California HSR, a line with substantial viaducts and grade separations. To his credit, he no longer includes the 11-point rubric of his Florida report, which overemphasized relatively small components of the cost like electrification and underemphasized civil infrastructure. Instead, the report just says it’s unrealistic to expect cost to be lower than in the Central Valley, without further explanation except that the Central Valley is flat; the need for plenty of grade separations and viaducts is not mentioned.
This could be attributed to a simple mistake, but in fact footnote 76 argues based on the simplicity of the terrain and the ample space in the median that widening I-15 will be cheap, only $1.6-2.5 million per lane-km ($2.6-3.9 million per lane-mile)
in both directions. No connection is made with the fact that a grade-separated median is not available to California HSR. In fact California is planning to widen Route 99 from 4 lanes to 6 at $6 billion (PDF p. 22); it is unclear to me how long of a stretch of 99 is under consideration, but the full length including segments north of Sacramento is 640 km, of which about 240 appears to be already 6-lane, which would make the cost $15 $7.5 million (it would include freeway conversion, but the same issue with grade separations is true of California HSR and has been the primary driver of cost overruns in the Central Valley). The construction cost difference between the Central Valley and XpressWest is a factor of 2; perhaps it’s Cox and Moore who, in assuming one ninth to one sixth one fifth to one third the per-km cost of CA 99’s Interstate conversion, are lowballing costs for their own favored project, and not XpressWest. (Update: I misread the footnote, and the cost contained therein is $1.6-2.5 million per unidirectional lane-km.)
No other argument is presented that costs will run over, except that according to Flyvbjerg they might. Since the projected costs are well within California’s per-km cost if one omits the viaducts, tunnels, and grade separations, we can assume that costs are likely to stay under control. In fact the cost escalations on international HSR lines have typically come from heavy tunneling, which is less predictable than at-grade construction. The at-grade lines in France have stayed within budget. In Norway the 50% cost overrun of the airport train was centered on a difficult tunnel. German lines run over too, but have significant tunneling as well, and the recent overruns in Korea (subtracting the first phase, comparing cost projections from 2010 and 2000 shows a 40% overrun) were in the nearly-50%-in-tunnel second phase. But in Japan, as far as I can tell recent Shinkansen construction is on-budget despite heavy tunneling, and the same is true of AVE construction in Spain. Tunnels, we can conclude, are riskier than at-grade construction; in fact the biggest risk for at-grade construction, as seen in the California HSR project, is that viaducts or tunnels will be needed due to further engineering or environmental work, and running alongside a freeway minimizes the chance.
Because the study’s attempts to model cost and ridership are so weak, it should not be considered a serious challenge to XpressWest. Cox has had a troubled relationship with the truth in the past, and there is no argument he won’t make, no matter how ridiculous, to argue for the superiority of car travel over rail and mass transit. It’s actually the strong arguments that he fails to make – for example, regarding a possible comparison between Las Vegas and overheated East Asian Tiger economies. (For the record, I think Las Vegas is going to come out solid in such comparison.)
It is in reality quite easy for HSR to make enough money to cover above-the-rail expenses, and even track maintenance is quite cheap at about $125,000 per double track-km, but covering interest expenses is harder. Despite the canard that only the LGV Sud-Est and the Tokaido Shinkansen have paid back their interest, sourced to as far as I can tell just one person and reproduced by Cox and Moore on PDF-page 43, in reality multiple intercity railroads are profitable even including interests. This includes all three main island Shinkansen operators in Japan, SNCF, and DB. The belief that they are not comes from two sources: in Europe, conflation of subsidized commuter lines with profitable intercity lines, which are usually run by the same national railroads, and in Japan, the fact that the government wiped the accumulated operating deficit debt of Japan National Railways after splitting and privatizing it, but not Shinkansen construction debt (see references here).
So if Reason is so wrong, and XpressWest will likely meet both ridership and cost projections, what are my problems? In one word: uncertainty. Projected XpressWest revenue, on PDF-page 54 of the ridership model, is about $500 million per year in today’s money. Long-term inflation-protected federal debt is unusually cheap right now and this could make XpressWest a prudent investment – as of the time of this writing, the US can sell 30-year inflation-protected bonds at an interest rate of 0.5%, or $32 million on a $6.5 billion loan. HSR margins in Europe are low, but in Taiwan the margin in 2009, excluding interest, was 25%, which is enough (that said, despite falling far short of expectations, Taiwan HSR has very high ridership for what it is, and of course lower ridership means lower margins independently of interest rates).
But 0.5% interest is for safe investments, and infrastructure is not a safe investment. The claims that costs would run over and ridership would fall short are probably going to be proven wrong if construction goes through, making the project a success, though not a smashing success. But if the reduction in Las Vegas’s growth proves permanent and not just one recession, or if casino gambling declines, or if station access time proves more important than previously assumed in the model, or one of many other things that could go wrong, operating profits will decline.
This is what Cox fails to understand when quoting Flyvbjerg. Flyvbjerg talks about an average cost overrun – but more than that, he is concerned with risk. Many projects stay within budget or run over just a little, but a few cost several times as much as the original estimate. Telling the Big Digs and East Side Accesses apart from the Madrid Metro extensions is hard, and this is why it’s not appropriate to compute interest rates based on the borrowing costs available to the federal government.
At a riskier rate of return, things are troubling, as Paul Druce notes: he compared revenue estimates to the 30-year T-bill interest rates as of last year (3.75%), and found that operating margins would need to be above 25% until 2031 to maintain profitability. XpressWest is now looking for a larger loan than Paul assumed, but at a real rate of return of 2 or 3%, interest would indeed bite into the cost. If the project is that risky, it should therefore not be funded. That said, European transit projects tend to go ahead with a benefit-cost ratio higher than 1.2, which is certainly true of this project.
So the question is twofold. First, whether it’s sensible to lock in low interest rates and fund projects that would not be able to pay back their loans at the interest rates of a fast-growing economy. Second, how risky the project is. The first question is easier: on a pure cost-benefit analysis, the federal government can afford to lose a few billion dollars on a small number of bad investments, as long as it makes it up with enough successes, and this makes the net financial cost of the project to the government low (but positive, since it bears downside risk but does not benefit from the upside except indirectly through taxes); on top of this, precisely because the High Desert and Nevada are in deep recession, this project has additional economic benefit. The recession won’t last forever, but it exists now and will probably continue for the duration of construction.
I believe the answer to the second question is that it’s of moderate to high risk. The risk of cost escalations is low because the right-of-way is already secured and there is no difficult civil infrastructure. The risk of ridership shortfalls is more substantial – ridership estimates, especially of road/rail mode shares, have an inherent uncertainty, and on top of that the recession could cause permanent damage to Las Vegas. In addition, the strong Friday peak of travel to Las Vegas means that more rolling stock and station infrastructure will be needed relative to ridership than elsewhere, driving down operating margins.
The most troubling part of the project is that growing ridership will require a connection to Los Angeles, and because it requires a difficult mountain crossing, XpressWest is not interested in paying for it. Its current plan is to wait until California HSR opens to the LA Basin, and then link up with a line from Victorville to Palmdale. This is the real cost risk, and not the notion that at-grade rail construction is going to present the same difficulties as urban viaducts and mountain tunnels. In particular, California HSR will need to reconsider how to get from the Central Valley to Los Angeles, and the alternative that links with XpressWest goes through Palmdale, which appears to be more expensive by a few billion dollars than a straighter route through the Grapevine and Tejon Pass.
Since there is no hope for fast enough recovery that interest rates will rise, forcing early investment, it’s fine to wait. I would seriously suggest that the FRA delay decision until after the election, and if the Democrats win control of both the White House and Congress, wait a few more months until there is or is not a federal bill to fund HSR. The important thing to do is avoid biasing California toward an alternative that costs it several billion more dollars for the benefits of the XpressWest operation. Although California seems set on Palmdale, it is feasible that the amount of money Congress will make available for it in six months is enough for an initial operating segment if and only if it switches to the cheaper Grapevine alignment, and then the plan should be to try connecting XpressWest to the LA Basin much later, through tunnels through Cajon Pass. (In fact, if there is any way to get a cost estimate quickly, I would propose that, to see if it’s a reasonable alternative to Palmdale.)
If it’s a yes or no decision then I’m leaning toward yes, but not at any cost. If there is serious competition for other rail projects with higher or less risky benefits, then they should be funded ahead of XpressWest. If the decision biases California against the Grapevine, and the amount of funding available to it (from a separate pot of money, as it’s not asking for an FRA loan) is such that Palmdale would force unconscionable compromises elsewhere, then to protect the more important California HSR project XpressWest should be delayed even at the cost of potentially missing the window in which it can be funded.
But despite my doubts, it’s not a high-speed train to nowhere. It’s a high-speed train from the edge of a large metro area to a major leisure travel destination, and the cost of borrowing is so low that the federal government can expect to make its money back in ordinary circumstances. There is enough cushion against a ridership shortfall that the ordinary uncertainties expected are a small deal, and although a very large shortfall is likelier than for, say, the Northeast Corridor, it’s not probable enough to warrant denying a loan application. If Reason succeeds in canceling the line, it will join Florida HSR as a line that could have had great promise but succumbed to lobbying and fraud.
The article about New York State’s decision to discontinue studying high-speed rail between New York and Buffalo is by itself not terribly surprising. Although Andrew Cuomo likes flashy public works projects, of which HSR is one, he is consistently pro-road and anti-rail.
The study released by the state sandbagged actual HSR on cost grounds – it did not provide any further analysis, and in two ways (lower average speed than most HSR lines, and a requirement for tilting) stacked the deck against it – but instead looked into medium-speed rail, with top speed of 110-125 mph, which is frequently misnamed HSR in the US. This, too, is not surprising. State DOTs have no idea how HSR works, and tend to make mistakes, not know how to do cost control, and so on.
What’s most surprising is the explanation for why not to do anything substantial: as one of the HSR proponents quoted in the article complains, “The State of New York is worried about making ends meet; the economy is not doing so great. That’s the reason in the short term.” Taking his argument at face value, the state is refusing to advance study of an HSR line because economic conditions are bad now, a decade or more before such line could even open.
The recession won’t last forever; if it does, there are bigger things to worry about than transportation. Other than immediate reconstruction projects, for which the environmental reviews are fast-tracked, major projects take years to do all the design and environmental studies. California has been planning HSR since the late 1990s. It intended to go to ballot in 2004, and after delays did so in 2008. HSR is scheduled to break ground later this year, assuming the state does not cancel the project. An HSR project for which planning starts now will start construction after the economy recovers not from this recession, but from the next one.
The recurrent theme in the article is the state’s preference for mundane over flashy projects, but rejecting HSR shows the exact opposite.Starting planning now costs very little. In fact, the best thing any state agency can do is keep planning multiple big-ticket project contingencies pending an infusion of money; this way, it can dust off plans and execute them faster if there’s a stimulus bill in the next recession. That’s long-term planning. Refusing to advance construction because it won’t start until long after Cuomo’s Presidential run in
2006 2016 isn’t.
Of course, the same goes in the other direction. Too many people, building on Keynesian stimulus ideas, want massive infrastructure spending now as a public works program. For example, Robert Cruickshank (and in comments, Bruce McF) argues for long-term benefits coming from the stimulus effect. Although construction in 2012-3 would have an impact, a multi-decade project spanning periods of both growth and recession should not rely on estimates of job creation solely from periods of recession. On the contrary, economic costs and benefits should be based on a long-term multi-business cycle trend.
I propose the following principles for interaction between business cycles and very long-term investment:
1. Assume your project will be undertaken in a period of close to (but not quite) full employment, in terms of both funding sources and economic effects, unless you specifically intend to advance construction in a recession.
2. If you want to use a recession to lock in lower interest rates, higher job impacts, or lower construction costs, make sure you have a shovel-ready project, or else try to advocate for better staffing at the requisite regulatory agencies well ahead of time so that they can fast-track it.
3. Treat fiscal surpluses coming from an economy at full employment as one-time shots rather than an ongoing situation that can be used for regular spending or tax cuts. Growth doesn’t last forever, either.