Is U.S. transit just too expensive to build, when compared with the experience in other developed countries? This is the theme of a “Financial Page” column by James Surowiecki in the New Yorker (Jan. 23, p. 21), entitled “BigTicket Transit.” The recently-opened Second Avenue Subway, ballyhooed by New York Gov. Cuomo as an example that government “can still do big things and great things,” is an example, Surowiecki writes. He says it’s the most expensive transit project ever built, with only three stations and two miles of track, at a cost per kilometer of about $1.7 billion. A projected extension, not likely to be completed for decades, will cost even more on a per-kilometer basis. Transit is expensive everywhere in the world, and often runs over budget and behind schedule but, Surowiecki argues, transit projects are much worse in this regard in the U.S. compared to other countries, citing studies and published information. One source claims that U.S. transit projects are “often five to six times higher here than in other developed countries.”

 

What’s the cause of transit project expense and delay, and what can we do about it? Surowiecki says the problem is complex, and it’s not just higher land or labor costs, as places like Japan and France are just as high. The U.S. process is just too complex, with “a plethora of regulatory hurdles and other veto points,” involvement of multiple governing bodies, and political factors in which politicians favor big, splashy projects that can further their careers, rather than straighforward construction that just gets the job done – an effect that Surowiecki calls the “edifice complex.” That’s why we have a four-billion-dollar World Trade Center PATH station, a striking structure and a high-end shopping mall; but Stckholm is building 19 kilometers of subway and a six-kilometer commuter rail tunnel, for the same price. The WTC experience might be explained by national angst over the 9/11 disaster, but it’s not unique: Detroit has a splashy people-mover monorail that few ride, and San Jose is planning a new transit center billed as “the Grand Central Station of the West.” Getting back to the Second Avenue Subway experience, the stations – which account for most of the cost – are well-publicized affairs with mezzanines and fancy artwork, but could simpler structures make the line more affordable? In the end, Surowiecki says, such fancy projects and high costs polarize the issues of new transit constructions, allowing conservatives to lampoon them as boondoggles, and liberals to respond reflexively to defend them. We may need a simpler process for approvals, and simpler projects to implement.