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Transit


If we lowered transit construction costs, we could build more transit

US transit projects are way more expensive than those in similar countries. Addressing the reasons why could help us build more transit.


Building new transit in Seattle. Photo by SDOT Photos.

American transit systems are notoriously worse than those in other countries. True rapid transit exists only in a handful of cities, and even there, our systems are known for their unreliable service and decaying infrastructure. Often times we point to underfunding as reason for why this is the case—the US spends a lot of general revenue on highways, after all.

But there's another, often-overlooked reason: building new transit is extremely expensive to do in the US.

First, the problem

The chart below, created using cost figures from transportation blogger Alon Levy's compilation, illustrates just how bad the problem is. Estimating conservatively, New York City's price for one kilometer of subway or commuter rail tunnel is about five times more expensive than Tokyo's, eight times more expensive than Berlin's or Paris's, and twelve times more expensive than Barcelona's.


Graph by the author, with data from Alon Levy.

While New York City is the US's worst offender, other American cities perform dismally too. Take WMATA's Silver Line, for example. Phase 1 of the project, which is almost entirely above-ground and isn't located in a dense city center, clocked in at over $150 million per kilometer. In many developed European and Asian countries, this kind of money would be enough to build a fully underground subway line in a dense urban core.

Amtrak also seems to have serious cost problems. Its Gateway project, the sorely-needed plan to increase rail capacity under the Hudson, is estimated to cost $25 billion. And its most ambitious plan for high speed rail on the Northeast Corridor would costnearly $300 billion. On a per-kilometer basis, this is about twice as expensive as the considerably more complex magnetic levitation bullet train that Japan is building.

No one's really sure why we're so inefficient at building transit

It's clear that we have a problem with transit costs. It's less clear, however, why this is the case. Some people have offered their theories, but none stand out as being obvious:

  • Perhaps high land acquisition costs play a role, especially in New York City. This can't explain why other high rent cities like Tokyo and Paris don't share our problems, however.

  • Stringent, inefficient union work rules could be a problem. Yet we see union friendly-countries like France and Sweden building transit cheaply.

  • Consultants might face the wrong set of incentives. Public agencies overseeing the contractors might lack the design/engineering/construction expertise required to know if they're being ripped off.

  • Lawsuits probably contribute to the problem. Countries with a common law tradition—one that encourages suing for nuisances—seem to experience unusually high infrastructure costs.

  • Organizational fragmentation might incentivize building redundant infrastructure, as is the case in New York City, where two commuter railroads couldn't agree to share tracks at Grand Central—so they are building an expensive second terminal beneath the existing one.

  • It could just be plain old over-engineering. Instead of focusing on the purely functional aspects of transit that get us from point A to point B, we sometimes spend big bucks on lavish architecture or inessential station elements.

There are no self-evident answers here. Unfortunately, no one has studied this in detail—perhaps because our leaders seem unaware that we even have a problem in the first place.

Fixing the problem is critical for the future of transit in America

One major downside to having a cost problem is that it can be used as an ad-hoc justification to kill transit projects. Maryland's Purple Line is a recent example. After nearly cancelling the project altogether, Governor Larry Hogan approved a watered-down version of the light rail line, citing the project's hefty price tag.

We see a similar scenario play out across the country: a light rail line is cancelled for lower-cost bus alternatives. Then BRT creep sets in. And before you know it, we're left with hardly any transit improvements—all because the public thought the initial price tag was too expensive.

But worrying about high costs doesn't have to be inherently anti-transit. The opposite is possible: transit advocates should be concerned about high costs because lowering them would open up the possibility of building even more and higher-quality transit.

If your costs are five times higher than what they should be, that means you're potentially getting five times less transit than what's possible. If the Silver Line's costs were more in line with international standards, we'd have billions left over that could be spent on improving Metro. Maybe we could afford the capital upgrades required to run all 8-car trains, ora second Rosslyn station, or even a new tunnel through downtown.

As others have pointed out, the first step to fixing this problem is raising awareness. Talking to our leaders and asking questions about costs might be a good place to start.

John Ricco, an analyst at an international organization, is interested in the economics of urbanism and transportation. He first fell in love with cities during his college years in Pittsburgh, and now lives in Columbia Heights. 

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Great piece!

I would love to solve this problem, somehow. My assumption has always been the "Gravy Train Syndrome". It's like, okay they're in the mood to spend money, so let's help them out!

by The Truth™ on Jan 5, 2016 10:46 am • linkreport

No one's really sure why we're so inefficient at building transit
This seems like a lazy answer. What's stopping someone with enough time and motivation to select two similar projects, one domestic and one from another country, and compare the expenses item for item?
Public agencies ... might lack the ... expertise required to know if they're being ripped off.
This is yet another argument for strengthening the FTA. This agency should be responsible for defining a loose set of open standards for each mode (eg streetcar, heavy rail, etc). Projects not meeting the standards would not be eligible for federal funding. Standardizing projects could go a long way towards decreasing not only build out costs but also operating expenses.
Instead of focusing on the purely functional aspects of transit ... we sometimes spend big bucks on lavish architecture
I reject this notion. Public infrastructure should be beautiful and inviting, not ugly and utilitarian. Of course we've got to draw the line somewhere. NYC is probably overcompensating today for the many awful dreary stations of the past. I think WMATA did a pretty decent job balancing this with their early stations.

by MB on Jan 5, 2016 10:48 am • linkreport

It's clear that we have a problem with transit costs. It's less clear, however, why this is the case....One major downside to having a cost problem is that it can be used as an ad-hoc justification to kill transit projects. Maryland's Purple Line is a recent example. After nearly cancelling the project altogether, Governor Larry Hogan approved a watered-down version of the light rail line, citing the project's hefty price tag.

This was a reasonable exposition, until you tried to use the Purple Line as an example of an ad-hoc cancellation. If anything, the Purple Line is an example of what reasonable public officials do when confronted with costs that they view as too high: they look for opportunities to cut the costs.

If you know a better way to reduce Purple Line costs, or believe that that the Purple Line was that rare exception where costs are low, it would be better to say so. Otherwise, picking this as an example--when there are many cases where projects were actually cancelled--seems to be a gratuitous swipe at Hogan.

The statement that the Purple Line has been watered down is either wrong or premature. If we hear later this month that none of the bids were accepted, then I will stand corrected.

by JimT on Jan 5, 2016 10:50 am • linkreport

I think that the criticism that good architecture hinders transit is misplaced. One can have both good design and sound transit, and sometimes attractive design can boost ridership. The PATH terminal in lower Manhattan was intended to be symbolic because it's part of the "Ground Zero" renaissance. And look at the other extreme, Penn Station below Madison Square Garden, with its purely "functional" low ceilings and corridors. It's worth recalling Vincent Scully's withering criticism of the "new" Penn Station. "Scully was a fierce critic of the 1963 destruction of New York's original Pennsylvania Station, memorably writing, 'One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.'"

by Sally on Jan 5, 2016 10:57 am • linkreport

Great article, John. It's an important topic, and certainly frustrating that no single overriding factor can be identified.
If the Silver Line's costs were more in line with international standards, we'd have billions left over that could be spent on improving Metro.
I'm not so sure about this. Another factor (which you got at a bit with the Grand Central reference) is the fragmentary nature of our transit funding. I can't say for certain, but I imagine countries like France, Germany, and Japan have stronger national (or at least regional) planning and development structures.

By contrast, a project like the Silver Line has no incentive to fit into a larger plan. It is managed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (not WMATA), designed/built by a private contractor, and funded through a hodgepodge of federal, state, local, and private sources.

So when MWAA is looking for a federal New Starts grant, why not seek close to the maximum amount? Why wouldn't the contractor seek to build as expensively as possible? It's rare - and can take decades - for a big infrastructure project like this to actually come to fruition.

I think if WMATA had a more dedicated funding stream and regional (and federal) buy-in for a strategic, long-term capital plan, overall costs would go down since the regional authorities would have an incentive to make each project's cost and scope fit into the larger whole. That way, instead of large one-off projects like the Silver Line every decade or two, there would be steadier capital additions and improvements happening continuously.

by cyco on Jan 5, 2016 10:57 am • linkreport

If you know a better way to reduce Purple Line costs, or believe that that the Purple Line was that rare exception where costs are low, it would be better to say so. Otherwise, picking this as an example--when there are many cases where projects were actually cancelled--seems to be a gratuitous swipe at Hogan.

Those gratuitous swipes are pretty common around here!

by Chester B. on Jan 5, 2016 11:00 am • linkreport

Is ADA-compliance a factor? Are the countries building new lines for much less building them ADA compliant with redundant elevators and such?

by Paul S on Jan 5, 2016 11:02 am • linkreport

"So when MWAA is looking for a federal New Starts grant, why not seek close to the maximum amount?"

A huge chunk of the SL was paid by state and local funding, and state and local authorities had huge incentives to keep costs down, which is why there is an elevated line through Tysons. There may be problems with differing jurisdictions, but the characterization of what happened with the SL is not correct.

by CrossingBrooklynFerry on Jan 5, 2016 11:02 am • linkreport

@MB

This seems like a lazy answer. What's stopping someone with enough time and motivation to select two similar projects, one domestic and one from another country, and compare the expenses item for item?

What's lazy about it? This is exactly what was done in the post - a direct comparison of construction costs in different countries.

But you've been a bit lazy yourself: answering that question only tells you what the cost difference is; it doesn't tell you why the costs are different.

I reject this notion. Public infrastructure should be beautiful and inviting, not ugly and utilitarian.

Too many false dichotomies here. Beautiful architecture doesn't need to be 'lavish' or expensive. And utilitarian and functional spaces don't need to be ugly or poorly designed.

@JimT

This was a reasonable exposition, until you tried to use the Purple Line as an example of an ad-hoc cancellation.

Where is the argument that the Purple Line was ad-hoc? Instead, the point is that the high costs are a threat to any project, particularly ones with large price tags.

by Alex B. on Jan 5, 2016 11:02 am • linkreport

Excellent article and thanks for the data.

The link to the maglev train does not seem to be working for me. Does the maglev project also involve extensive tunneling under a major urban area and a body of water? Otherwise I'm curious why it was selected as a point of comparison for Gateway.

by Ross on Jan 5, 2016 11:05 am • linkreport

Not necessarily gravy train, but another factor may be the way we finance projects. We demand that projects first go through many rounds of cost estimates to determine a final cost, and THEN we find financing for that cost. In my opinion this creates incentives for everyone at each stage of the process to throw everything and the kitchen sink into their estimate. And then we find the money for it, regardless of how efficient the estimate is.

by MLD on Jan 5, 2016 11:12 am • linkreport

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ A+!

by MV Jantzen on Jan 5, 2016 11:12 am • linkreport

@Alex B JimT "This was a reasonable exposition, until you tried to use the Purple Line as an example of an ad-hoc cancellation."

Where is the argument that the Purple Line was ad-hoc?

In the 5th to last paragraph of the article, which says:

One major downside to having a cost problem is that it can be used as an ad-hoc justification to kill transit projects. Maryland's Purple Line is a recent example.

by JimT on Jan 5, 2016 11:19 am • linkreport

@ Paul S

No, the ADA is not making New York subways 2–8 times as expensive as projects in other countries. It's not as if Europe, Japan, and Korea are some kind of postapocalyptic hellscape in which anyone in a wheelchair is condemned to be left behind and savaged by wolves. All Crossrail stations are accessible.

by David R. on Jan 5, 2016 11:21 am • linkreport

@Ross:

Apologies for the broken link. It's fixed now.

I wasn't comparing the project to Gateway specifically -- I was comparing it to Amtrak's entire NEC HSR plan. The maglev project IS mostly tunneled (90% between Tokyo and Nagoya) through mountains and at least some dense urban areas.

by John Ricco on Jan 5, 2016 11:22 am • linkreport

What's stopping someone with enough time and motivation to select two similar projects, one domestic and one from another country, and compare the expenses item for item?

The fact that that level of data isn't remotely readily available?

Hell, most of Alon Levy's data is taken from media reporting. And if their media's use of cost numbers is anything like ours, I would be concerned that even those overall numbers aren't comparable.

by MLD on Jan 5, 2016 11:29 am • linkreport

Ah, John, thanks for the clarification. Makes sense.

I'm wondering if land acquisition costs are a large difference - not from a land value perspective, but from a process perspective. In a country like Japan, is there a more efficient process for their equivalent of eminent domain that allows a right of way to be acquired faster and at a lower cost, with less legal wrangling?

I've also always wondered if sprawl adds a lot to costs - European development seems to involve more clustered towns and villages, with more open land in between, rather than the continuous sprawl we see here, particularly between cities in the Northeast.

by Ross on Jan 5, 2016 11:31 am • linkreport

If it's really true that no one has done an authoritative study on this question, the obvious question is whether the author is interested enough in pursuing this to put together a grant proposal and actually do the study. There should be some center within US DOT that would fund a study.

by JimT on Jan 5, 2016 11:36 am • linkreport

I'll throw into the mix another possible factor: Accounting methods. For example, nations with a value added tax probably do not always include the VAT on the value added by building the subway lines. In countries where there is an individual income tax instead, the cost of the value added includes paying workers enough for them to pay their income taxes.

by JimT on Jan 5, 2016 11:40 am • linkreport

@Ross:

I'm unfamiliar with foreign land acquisition processes, but I think you might be onto something. Page 9 of this book has a nice graphic showing how railways in Japan have what appears to be legal preference for securing ROWs in residential areas: http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2014/11/04/000333037_20141104220722/Rendered/PDF/922500WP0Box380REPORT0COMING0IN0DEC.pdf

by John Ricco on Jan 5, 2016 11:42 am • linkreport

No question that is a multileveled answer, but I think a large contributor is a lack of knowledge by the agency that does the building. If you don't know more than your contractor he is going to overcharge.

I'm sure there are still some private transit (or semi private) doing construction, but in the US this is a wholly governmental undertaking. And again, for a variety of reasons, we chase out the people who know the best and can find ways to innovate.

If everyone had to buy a machine from HPE, Supermicro wouldn't exist.

by charlie on Jan 5, 2016 11:43 am • linkreport

@JimT:

The Regional Plan Association was interested in doing a study, but they couldn't raise the money they needed ($150K).

by John on Jan 5, 2016 11:45 am • linkreport

@JimT, and financing. Again, constraints of government budgeting but spending 1B over 10 years gets very different results than 10B over 1 year.

by charlie on Jan 5, 2016 11:55 am • linkreport

@David R - I never suggested ADA was the entire explanation. [Deleted for violating the comment policy.] All I asked was whether it was a factor...

by Paul on Jan 5, 2016 12:04 pm • linkreport

My assumption has always been the "Gravy Train Syndrome". It's like, okay they're in the mood to spend money, so let's help them out!

It's not like we're building particularly lavish projects, or getting a good value for our money.

The Silver Line stations were prefabbed. Above ground. Like a trailer park. We ripped out the extra signaling for closer train spacing, and scrapped the practically-free provisions that would have left room for future infill stations. There were no corners left to cut.

There are probably some parallels to the F-35 in here too. It's incredible how a single project managed to be unnecessary, mediocre, and ruinously expensive all at the same time.

by andrew on Jan 5, 2016 12:06 pm • linkreport

It could just be plain old over-engineering. Instead of focusing on the purely functional aspects of transit that get us from point A to point B, we sometimes spend big bucks on lavish architecture or inessential station elements.
...
After nearly cancelling the project altogether, Governor Larry Hogan approved a watered-down version of the light rail line, citing the project's hefty price tag.

If over-engineering is a key problem, shouldn't Hogan be commended for stripping down the PL?

That said, I don't think over-engineering is a primary factor. I have no idea what the causes are and find many of the hypotheses unsatisfactory since they would also apply to road building but we're not nearly as inefficient at that.

It's a great question to ask that sorely needs some answers.

by Falls Church on Jan 5, 2016 12:17 pm • linkreport

One thing I've always been told about Japan is that their private development costs are way more than the US. Public projects have preference in terms of financing, planning, land acquisition, and labor contracts. This might be true with other socialist countries as well. It would also explain the tendency for foreign capital to invest in the development in the US: they get more bang for their buck. We privilege private development over public development.

As for the union question, we have built our union rules in such a way in the US to try to diminish their importance, that creates some weird fiefdoms where the job protections (and enrollment numbers) are paramount for union control. In a country that is okay with unions, where unions don't negotiate on an individual basis, where membership is mandatory or much easier to obtain, where the social safety net is generous: the incentive toward less efficient staffing disappears.

We've created a system that makes public projects inherently inefficient and shifts the blame on unions. Let's not pretend this isn't on purpose and driven by anti-union, pro-private capitalist interests.

by Christopher on Jan 5, 2016 12:22 pm • linkreport

Sorry Paul, you shouldn't have been belittled. But ADA is most definitely not the reason that American transit projects cost way more than European/Canadian/Japanese/Korean counterparts, as all the countries in those regions have ADA-like legislation of their own, at least for new construction. (They do vary a lot though in terms of requiring - even to the point of not requiring - retrofits of existing non-accessible infrastructure.)

Has anybody considered that virtually all countries except the US:
1. Have national health insurance paid by general tax revenue, so that the 30+% of labor costs attributable to health coverage that American construction crews must provide for their employees simply doesn't exist in the budgets for construction crews in other countries (it's instead found in some other budgetary "bucket" in those countries) and/or
2. Don't have as stringent requirements to "Buy Domestically" meaning that contracts for new transit projects can go to the worldwide cheapest bidder instead of just the domestically cheapest bidder. "Buy American" laws combined with America's general stinginess towards transit in general are often cited as a reason why a standard 40-foot bus costs way more in the US than it does in other countries... The combination of these requirements has led to only 3 eligible domestic bidders who basically run a tri-opoly in the marketplace for new buses. I wouldn't be surprised if America has similar monopolistic behavior also going on domestically in transit construction.

More research should be done to find out exactly why transit construction costs us more than anybody else on earth.

by Chuck on Jan 5, 2016 12:28 pm • linkreport

Get rid of prevailing wage laws and project labor agreements which artistically drive up the cost of labor.

by dcer562 on Jan 5, 2016 12:32 pm • linkreport

@John: The Regional Plan Association was interested in doing a study, but they couldn't raise the money they needed ($150K).

From whom, private donors? Unless they were soliciting the "super-efficient foreign builders" for donations, I guess it would be a tough sell. But with US DOT being the largest single financer of these projects in the USA, DOT logically should be interested in the result--as well as the US Congress.

Logically, Congress should direct USDOT to do a report to Congress on this question. I'm not sure which Congressman would be most interested in hearing the answer, but it's the kind of requirement that could get tucked away in an funding bill.

by JimT on Jan 5, 2016 12:33 pm • linkreport

A great book on this topic, if a little old is a book called Mega-Projects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment, which covers a lot of these issues (and why public agencies overshoot costs a lot)

Also worth reading is this publication from EMBARQ titled Principles to Support Effective Decision Making in Mass Transit
Investment Programs
which does an comparative overview of major trnasit capital programs across different countries (basically, the corrollary to the New Starts program at FTA).

Finally, there is a required project management oversight piece for FTA-funded capital projects. See the following site.

There's a lot of politics in projects like this, and honestly, too many interest groups have an interest in extracting concessions or mitigations (manufacturers, labor, local neighborhoods), and there's very little incentive for a public sector organziation to keep costs down. And there are things like Buy America that honestly drive costs up, and those come from USDOT itself.

by AA on Jan 5, 2016 12:40 pm • linkreport

Sort of related to Chuck's #2 above, perhaps the reason that America's costs are so high/everyone else's costs are so low is that everyone else* is actually building transit more often and on a routine basis. Since they have ongoing transit construction in their countries for decades without a break, European/Asian countries may have seen the rise of many more companies competent at building transit (because there isn't such a boom-and-bust cycle when it comes to each one waiting around for the next project to bid on). And with more companies in the mix, there's increasing pressure on all to strive to cut costs, thus the national transit-building industry on the whole gets more efficient as time goes on.

Here in America, where the country might go 10-20 years without building a single new heavy rail line... I imagine it's hard for more than a few qualified companies to exist over the long run... none of which will be "experts" at building transit when it comes time to break ground (and thus the company will spend/lose a lot of money in the ramp up to building).

It's sort of like the blockbuster-action-film industry... because the US puts out dozens of these films every year, Hollywood has lots of talented contractors expert at making these movies relatively cost-effectively... and in fact, the US dominates blockbuster-action-film production worldwide. But if Disney had asked a Belgian or Spanish production crew to create "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens" on a purely localized basis, they likely would have had to spend a lot of money simply building up their domestic film industry to be on par with the resources Hollywood has at its disposal every day. I imagine the transit industry suffers the reverse of this: because the US doesn't build transit a lot, the US sucks at building transit (whether that be cheaply or quickly or efficiently or...).

*everyone else, at least in terms of "everyone else we like to compare ourselves to" e.g. large European and Asian metropolitan cities.

by Jeremy on Jan 5, 2016 12:51 pm • linkreport

Having worked many Federal construction projects I know that the process is moribund and expensive for many reasons. Environmental law compliance makes things difficult because you can't skip any of them. The cost to comply is born by the developer. This is why it takes years of study before you can even stick a shovel in the ground. Everyone gets to have a say, and will use legal means to stymie or derail a project if they don't like it. Anyone can sue for any reason with or without merit. Those costs are added to the bill.

The biggest cost however are all the changes, big and small, made to a project during construction. Costs balloon routinely whenever a change is made. Nothing is ever built exactly as drawn or planned without changes. Find a historical relic underground? Works stops until the archaeologists complete their study. Costs go up. Find an endangered animal? The project has to be moved instead of the animal. Costs go up. The route needs to be changed? Costs really go up. There's a problem with X? It needs to be redesigned? Need new approvals and new licenses? Costs go up. You see where this is going...

The final price tag (all in) for everything often reaches astounding numbers. This is why cost estimates for projects always end up much much higher than they were originally. Politicians know that the estimated number will NEVER be the final cost, which is why they are shy about spending 2x to 5x the estimated cost.

by skorpiogregg on Jan 5, 2016 12:51 pm • linkreport

The real lazy argument is "omg PLAs and wage laws mean we pay workers too much" because how can you actually believe that construction workers in the USA make far more money than those in countries like Germany or the UK?

Now, it's probably the case that "the way things are done here" means that jobs in the U.S. require 1.5 times as many workers for various reasons. But I don't think slashing wage rates is the best way to bring costs down.

by MLD on Jan 5, 2016 12:52 pm • linkreport

@Chuck
Have national health insurance paid by general tax revenue, so that the 30+% of labor costs attributable to health coverage that American construction crews must provide for their employees simply doesn't exist in the budgets for construction crews in other countries (it's instead found in some other budgetary "bucket" in those countries)

I agree, and I wonder how those costs are accounted for. In theory some of those costs should be made up for by VAT on construction materials. So it probably accounts for part of the increase but not all of it.

by MLD on Jan 5, 2016 12:54 pm • linkreport

One interesting comparison would be against the cost of domestic freight rail construction. I believe the US dwarfs all other countries in terms of the size and scope of our freight railroads.

It would be very interesting to do a comparison against a privately financed freight railroad project (particularly if a public project was relatively analogous, such as improving tracks for intercity or commuter rail). Private railroads have an incentive to keep costs low, are burdened less by public process requirements and have tremendous in house expertise in building and maintaining infrastructure. They also typically have a decently compensated, unionized workforce.

I'd be very interested to see if they have a significantly lower cost to build a similar project versus a public entity. If they don't, I think it may be safe to assume that there are certain factors that are specific to the US that keep infrastructure costs high. If they do, it may be worth looking at specific factors that inflate the costs of public projects. But that comparison would probably be the cleanest to diagnose why our costs are so high.

by Ross on Jan 5, 2016 12:55 pm • linkreport

That said, the fact that health care is more expensive in the US means that even if projects in other countries pay for their workers' health care in some way (via some tax) that more would be spent in the US.

by MLD on Jan 5, 2016 12:55 pm • linkreport

Federal procurement practices. Any Fed, former Fed, or Fed adjacent person can tell you how messed up they all are.

by BTA on Jan 5, 2016 12:57 pm • linkreport

@dcer562 - "Get rid of prevailing wage laws and project labor agreements which artistically drive up the cost of labor."

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] Many other countries have much stronger prevailing wages and/or labor unions... and yet still manage to build transit more cheaply than the US does. Therefore, crushing unions and minimum wage laws can't be the entire answer, nor does it even seem to be a prerequisite for realizing the entire answer.

Also, how does one "artistically" drive up the cost of anything?

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Chuck on Jan 5, 2016 1:00 pm • linkreport

Its not just transit. Every major public works is more expensive than comparative project in other countries, INCLUDING countries with higher hourly wages. For example, the tunnel/bridge complex linking Copenhagen with Malmo was a bargain compared to US costs.

by SJE on Jan 5, 2016 1:05 pm • linkreport

One of the comments in the Mega-Projects book, which has stuck with me in my eight years in the public sector in transportation is the following: "Since the only actors who seriously care about benefit-cost analysis are some professional burecreats, such analyses are mainly window dressing. They are routinely structured, morever, to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs - in effect, to provide a technical veneer for politically selected projects. This is not to deny, however, that they are used at times to help filter out unsually egregious projects."

by AA on Jan 5, 2016 1:13 pm • linkreport

Have national health insurance paid by general tax revenue, so that the 30+% of labor costs attributable to health coverage that American construction crews must provide for their employees simply doesn't exist in the budgets for construction crews in other countries

It might not be just health care. Depending on how other countries do the accounting, the difference could also include every governmental cost paid through taxes on employee wages in the United State (paid by either employee or employer) but not in other countries. A US worker has to be "paid" extra 50% or so to account for those taxes, while the VAT pays those costs in other countries. But do these estimates of European costs include a VAT on the value added by building a subway.

by JimT on Jan 5, 2016 1:27 pm • linkreport

Many other countries have much stronger prevailing wages and/or labor unions... and yet still manage to build transit more cheaply than the US does. Therefore, crushing unions and minimum wage laws can't be the entire answer...

This is true, we'd probably want to include tort reform and repeal of environmental laws as well.

by oboe on Jan 5, 2016 1:42 pm • linkreport

It's probably a combination of many of the things listed here. I also suspect that, as some have hinted at, there's just not much in the way of incentives to keep transit costs down among the political leadership.

On the right, there's a generalized suspicion or outright hostility to transit projects, so there's little incentive to want to make them better or more efficient. The preferred conservative choice is to block them outright. Option two, as we saw out of the Bush administration USDOT, is to make them all bus projects that have minimal impact on drivers but do make a profit for various segments of the automotive industry (even if different companies make buses than cars, you've still got tires, parts, oil, etc.).

Option 3, if the project is going to happen, is to try to water it down, inflict cuts and poison pulls, and generally make it *less* effective, not moreso. Public transit, TOD, and urbanism in general are antithetical to much of the spirit (if not the philosophy, such as it is) that animates modern movement conservatism.

On the left, there's little incentive to curb environmental or union inefficiencies, even when they could be made more socially optimal, because the people working in those spaces tend to vote, organize, and donate Democratic. If a project gets approved, there's a natural inclination to make it the best, grandest thing possible, whether as a demonstration of how awesomesauce transit is or, more often, in order to have as many ribbon-cuttings and campaign bullet points as possible.

Moreover, to the extent that transit advocates exist, they will pretty much always be in favor of as expansive (and thus expensive) of a project as possible and will oppose scaling any aspect of it back. These advocates are mostly on the left.

And, no matter which part of the political spectrum they're on, politicians love talking about job creation and how many jobs a project will create. Well, jobs = money, so the more jobs (even if they are unnecessary and borne of inefficiencies), the greater the expense.

I do agree that having a defined, strategic vision across multiple time horizons, rather than disjointed, ad-hoc projects, should help significantly. On the other hand, that's clearly not enough by itself - the New York MTA has well-documented capital plans, but their costs continue to be outrageous.

by Dizzy on Jan 5, 2016 1:53 pm • linkreport

Contractors. The answer is in eliminating the middle man. The federal government runs several large construction firms...USACE, Superfund, etc. The answer to many cost saving issues is bringing that construction work in house, hiring federal employees and doing it without a profit incentive. Public works projects should be done by public employees. End of story.

by Redline SOS on Jan 5, 2016 2:00 pm • linkreport

Dizzy, i agree with all of your comment except the item about the Bush Administration. A) I worked at USDOT during the Bush Adminitsration, and that was decidedly not true, and B) the annual total urban transit bus market is 5000 vehicles. That has absolutely no impact whatsoever on the overall vehicles market in terms of components or redirecting money or whatever. It had to do with getting more bang for the buck, and even a decent BRT project does way more for mobility than a crappy LRT one. The New Starst program is so oversubscribed that pushing for more cost effective modes was a key part of brining costs down. and funding more projects.

by AA on Jan 5, 2016 2:14 pm • linkreport

@Redline SOS

Are you under the impression that USACE employees are doing all the construction work on their projects? Because the vast majority of Army Corps work is contracted out.

by Dizzy on Jan 5, 2016 2:14 pm • linkreport

Does anyone know how US road building costs compare to road building costs in other countries? Are US costs higher by the same magnitude?

Because most of the reasons people are suggesting here for higher transit construction in the US would also apply to road construction (with the exception of the person who made the lack-of-scale argument for transit in the US).

by Falls Church on Jan 5, 2016 2:18 pm • linkreport

@AA

I'll take your word for it. I recall the arch-conservative Paul Weyrich talking about how USDOT under Mineta was rabidly pro-bus and anti-rail, except for long-haul rail that was a de facto subsidy to freight rail companies. I also recall Yonah Freemark alluding to the same.

I am in part suspicious because I can hardly think of any "decent BRT project(s)" in the United States. The HealthLine and the Los Angeles Orange Line may be the only ones...

by Dizzy on Jan 5, 2016 2:27 pm • linkreport

In the US we have to incentivise people to leave their cars at home...

Most other systems just have to get people to work...

by reader on Jan 5, 2016 2:28 pm • linkreport

Does anyone know how US road building costs compare to road building costs in other countries? Are US costs higher by the same magnitude?

It's not just transit costs. U.S. infrastructure costs of all kinds are higher than in other countries.

by MLD on Jan 5, 2016 2:35 pm • linkreport

MLD -- but how much higher? Are higher transit costs just reflective of the generally higher cost of infrastructure in the US or is there something different about transit construction?

by Falls Church on Jan 5, 2016 2:44 pm • linkreport

It's clear that we have a problem with transit costs.

No it's not. There has been no serious study done showing this. Alon Levy's work is superficial and has several big problems. Consider that the two top 'hits' on the chart above are for East Side Access and the Second Avenue Subway. Both of these were very short but fairly complex projects (2 km and 3 km respectively). It makes no sense to compare them to other, longer projects. It's apples to oranges. Same goes for 7th Ave Extension. That was a 1.6 km project. Come on people.

If you included the Silver Line in there, it would be right in the middle / lower end of the pack. Maybe there is a cost differential, but you need a proper study to show it.

by renegade09 on Jan 5, 2016 2:47 pm • linkreport

Great post and lots of thoughtful comments.

Are the projects and costs comparing apples to apples? Crossrail has a tunnel section but it will be mostly be a surface line. Also stations are more expensive to excavate than tunnels. All else equal, despite its greater length a 20km, 8-station line might be cheaper than a 16km, 10 station line. Has that been factored in to the per-km cost? What about bored vs cut and cover? Construction methods matter.

I suspect many reasons when combined contribute to the exceptionally high costs.

Construction methods, agency turf battles, an uneven market for transit projects, inexperienced management, unnecessary or excessive labor rules, excessive environmental laws, lawsuits, Buy America... I'll add one more.

The costs of politics. An example: Larry Hogan delayed the construction of the Purple Line in order to extract cost reductions, but by delaying a $2.5B project for one year at (let's say) 3% inflation adds another $75M in costs just through inaction designed to reduce them. Maybe he extracts enough cuts to offset the cost of inflation, but particularly at the higher end there's a big risk/cost factor directly attributable to political dithering. Particularly in a country where political support for transit is often partisan and blows with the winds, this isn't an insignificant factor.

by Sherman on Jan 5, 2016 2:51 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church & MLD:

I've never seen good data on international comparative construction costs for highways. My suspicion is that we have a problem with that too.

But more importantly, I'd argue that high transit construction costs matter for transit independent of any cost problems that highways have. The political will to build roads is extremely strong here in the US. High costs don't deter highway projects in the same way that they do for transit, because the deck is already stacked. A punch hurts a normal person more than it does a professional boxer.

Matt Yglesias makes a similar point here:

Or it's said to be a smear to focus on transit construction costs without talking about the fact that many US highway projects are also exorbitantly expensive. But this is backwards. If you want the United States to move away from suburbanism and automobile dependency, then highway cost overruns aren't necessarily a huge problem. On the one hand, yes, it's a waste of money. On the other hand, were the money spent more efficiently we'd just have even more highways. If you care about transit, you ought to care about reducing project bloat in the transit space because more efficient transit spending would mean more and better transit projects.

by John on Jan 5, 2016 3:00 pm • linkreport

It's not just transit costs. U.S. infrastructure costs of all kinds are higher than in other countries.

This!

It costs us more to build a road through greenfields too.

by Richard on Jan 5, 2016 3:36 pm • linkreport

No, the ADA is not making New York subways 2–8 times as expensive as projects in other countries. It's not as if Europe, Japan, and Korea are some kind of postapocalyptic hellscape in which anyone in a wheelchair is condemned to be left behind and savaged by wolves. All Crossrail stations are accessible.

ADA amenities do increase the cost, but not by the 2-8 times we are seeing. Perhaps it tacks on 10-20%

Crossrail is also more expensive than many projects in the rest of the world. Cheap by American standards, but the British press is railing against how much more expensive it is compared to comparable European projects. Probably has more to do with common law than accessibility.

by Richard on Jan 5, 2016 3:38 pm • linkreport

Hogan eventually built the Purple Line but he did outright kill the red line because "The tunnel is too expensive"

by Richard on Jan 5, 2016 3:43 pm • linkreport

I tend to think Jeremy is on the right track. To drive down costs requires competition and multiple contractors looking at ways of being more efficient and therefore more likely to submit a winning bid. I'd be interested to see what the level of competition is for these types of projects, and whether there is any evidence of collusion. Given a small enough pool of contractors, they could easily have figured out a way to share the pie and keep costs high. Think cable tv providers, for example. The more transit dollars that are available, the more technical competence increases, the more competition you get, and the more innovative ideas come forward for improving efficiency. One major project in ten years is not going to motivate any of those things, regardless of the size of the budget.

by Chris T on Jan 5, 2016 3:44 pm • linkreport

@renegade09

Crossrail is considerably more complex than all of the other projects on the table. We're talking two 13-mile-long tunnels with seven brand-new undergroudn stations built underneath a 2,000-year-old city and having to integrate them with one of the densest rapid transit networks in the world. Yet somehow it's cheaper per mile than the Silver Line.

The mind boggles.

by Phil on Jan 5, 2016 4:00 pm • linkreport

@John: You are right that transit construction costs do matter independently of highway costs, but that's not the point. If we want to reduce transit construction costs, we need to know why they are so high. Knowing whether highway construction costs are similarly inflated relative to other advanced countries would be important information. If not, then there is something about transit construction costs in particular (e.g., piecemeal funding, political opposition, lack of expertise and competition). But if the inflation is similar, then it is something broader about the way we do infrastructure in American (e.g., health care costs, fending off litigation, etc.).

by alurin on Jan 5, 2016 4:06 pm • linkreport

The Atlantic just published an article on December 28 that looks at exactly this question.

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/12/how-to-fix-a-pothole-with-bipartisan-approval/421575/

by Mark on Jan 5, 2016 4:13 pm • linkreport

Most Government projects that involve construction contractors has to follow the Competition in Contracting Act (CICA). That states that there has to be sufficient competition among firms bidding to do the project. The Government cannot simply pick a firm or show favoritism in any way towards or against a bidder. All are supposed to be equal and the process is designed so that Bechtel, URS, HDR, Jacobs, etc. all compete against each other which should produce the lowest price for the job. Recall that the Saturn 5 rocket was built by the lowest bidder.

Unfortunately construction jobs in the US are overly complicated, overly bureaucratic, and as a result, overly expensive. Nothing can progress until every little complaint is resolved.

Eliminate all the red tape, bureaucracy, environmental laws, small business set-asides, minority-owned business set-asides, women-owned business set-asides, layers of review, baseless lawsuits, union labor requirements, etc. etc. and you'd clear up a lot of the costs for projects that make them so expensive.

by skorpiogregg on Jan 5, 2016 4:28 pm • linkreport

David Levinson, a professor at the University of Minnesota, has been asking questions about the cost of transportation infrastructure as well. In his blog, he started throwing out all sorts of ideas for why things cost so much:

http://transportationist.org/2011/11/22/transportation_costs_too_much/

http://transportationist.org/2012/02/23/why_transportation_costs_too_m/

http://transportationist.org/2012/02/27/why_transportation_costs_too_m_1/

Big-picture issues: problems of scope, poorly balanced incentives in how we fund and build, thin markets, etc.

All worthwhile elements to consider.

by Alex B. on Jan 5, 2016 4:29 pm • linkreport

I'll take your word for it. I recall the arch-conservative Paul Weyrich talking about how USDOT under Mineta was rabidly pro-bus and anti-rail, except for long-haul rail that was a de facto subsidy to freight rail companies. I also recall Yonah Freemark alluding to the same. I am in part suspicious because I can hardly think of any "decent BRT project(s)" in the United States. The HealthLine and the Los Angeles Orange Line may be the only ones...

This is going to be anathema to all the rail lovers here, but we have a lot of US transit projects that could have been run with standard buses alone, let alone BRT-level service or rail. The LRT in Norfolk, VA comes to mind. The core issue here is that there isn't enough money for transit and that isn't going to change - New Starts is only ever at 2-2.5 billion a year - so you MUST fund cost effective projects and not blow it all on poor performing transit. We have a need for rail in this country, but it HAS to be where it is most effective and necessary.

by AA on Jan 5, 2016 4:42 pm • linkreport

Palermo in Italy has just opened a brand-new streetcar system of 11 miles with 4 lines and 17 streetcars. The project was plagued with delays (specifications were developed in 2000, building started in 2007, test running since July 2014) and cost overruns together with corruption accusations and ongoing investigation. The final cost was 322 million Euro ($346 million).

I just wish DC was as corrupt as Palermo (the capital of Sicilian mafia).

Source: http://www.railwaygazette.com/news/urban/single-view/view/palermo-tram-network-inaugurated.html

by roomd on Jan 5, 2016 4:58 pm • linkreport

@AA

That may be true, although many such transit projects are intended to spur (re)development or otherwise be transformative in a way that a regular bus line cannot. BRT in theory *could* do that, but in the vast majority of places there is a reflexive resistance to dedicate lane space to 'mere' buses and deny perfectly good asphalt ROW to cars. Dedicated ROW rail is something Americans tend to have a much easier time stomaching.

by Dizzy on Jan 5, 2016 5:02 pm • linkreport

@Phil
Crossrail is certainly a complex project. But:

Crossrail: $1000 million per km
Silver Line: $150 million per km.

Seems like Crossrail is more than 6x the cost of the Silver Line. What am I missing here?
The broader point is absolutely correct though. We have to compare equivalent projects. Alon's analysis isn't even close to good enough. It's back of the envelope stuff.

by renegade09 on Jan 5, 2016 5:15 pm • linkreport

That may be true, although many such transit projects are intended to spur (re)development or otherwise be transformative in a way that a regular bus line cannot. BRT in theory *could* do that, but in the vast majority of places there is a reflexive resistance to dedicate lane space to 'mere' buses and deny perfectly good asphalt ROW to cars. Dedicated ROW rail is something Americans tend to have a much easier time stomaching.

Then if economic development, is the goal, then make value capture part of it, but don't ask the federal government to support projects with scarce benefits that don't have any increased mobility benefits and cost 4 to 6 times as much to build and more to operate. Most of the low performing LRT lines replaced low ridership bus lines that wouldn't often even justify BRT.

by AA on Jan 5, 2016 5:34 pm • linkreport

The reference to Grand Central station expansion is misleading. Grand Central station currently serves as the terminus for the Metro-North Railroad commuter lines coming from the north (suburban service from Westchester and other northern NY counties and Connecticut). The addition of Long Island railroad (LIRR) service to the station comes directly from the east. There is no way that the two lines could share the same tracks without an ever more immense construction effort to loop the LIRR tracks so they could join with the Metro North tracks.
When glib comments are made as to how the project could have been cheaper, and the solution is clearly worse than what is actually being built, the conclusions presented are made suspect.

by Jeff Parnes on Jan 5, 2016 5:43 pm • linkreport

How many European countries import Bangladeshi Slaves to do laborer work, which contributes to getting high-skilled workers to city centers, vice the US which chooses to import high-skill labor via their H1B Program and uses expensive union labor to complete laborer jobs?

by JC on Jan 5, 2016 5:44 pm • linkreport

I am a bit surprised to not see items on the above list that I'd normally see on a cost estimate for capital construction projects. Things like cost of labor (wages), cost of materials and services, cost of environmental and safety regulations, and so on. A real breakdown comparison would reveal a lot, and is the usual way to start attacking these kinds of questions.

Left off the list were the safety and environmental regulations - we just run to a completely different standard here in the US than most other countries due to public demand. While people don't like to hear it, compliance adds enormous cost and time that the project costs need to include.

I was in Hong Kong last week, where they are building 4 new subway extensions averaging about 10km each, a giant new high speed rail terminal I the heart of the city, and a 30km bridge/tunnel that's more impressive than the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel (more elevated bridge spans). These all appear to be moving at a much faster pace than any current or recent US projects. You can tell by the pace that whatever they do environmentally, it's not as exhaustive, and from the general working conditions that while safety is a priority, it's not up to what the US would practice. I don't know about pay in detail, but it seemed to me that there were plenty of people with equivalent jobs to the US that had lower pay and substantially lower standards of living (reference housing square footage). When pay is lower, so is the cost of goods required for construction (steel, concrete, scaffolding, excavation, or anything else that requires fabrication).

It's a complex issue, but certainly graft, waste, and management practices are not the only potential causes of cost differences.

by John D on Jan 5, 2016 6:34 pm • linkreport

It's not just more expensive, it's less well built. Construction quality in the US has dropped precipitously since the 1960s. Some of this is because mechanical systems have gotten more expensive, but it doesn't explain everything.

The same thing does not appear to have happened in other developed countries.

by Neil Flanagan on Jan 5, 2016 6:46 pm • linkreport

Saying Tysons isnt a dense urban core is a bit disingenuous. Other projects don't typically have to navigate miles of unmarked classified "utilities" which when conflicted with often result in very interested participants showing up in unmarked armored vehicles.

Over-engineering is one cause but i would also blame the means to which we establish bonding, set a precedent cost and public estimates which allow contractors to work to the set number instead of actually providing a low cost bid as well.

by Navid Roshan-Afshar on Jan 5, 2016 10:53 pm • linkreport

I think a lot of you ARE on to something(s).

A lack of central planning leads to all sorts of cost hikes, because each project IS self-contained. Because each is self-contained, they're inevitably going to be asked to do too much -- more than they would if they were supplementing or extending and connecting to other transit modes. Not only is there little incentive to hold down costs, the incentives push in the other direction -- as to many constituencies put too many demands on the project.

Ex: Silver Line -- if memory serves, the reason that a new study for tunnels was rejected had nothing to do with keeping costs down, as there was a suggestion that it was going to be much cheaper than had been projected years before. The problem was that the federal funding would be put at risk because of the necessary delay. and, imagine if it had been put underground. That would leave a lot of room on the surface to create cheaper linking transit or it might be easier and cheaper to link it to a future line to Bethesda. Designing for future links might have saved money on those future projects, and you can probably find similar examples in the past that are making new projects more expensive.

Also, there's little chance to achieve economies of scale. The "wheel' is re-invented with each project at every step in the process -- from design, to construction to the equipment and the maintenance.

It would be foolish to discount the impact of legal costs, which are astronomically higher here. Not just litigation, but environmental review. Making the systems ADA-compliant probably isn't unique, except in the costs of the administrative/design process, which I'll bet is much higher here because of the multi-layered process and eventual compliance litigation. And, yes, eminent domain litigation.

I'd wager that project insurance costs in this country will also be much higher because of the risks of much more costly potential litigation.

And, yes, a system where employers are responsible for employees health insurance and disability insurance is going to drive up costs -- especially, if you're using contractors. I don't know enough about the industry to speculate on whether a public construction agency could do things more cheaply, but it's an interesting idea...so long as they don't function as utterly incompetently as they do in Brazil. Competitive bidding for services and materials, including eliminating Buy American could save costs, but I'm not sure that's a productive way to save. Or. politically feasible.

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Jan 6, 2016 1:52 am • linkreport

One more thought -- weather. Is it at all possible that construction costs will be higher because the crews have to function under much greater extremes of weather (both hot and cold) than most industrialized countries experience -- and also because the engineering has to account for that, too?

by Fischy (Ed F.) on Jan 6, 2016 1:57 am • linkreport

I know projects that decide to go for Federal money bundle anything they can into the project (like anything remotely closeby in the Transportation System Plan, full street rebuilds, condemning property for a larger street right of way to meet city standards like new left turn lanes/trees/bike lanes/wider sidewalks in addition to the new surface rail line). Plus the thought goes that its such a long arduous process to get Federal money and that once you finally jump through all the hoops it doesn't matter whether you asked for $200 million or $700 million.

by poncho on Jan 6, 2016 2:35 am • linkreport

I blame that some people get in politics and haven't even elementary concept of budget, math, or efficiency.
In MoCo, you have people like Leggett and certain Council members who didn't pursue funding the Q9 for around 2 million, and yet talk about spending a quarter billion (that's hundreds times more, for those who can't math) to have probably the same buses going the same route.

by asffa on Jan 6, 2016 3:08 am • linkreport

There's a bit of Americentric perspective here. The US worships property rights and elevates them to a level no other country does. Eminent domain here is weak, and compensation requirements are high. So real estate costs for transportation are higher in the US.

by Jon Morgan on Jan 6, 2016 11:00 am • linkreport

skorpiogregg Nailed it.

The environmental review process, although very well intended, is a large contributor of spiraling project costs. In fact any delay - environmental, legal or political - quickly escalates the costs of a project. When you see contentious public hearings, litigious neighbors, or posturing politicians, take out your checkbook.

Environmental law compliance makes things difficult because you can't skip any of them. This is why it takes years of study before you can even stick a shovel in the ground. Everyone gets to have a say, and will use legal means to stymie or derail a project if they don't like it. Anyone can sue for any reason with or without merit. Those costs are added to the bill.

by CeCe248 on Jan 6, 2016 11:06 am • linkreport

There's a bit of Americentric perspective here.

Well, yes - since it's about the problem of high American construction costs.

The US worships property rights and elevates them to a level no other country does. Eminent domain here is weak, and compensation requirements are high. So real estate costs for transportation are higher in the US.

This may be true, but it's certainly not even scratching the surface of the problem. Take the Silver Line, for example - due to the pre-existing right of way, very little property needed to be acquired.

Phase 2 of the Silver Line has a $2.9 billion budget; real estate and right of way acquisition is just $62 million (just over 2% of the total):
http://www.fta.dot.gov/documents/2013-07_-_Dulles_-_Phase_2_-_Comprehensive_Monthly_Report.pdf

by Alex B. on Jan 6, 2016 11:14 am • linkreport

The East Side Access situation is just insane regardless of them both being MTA, but the situation with them being MTA just makes it even more absurd. So much insane waste because we let unelected bureaucrats get away this idea in their head of "their" agency or sub-agency.

by Jason on Jan 6, 2016 2:52 pm • linkreport

I wonder to what extent costs are increased by American prioritization of minimizing disruptions to drivers and specifically our prioritization of not taking away traffic lanes. That seems like a costly constraint in a lot of instances.

I also like the point above about all sorts of ancillary things getting thrown into a project's cost, like all the road rebuilds and enhancements attached to the Silver Line.

by Dizzy on Jan 6, 2016 4:29 pm • linkreport

We often hear that "a large part of the cost has already been done in planning" in the US. We spend an enormous amount on private "consultants" and "preliminary studies by contractors".

China is selling subway cars and systems below cost to keep their transit factory workers employed. Rio just bought a new system from them dirt cheap.

by Tom Coumaris on Jan 7, 2016 2:24 am • linkreport

and the Purple Line is not a subway; it's a light rail. It's cost is about average per mile for subways but way over the average for light rail. Waaaayyyy over, like 5 times average.

by Tom Coumaris on Jan 7, 2016 2:30 am • linkreport

The global growth of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), particularly in other nations where transportation infrastructure is not so polarized between auto-dependent suburbs (politically conservative) and transit-wannabe urban areas (liberal) is compelling evidence that BRT is the more cost effective way to move people. Policymakers and transportation officials in the USA need to realize this and get on board.

The rapidly approaching onset of autonomous vehicles and mobility on demand services is also a big factor that needs to be recognized. This will likely greatly reduce the need for parking facilities, as auto utilization rates multiply. How roadway congestion is impacted remains to be seen. This will depend in part on the degree to which robotic cars are shared simultaneously.

The best outcome would be one where transit and robotic MOD services work in a coordinated, symbiotic relationship.

by Bob Munger on Jan 10, 2016 1:15 pm • linkreport

I support Express buses. Want them. They're a bargain in transit.
BRT's cost overruns and Gold $$$ pricing deserve notoriety.

by asffa on Jan 10, 2016 6:08 pm • linkreport

Also deserving of notoriety is the fact that what the United States calls "BRT," the rest of the developed world simply calls "the bus."

Dedicated lanes, prepaid fares, level boarding, etc. etc. - only in America would these be gold-plated extras and not a baseline minimum for bus service everywhere.

by Low Headways on Jan 10, 2016 6:46 pm • linkreport

Low Headways - The generalized US bashing above is not accurate or warranted. Dedicated bus lanes are not a "baseline minimim for bus service everywhere [except America]", or even most international cities. Examples outside the US where I have reasonably current experience would be London, Paris, Lisbon, Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau, Beijing, and Rio. I did see good BRT in Buenos Aires, but I wouldn't call it a baseline minimum system. It was a significant revamp.

by John D on Jan 10, 2016 7:43 pm • linkreport

Transit from scratch is inherently high cost. European and Asian systems build on decades if not over a century of investment. They have, for the most part been maintained, so - very high capital value. They go places, are connected to other modes, and are comprehensive. They do face competition from autos and get subsidy, and have real fare income. There systems go almost everywhere and building is done to continue to take advantage of the stops. They have low- mid- or high-rise buildings at stops, not parking lots or garages. The Regional Plan Association had to fight in the 70s, 80s, 90s to keep transit rights-of-way going. Smart long term thinking. For most people today, transit may fill one leg of a trip. It is for people who have more time than money. Smartphones do make waiting a little easier. The DC-MD-VA Metro was a great start, planned in the 1950s, implemented in the late 1970s - still without stable funding. Given the Post WWII Cold War fears of "urban vulnerability" population was dispersed for survival. The automobile became the master, and like we've learned from the Dog Whisperer, when the dog leads the owner, it is served. Dog parks are more popular than transit. In 100 years we might have something, but who has such a vision? A 300 year planning horizon is needed.

by Tom Christoffel on Jan 10, 2016 8:39 pm • linkreport

Dublin BRT - was expensive, buses still run late and infrequently and the last bus stops around 11 pm despite their going through tourist locations where its mostly restuarants and bars.

by asffa on Jan 11, 2016 12:17 am • linkreport

The issue is probably due to misplaced priorities. If agencies were to start to require transit for many more roads and situations (i.e. any 6-lane arterial must include a dedicated transit lane, all businesses must be withing 1/4 mile of a transit stop) when projects are being built, there'd be a lot more transit showing up. That in turn would lower the cost and there'd also be an incentive from the developer side to bring costs down as they would directly eat into their profits.

by fIEtser on Jan 11, 2016 12:41 am • linkreport

http://www.wricities.org/research/publication/social-environmental-and-economic-impacts-bus-rapid-transit

EMBARQ, the sustainable transportation arm of the World Resources Institute, has some excellent research and information on BRT.

http://www.wricities.org/sites/default/files/Social-Environmental-Economic-Impacts-BRT-Bus-Rapid-Transit-EMBARQ-Juan-Miguel-Velasquez.pdf

BRT $USD cost per kilometer:

High Bogota $12.5 Paris $10.0
Mid Bejing $4.8
Low Jakarta $1.4 Mexico City $2.8

by Bob Munger on Jan 11, 2016 4:23 am • linkreport

Bob Munger- Cheaper, rosier results some places. Montgomery County projects costs of 33.5 million per km. And with the added congestion and construction fumes and mess, it won't be great for air quality.

by asffa on Jan 11, 2016 9:00 am • linkreport

Asffa---At 2.7X Bogota costs, something must be fundamentally awry. Maybe that is with electric vehicles and wireless recharging at stations? In any case, it is still way less than light rail or subway.

by Bob Munger on Jan 11, 2016 10:02 am • linkreport

Transit in America has several problems. Like any process that is not common, the cost of experts and lack of eligible contractors raises the cost. The benefits of transit that spurs economic development around stations is not captured and reinvested into transit. If you ask most Americans what percentage of total transportation budgets should be spent on airports, seaports and transit they will choose more than the currently allocated value. WE HAVE TO MAKE CHOICES AND THAT MEANS TAKING FUNDS AWAY FROM OTHER AREAS. Last there is politics like Florida, Wisconsin, New Jersey all rejecting Federal funding when High Speed Rail was offered. If all transportation money was spent like NEW STARTS PROGRAM on value, cost, and competitively we would see a great change in the types and locations of projects.

by Alex Adams on Jan 11, 2016 9:42 pm • linkreport

Bob Munger - No, no great thing for several million per BLOCK of proposed BRT (billions total) just an fundamentally awry, mismanagement or ridiculous politics.
The County as led by Leggett is not currently funding for less than 5% of the portion for proposed BRT Express buses like the Q9 on routes they say they "need" BRT. It could have been started running this past MONTH if they'd put the money up. (FYI: The Q9 low headway, high frequency bus route would connect via the most direct road route the two horns of the sometimes beleagured Metro Red Line in Montgomery County). Financially, the County has other priorities to run as well as buses - the entire yearly County budget runs around 4 billion. When the Silver Spring Transit Center had overruns to a mere 150 Million, Leggett admitted "vital" services were cut in the County in recompense.
for nearly 80% of the benefits of BRT (BRT is projected at around 20% faster than regular buses) Express buses can do the job at 95% less cost. The only opposition Express busing has, far as I can tell - are people who want transit only if it has a big new Brand name on it (or places to put their own names on a plaque) and large construction costs to create a new lane and stations, etc.. I wish they'd get on the side who want buses to get them around - right now, and affordably, without destroying anything.

by asffa on Jan 11, 2016 10:04 pm • linkreport

Alex Adams -Transit in America problems regarding funding involves more than that, too - There's a lot of money out there lost to poor planning and boondoggles.

by asffa on Jan 11, 2016 10:10 pm • linkreport

Yes, its hard comparing apples to apples, but its just crazy to assume that we have higher costs because of labor and environmental laws. Most European countries have high labor costs (especially higher at the lower wage end) and have very high environmental standards. The Europeans also have more historic sites to consider. Yet they do it cheaper.

by SJE on Jan 11, 2016 10:16 pm • linkreport

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