MTA Reinvention Commission Misses The Elephant In The Room

Back in June, Governor Cuomo and his MTA announced, to some fanfare, the appointment of a Reinvention Commission to think some big thoughts on how to improve regional transit in this area.  Co-chairs would be Ray LaHood (recently exited Secretary of Transportation under Obama) and Jane Garvey (head of FAA under Clinton).  Uh-oh, already the signs are not good.

Now, God knows that our transportation infrastructure around here needs some help.  We are very geographically challenged, with a huge mile-plus wide river/estuary on one side and an only-somewhat-less-huge half-mile-wide river/estuary on the other side, and a couple of million people needing to cross those rivers twice a day to get to work and back home.  For a long time our population and job count were stagnant, but recently they have been increasing.  This has put capacity strains on the existing transportation network, let alone people have noticed that large areas -- notably much of Queens and northern New Jersey -- have inadequate access to the trains into Manhattan.

And yet, every time some project gets proposed, a price tag gets attached to it that is so enormous that next to nothing can or does get built.  Most famously, priority number one for the region is and should be additional tunnel capacity under the Hudson River from New Jersey.  In the early 2000s New Jersey Governor Christie's predecessors got that state into a plan to build a new tunnel supposedly to cost about $8.7 billion, of which New Jersey's share would be $1.25 billion.  In 2010, after some $600 million had already been spent on the project, Christie announced that a review commission appointed by him had told him that the projected cost was now $11 - 14 billion, with New Jersey on the hook for the entire cost overrun; whereupon he canceled the project.  Yes, this project was going to go under a big river; but it was only about 2 - 3 miles long.

Price tags for other proposed and actual projects are similarly eye-popping.  According to Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas, a recently-discussed proposal to extend the PATH train less than four miles from downtown Newark to Newark Airport has been given a price tag of $1.5 billion and a five year construction schedule.  This line would be at grade over an existing right-of-way.  Is this even possible?  In the underground category, we have the currently-under-construction less-than-two-mile three-station first phase of the Second Avenue Subway, currently said to cost about $4.45 billion -- close to $3 billion per mile.  Or, over on the West Side, the  1.5 mile, one station extension of the number 7 subway line, costing about $2 billion -- a bargain at only about $1.3 billion per mile.

OK, the numbers seem big, but are they really out of line?  Yes, way out of line.  We know because they also build subways and rail lines in other cities around the world.  For example, in London, they currently have under construction something called Cross Rail, a huge 73 mile line going east-west from one end of the city to the other, with 26 miles of new underground tunnel.  Projected cost is $15.9 billion pounds, or about $24 billion dollars, which is only about $300 million per mile.  If $15 billion of that is for the 26 miles of tunnel, that would be about $650 million per mile of tunnel, around a fifth of what we are spending for the Second Avenue Subway.  In Paris, they have an even more grandiose plan for something called Grand Paris Express, 200km (125 miles) of new subway/suburban rail with 72 new stations.  Le Monde here does not give a breakdown of underground versus at grade, but there is plenty of tunneling.  Price tag:  27 billion euros (about $34 billion), which comes to about $270 million per mile -- less than a tenth of the per-mile cost of our Second Avenue Subway. 

OK, New York is an expensive city.  But so are London and Paris.  Maybe there are legitimate reasons why we might spend 20% more than those cities, or even 50% more, to build a subway line.  But the actual numbers are more like 5 to 10 times more.  And thus, they build and we don't.  Sorry Eastern Queens -- you're never getting a subway.  I wouldn't even bet that the Second Avenue Subway will be built beyond the first three stations in my lifetime.  And why are our costs so wildly out of line?  Hint:  it's very hard to blame it on the contractors, because the same international consortia of contractors bid on the jobs in all these cities.  So it really can be only one thing:  ridiculously low labor productivity over here, driven by crazy union work rules.

Now, let us turn to the recently-issued Report of the MTA Reinvention Commission, dated November 2014.  Actually, saying that they missed the elephant in the room is one of the nicer things that can be said about this Report.  It's mostly just one meaningless platitude after another.  The phrase "fully-functioning, resilient, world class" must appear 40 times.  Climate change must come up at least 20 times.  There is considerable discussion of potential new funding streams, mostly of the opaque variety to keep people from being able to figure out how much this is costing them.

At Pedestrian Observations, Alon Levy has a very thorough review.  Here are some of the key quotes:

The worst problem for transit in the New York area is that its construction costs are an order of magnitude too high, but this is not addressed in the report. Instead of tackling this question, the report prefers to dwell on how to raise money. As is increasingly common in American cities, it proposes creative funding streams, on the last page of the first part and the first six pages of the second part: congestion pricing, cap-and-trade, parking fees, a development fund, value capture. With the exception of congestion pricing, an externality tax for which it makes sense for revenues to go to mitigation of congestion via alternative transportation, all of these suffer from the same problem: they are opaque and narrowly targeted, which turns them into slush funds for power brokers.

Amen to that!  The problem with the "new funding streams" thing is that we are already at the level where taxes are seriously degrading our economic performance, and if de Blasio and his buddies can actually come up with new funding streams their priorities are not going to be transit projects, let alone wildly overpriced transit projects. 

In a future post I'll make some suggestions about what they might be able to do to add some capacity with minimal additions to the existing infrastructure.