Category: Construction Costs

The Northern Branch Extension is a Waste

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, negotiations in New Jersey between Governor Chris Christie and the state legislature have resulted in a significant increase in the state fuel tax. The money will raise $16 billion for funding the eight-year Transportation Trust Fund plan, and be matched with federal funds to bring the amount up to $32 billion. Unfortunately, the money is being wasted. Details of most of the plan remain vague, but it appears most of the money will go to road repair; for all I know, $4 billion a year is a reasonable amount for this. But one component of the plan is extension of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system north into Bergen County, along the Northern Branch. This is at best a marginal project, and in the long run would make regional rail modernization in Northern New Jersey more difficult.

Despite its name, the HBLR only operates in Hudson County. Plans for extension into Bergen County along the Northern Branch still play an outsized political role due to the name of the line, but have not been realized yet. Right now, the line is partly the light rail system of Jersey City, and partly a circumferential line linking dense areas west of the Hudson, as somewhat of a circumferential. As such, it is a combination of a radial and circumferential. The Northern Branch would send it 13 km farther north into suburbia, terminating in Englewood, a town center with a fraction of the job density of the Jersey City CBD. Projected weekday ridership is 21,000, a little more than 1,500 per km, weak for an urban light rail line. (The HBLR’s existing ridership is 54,000 per weekday on 55 km of route.)

The original cost estimate of the Northern Branch extension was $150 million, low for the length of the line. While reactivating a closed commuter rail like the Northern Branch should be cheaper, the line is single-track still hosts some freight service, so light rail would have to build new tracks in the same right-of-way, raising the cost range to that of urban light rail. Unfortunately, the cost rapidly escalated: by 2009 it was up to $800-900 million, and in 2015, after the proposal was shortened to its current length from an 18 km proposal going deeper into the Bergen County suburbs, the cost was up to $1 billion. The cost per rider is still much better than that of the Gateway Tunnel, but it makes the project marginal at best.

While the high cost may be surprising, at least to the reader who is unused to the expense of building in or near New York, the limited ridership is not. The original plan, going beyond Englewood, would have terminated the line in Tenafly, a wealthy suburb where my advisor at Columbia used to live. Many people in Tenafly objected to that plan, not so much on the usual NIMBY grounds of traffic and noise as on the grounds that the line would not be of much use to them. They were interested in taking public transit to go to Manhattan, and the HBLR system would not be of any use. Of course, Columbia professors would not be using a rail network that went directly to Midtown or Lower Manhattan, but most of the suburb’s Manhattan-bound residents work in the CBD and not at Columbia.

I would probably not be this adamantly against the Northern Branch project if it were just one more over-budget light rail line at $45,000 per projected rider. The US has no shortage of these. Rather, it’s the long-term effect on regional rail.

The Northern Branch would make a good commuter rail line, going from Pavonia (or possibly Hoboken) north to Nyack, connecting to the HBLR at its present-day northern terminus, with about the same stop spacing as the proposed HBLR extension. Potentially it could even get a loop similar to the proposed Secaucus loop of the Gateway project allowing it to enter Penn Station directly. An even better connection would involve a second tunnel between Pavonia, Lower Manhattan, and Atlantic Terminal on the LIRR, with a new transfer station at the junction of the Northern Branch and the Northeast Corridor. Consult this map, depicting the inner segments of various potential commuter lines: the Northern Branch is the easternmost yellow line, the Northeast Corridor is in red and green.

The importance of the Northern Branch for regional rail is threefold. First, the easternmost line in North Jersey today, the Pascack Valley Line, misses a large swath of territory farther east, which is covered by the Northern Branch and by the West Shore Line. The West Shore Line actually passes through somewhat denser suburbs, with more Manhattan-bound commuters, but is a major freight route, whereas the Northern Branch has little freight traffic, which can be scheduled around passenger trains or even kicked out. Second, again shared with the West Shore Line, the Northern Branch provides a north-south line in Hudson County west of Bergen Hill, where there is suitable land for transit-oriented development. And third, the terminus, Nyack, is a town center with a walkable core.

I wouldn’t really object to making the Northern Branch light rail if it were cheap. At the original cost estimate of $150 million, I would be mildly annoyed by the lack of long-term thinking, but I’d also recognize that the cost per rider was low, and at worst the state would have to redo a $150 million project. At $1 billion, the calculus changes considerably; it’s a significant fraction of what a tunnel under the Hudson should cost (though not what it does cost given the extreme amount of scope creep).

High costs, as I said in 2011, should not be an excuse to downgrade transit projects to a cheaper, less useful category (such as from a subway to light rail). In this case we see the opposite happen: high costs are a reason to reject a downgraded project, since the cost per rider is no longer low enough to justify shrugging off the long-term effect on regional rail restoration.

Why Costs Matter

Stockholm is currently expanding its transit system, with about 19 kilometers of subway extension, and another 6 kilometers of a commuter rail tunnel taking regional traffic off the at-capacity mainline. The subway extension, excluding rolling stock acquisition, costs about $2.1 billion, and the commuter rail extension $1.8 billion.

The US is currently building five subways: Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 (2.8 km, $4.6 billion), East Side Access (2.2 km, $10 billion), the first phase of the Wilshire subway (6.3 km, $2.8 billion), the Regional Connector (3.1 km, $1.4 billion), U-Link (5 km, $1.8 billion). Two more projects are partially underground: the Crenshaw/LAX Line, a total of 13.7 km of which 4.7 are underground, at a total cost of $2.1 billion, and the Warm Springs BART extension, a total of 8.6 km of which 1.6 are underground, at a total cost of $900 million. (Update 2/1: the Central Subway is $1.6 billion for 2.8 km. Thanks to Joel for pointing out that I forgot about it.)

The first observation is that Sweden has just 700 meters 3.5 km of subway under construction less than the US under construction, despite a vast gap in not only population but also current transit usage. Stockholm may have twice the per capita rail ridership of New York, but it’s still a small city, the size of Indianapolis, Baltimore, Portland, or Charlotte; 450 million annual rail trips is impressive for a city of its size, but the US combined has more than 3 billion. This relates to differences in costs: the amount of money Sweden is putting into heavy rail infrastructure is $3.9 billion, vs. $23.6 billion $25.2 billion among the seven eight US projects, which approaches the ratio of national subway and commuter rail ridership levels.

The second observation is that the US spending is not really proportional to current rail ridership. Two thirds of the spending is in New York, as is two thirds of US rail ridership, but nearly everything else is in Los Angeles, which takes in a majority of current subway construction route-length. Los Angeles is a progressive city and wants better public transit, but the same is true in many of the six major US transit cities – New York, Washington, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. And yet, of those six, only New York and San Francisco are building urban subways (BART’s one mile of tunnel is in a suburb, under a park).

The difference is that Los Angeles builds subways at $400-450 million per km in the city core (less in future phases of the Wilshire subway), whereas in most of the US, lines are either more expensive or more peripheral. Boston, the Bay Area, and Washington are expanding their rapid transit networks, but largely above-ground or in a trench, and only outside the core. Boston’s Green Line Extension is in a trench, but has had major budget overruns and is currently on the high side for a full subway ($3 billion for 6.9 km), and the MBTA is even putting canceling the project on the table due to the cost. Washington’s Silver Line Phase 2 is 18.5 km and $2.7 billion, in a highway median through the Northern Virginia suburbs. BART’s Warm Springs extension is about $100 million per km, which is not outrageously high, but the next extension of the line south, to Berryessa, is $2.3 billion for 16 km, all above ground.

Let us now stay on the North American West Coast, but go north, to Vancouver. Vancouver’s construction costs are reasonable: the cost projections for the Broadway subway (C$2.7 billion ex-vehicles, PDF-p. 95) are acceptable relative to route-length (12.4 km, PDF-p. 62) and very good relative to projected ridership (320,000 per weekday, PDF-p. 168). Judging by the costs of the Evergreen and Canada Lines, and the ridership evolution of the Canada Line, these projections seem realistic. And yet, in a May 2015 referendum about funding half the line as well as many other transit projects, 62% of the region’s voters, including a bare majority in Vancouver proper, voted no.

The referendum’s result was not a shock. In the few months before the vote, the polls predicted a large, growing no vote. Already in February, the Tyee was already comparing Vancouver negatively with Stockholm, and noting that TransLink’s regional governance structure was unusual, saying the referendum was designed to fail. This is not 100% accurate: in 2014, polls were giving the yes side a majority. The deterioration began around the end of 2014 or beginning of 2015: from 52-39 in December to 46-42 in January, to 27-61 in March. The top reason cited by no voters was that they didn’t trust TransLink to spend the money well.

This cannot be divorced from Vancouver’s Compass Card debacle: plans to replace paper tickets and SkyTrain’s proof-of-payment system with a regionwide smartcard, called Compass, and faregates on SkyTrain, were delayed and run over budget. The faregates aren’t even saving money, since TransLink has to pay an operating fee to vendor Cubic that’s higher than the estimated savings from reduced fare evasion. The height of the scandal was in 2014, but it exploded in early 2015, when TransLink replaced its manager amidst growing criticism. The referendum would probably have been a success a year earlier; it was scheduled in what turned out to be a bad period for TransLink.

The importance of the Vancouver example is that construction costs are not everything. Transit agencies need to get a lot of things right, and in some cases, the effects are quite random. (Los Angeles, too, had a difficult rollout of a Cubic-run faregate system.) The three key principles here are, then:

1. Absolute costs matter. They may not directly affect people’s perceptions of whether construction is too expensive. But when legislators have to find money for a new public transit project, they have some intuitive idea of its benefits, give or take a factor of perhaps 2. Gateway is being funded, even though with the latest cost overrun (to $23.9 billion) the benefit-cost ratio in my estimation is about 1/3, but this involved extensive lobbying by Amtrak, lying both to Congress and to itself that it is a necessary component of high-speed rail. Ordinary subways do not have the luxury of benefiting from agency imperialism the way the Gateway project did; if they’re too expensive, they’re at risk of cancellation.

2. Averaged across cities and a number of years of construction, cities and countries with lower construction costs will build more public transit. We see this in the US vs. Sweden. Of course, there are periods of more construction, such as now, and periods of less, such as around 2000, but this affects both countries right now.

3. Variations from the average are often about other issues of competence – in Vancouver’s case, the failure of the faregates and the delayed Compass rollout. Political causes are less important: Vancouver’s business community opposed the transit referendum and organized against it, but it’s telling that it did so and succeeded, whereas business communities in cities with more popular transit authorities support additional construction.

In a post from 2011, Yonah Freemark argued that California HSR’s projected cost’s upper end was just 0.18% of the projected GDP of California over a 20-year construction period. The implication: the cost of high-speed rail (and public transit in general) is small relative to the ability of the economy to pay. This must be paired with the sobering observation that the benefits of public transit are similarly small, or at most of the same order of magnitude.

New York’s survived decades without Second Avenue Subway. It’s a good project to have, provided the costs are commensurate with the benefits, but without cost containment, phase 2 is probably too expensive, and phases 3 and 4 almost certainly. What’s more, the people funding such projects – the politicians, the voters, even the community organizations – consider them nice-to-haves. The US has no formal mechanism of estimating benefit-cost ratios, and a lot of local political dysfunction, and this can distort the funding, to the point that Gateway is being funded even though at this cost it shouldn’t. But, first, even a factor of 3 distortion is unusual, and second, on average, these distortions cancel out. Democrats and Republicans shouldn’t plan on controlling either Congress or the White House more than about half the time, in the long run, and transit activists shouldn’t plan on political dysfunction persistently working in their favor.

The only route forward is to improve the benefit-cost ratio. On the benefit side, this means aggressive upzoning around subway stations, probably the biggest lacuna in Los Angeles’s transit construction program. But in New York, and even in the next five transit cities in the US, this is not the main problem: population density on many corridors is sufficient by the standards of such European transit cities as Stockholm, Berlin, London, and Munich, none of which is extraordinarily dense like Paris.

No: the main problem in most big US cities is costs, and almost only costs. Operating costs, to some extent, but mainly capital construction costs. Congress and the affected states apparently have enough political will to build a 5-km tunnel for $20 billion going on $24 billion; if this system could be built for $15 billion, they’d jump at the opportunity to take credit. The US already has the will to spend reasonable amounts of money on public transit. The difference is that its $24 billion $25 billion of spending on subways buys 26 km 28.5 km of subway and 16 km of a mix of light rail and el, where it could be buying 120 km 125 km of subway. Work out where you’d build the extra 94 km 96.5 km and ask yourself if ignoring costs is such a good idea for transit activists.

Hyperloop Costs

Two years ago, when Elon Musk first proposed Hyperloop as a faster, cheaper, and more entrepreneurial alternative to California High-Speed Rail, I explained in depth what was wrong with the proposal. The curve radii were too tight for passenger comfort, and any attempt to fix them would require more expensive civil infrastructure. In general, the cost estimates in the plan were laughably low. Musk has moved on, but another team has been trying to build the system. It is planning to build a test track in the next three years, a distance of 8 km, for $150 million.

Let us analyze these costs. The per-km cost of this scheme is about $19 million, which if costs don’t run over is reasonable for HSR flat terrain, if anything a bit low. California HSR’s Central Valley segments, in more urbanized areas, are about $24-27 million/km, ex-electrification and systems (which don’t add much). This, in principle, suggests the system could be built for about the same cost as conventional HSR. Of course, it’s already far more expensive than Musk’s original estimate of $6 billion for about 650 km (including tunnels), but it still sounds like a good deal – in theory.

In practice, I’d like to go back to my often-quoted sentence in my post from two years ago, that Hyperloop would be a barf ride. The plan is to run capsules at their full speed, but only when empty. Tests with passengers would be restricted to 160 mph, or about 260 km/h. If the picture in the article describing the test track is accurate, the turn looks like its radius is perhaps 800 meters. Passengers can’t ride through this at very high speed. Even at 260 km/h, it requires full canting, and will make passengers feel noticeable extra gravitational push, about 0.2 g.

The importance of this is that any attempt to build tracks at higher speed will run into problems with both horizontal and vertical curves very quickly. The picture depicts sleek viaducts in empty land; imagine much taller viaducts, to allow the track to curve more gently than the terrain. Once the terrain becomes problematic, as it does on the approaches to the mountain crossings from the Central Valley to both the Los Angeles Basin and the San Francisco Bay Area, costs go up. This is true for any mode of transportation, up to and including mountain roads with hairpin turns, but the higher the speed, the larger the cost differential. In this situation, 4 km horizontal curve radii and 20 km vertical curve radii (about absolute minimum for conventional HSR) are expensive; 20 km horizontal curves and 230 km vertical curves are far more so. And within the urban areas, the inability of the system to leverage legacy rail tracks forces expensive urban viaducts.

When There’s Nothing Left To Burn, You Have To Set Money On Fire

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.

Amtrak Pays More Than Double for High-Speed Trains

Update 2016/8/16: the deal is on, per sources at Amtrak; the cost is $2.5 billion, as reported originally.

Update 9/24: as Alex Block notes in comments, sources at Amtrak deny the story, saying that Schumer spoke too soon, and there are still two bidders and Amtrak has not yet made its choice. If the cost turns out to be $1-1.25 billion rather than $2.5 billion, I will withdraw any and all criticism of the procurement process.

A press release from Senator Charles Schumer’s office is abuzz: Amtrak chose Alstom’s bid for its next order of high-speed trainsets, the Next-Generation Acelas. The press release mentions the size of the contract, $2.5 billion, and the number of jobs it would create, 750; it did not include any information relevant to passengers, such as the number of trains, the expected schedule of delivery, the expected frequency, and the expected travel time. Various media outlets have reprinted Schumer’s press release without such additional information, or indeed any analysis. Let me rectify this and provide some background as to why this order is a fleece.

The order is for 28 trainsets with 425 seats each. This can be seen here and here. Of those 28 sets, 25 should be available for maximum service, well below the 98% peak availability achieved by the TGV, but an improvement over the Acela’s current 16 trains available out of 20. There is no mention of the number of cars, which is how orders are usually priced. However, on page 30 of the technical specs, it is mentioned that the maximum length is 200 meters, equivalent to 8 cars. The capacity is equivalent to about six cars’ worth of seating at the normal seat density of economy-class HSR (including the Amtrak Regional coach), or about seven cars’ worth averaged over all occupied Acela cars. The RFP mentions half a bistro car with an option for a full car (page 21 of instructions to offerors), so eight cars per train is a reasonable assumption. I have seen references to ten cars per set, which I believe come from the option for two additional cars per train (the instructions phrase this as “an extra 33.33% capacity”). From Schumer’s press release it’s difficult to know whether the $2.5 billion figure is the base order or also the option.

Eight cars per train times 28 trains equals 224 cars. $2.5 billion divided by 224 equals $11.2 million per car; if I am wrong and these are ten-car trains, then it is $8.9 million per car. In China, a very high-speed train, capable of 350-380 km/h, costs $4 million per car; this is $900 million at the size of Amtrak’s order. In Europe, the new Eurostar order cost a total of €600-700 million for ten 16-car Velaro trainsets, about $4.7-5.5 million per car in PPP terms (see here and here); the uncertainty comes from euro:pound conversion rates and from the fact that a portion of the order is for refurbishment of the older trainsets. Siemens also sold 8-car Velaros to Deutsche Bahn for $5.2 million per car, again in PPP terms. Japanese trains are even cheaper, about $3 million per car in a recent N700 order, but only last 20 years, whereas European HSR trainsets last 40 and Amtrak specified a 30-year shelf life. The only non-US trainset order that I’ve seen that approaches the $10 million per car mark is the Velaro RUS, which is €600 million for eight 10-car trains, and this includes substantial modifications, such as winterization.

There is no excuse for such high costs. The technical specs are not particularly innovative: on page 22 of the document linked above, it is mentioned that cant deficiency should be 127 mm if the trains don’t tilt and 229 if they do, both of which figures are unimpressive by the respective standards of non-tilting and tilting trains. There is no explicit requirement for tilt. There is a requirement that trains be capable of traveling between New York and Washington in 2:21 (current trip time is 2:48) and between New Haven and Boston in 1:51 (current trip time is about 2 hours, skipping New London, which the specs require trains to stop at); there is no mention of which track upgrades are forthcoming, but given Amtrak’s heavy schedule padding, it is not difficult for a good train to meet the requirements. I do not bring these specs up to attack Amtrak for not demanding more of the trains, but to note that what Amtrak is asking is standard, so there is no reason for trains to be unusually expensive.

I will note that due to Buy America provisions, the trains will be manufactured in the US, at Alstom’s factory in Hornell. This has not caused cost blowouts for the large orders made by the New York subway, the LIRR, and Metro-North, but perhaps this order is small enough that requiring Alstom to build it at a new factory leads to major cost increases. It is also possible that due to difficulties in the bidding process, there are fewer bidders than is normal – Bombardier dropped out of the process last year, and in general, some US contracts have just one bid, with correspondingly elevated prices. But regardless of the reason, Amtrak’s order comes at a factor-of-two cost premium, and Schumer just expressed pride at the few hundred jobs that this waste would create.

What’s Going on with Hudson Tunnel Cost Overruns?

Twenty-five billion dollars. The New York region’s political heavyweights – Andrew Cuomo, Chris Christie, Chuck Schumer, Cory Booker, Bill de Blasio – all want new Hudson tunnels, without any state funding for them; Schumer is proposing federal funding and a new interstate agency, parallel to the existing Port Authority, and a total budget of $25 billion. This is the highest figure I have seen so far; Amtrak still says $16 billion and Cuomo says $14 billion, and it’s likely the Gateway tunnels are indeed about $16 billion, while the remainder is for associated projects, such as fully four-tracking the line from Newark to the tunnel portal, a distance of about 11 kilometers. It is not my intention to criticize the cost; I’ve done that before.

Instead, I would like to point out that each time Gateway is the news, there usually seems to be a fresh cost escalation. Is it a $10 billion project? A $14 billion project? A $16 billion project? Or a $25 billion project? And what is included exactly? Amtrak does not make it clear what the various items are and how much they cost; I have not seen a single cost estimate that attempts to establish a baseline for new Hudson tunnels without the Penn Station South component, which would provide a moderate short-term boost to capacity but is not necessary for the project. The articles I’ve seen do not explain the origin of the $25 billion figure, either; it may include the tunnel and full four-tracking of Newark-New York, or it may include additional scope, for example Amtrak’s planned vertical circulation for a future (unnecessary) deep cavern for high-speed rail (see picture here).

The main issue here, the way I see it, is the interaction between public trust and political self-aggrandizement. It is common in all aspects of Israeli governance for new ministers to announce sweeping changes and reorganizations, just to remind the country that they exist and are doing something; this generally makes it harder to implement gradual reforms, and makes it completely impossible to do anything by consensus. Implementing a plan that was developed by consensus over many years makes one a bureaucrat; leaders change everything. In the US, this is the case not everywhere in government, but at least within public transportation infrastructure.

As we see in the case of Schumer’s call for a new interstate authority, the changes a heavyweight politician makes in order to appear as a leader have nothing to do with real problems that the project may have. Solving those problems requires detailed knowledge of the project at hand, which is the domain of bureaucrats and technocrats, and not of heavyweight politicians. Even a heavyweight who understands that there is a problem may not know or care about how to fix it: for example, Christie used the expression “tunnel to Macy’s basement,” invoking the deep cavern, to explain why ARC was wasteful, but chose to cancel the project rather than to remove the cavern and restore a track connection from the tunnel to Penn Station, which was in the official ARC Alt P plan until it was cut to limit the cost overruns. Managing a project is hard, and is, again, the domain of technocrats. The heavyweight will grandstand instead, regardless of whether it means canceling the project, or proposing an entirely new layer of government to build it.

As for trust, let us look at the benefits of new Hudson tunnels. The traditional, and least objectionable, is added capacity: the existing tunnels are currently at capacity during rush hour, and there’s much more demand for rail travel from New Jersey to Manhattan than they can accommodate. We can measure this benefit in terms of the combination of increased ridership from more service from more suburban areas, reduced crowding, and possibly slightly higher speeds. As a crude estimate of this benefit, current New Jersey Transit ridership at Penn Station is 87,000 per weekday in each direction. Doubling capacity means roughly doubling ridership, which would come from a combination of induced demand and diversion of traffic from cars, Port Authority buses, and commuter rail-PATH connections. This means the new tunnel can expect about 175,000 new commuter rail trips per weekday. At $10,000 per weekday trip, which is about average for very large non-US cities’ subway extensions, this justifies $1.75 billion. At $20,000, about the same as the projection for Grand Paris Express, Crossrail, and Second Avenue Subway Phase 1, all of which are justified on grounds of ridership and capacity on parallel lines, this is $3.5 billion. At $40,000, about the same as old projections for Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, which I used to analyze de Blasio’s Utica subway proposal, this is $7 billion. A $25 billion budget corresponds to a cost per rider well into the range of airport connectors.

Now, I’d like to think that informed citizens can look at these costs and benefits. At least, the fact that public transit projects only cost as much per rider as Gateway if they’re airport connectors (thus, of especial interest to the elites) or if something very wrong happened with the ridership projections, suggests that there is, normally, a ceiling to what the political system will fund. Even at $14-16 billion, the two states involved and the federal government groaned at funding Gateway, speaking to the fact that it’s not, in fact, worth this much money. In contrast, a bigger project, with bigger benefits, would be funded enthusiastically if it cost this much – for example, California already has almost this much money for high-speed rail, counting Prop 1A funds that are yet inaccessible due to the requirement of a 50/50 match from other sources.

Against this background, we see scare stories that Gateway must be built for reasons other than capacity and ridership. The old tunnels are falling apart, and Amtrak would like to shut them down one track at the time for long-term repairs. The more mundane reality is that the tunnels have higher maintenance costs than Amtrak would like since each track can only be shut down for short periods, on weekends and at night. This is buried in technical documents that don’t give the full picture, and don’t give differential costs for continuing the present regime of weekend single-tracking versus the recommended long-term closures. The given cost for Sandy-related North River Tunnel repairs is $350 million, assuming long-term closures, and it’s unlikely the present regime is billions of dollars more expensive.

I am reminded of the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement: the existing bridge has high maintenance costs due to its age and poor state, but the net present value of the maintenance cost is $2.5 billion and that of the excess maintenance cost is less, both figures well below the replacement cost. The bridge itself is structurally sound, but in popular media it is portrayed as structurally deficient. This relates to the problem of heavyweight politicians, for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement is Cuomo’s pet project.

More fundamentally, who can trust any claim Amtrak makes about the structural soundness of tunnels? It says a lot that, when I asked on Twitter why transportation authorities do not immediately shut down unsafe pieces of infrastructure, various commenters answered “politics,” and on one (I believe James Sinclair) suggested that Amtrak order an emergency closure of one of the Hudson tunnel tracks just to drive home the point that new tunnels are necessary. I would like to stress that this is not Amtrak or a heavyweight proposing that, but the mere fact that commenters can seriously talk about it is telling. Most of the writers and commenters on the US transit blogosphere are very progressive and hate the Republicans; I have not seen a single comment recommending that the Democrats steal elections, fudge official statistics to make the party look more successful, or arrest Republican politicians on trumped-up charges, because in the US (and other first-world democracies), this is simply not done, and everyone except conspiracy theorists recognizes it. But politicizing the process of deciding which infrastructure projects are necessary for safety purposes and which are simply service expansions is normal enough that people can propose it half-seriously.

This brings me back to the issue of what I want the politicians to do, and what I expect them to do. What I want them to do is to be honest about costs and benefits, mediate between opposing interests (including different agencies that fight turf battles), and make decisions based on the best available information. This would necessarily limit costs, since, from the point of view of a member of Congress, if they get $25 billion for a piece of infrastructure then they cannot get $25 billion for another priority of theirs. They don’t do that, not in the US, and I’ve learned not to expect any better, as have the voters. Instead of working to make $25 billion go a longer way (to put things in perspective, I expect my regional rail tunnel proposal to cost $15-20 billion, at Crossrail 2 costs), Schumer is working to make $25 billion to sound like it’s going to a bigger deal than the new Hudson tunnels actually are.

None of this is a secret. American voters have learned to expect some kind of machine-greasing and politicking, to the point of losing the ability to trust either the politicians or the agencies, even in those cases when they are right. The result is that it’s possible to stretch the truth about how necessary a piece of infrastructure is, since people would believe or disbelieve it based on prior political beliefs anyway, and there is no expectation that the politicians or public authorities making those claims will have to justify them to the public in any detail. Lying to the public becomes trivially easy in this circumstance, and thus, costs can rise indefinitely, since everyone involved can pretend the benefits will rise to match them.

On Penn Station South

There’s an article in the New York Times by its architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, making a forceful case for the Gateway Project’s necessity. Like nearly all transit activists in New York, I think new Hudson tunnels are the top infrastructure priority for regional rail; like nearly all transit activists, I groan at Amtrak’s proposed budget, now up to $16 billion (but unlike most, I think that it should not be built unless costs can be brought down – I’d peg their worth at $5 billion normally, or somewhat more in a crunch). I would like to explain one specific piece of scope in Amtrak’s plan that can be eliminated, and that in fact provides very little transportation value: Penn Station South.

Like all proposals for new Hudson tunnels, Gateway is not just a simple two-track tunnel between New Jersey and Penn Station. No: the feuding users of Penn Station all think it needs more tracks. The rejected ARC proposal had a six-track multilevel cavern, and Gateway has Penn Station South, a proposal to demolish an entire block south of Penn Station and build seven additional platform tracks. The cost of just the real estate acquisition for Penn South: $769 million to $1.3 billion, at today’s prices. Trains using the preexisting tunnels would have to go to the preexisting Penn Station tracks, which I will call Penn Classic; trains using the new tunnels could go to either Penn Classic or Penn South, but the junction is planned to be flat. For illustration, see PDF-p. 12 of a press release of the late Senator Lautenberg, and a clearer unofficial picture on

As a result of this proposed track arrangement, train services would initially suffer from the capacity limitations of flat junctions. Like Penn Station’s tracks 1-4, Penn South would be terminal tracks. This means that the only service possibilities are as follows:

1. Schedule all through-trains, such as Amtrak trains, through the preexisting tunnels.

2. Do not schedule any westbound trains from Penn South or any eastbound trains entering the preexisting Penn Station tracks: for example, no westbound trains from Penn South in the morning peak, and no eastbound trains entering Penn Classic in the afternoon peak.

3. Schedule around at-grade conflicts between opposing traffic.

Option #2 is impossible: Penn South has 7 tracks. If trains can enter but not leave in the morning, there will be room for 7 trains entering in the morning, a far cry from the several dozens expected. Option #1 is the better remaining option, but is ruled out, since Amtrak wants to use the new tunnels for its own trains. This leaves option #3, which restricts capacity, and complicates operations. Thanks to Amtrak’s imperialism, taking over regional rail projects for its own ends, Penn South has negative transportation value relative to just building new tunnels to Penn Classic’s tracks 1-4 (the transportation value relative to doing nothing is of course positive).

I emphasize that the negative transportation value of Penn South comes entirely from Amtrak’s involvement. The same infrastructure, used by passenger rail agencies that were more interested in providing high-quality public transportation than in turf wars, would have positive transportation value. However, as I explained to Kimmelman, this positive transportation value is low, and does not justify even the cost of real estate acquisition, let alone that of digging the station.

Briefly, as can be seen in the diagrams, the interlocking between the two new tunnel tracks and Penn’s eleven terminal tracks – tracks 1-4 of Penn Classic, and all of Penn South – is exceedingly complicated, which would limit approach speed, and not provide much flexibility relative to the number of tracks provided. This is to a large extent unavoidable when two approach tracks become eleven station tracks, but it does lead to diminishing returns from extra tracks. This is one of the reasons it’s easier if trains branch: it’s easier to turn 12 trains per hour on two tracks than to turn 24 on four (although both are done in Tokyo – indeed, the Chuo Line still turns 27 tph on two tracks).

Avoiding large crunches like this at urban terminals a benefit of through-running. This is hard to realize initially unless the new tunnel is what I call ARC-North. It’s still possible to through-run trains, pairing the new tunnels with the southern pair of East River Tunnels and the old tunnels with the northern pair, but it requires a lot of diverging moves at interlockings, limiting speed. Penn Station plans should be built with a long-term goal of simple moves at interlockings, to (slightly) increase speed and capacity and reduce maintenance needs.

However, it’s still possible to square the circle by requiring trains to turn fast on tracks 1-5 of Penn Station (track 5 splits to a terminating end and an end that runs through east of New York). Tokyo would be able to turn a full complement of 24 trains per hour on these tracks. Most other cities would not. However, as somewhat of a limiting European case, the RER A turns a peak train every 10 minutes on single track at Le Vésinet-Le Pecq, the next-to-last station on the Saint-Germain-en-Laye branch; Le Pecq has two through-tracks (also hosting a train every 10 minutes) and one terminal track. See map and schedule. This does not scale to 24 tph on four tracks; somewhat tellingly, those trains do not continue to the terminus, which is a three-track station, implying turning 12 tph on three tracks is problematic. The RER E turns 16 tph at the peak at Haussmann-Saint Lazare, a four-track city terminus, pending under-construction extension of the line to the west, which would make it a through-station.

If we accept 16 tph as the capacity of new Hudson tunnels without new Penn Station tracks, then the question should be what the most cost-effective way to raise future capacity is. An extra 9 tph, the equivalent of the difference between 16 tph and the 25 tph that the current tunnel runs and that Amtrak projects for Gateway, is within the capabilities of signaling improvements and better schedule discipline. Again looking to Paris for limiting cases, the combined RER B+D tunnel between Gare du Nord and Châtelet-Les Halles runs 32 tph, without any stations in the tunnel (the RER B and D use separate platforms), while the moving block signaling-equipped RER A runs 30 tph on its central segment, with stations (as do the S-Bahn systems of Berlin and Munich). The RER E was planned around a capacity of 18 tph, but only 16 tph are run today. 18+32 = 50 = 25+25. France is not Japan, with its famous punctuality: French trains are routinely late, and as far as I remember, the RER B has on-time performance of about 90% based on a 5-minute standard, worse than that of Metro-North in its better months.

More importantly, dropping Penn South from the Gateway plan saves so much money that it could all go to through-running, via a new tunnel from tracks 1-5 to Grand Central. This is about 2 km of tunnel, without any stations; in a normal city this would cost $500 million, the difficulty of building in Midtown canceling out with the lack of stations, and even at New York construction costs, keeping the tab to $2 billion should be doable. The 7 extension is $2.1 billion, but includes a station; an additional proposed infill station at 10th Avenue, dropped from the plan, would’ve $450 million, giving us $1.6 billion for about 1.6 revenue route-km, rising to 2.3 km including tail tracks – less than a billion dollars per kilometer.

At $2 billion, the premium over $1 billion of impossible-to-cut real estate acquisition costs is down to $1 billion. It’s unlikely the construction cost of Penn South could be just $1 billion, without general reductions in city construction costs, which would enable the Penn-Grand Central link to be cheaper as well. Each Second Avenue Subway station is about a billion dollars, and those stations, while somewhat deeper than Penn Station, are both much shorter and narrower than a full city block. The result is that building a Penn-Grand Central link is bound to be cheaper than building Penn South, while also providing equivalent capacity and service to a wider variety of destinations via through-running.

One difficulty is staging the tunnel-boring machines for such a connection: building a launch box involves large fixed costs, especially in such a crowded place as Midtown. One of the reasons Second Avenue Subway and the 7 extension are the world’s most expensive subway project per kilometer is that they’re so short, so those fixed costs are spread across less route length. The best way to mitigate this problem is to build the link simultaneously with the new Hudson tunnels. The staging would be done on Penn’s tracks 1-4, whose platforms would be temporarily stripped; the construction disruption involved in the tunnels is likely to require shutting those tracks down anyway. Depending on the geology, it may even be possible to use the same tunnel-boring machine from New Jersey all the way to Grand Central.

This doesn’t save as much money – the Penn-Grand Central link is extra scope, with its own costs and risks. However, unlike Penn South, it is useful to train riders. Penn South allows terminating trains at Penn Station more comfortably, without having to hit the limit of large-city terminal capacity; the Penn-Grand Central link creates this capacity, but also lets riders from New Jersey go to Grand Central and points north (such as Harlem, but also such more distant commercial centers as Stamford), and riders from Metro-North territory go to Penn Station and points west (such as Downtown Newark).

Normally, I advocate unbundling infrastructure projects, because of the tendency to lump too many things together into a single signature plan, which then turns into political football, a sure recipe for cost overruns. However, when projects logically lead to one another, then bundling is the correct choice. For example, building an entire subway line, with a single tunnel-boring machine and a single launchbox, usually costs less than building it in small stages, as is the case with Second Avenue Subway. New Hudson tunnels naturally lead into a new tunnel east of Penn Station, regardless of where this tunnel goes; and once a tunnel is built, its natural terminus is Grand Central.

The Utica Subway

Last week, Bill de Blasio released a plan for New York’s future called OneNYC, whose section on subway expansion called for a subway under Utica Avenue in Brooklyn (PDF-pp. 45-46). The call was just a sentence, without mention of routing or cost or ridership projections, and no plan for funding. However, it remains a positive development; last year, I put the line at the top of a list of underrated subways in North America. Presumably the route would be a branch off the Eastern Parkway Line, carrying the 4, while the 3 continues to go to the current New Lots terminus.

The cost is up in the air, which means that people forming opinions about the idea don’t have the most important and variable number with which to make decisions. In this post, I am going to work out the range of cost figures that would make this a worthwhile project. This has two components: coming up with a quick-and-dirty ridership estimate, and arguing for a maximum acceptable cost per rider.

Before doing anything else, let us look at how much such a subway extension should cost, independently of ridership. Between Eastern Parkway and Kings Plaza, Utica is 6.8 km. The non-English-speaking first-world range is about $300 million to $3 billion, but around $1.4 billion, or $200 million/km, is average. Utica is a wide, relatively straight street, without difficult development alongside it. In fact, I’ve been convinced in comments that the line could be elevated nearly the entire way, south of Empire Boulevard, which would reduce costs even further. Normal cost should then be around $100 million per km (or $700 million), and even in New York, the JFK AirTrain came in at a $200 million/km. I doubt that an elevated solution could politically happen, but one should be investigated; nonetheless, a $1.4 billion subway would be of great benefit.

Now, let us look at ridership. Recall that Utica’s bus route, the B46, was New York’s third busiest in 2014, with 46,000 weekday riders. But two routes, Nostrand’s B44 and Flatbush’s B41, run parallel and provide similar service, and have 67,000 riders between them. Those numbers are all trending down, as residents gradually abandon slow bus service. A subway can realistically halt this decline and generate much more ridership, via higher speed: B46 limited buses average 13 km/h south of Eastern Parkway, but a new subway line could average around 35 km/h. Second Avenue Subway’s ridership projection is 500,000 per weekday, even though all north-south bus lines on Manhattan’s East Side combined, even ones on Fifth and Madison Avenues, total 156,000 daily riders.

Vancouver is considering replacing its busiest bus, the 99-B, with a subway. The 99-B itself has 54,000 weekday riders, the local buses on Broadway (the 9 and 14) have 43,000, and the 4th Avenue relief buses (the 4, 44, and 84) add another 27,000. Those are much faster buses than in New York: the 99-B averages 20 km/h, while the 44 and 84, running on less crowded 4th Avenue, average nearly 30 km/h west of Burrard. SkyTrain is faster than the New York subway since it makes fewer stops, so the overall effect would be similar, a doubling of travel speed, to about 40 km/h. The ridership projection is 250,000 per weekday in 2021, at opening, before rezoning (see PDF-p. 75 here). This represents a doubling of ridership over current bus ridership, even when the buses provide service SkyTrain won’t, including a one-seat ride from the Westside to Downtown and service along 4th Avenue.

In New York, as in Vancouver, the subway would provide service twice as fast as current buses. The distance between Nostrand and Utica Avenues is much greater than that between 4th Avenue and Broadway in Vancouver, so the analogy isn’t perfect (this is why I also support continuing Nostrand down to Sheepshead Bay). Conversely, the speed advantage of subways over buses is greater than in Vancouver. Moreover, Nostrand already has a subway, so actual demand in southeastern Brooklyn is more than what the B41, B44, and B46 represent. A doubling of ridership over bus ridership, to about 220,000, is reasonable.

For a quick sanity check, let us look at Nostrand Avenue Line ridership again. South of Franklin Avenue, the stations have a combined weekday ridership of 64,000 per weekday, as of 2014. But this is really closer to 128,000 daily riders, counting both boardings and alightings; presumably, few people ride internally to the Nostrand corridor. The Nostrand Avenue Line is 4.3 km long; scaled to length, we get 200,000 weekday riders on Utica.

Put together, a normal-cost Utica Line, with 200,000 weekday riders, would cost $7,000 per rider. This is quite low even by non-US standards, and is very low by US standards (Second Avenue Subway Phase 1 is about $23,000 according to projections, and is lower than most US rail lines).

As far as I’ve seen, from glancing at lines in large cities such as London, Paris, and Tokyo, the normal cost range for subways is $10,000-20,000 per rider. Paris is quite cheap, since its ridership per kilometer is so high while its cost per kilometer is not very high, keeping Metro extensions in the four figures (but Grand Paris Express, built in more suburban geography, is projected at $34 billion for 2 million daily passengers). Elsewhere in Europe, lines north of $20,000 are not outliers. If we set $25,000/rider as a reasonable limit – a limit which would eliminate all US rail lines other than Second Avenue Subway Phase 1, Houston’s light rail extensions, and Los Angeles’s Regional Connector – then Utica is worth $5 billion. A more generous limit, perhaps $40,000 per rider to allow for Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, would boost Utica to $8 billion, more than $1 billion per km. Even in the US, subways are rarely that expensive: the Bay Area’s lines are only about $500 million per km.

The importance of the above calculation is that it is quite possible that Utica will turn out to have a lower projected cost per rider than the next phase of Second Avenue Subway, a project for which there is nearly universal consensus in New York. The original cost projection for Second Avenue Subway’s second phase was $3.3 billion, but will have run over since (the projection for the first phase was $3.7 billion, but actual cost is nearly $5 billion); the ridership projection is 100,000 for each phase beyond the first, which is projected at 200,000. In such a situation, the line would be a great success for New York, purely on the strength of existing demand. I put Utica at the top of my list of underrated transit projects for a reason: the line’s worth is several times its cost assuming world-average per-km cost, and remains higher than the cost even at elevated American prices. The de Blasio administration is doing well to propose such a line, and it is nearly certain that costs will be such that good transit activists should support it.

Quick Note: High Third-World Construction Cost Examples

Dhaka, the world’s poorest megacity (at least until Kinshasa crosses 10 million and qualifies as a megacity), is building a metro system. Using Japanese financing and Indian consultants, it is planning to build a multi-line system, and getting bids for the first line. This line is going to be elevated, and 20-21 kilometers long; construction costs are 220 billion takas, which is $2.8 billion in exchange rate terms and about $8.5 billion in PPP terms.based on the 2013 conversion factor here. This is a bit more than $400 million per kilometer, which is high for a fully underground line, let alone an elevated line.

Jakarta, which is much richer, but still third-world (Indonesia is slightly poorer than China, as of 2014), is building a metro as well. Its first line’s first phase is mixed underground and above-ground: 15.7 kilometers, of which 9.2 are underground. The cost is $1.4 billion, or about $4.2 billion after PPP conversion, giving $266 million per km, still on the high side for a 59% underground line, but nothing as extreme as in Dhaka.

It’s a reminder that poor countries aren’t just low-cost. Things usually are cheaper in the third world, but by a much smaller factor than the income difference. Bangladesh’s GDP per capita, before any PPP conversion, is about $1,000. It is cheaper than the US and Europe, but not by a factor of forty or fifty, but by a factor of about three. Three is an average – imported electronics cost about the same in exchange rate terms everywhere, whereas rent is much more sensitive to local wages – but, for rapid transit construction cost, the average turns out to level the entire difference between the first and third worlds. Some countries, like China, are still a bit cheaper than Europe, while others, like Bangladesh, overshoot.

Why Avoiding Stereotypes is Important (Hoisted from Comments)

In the transit-related forums I participate in, people know that the US builds subways at higher costs than all other countries, because I talk about it often. This feeds into various stereotypes Americans have of government effectiveness; Americans of many political stripes understand that there are serious problems with US governance, and compare the US negatively with certain countries that are famous for getting things done. Thomas Friedman periodically raves about China’s massive infrastructure investment; when he was secretary of transportation, Ray LaHood made the same praise, and connected this to Chinese authoritarianism, while saying that American democracy was still overall a better system. More recently, there’s been praise for Germany, or more generally Northern Europe, as a place with effective infrastructure investment (even as the actual state of German infrastructure is in decline). I was reminded of these stereotypes in the discussion of New York’s shrug-worthy reinvention report at Second Avenue Sagas: once again, the commenters praised the usual-suspect countries, and sometimes connected low construction costs with authoritarianism.

Several more examples from this month have made me notice that people overstate certain cultural differences, especially ones that are in line with stereotypes, such as Western individualism versus Asian collectivism or Northern European efficiency versus Southern European corruption. Cultures are far too diverse to be reduced to these oppositions, and this is especially true on the level of political subcultures, such as transit investment.

The reality is that the places with the lowest construction costs do not really match the stereotypes. Peruse my various posts about subway construction costs again: the main three, but also some of the side ones. Authoritarian countries like China and Egypt do not have unusually low construction costs. Countries with reputations for efficiency run the gamut: Scandinavia and Switzerland are relatively cheap, but Germany and the Netherlands are expensive, with some German projects needlessly expensive because of political influence over alignment choices. Labor costs seem to have a weak if any effect on construction costs: India, by far the poorest country on my lists, is fairly expensive to build in, and within the first world, low-income Naples has cheap construction but so do high-income Swiss cities and middle-to-high-income Milan. Culture in the sense of Samuel Huntington’s civilizations has a weak if any effect, again: there are multiple examples of subway lines built in the Western world, the Islamic world, and East Asia, and the cost differences within each bloc are far greater than the cost differences between the blocs.

I try to avoid giving explanations for these patterns of construction costs. If I knew for certain what caused them, I would not be blogging; I would be forming a consultancy and teaching New York and other high-cost cities how to build subways for less than $100 million per kilometer. I have seen two explanations by professionals. Manuel Melis Maynar, the former CEO of Madrid Metro, explained briefly how Madrid has the world’s lowest construction costs, in terms of design compromises, avoidance of outside consultants, and structuring bids based primarily on technical merit and not cost. And Paul Barter’s thesis explains Japan’s relative lack of urban freeways as a result of high land costs and a costly eminent domain process; this also explains the pattern of Japan’s high urban subway construction costs compared with relatively cheap Shinkansen tunneling (the 50% underground Shin-Aomori extension was only about $55 million per km).

The key here is that neither of these two particular explanations has anything to do with cultural stereotypes of the nations in question. When people think of Hispanic culture, many stereotypes come to mind, but none of them involves having hyper-competent local agencies designing subway systems with small in-house staffs. On the contrary, given the stereotype of Southern European corruption, an American or Northern European who was informed that Madrid Metro awarded contracts based on a combination of technical merit, speed, and cost, and did not use outside consultants, might conclude that it has a bloated in-house staff and that it uses the discretion of technical merit to favor the politically connected. Likewise, although Japan is notorious for the expense of its urban land, it does not have a reputation for strong property rights protections; Anglophone and Western supremacists take it for granted that the West has stronger property rights protections than East Asia, even if in reality English common law makes takings easier than Japanese law.

In addition to the thread on Second Avenue Sagas, in which I felt compelled to constantly defend Southern Europe’s record on building rail infrastructure efficiently, I was recently exposed to another set of stereotypes, in a four-week-old blog post by Andrew McAfee on Financial Times repeating all the usual American exceptionalist tropes of innovation. According to McAfee, the rise of the tech sector of Silicon Valley underscores how the US is going to keep winning the new global economy, giving Tesla as the prime example.

I have a simple bullshit detector for articles about innovation, especially in the tech sector: if they praise Israel’s entrepreneurial cultures, I know with a high degree of certainty that they’re familiar with too small a slice of the nation to be informed. The real Israel, even the upper middle-class slice that I grew up in, is a country at the bottom end of the first world, with Southern Italian average salaries (average household income per capita is about $14,000 a year in PPP terms, about half as high as in the US), with people who move to the US and are floored by the plenty they see at American supermarkets. It has a lot of tech workers, who function as a back office to Silicon Valley, and a handful of inventors who make exit and become rich; neither group is large enough to raise average salaries to proper first-world levels.

But McAfee’s wrongness goes well beyond the line about Israel. In a global economy with specialized regions, people tend to overvalue the sort of production that accords with their sense of identity, and this leads to either regional pride or nationalism. For a certain class of Anglo-American boosters, this is finance; New York and London are global financial centers, and this makes them worthier in this view than cities with different economic roles, such as Paris. McAfee belongs to the class that views the tech sector as the most important, and sees Silicon Valley’s wealth as superior. This is simply the modern equivalent of the 19th-century Manchester boosters’ denigration of Birmingham as a city that didn’t have Manchester’s culture of mass production of cotton, as described in The Economy of Cities; back then the boosters viewed the world as a giant factory, and today they view it as a giant smartphone app. The epitome of this is the overrating of Tesla, which is special only in that it’s made by someone with a background in online companies and not in the auto industry. Who needs the Tokyo rail system when there are luxury electric cars exciting the tech boosters?

As it happens, Europe has a lot of innovation in new fields – it’s not just Siemens making incremental industrial progress; it’s also the Human Brain Project. So do Japan and South Korea: McAfee brushes aside patent statistics, perhaps because Japan and South Korea have by far the highest numbers of patents per capita.

Now, to clarify, it’s possible to relate the US strength in online companies like Facebook to its business culture of superstars, which relates to individualism. In traditional manufacturing sectors, big businesses are built slowly, and require immense amounts of capital; in the tech sector, Mark Zuckerberg could start with a relatively low amount of capital, supplied by an angel investor like Peter Thiel on the strength of an already successful demonstration, and obtain a very large market share via network effects. However, this explanation still requires mediation via business culture. Quoting Marc Andreessen, McAfee lists four explanations, two of which do indeed involve business culture, but two of which play well into the European stereotype of American ignorance: great research universities, and rule of law and respect for contracts and property. Paris has some amazing research universities, judging by the intellectual achievements of their faculty, and as noted above, in some respects the Anglosphere actually has weaker property rights than Japan. But American tech boosters have learned that great universities lead to software and tech businesses, so if the Grandes Ecoles don’t have that then they can’t be that great, right? The national stereotype is stronger than the reality, just as with the insistence of many people in the transit infrastructure debate to talk about China and Northern Europe.

I’m reminded by a point that I made three months ago, in response to a proposal to move Silicon Valley to a growth-friendlier metro area like Houston. Facebook, Uber, and other hot Silicon Valley firms have a culture that works for their industry and that has led to useful inventions. This does not mean that the entire world has to operate like a Silicon Valley firm, nor does this mean that everything in the US operates like one. The same is true of other national stereotypes. The Spanish economy is weak, but happens to have a small segment, corresponding to infrastructure engineering and management, that works very well; other countries would be wise to copy this culture in the realm of infrastructure, and in nothing else, until it can be verified that the same principles work in other settings.

This sort of imitation, focusing on specific aspects of business culture in a particular industry, is harder than general handwaving about how to think like a German or Japanese business manager (a common trope in the 1980s and early 90s) or how to think like a Silicon Valley manager. It requires much more detailed knowledge of several different countries to make comparisons, and this is uncommon, since usually the sort of knowledge that leads to comparative analysis is broader and less specific. I certainly don’t have it – I only know the construction cost output, not the inputs that go into it. Even small mistakes are hazardous: it’s likely that the best performers’ cultures have many distinct features, of which some are crucial to their success but others are irrelevant, and it requires specialized knowledge to sort out which is which.

To add to my previous post about the MTA reinvention report, this is why I’m so disappointed in official efforts to improve American transit governance. The MTA and similar bodies have enough institutional clout and money to hire people who do understand the intricacies of various success stories abroad, and could make specific recommendations, which could appear small but could also be revolutionary. Commentators have to default to first-order information about costs, or to national stereotypes, but the MTA could have detailed knowledge about what’s needed. Instead, the MTA did nothing of the sort, and left the sweeping changes to mongers of stereotypes.