New Jersey commuters to New York city are currently suffering through what NY State Governor Andrew Cuomo called a ‘Summer of Hell‘. Emergency maintenance on tracks around New York Penn Station has resulted in service cuts and packed trains. In general, there is a sense that transit options in the New York – New Jersey area are not as good as they ought to be. This is particularly true in car-clogged New Jersey, where rail commuters have put up with regular fare hikes in return for what many feel is a sub-standard service. So why don’t we have better transit? One problem, clearly, is that building new transit facilities is very expensive. But is it unreasonably expensive, or do we just lack the political will to invest in non-car transportation?
NJ Governor Chris Christie famously canceled planned new tunnels under the Hudson River, which were supposed to cost $8.7bn. He is now a supporter of a different Hudson tunnel plan, which will cost at least $12.7bn. Replacing the Port Authority Bus Terminal is likely to cost $8bn. The World Trade Center Transit Hub (pictured above) became notorious for its final cost of $4bn. These are big numbers, and transit reporters such as Alon Levy have suggested that New York city transit project costs may be 5 to 6x higher than what is typically seen in other countries. Clearly, if transit construction is so much more expensive in the New York area, that would limit construction of more transit facilities, and contribute to the sub-standard infrastructure that we currently have.
To attempt to explain why New York-area transit construction is so expensive, let’s consider a number of potential explanations. I don’t know which of these potential reasons are most important, and this may not be a complete list, but it’s my best shot. They are in no particular order, but the first five are from Alon’s piece at his website:
- Labor Unions – Transit in NYC is built by union operators, such as the Sandhogs. This is more expensive than using more casual labor, but other cities also build transit using union workers.
- Land costs – Want to build a bus or train station in New York? That could be costly, because land is very expensive. On the other hand, land in all big cities is expensive.
- NIMBYism – People in New York may be more likely to file legal challenges to stop transit construction if it annoys them for whatever reason.
- Dense urban environment – Tunneling in New York must avoid conflicts with a huge number of sewers, utility conduits, and existing tunnels. This is true at some level in other cities too, however.
- Difficult geology – some of the rock in the New York area may be especially hard to tunnel through.
- Project-to-project variation – Only very high-value transit projects are built in New York. These tend to be short but relatively challenging projects, right in the heart of the city, such as the Second Avenue Subway. Comparing these projects with longer rail projects in other countries, which may also include sections in less challenging environments, may make NYC projects appear particularly expensive.
- General lack of know-how – Between the inception of the MTA in 1965 and 2017, NYC has only added about 10 miles of double-track subway. That means that there may not be that much experience about how to do complicated tunnel projects. Other cities had more sustained investment during this period, with the result that they have more workers and high-level management who know how to get stuff done efficiently. This can manifest as something as mundane as poor procurement procedures.
- Lack of access to outside expertise – Whereas somebody in, say, Denmark, can easily hire French or German transit experts to build a subway system, and rely on European Union legal standards, NYC cannot easily draft transit engineers from other nearby places, because most of them aren’t building much transit either. It may be hard to physically move enough people or equipment to north-east United States to get a job done.
- ‘Buy America’ provisions – Regulations requiring transit agencies to purchase equipment built in the US may drive up costs, as overseas manufacturers have to build a factory in the US to produce the needed kit. Other nations buy transit equipment more regularly, so have ready access to an efficient supply chain.
- Bad attitude – Call it a ‘New York state of mind’ – MTA old dogs may prefer to see a project fail than to be proven wrong or see praise go to an agency rival. Not clear that New Yorkers have a worse attitude than people from other big cities, but certainly worth considering.
- Chaotic political environment – Transit projects must be agreed by too many agencies and personalities, some of whom may have conflicting priorities. For example, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo doesn’t seem to get on with Mayor Bill DiBlasio, and the less said about Governor Christie the better. Personality clashes and inter-state squabbling at the Port Authority board have frustrated long-term planning. Donald Trump controls federal funds that may be needed to fund new transit projects.
- Lack of stable long-term funding – Long-term funding for transit projects is uncertain, and even part-built projects can be canceled at any moment (see Governor Christie, ARC tunnels). New York has a long track record of abandoning transit projects, and the Second Avenue Subway project took nearly 100 years to do.
- Project bloat – Planners may over-do transit infrastructure, for example by hiring a superstar architect like Santiago Calatrava to design the Port Authority PATH station instead of ‘Joe Goodenough’. Cavernous two-level stations in the new Second Avenue Subway stations may not contribute substantially to function, and drive costs up a lot.
- Fire safety regulations – Modern standards for smoke clearance and emergency evacuation may require larger two-level stations that appear bloated.
- Environmental regulations – Disruption to fragile ecosystems may not be as tolerated in the New York area as in some other countries, driving up costs.
- ADA standards – Transit stations in New York must comply with federal accessibility requirements, meaning many elevators that drive up costs.
- Americans don’t care about transit – Other nations may take pride in their fancy rail systems, but we’ve got aircraft carriers and don’t care if the subway looks pretty worn.
- High levels of sprawl – Whereas NYC is dense at the core, the surrounding metro area is not very dense. The Los Angeles metro area is in fact denser than the New York metro area. Low housing density, especially in the areas where rich folks live, makes transit less efficient and undermines public support for expensive transit investments.
- Corruption – Is the Mob siphoning off loads of the money that is supposed to go to build transit??
- Terrible leadership – Ronnie Hakim, the current MTA Director, is supposedly seen as incompetent by many of her staff. Joe Lhota, the MTA Chair, doesn’t even work full-time at the job. The Port Authority Board is stuffed with Chris Christie stooges, some of whom may know nothing about transit.
Any or all of these issues may be affecting transit construction in the NY-NJ area. Some of these issues are also inter-dependent, for example, it’s possible that union workers would sign up for more efficient work practices if there was a guarantee of long-term funding, but that’s not the case. It’s possible that there are more reasons too – this list may expand further! Send your suggestions!