On Transit Costs and Politics

Posted by: Tony Dutzik on

Tags: transit

The new year brought the opening of New York’s Second Avenue Subway (SAS), a project nearly a century in the making. As Matt Yglesias noted at Vox, the SAS is the most expensive subway project in the world. And as Alon Levy has been documenting for years at his excellent blog, Pedestrian Observations, the cost of building U.S. transit systems vastly exceeds the cost of building comparable systems overseas.

In his Vox post, Yglesias alludes to the high cost of transit projects like the SAS – along with other recent examples of difficulty in delivering high-quality public sector projects on time and on budget – as being political impediments to similar projects elsewhere. He writes:

Until places like New York and California — the bluest jurisdictions that are most open to the idea of taxing and spending to improve public services — get better at actually delivering those services in a cost-effective way, it’s going to be difficult to persuade residents of more skeptical jurisdictions that it makes sense to take the same agenda national.

In general, I agree. But when it comes to the specific issue of transit costs, advocates for sustainable transportation should not get carried away thinking that solving the technical challenges of delivering cost-effective transit projects will be enough to overcome the political and policy hurdles to transit expansion.

In many jurisdictions in the United States, transit projects aren’t primarily inhibited by costs but rather by the fact the current political leadership – or, in some cases, the political leadership in place decades ago when the policies that currently constrain transportation decision-making were created – simply does not value public transportation.

If you are one of the 113 million people who lives in one of the 24 states that spend the equivalent of less than a penny a person a day in state funds on transit, construction costs are not your biggest problem. Unless you have access to viable local sources of transit funding, even the most frugal transit expansion project is unlikely to be on the menu for you.

Objections to transit often have their basis in ideology or misplaced tribal identity – not a rational calculation of costs and benefits. If you believe, as George Will does, that passenger rail is a tool of collectivism that erodes the love of freedom of the citizenry, or that the desire for suburban, car-oriented living is universal and beats strong in the hearts of all red-blooded American men and women, there is likely no price point at which you will say “yes” to transit infrastructure.

To see how this works in practice, consider the state of Wisconsin. We have written two reports (with Politico’s Michael Grunwald adding a further long-form piece) detailing the state’s infatuation – especially under current Gov. Scott Walker – with expensive highway megaprojects. Clearly, the Badger State has had no problem spending extravagantly on transportation projects it sees as a priority – even at the expense of starving highway maintenance and local street projects of funds. Yet, when the federal government offered Wisconsin funds for a rail link between Madison and Milwaukee, Walker rejected the money, along with an accompanying expansion of train manufacturing slated for the state.

Even in states where transit is obviously central to the health of the economy, transit investment can take a back seat to fulfilling the demands of suburban constituents for new asphalt. The actions of Northeast Corridor governors like Chris Christie in New Jersey and Larry Hogan in Maryland are perhaps best seen in this light.

In states where transit is an obvious priority, costs do play an important role in decision-making. But even there, focusing on the total cost of transit risks obscuring the real issues at play.

For one thing, the same states that have given us fantastically expensive transit projects have also tended to give us fantastically expensive road and bridge projects. The California that is building an expensive high-speed rail system also spent $6.5 billion to rebuild the eastern span of the Bay Bridge and $1.6 billion to widen Interstate 405 in Los Angeles (the latter to little effect, congestion-wise). The New York that built the Second Avenue Subway is also spending nearly $4 billion to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge (thus far, with no clear plan to pay for it). The Massachusetts that is undertaking an insanely expensive extension of the MBTA’s Green Line is the same one that brought us the insanely expensive Big Dig.

If we are to hold expensive transit projects to a high level of fiscal scrutiny, then we have to do the same for highway projects. Otherwise, we risk further skewing transportation investments toward those that encourage car dependence.

In addition, from a political point of view, it may be that the most toxic element of situations like the Second Avenue Subway is not the total cost but rather the cost overruns and delays associated with the project. Here in Boston, for example, one could make an argument that the Big Dig was “worth it,” even at its inflated price tag (and even though other, cheaper solutions to the problem might have delivered greater benefits). You could not, however, argue that the project was well-managed. It is this fear of the unknown, and nagging sense that government is incapable of executing large-scale projects well – which Yglesias speaks to in his piece – that strikes me as the main political hurdle to doing more of them.

Don’t get me wrong: the scrutiny being given to the costs of projects like the Second Avenue Subway is to be welcomed and celebrated. Getting more bang for the buck from taxpayer funds is intrinsically a good thing, and spending transit funds more efficiently makes it more likely (though not guaranteed) that we will be able to expand access to quality transit to a greater degree than we might otherwise.

Moreover, the emergence of a culture of reasoned, data-driven critique among people who see the value of transit is also a positive development. It is far better for transit supporters to be slaughtering sacred cows and challenging transit agencies to do better than to leave that job to those who are ideologically or otherwise disinclined to support transit, and whose solutions to the problem may be less constructive. The creation of a lean, efficient approach to improving public transportation can only be of help in responding to political opportunities that may arise in the future.

But doing transit well and cheaply won’t create those political opportunities. The main hurdle inhibiting not only public transportation but also relatively low-cost solutions such as bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure is not one of cost or governmental competence, but rather one of values. And even if Americans come to value different approaches to transportation and community building – a shift that seems already to be well underway – there remains the difficult matter of systematically undoing a century’s worth of public policy infrastructure that keeps us shackled to car-dependent models of mobility and community development.

To get where we need to go, we need better politics, better policy, and better ways of making our aspirations for the future real in our cities and towns. Each of those efforts is important, and addressing any one of them does not necessarily address the others. The good news is that practical solutions exist – just look around the world – and transformation is possible. Developing smarter, cheaper ways of delivering transit is part of the puzzle of moving America toward a more balanced and sustainable transportation system. But it is only just a part.