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.

Tagged: maglev, transit

John Ricco, a public policy analyst by trade, is interested in the economics of urbanism and transportation. He recently moved away from DC and now lives in Philadelphia.