Earlier this month, Andrew Cuomo unveiled a proposal to spend $10 billion on improvements to JFK Airport, including new terminals, highway expansion, and public transit access. I encourage readers to look at the plan: the section on highways proposes $1.5-2 billion in investment including adding lanes to the Van Wyck Expressway and to on-ramps, and has the cheek to say that this will reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. This while the section on mass transit gives it short shrift, only proposing superficial improvements to the AirTrain; in the unlikely the case that this is built, highway mode share will grow and transit mode share will fall. Put in plainer terms, the environmental case for the plan includes fraud.
However, this is not really the topic of this post. That Andrew Cuomo lies to the voters and doesn’t care about good transportation is by now a dog-bites-man story. Instead, I want to focus a little on a throwaway line in the plan, and more on the Regional Plan Association’s reaction. The throwaway line is that almost every major world airport has a one-seat train ride to city center, and by implication, so should JFK.
As an organization dedicated to environment-friendly public transit, the RPA should have made it very clear it opposes the plan due to its low overall transportation value and its favoring of highways over transit. Instead, the RPA immediately launched a brief detailing possible new airport connectors between JFK and Manhattan. The RPA has a lot of good technical people, and its list of the pros and cons of each option is solid. It correctly notes that using the LIRR and Rockaway Beach Branch would compete for traffic with LIRR trains serving Long Island, although it doesn’t mention associated problems like low frequency. The brief is based on prior RPA proposals, but the timing, just after Cuomo came out with his announcement, suggests an endorsement. There are several intertwined problems here:
There is no no-build option
A good study for public transit should not only consider different alignments and service patterns, but also question whether the project is necessary. The US requires environmental impact statements to include a no build option; European countries require a cost-benefit analysis, and will not fund projects with a benefit/cost ratio under 1.2, because of cost escalation risk.
The RPA study does not question whether a one-seat ride from JFK to Manhattan is necessary or useful. It assumes that it is. Everything else about the study follows from that parameter. Thus, it considers entirely express plans, such as the LIRR option, alongside local options. Everything is subsumed into the question of connecting JFK to Manhattan.
One of the alignments proposed is via the LIRR Atlantic Branch and Second Avenue Subway, which the RPA has long believed should be connected. The brief says that it would be slow because it would have to make many local stops; I’ll add that it would serve Midtown, where nearly all the hotels are, via a circuitous alignment. But with all these stops on the way, shouldn’t this be considered as primarily a new trunk line connecting Eastern Brooklyn with Second Avenue? The question of whether the eastern terminus should be Jamaica or JFK must be subsumed to a study of this specific line, which at any rate is unlikely to offer faster service to JFK than the existing AirTrain-to-E option. After all, the most optimistic ridership projection for a JFK connector is maybe 40,000 users per day, whereas the projection for the full Second Avenue Subway is 500,000. I don’t think a Second Avenue-Atlantic Branch connection is warranted, but if it is, the question of whether to serve JFK at the end is secondary.
Express airport connectors are a fetish
I lived in Stockholm for two years, where I went to the airport exclusively using the Arlanda Express, a premium express link running nonstop between the airport and city center. I imagine many visitors to Stockholm use it, are satisfied, and want to replicate it in their own cities.
Unfortunately, such replications miss something important: any air-rail link must go to the areas that people are likely to want to connect to. For locals who wish to travel to the airport, this means good connections to the local transit network, since they are likely to come from many neighborhoods. Not even a small city like Stockholm worries about providing rich areas like Vasastan and Roslag with a one-seat ride. For visitors, this means a one-seat ride to where the hotels are.
Stockholm is a largely monocentric city, with one city center where everything is. (It has an edge city in Kista, with more skyscrapers than Central Stockholm, but Kista can’t be reasonably connected to the airport). The situation in other cities is more complicated. And yet, express air links prioritize serving a big train station even if it’s poorly connected to the transit network and far from the hotels. Let us consider London and Paris.
In London, the five-star hotels cluster around the West End. Only two are at Paddington Station, and only a few more are an easy walking distance from it. This is where the Heathrow Express and the slower Heathrow mainline trains go. No wonder the Heathrow Express’s mode share, as of 2004, is 9%, whereas other Heathrow connections, mainly the Piccadilly line, total 27% (source, PDF-p. 28). The Piccadilly line beautifully passes through the parts of the West End with the largest concentration of hotels, and last time I was in London, I chose it as my Heathrow connection. Nonetheless, the government chose to build the Heathrow Express.
In Paris, the five-star hotels cluster in the west of the city as well, in the 8th arrondissement. The current airport connection is via the RER B, which offers express service in the off-peak when there’s capacity, but not in the peak, when there isn’t. Even so, it is a local commuter rail service, with good connections to the city transit system, and a two-seat ride to the 8th. Because of slow perceived speeds, the state is planning to build an express connector, originally planned to open in 2015 but since delayed to 2023. The express connector will dump passengers at Gare de l’Est, with no hotels within walking distance, no access to Metro lines serving the hotel clusters (Metro 7 does so peripherally, M4 and M5 not at all), and a long walk to the RER for passengers wishing to connect to longer-range destinations such as parts of the Left Bank.
I bring this up to show that the idea of the express air-rail link is a fetish rather than a transportation project, and by analogy, so is the one-seat ride. There is value in faster service and in minimizing the number of transfers, but express airport connectors attempt both even at the cost of building a line that doesn’t go where people want to go.
Ultimately, Cuomo doesn’t care about good transit
Cuomo has many concerns. The chief one is most likely winning the 2020 presidential primary. He has been running for president since the moment he was elected, and many of his policies – gay marriage, the feuds with Bill de Blasio, the desperate attempt to build shiny infrastructure with his name on it – are best viewed through that lens. To the extent that he is not running for president, he has attempted to cement absolute power within the state. He backed a palace coup in the State Senate that secured a Republican(-ish) majority even though the Democrats won most seats; a Democratic majority would be led by a different faction of the party, one more beholden to Democratic interest groups, and might send Cuomo bills that he would lose political capital if he either signed or vetoed them.
This is why I keep giving him as an example of an autocrat in various posts; here is the major takedown, but see also here. Autocrats are always bad for the areas that they govern, which as two separate implications. The first is that their choice of spending priorities is compromised by the need to expand their own power and glory: even if you believe that New York needs $1.5-2 billion in new highway spending, is the Van Wyck really the best place for it?
The second and worse implication is that it is hard for outside groups to convince autocrats to do better. Autocrats don’t have to listen; if they did, they would be democratic leaders. Cuomo happens to be an anti-transit autocrat, and this means that pro-transit groups in New York need to view him as an obstacle and work to weaken him, rather than to ask him to please consider their plans for an air-rail link.
The difficulty is that, precisely because local- and state-level democracy in the US is so weak, it is difficult for issue-oriented groups to go out and oppose the governor. Planners in Democratic cities are hesitant to attack budget-cutting Republican governors like Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan; attacking Democratic governors like Cuomo is a nonstarter. Nonetheless, the RPA needs to understand that it needs to oppose governments hostile to public transit rather than ask them to improve. When Cuomo proposes a bad transportation project, say “no” and move on to more important things; don’t try to work with him, because nothing good can come of that.
As the Regional Plan Association continues to work on its Fourth Regional Plan, expected to be published next year, it’s releasing various components of the upcoming agenda. One, an update from the Third Regional Plan from 1996, is a line variously called Triboro or Crossboro. In the third plan, Triboro RX was meant to be a circumferential subway line, taking over existing abandoned and low-traffic freight rail rights-of-way in Brooklyn, Queens, and the South Bronx, terminating at Yankee Stadium via a short tunnel. It was never seriously proposed by any political actor, but was briefly mentioned positively by then-MTA chair Lee Sander in 2008, and negatively mentioned by Christine Quinn, who called for a bus line along a parallel alignment in her mayoral campaign in 2013. In 2014, Penn Design proposed a variant it calls Crossboro, which differs from the original Triboro proposal in two ways: first, the stop spacing is much wider, and second, instead of the short tunnel to Yankee Stadium, it continues northeast along the Northeast Corridor, making four stops in the Bronx as in the proposed Metro-North Penn Station Access plan. Crossboro is an inferior proposal, and unfortunately, the fourth plan’s Triboro proposal downgrades it from the original alignment to Crossboro.
As I explained a year and a half ago, specifically in the context of Crossboro, it is poor planning to run train service that begins as a radial and then becomes as a circumferential instead of continuing into the center. The route of Crossboro, and now also the Triboro plan, involves going from the North Bronx to the south in the direction of Manhattan, but then turning southeast toward Queens and Brooklyn, rather than continuing to Manhattan. Briefly, in a system with radial and circumferential routes (as opposed to a grid), circumferential service is the most effective when it connects to secondary centers, and has easy transfers to every radial. If a line runs as a radial and then switches to circumferential, its ability to connect to other radials is compromised, making it a weaker circumferential; nor could it ever be even a half-decent radial without service to the CBD. Lines with such service pattern, such as Line 3 in Shanghai and the G train in New York until 2001, tend to underperform.
However, the stop spacing deserves to be treated separately. Under both Crossboro and the RPA’s new version of Triboro, there are too few stops for the line to be useful as an urban rail service. I’m going to ignore the connection between Queens and the Bronx, which as a major water crossing can be expected to have a long nonstop segment, and talk first about the Bronx, and then about Queens and Brooklyn.
In the Bronx, there are four stops in 10 km, starting counting from where the bridge toward Queens begins to rise. This may be reasonable for a commuter rail service with local service extending well past city limits (to New Rochelle or even Stamford), but when it terminates within the city, it’s too far for people to be able to walk to it. The proposed stops also miss the Bronx’s most important bus route, the Bx12 on Fordham Road, which in 2015 became the city’s busiest single bus route. A stop on the Pelham Parkway, the continuation of Fordham in the East Bronx, would be a massive travel time improvement over trying to reroute the Bx12 to meet a train station near Coop City, the proposed northern terminus of both Crossboro and the new Triboro. Conversely, it would delay few other passengers, by very little, since there would only be one further stop north. The result of the proposed stopping pattern is then that most people living near the line would not be able to either walk to it or take a frequent bus.
In Queens and Brooklyn, starting from Astoria and going south, the route is 26 km long, and the new Triboro makes 17 stops. The average interstation, 1.5 km, is noticeably above the international subway average, and is especially high for New York, whose stop spacing is near the low end globally. The original version had 29 stops over the same distance, and one more stop between Astoria and the bridge. Unlike in the Bronx, in Brooklyn all streets hosting major radial routes get subway stops. However, long stretches of the route get no stops. The stop spacing is not uniform – from Northern Boulevard to Grand Avenue there’s a stretch with 4 stops in 2.8 km (counting both ends), but from Astoria-Ditmars to Northern Boulevard there’s a 2.5 km nonstop service, skipping Astoria Boulevard and Steinway, passing through a medium-density neighborhood south of the Grand Central Parkway with mediocre subway access. A stop at Astoria Boulevard and Steinway is obligatory, and probably also one between Astoria and Northern, around 49th Street. To the south of Grand Avenue, the proposal calls for a 2.1 km nonstop segment to the M terminus at Metropolitan Avenue, skipping Middle Village, which is cut off from Grand by the Long Island Expressway and from the M by cemeteries. An additional stop in the middle of this segment, at Eliot Avenue, is required.
In Brooklyn, the route runs express next to the L train, splitting the difference between serving Broadway Junction (with a connection to the A/C) and Atlantic Avenue (with a connection to the LIRR): the RPA’s diagram depicts a station at Atlantic Avenue but calls it Broadway Junction. Farther south, it makes a few stops on an arc going southwest toward southern Brooklyn; the stops are all defensible, and the stop spacing could potentially work, but there are still potential missing locations, and some nonstop segments in the 1.7 km area. For example, it goes nonstop between Utica and Nostrand Avenues, a distance of 1.7 km, with a good location for an interpolating station right in the middle, at Albany Avenue. From Nostrand west, it stops at a transfer to every subway line, except the R. In that segment, one more stop could be added, between the F and the D/N; the reason is that the gap between these two lines is 1.8 km, and moreover the right-of-way slices diagonally through the street grid, so that travel time from the middle to either stop is longer along the street network. However, overall, this is not why I dislike the route. Finally, at the western end, the route is especially egregious. The right-of-way is parallel to the N train, but then awkwardly misses 59th Street, where the N veers north and starts going toward Manhattan. The original proposal had a stop several blocks away from 59th, with a long transfer to the R (and N); this one drops it, so there is no R transfer in Brooklyn – trains express from the D/N transfer at New Utrecht to the terminus at Brooklyn Army Terminal, where there is very little development. There are practically no through-riders who would be inconvenienced by adding the extra two N stops in between. In contrast, due to the low frequency of the N (it comes every 10 minutes off-peak), making passengers originating in those stations who wish to ride Triboro transfer would add considerably to their travel time.
A route like Triboro has an inherent problem in deciding what stop spacing to use, because as a circumferential, it is intended to be used on a large variety of origin-destination pairs. For passengers who intend to connect between two outer radial legs more quickly than they could if they transferred in Manhattan, the wider stop spacing, emphasizing subway connections, is better. However, the mixed radial-circumferential nature of the new Triboro makes this a losing proposition: there’s no connection to any subway line in the Bronx except the 6. Moreover, in Brooklyn, there’s no connection in Brooklyn to the R, and if there’s a connection to the A/C, it involves walking several hundred meters from what on the L is a separate subway stop.
In contrast, for passengers whose origins are along the line, narrower stop spacing works better, because they’re unlikely to cluster around the connection points with the radial subway lines. (The line has no compelling destinations, except maybe Jackson Heights and Brooklyn College; in the Bronx, the two most important destinations, the Hub and Yankee Stadium, are respectively close to and on the old Triboro route, but far from the new one.) The aforementioned Astoria/Steinway, Eliot, and Albany, as well as the skipped stations along the L and N routes, all have reasonable numbers of people within walking distance, who have either poor subway access (the first three) or only radial access (the L and N stations).
What’s more, if trains make more stops, the increase in travel time for passengers connecting between two legs is not large compared with the reduced station access time for passengers originating at an intermediate station. The reason is that passengers who connect between two legs are not traveling all the way. The fastest way to get from the West Bronx to southern Brooklyn is to take the D train all the way, or take the 4 to the D; from the 6 train’s shed, the fastest way is to take the 6 and transfer to the N/Q at Canal or the B/D at Broadway/Lafayette. No circumferential service can change that. The benefit of circumferential service is for people who travel short segments: between the Bronx and Queens, or between the 7 or the Queens Boulevard trains and the lines in Brooklyn that aren’t the F. Given high circumferential bus ridership in Brooklyn – two circumferential routes, the B6 and B35, rank 2nd and 4th borough-wide and 4th and 7th citywide, despite averaging maybe 9 km/h – connections between two Brooklyn legs are also likely. For those passengers, making a few more local stops would add very little to travel time. The subway has a total stop penalty of about 45 seconds per station. Of the ten extra stops I list as required – Astoria/Steinway, Eliot, Albany, 59th, four along the L, and two along the N – three (the two on the N and 59th) are basically end stations, and few passengers have any reason to travel over more than five of the rest. In contrast, adding these ten stops would improve the quality of transfers to the R and A/C and provide crucial service to intermediate neighborhoods, especially Middle Village.
Finally, let me make a remark about comparative costs. The original Triboro plan required a short tunnel, between Melrose Metro-North station and Yankee Stadium; the new one does not. However, a single kilometer of new tunnel in the context of a 34 km line is not a major cost driver. The new proposal is actually likely to be more expensive. It is longer because of the segment in the Bronx along the Northeast Corridor, about 40 km in total, and 10 km would be alongside an active rail line. There are plans for increased mainline passenger rail service on the line: Penn Station Access, plus any improvements that may be made to intercity rail. Far from offering opportunities to share costs, such traffic means that any such plan would require four tracks on the entire line and flying junctions to separate trains going to Penn Station from trains going to Brooklyn. Fare collection would be awkward, too – most passengers would transfer to the subway, so subway faregates would be required, but commuter rail has no need for faregates, so sharing stations with Penn Station Access would require some kludge that wouldn’t work well for any mode. Tunneling is expensive in New York, but so is at-grade construction; a kilometer of tunnel in the Bronx is unlikely to cost more than configuring an active rail mainline for a combination of suburban and high-frequency urban service.
The RPA proposes the London Overground as a model, treating the new Triboro as a commuter line offering subway service levels. Everywhere else I’d support this idea. But here, it fails. First, as I explained in a previous post, the routing is an awkward mix of radial and circumferential. But second, the stop spacing only works in the context of a long suburban line feeding city center, and not an urban circumferential line. In the context of an urban line, more stops are needed, to let people walk from more neighborhoods to the train, or take a connecting bus. For the most part, the original Triboro plan, designed around interstations of about 900 meters not counting the water crossing, would work well. Crossboro, and its near-clone the new Triboro, is inferior to it in every respect, and the RPA should jettison it from the Fourth Regional Plan in favor of the old proposal.
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.
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.