Consider the case of an extension to a line of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, which runs the subway in Boston and its suburbs.
As researchers at the Transit Costs Project at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management explain in their study of this project, the project’s price tag went up and up and up — until then-governor Charlie Baker finally canceled it. That prompted planners to go back to the drawing board for ideas about how to make it cheaper. Their biggest idea by far was to make the new stations crude and functional, just like the stations that had long been in service on that line.
The MBTA’s initial plan for the extension was to have large stations with custom landscaping and architecture. Why? Because local residents liked the idea of nicer stations. But when the choice was basic stations or no stations at all, they chose basic stations — and the project got back on track.
Contrast this with the Transit Cost Project’s account of New York’s Second Avenue subway, by far the most expensive subway tunnel in the world, with per-kilometer costs as much as 10 times what Swedish and Italian cities spend.
Such a gargantuan cost escalation naturally involves more than one factor. For one, New York’s tunnel-boring machines used 50% more workers than are used elsewhere, and they were paid higher hourly wages than their counterparts in Sweden. The tunneling also involved some unwise concessions to NIMBY sentiments, such as agreeing not to use noisy trucks to remove tunneling muck except during certain hours of the day. That increased costs.
Still, whatever the flaws of the tunneling process, more than 70% of the cost of the Second Avenue subway was incurred in creating the stations.
A big piece of this was dealing with a difficult NIMBY problem: Subway tunnels are bored by tunnel-boring machines, but that doesn’t work for underground stations. The standard way to build a station is “cut and cover” — dig a big hole down from the surface. That’s why European cities usually try to locate their subway stations under major streets or big plazas — they’re looking for spots where it’s feasible to cut and cover.
Every once in a while, a location is considered so important that a station will be “deep mined” instead. Workers bore some shafts, then blast a cavern underground. This is a very high-cost option.
Second Avenue is very wide, and easily could have accommodated cut-and-cover station construction methods. But the MTA chose to blast anyway, to minimize traffic disruption.
And here’s where things really get nuts.
Having chosen to depart from international best practices and adopt an unusually expensive construction method, the MTA then built stations that were unusually large. Why? Essentially, the reason is that New York City Transit wanted very large stations in order to accommodate what is called “back-of-the-house” space — non-public areas of stations that are used for storage and offices. Did it actually need so much space? The explanation given to the NYU researchers is not even slightly compelling:
So how much back-of-house space is even necessary? One design and engineer consultant who worked on Phase 1 asked us, “Why do you need lighting storage at every station? Why can’t the hydraulic guy and track guy share a room?” We were told that each user group needs its own room because each user group bears responsibility for cleaning and maintaining its own room; thus, how would those responsibilities be distributed if multiple groups shared a room?
Anyone who’s ever lived with roommates or supervised a group of children can sympathize with the concern here. At the same time, these are solvable problems. When excavation costs are running between $3,460 (for the 96th Street station) and $5,579 (for the 72nd Street station) per cubic meter, building extra-large spaces purely to avoid the need for a chore wheel is a very dubious cost-benefit proposition.
What should have happened here is that then-Governor Andrew Cuomo should have said “no.” No to the desire for extra space, and no to the idea of unnecessary deep mining of stations.
Of course if you give people who aren’t paying the bill the choice of a bigger station or a smaller one, they will opt for bigger, and if you give them the choice of a less or more disruptive construction method, they will choose the less disruptive one. But the costs involved in these choices were extremely high, and the benefits relatively minor. There are many defects in the way the US builds infrastructure, but this is a very expensive one that stems from a relatively simple failure of leadership.
Why would any political leader ever say no in a situation like this? Well, sometimes doing the right thing is its own reward. And in this case, the bonus is that you can get more useful infrastructure. Despite the exorbitant price, the cost-benefit analysis on the Second Avenue subway comes out pretty good, simply because the neighborhood is so dense that even a very short, very expensive train line generates a lot of ridership. But if the MTA had used reasonable station construction methods, they could have afforded a longer line, with dramatically larger benefits to the city.
The puzzle of America’s exorbitant infrastructure costs remains fascinating, and it’s part of an even more fascinating puzzle of declining productivity in the construction sector overall. But there are easy parts of even hard problems. All of which is to say: Maybe America can’t quite figure out a realistic and efficient way to build great public infrastructure. But it can, and should, build smaller train stations.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• Want More Infrastructure? Make It Cheaper to Build: Justin Fox
• There’s a Better Way to Pay for Infrastructure: The Editors
• The US Has Forgotten How to Do Infrastructure: Noah Smith
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Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder of and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans.”
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