Home Asides Subway expansion across the Pacific

Subway expansion across the Pacific

by Benjamin Kabak

In 2016 (or 2017 or 2018), the MTA is going to unveil a new subway line. The Second Ave. Subway’s Phase 1 will run from 57th St. and Broadway to 96th St. and 2nd Ave. It will cost nearly $5 billion. One day in the future, a full-length subway route will run from 125th St. to Hanover Square, and it will be seen as a great accomplishment in the history of a city that hasn’t expanded its system since the mid-1930s.

Today, in Beijing, the Chinese are celebrating the opening of five new subway lines that cover over 67 miles. It cost just over $9 billion to build this brand new system, and Chinese authorities believe it will help ease congestion and bring economic development to poor areas of the vast country’s capital. The Chinese aren’t done either. They plan to build out the Beijing subway, currently just over 200 miles, to 348 miles by 2015 and to as much as 600 miles by 2020.

So as we sit here waiting for a two-mile subway extension to open in six years if we’re lucky, I have to wonder: Where did it all go wrong? How will we compete in a global economy if our competitors are doubling and tripling their subway lines while we can’t get 12,000 new feet built at a reasonable price and in a reasonable amount of time?

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samsam December 30, 2010 - 3:07 pm

Unions & Regulations & Nimby-ism

Joe December 30, 2010 - 3:34 pm

Indeed, NIMBY’s in Beijing who try and stop new construction wind up with their houses demolished. Chinese infrastructure construction is like Robert Moses on drugs, all the brutishness of his methods with 5 times the speed. Plus, the Chinese are at least tolerant of Mass Transit, so they’ve learned something from Moses.

But indeed, it sucks to see us fall this far behind that expansion projects move at a glacial pace.

Chris G December 30, 2010 - 3:38 pm

Its two things mostly.

The form of government. The chinese rulers decide it and it happens. You can’t really protest it to effect. Lawsuits? Can’t have one when they kill the plaintiff.

And of course the 100 year old dinosaur known as economy killers. The unions.

Marcus December 30, 2010 - 3:53 pm

The Chinese opponents of construction projects aren’t completely powerless to stop them. Usually they use protest rather than lawsuits though, since the Chinese legal system is rather ineffective and government officials could ignore court orders anyway.

One example of a project that has been repeatedly delayed due to protests is the Shanghai – Hangzhou maglev line. The project is a giant boondoggle and deserves to die, especially now that they’ve completed a conventional high speed line between the two cities.

JE December 30, 2010 - 3:39 pm

Hang on a sec: when Robert Moses rode roughshod over neighborhood concerns to build roads, it was concentrated evil, only worse. However, when an authoritarian regime does that on behalf of a subway system, we mournfully ask: “Where did it all go wrong?”


Benjamin Kabak December 30, 2010 - 3:46 pm

I realize I’m being a bit hyperbolic in this post, but the point isn’t to bemoan the Chinese vs. Robert Moses. When New York commits to building subway lines, it costs $5 billion to go 2 miles. When the Chinese do, it costs $9 billion to go 60 miles. Authoritarianism doesn’t explain away the difference.

JE December 30, 2010 - 3:58 pm

Fair enough, Ben, but issues relating to authoritairianism explain plenty: cheap labor, no concerns about unions, neighborhood associations, small and mid-size businesses, environment, etc.

Adirondacker12800 December 31, 2010 - 11:25 pm

are the stations the ADA compliant extravaganzas the MTA is building?

Jonathan January 1, 2011 - 10:54 am

They might not be ADA compliant per se, but Beijing’s subway stations are tenfolds better designed than NYC’s in terms of aesthetics and practicality.

Jonathan January 1, 2011 - 11:00 am

And I do believe most, if not all of them are wheelchair accessible too.

Alon Levy January 1, 2011 - 9:41 pm

All stations in Beijing are wheelchair accessible.

Aaron December 30, 2010 - 7:48 pm

Yeah, actually, to great extent, it does.

1) Environmental laws for the time being are on paper only.
2) Eminent domain is, for the capitol in particular, basically unchallengeable, and the people in the way are rarely paid fair market value.
3) When construction interferes with residential or other non-governmental uses, the government is rarely compelled to ameliorate asides from basic actions.
4) Unions are dominated by the government.

The near-complete absence of legal process in China certainly does make planning and construction cheaper. I can live with comparisons to Western Europe or Japan, but comparing NYC to Beijing and using that comparison to imply that Beijing’s public works’ “process” must be better just isn’t reasonable.

Not to mention the fact that it’s Beijing – there is enormous pressure to do things there to great effect, but also enormously quickly and cheaply – witness them pulling all of those cars off the road and shutting down all heavy industry during the Olympics. Given America’s aversion to urbanization, I don’t see NYC ever getting the kind of deference and outsized attention that China gives its East Coast cities.

Alon Levy December 30, 2010 - 8:19 pm

Ironically, all those factors you cite for China actually make it easier to plan for cars and harder to plan for mass transit, since freeways are much more space-intensive than rail lines. The opposite set of policies, for example Japan’s very strong property rights protections, raises construction costs there, but also makes it expensive to ram a freeway through a city or demolish a neighborhood. As a result of easy freeway construction and no government attempts to restrain traffic until just one week ago, Beijing has about as many cars per capita as New York and Tokyo.

kvnbklyn December 30, 2010 - 3:58 pm

You’re missing the most obvious answer to your question: New York will continue to compete in the global economy with the likes of Beijing because we ALREADY HAVE an extremely extensive transportation system. Beijing is building so fast because they need to catch up to us. Don’t forget that the New York subway system went from nothing to roughly the size it is today between in the first 30 years of the 20th century. Likewise, I wouldn’t bet that Beijing will continue expanding their system at this pace indefinitely.

Of course I agree with you that our inability to build even very small extensions doesn’t bode well for the health of our transportation system. Neither does our inability to adequately maintain what we have or utilize what we have to maximize past investments (such as our woefully underutilized main-line rail system). But this is hardly the end of the world.

JE December 30, 2010 - 3:59 pm

EDIT: I should have typed “few” in lieu of “no.”

Peter December 30, 2010 - 4:57 pm

This is comparing apples to oranges. As others have pointed out, China is an authoritarian regime that can grab as much land, condemn as many buildings, and displace as many businesses and residents as it wants with minimal expense. No environmental reviews. No lawsuits. No serious public opposition. That’s not just Robert Moses – it’s Robert Moses on steroids. Chinese labor is cheap. (Note to Sam and Chris – construction workers in the US are paid a fair wage and protected from unsafe conditions thanks to labor unions. You’d rather have the Chinese system?)

Also, I have not studied the routings of the new Chinese lines, but I would wager they are passing through areas with far less complex existing infrastructure than the UES, making construction cheaper and easier. And what about ground conditions? It’s not easy tunneling through Manhattan schist.

So of course Beijing can build more track at a lower cost. There’s nothing mysterious or surprising about it. If you want a meaningful comparison, stack the 2nd Ave subway against a rail construction project in a major city in a democratic Western country. The price tag for London’s Crossrail, with 14 miles of tunnel, is estimated at about $25 billion (I’m grabbing those figures from wikipedia). That doesn’t compare unfavorably with SAS. The difference between those two projects is not the cost of the construction, but rather the fact that one is chugging along while the other is only partially funded after languishing for decades. That boils down to the fact that the British government subsidizes and prioritizes public transit at a much higher level than we do in the US.

The Chinese government is also subsidizing rail – as indeed they subsidize everything, since the government controls and builds everything – but the fixed costs and legal and political hurdles are nonexistent as compared to building in a Western democracy.

Alon Levy December 30, 2010 - 7:10 pm

Crossrail is the single most expensive rail tunnel anywhere outside the US. This is both because UK construction is almost as expensive as US construction, and because Crossrail has to pass under the entire London Underground network.

And even then it’s slightly cheaper than the New York projects – it costs about $1 billion per km, versus $1.3 for the 7 extension, $1.7 for SAS, and $4 for ESA.

If you want a more representative sample of lines in the developed world, look up recent projects in more cities than just London, or check Railway Gazette and Urban Transport Technology. The general pattern is that US projects are the most expensive, followed by UK and Japanese projects. The cheapest construction is done in Madrid, where subways cost about $50 million per km. Some additional cities that are still below the $100 million/km mark or just above it are Naples, Seoul, Milan, and Zurich.

Nathanael January 2, 2011 - 6:52 pm

Crossrail has to underpin an astounding amount of stuff; not only the entire London Underground and the utility lines and the Victorian-era sewers, but also whole bunches of hundreds-year-old buildings on the surface. And the station entrances have to be built around existing Underground stations without shutting them down….

It’s also under the water table, including a tunnel under the Thames.

I really don’t know what’s going on with New York City, but it’s clearly specific to New York. Projects in the rest of the US can be expensive, but they don’t seem so radically out of line; the costs usually can be ascribed to multiple studies and environmental mitigation. Yet in NYC the costs are coming in well above the costs in other parts of the US.

Also, they generally come in on time or close to it. Except in Boston, whose construction delays are infamous and well beyond the delays in New York.

Alon Levy January 2, 2011 - 9:54 pm

Part of what goes on in New York is New York-specific, yes. But not all; other American transit lines are also very expensive.

It’s very hard to come up with other subway examples, because for the most part they’d be in California, which has its own cost problems. Instead, let’s look at LRT and els, where some recent proposed extensions are budgeted at $100-150 million per km, the same as subways in Europe. These include the Milwaukie extension in Portland, the Red Line extension in Chicago, and the Silver Line in Northern Virginia. Others, e.g. in Phoenix and Atlanta, are budgeted at $60 million per km for a completely at-grade line along a freeway.

AlexB December 30, 2010 - 5:05 pm

Imagine if the city could do this without the state or federal government’s involvement (financial or otherwise). Imagine if they could do it with immigrant labor charging $20 an hour with no benefits or work rules. Imagine if they could dig up 2nd Avenue from sidewalk to sidewalk and not worry about the impact on traffic or businesses. Imagine if the whole process were immune from lawsuits. Imagine if only one agency was required to review the construction documents and no public input was required.

I think what’s mystifying about this is that you can’t point to one thing. For example, unions might increase cost, but they probably make labor costs go up 20-30%. NIMBYs might delay and add cost via lawsuits, but these cost millions, not billions. There are too many layers of oversight: federal, city, state and within these: osha, city council, mayor, port authority, community boards, state dot, state legislature committees, federal dot, federal legislature committees (ways and means, transportation, environmental, etc). I think it’s not one of these things, but all of them that add another layer of cost and another and another. Strip it all away, and you can buy a subway Chinese cheap.

I’m not sure the extra cost of all these things is worth it in the long run, but that’s what we’ve decided as a democracy. I think this is provides a better model for us to get things done more efficiently: http://www.thetransportpolitic.....d-transit/

Nathanael January 2, 2011 - 6:56 pm

I do notice certain things. The MTA being expected to pick up the bill for buildings which were already deficient and in need of repairs. I wonder if this is part of a “load extraneous costs onto the project” culture.

Lightrailnow.org documented that the light rail costs in the US are inflated, by nearly a factor of 2, because all manner of not-actually-light-rail costs (sidewalk reconstruction, utility improvement, etc.) got loaded onto the projects.

I wonder if there’s a general culture of this going on in New York; an inability for the MTA to force other parties to pay for what THEY are responsible for. This could account for quite a lot of the problem.

In this sense, then, it may not be too many layers of oversight, but the fact that none of the overseers pay for themselves, they all expect the project to pay for their oversight….

Alon Levy January 2, 2011 - 9:55 pm

None of the extra costs of the megaprojects in New York includes this extraneous stuff. It’s not the same as Sunbelt LRT.

JAR December 30, 2010 - 5:12 pm

Not letting the MTA off the hook on delays and excessive costs, and national priorities are totally different, but there are very few of our freedoms worth trading for rapidly built rapid transit.

Andrew D. Smith December 30, 2010 - 6:04 pm

I find it beyond sad that the commentators on a subway blog defend the status quo rather than expressing outrage. True, higher labor costs and lesser government powers mean we’ll never be able to build cheaper than China, but we could still save at least 80 percent off the costs we pay with sensible reforms. It really is possible to overcome these problems so we can afford major subway expansions that would make the city a much better place to live — but the very people who should be most enthusiastic about such reforms claim they can’t happen. Pathetic.

Alon Levy December 30, 2010 - 6:10 pm

There’s a very simple explanation for China’s construction costs: the Renminbi is undervalued. If you use purchasing power parity, and not the official exchange rates, then the cost of subway construction in Beijing increases to about $150 million per kilometer, which is at best a little below the European average.

If you want to see amazingly cheap rail tunneling, you won’t see it in China; instead, go to Spain, South Korea, or Turkey.

Nathanael January 2, 2011 - 6:58 pm

Spain and Turkey are both benefiting from economies of scale (as is China, really) by building massive amounts of rail simultaneously. Don’t know about North Korea.

In New York, it seems that even *when* building lots of stuff at once we are failing to get the economies of scale. This is…. odd. It probably has to do with the byzantine contracting laws.

Alon Levy January 2, 2011 - 10:01 pm

Spain’s low construction costs have nothing to do with economies of scale; in absolute numbers, the extensions in Madrid have cost less than in larger, more expensive cities, like London and Tokyo. The same is true for Istanbul, especially if you exclude Marmaray, which requires different construction methods from run-of-the-mill subways.

In contrast, China is building subways like crazy, but its costs are perfectly average.

Boris December 30, 2010 - 6:18 pm

You are all missing the point. The reason is simple: American elites benefit from the transit status quo, while Chinese elites benefit from expanding the transit system. It is simpler and easier, in America, to create new welfare programs for construction workers that give the appearance of progress than to make real transportation improvements, because those are too disturbing to the status quo. In China, it’s the opposite: it’s all about progress at all costs to prevent the multitudes from rioting.

It is not like that in all areas. Shale gas drilling is an example where the US government is almost as authoritarian as China. Fracking is exempt from the Clean Water Act and other flagship environmental legislation (thanks to Cheney & Bush). When you buy land in the US, you don’t have complete ownership of what’s below the surface. If 60% of the land around you is leased for gas drilling, you may be forced into an agreement. Halliburton basically runs the show, and as we know this company can be as ruthless as any authoritarian state.

But that is why gas drilling is making such incredible progress across the region – the government has created the conditions and laws necessary to run roughshod over any social or humanitarian concerns (of course, states can still stop it, at least temporarily). This is also true in coal mining (mountaintop removal), oil drilling (BP disaster), etc. And it’s not surprising – this country has been built around resource extraction.

If the same thing happened in transit policy, we would also have lots of new fast and cheap subway lines. But considering New York State’s socialist leanings, it would take strong federal legislation and huge subsidies to produce something close to our natural resource policies.

Peter December 30, 2010 - 6:51 pm

I think that’s a very good analysis. If there were any significant American corporate interests that stood to benefit from the expansion of rail, rail would be expanding. Instead, you’ve got several Republican governors throwing away free money rather than devote it to rail projects.

AlexB December 30, 2010 - 7:53 pm

“Elites” pay the most taxes and use the subway the least. Everybody else, from poor to middle class, laborers to engineers, builds and uses the trains. How is the status quo so beneficial to the elites? If you mean that the status quo is the easiest way for politicians to not anger anyone, then it starts to make sense.

Jerrold December 30, 2010 - 11:29 pm

“Elites” pay the most dollars in taxes.
They DON’T necessarily pay the highest percentages of their actual incomes in taxes, if we take all their loopholes into account.

Nathanael January 2, 2011 - 7:00 pm

Quite right. Elites have an astounding percentage of the money in the country; they can pay far lower rates of taxes than the rest of you (look at the difference between 15% capital gains /dividend tax rates and ordinary tax rates) and still end up paying a huge amount in absolute dollars.

Peter December 30, 2010 - 8:46 pm

“How is the status quo so beneficial to the elites?”

America’s biggest corporations make their money from oil and petrochemicals. They want you driving a car to work, not riding the subway.

J B December 30, 2010 - 9:57 pm

Beijing needs more subway lines far more desperately than New York. It’s a massive, spread-out city with a huge traffic problem. Additionally most of these lines pass through Beijing’s less-developed outer areas; presumably lines 6 and 7 and the extension of line 8 into central Beijing will be more expensive. Anyway, as others have pointed out, we should focus on comparing ourselves to Europe and the developed countries of East Asia.

petey December 30, 2010 - 10:02 pm

ah yes, the unions, the unions. if only the interests could run over workers like the chinese govt does. that would be great, amirite?

Boris January 1, 2011 - 9:32 pm

I have some friends in Dallas, whom I visit occasionally. Last time I went, I was shocked to learn that they have cameras on their toll roads that read license plates, enabling high speed cashless tolling. If conservative Texans allow such an invasion of privacy and the ungodly act of tolling “freeways”, why can’t our supposedly liberal representatives agree to similar measures?

Obviously, Texas (and much of the South) is union-unfriendly. But it’s not the unions per se that cause problems; it’s the anti-free market culture that pervades New York politics. In Dallas they decided that charging tolls in the most efficient manner makes sense, so they went for it. Likewise, here they need to do things in a way that makes financial sense, not in a way to pad contractors’ pockets.

Alon Levy January 1, 2011 - 9:45 pm

There’s no political objection in New York to high speed cashless tolling. When congestion pricing and Harlem River bridge tolls were seriously considered, the tolls would have been collected with E-ZPass readers and cameras that read license plates. The bridge tolls failed, but not because of privacy concerns.

Jerrold December 30, 2010 - 11:35 pm

What is London’s Crossrail?
I mean, is it a subway?
Or is it a commuter railroad, comparable to the LIRR or Metro-North?

Alon Levy December 31, 2010 - 12:01 am

It’s somewhere in between. It’s a commuter railroad, but it’s underground and makes multiple inner-urban stops, like the RER or any S-Bahn.

Nathanael January 2, 2011 - 7:03 pm

Crossrail is quite deliberately modeled on the RER and S-Bahn systems.

It would be as if, say, the LIRR were through-routed with NJT, and the long-removed LIRR stops in Queens were restored. Or as if the Grand Central-Penn Station connection were built, NJT through-routed with Metro-North, and the long-gone Manhattan local stops on the Park Avenue tunnel restored.

Eric January 2, 2011 - 9:30 am

The Paris Metro’s Line 14 (5.3 miles) was completed back in 1998 for about $1 billion. You’re telling me Paris doesn’t have unions or NIMBYs?

This is a New York/American problem, not a union or NIMBY problem.

Justin Samuels January 2, 2011 - 10:53 am

The other problem is that the state government in Albany has been paralyzed and two governors have been forced out. Assuming Cuomo is stable and that he can tackle issues with the budget, then we may get somewhere. If the state committed to funding Phases 2,3, and 4, then they would be able to get federal funds for the other phases and construction could start now.

The biggest delay in building the second avenue subway is the expensive and time consuming utility relocation. Manhattan under the ground is like swiss cheese, with a dense network of electrical, telephone, and cable lines, along with gas, water, and sewer pipes. This has to be relocated or avoided during construction, and done in such a way that ideally doesn’t disrupt businesses. Because of the high density in Manhattan, you’ve a lot of utilities in the way.

ant6n January 2, 2011 - 11:49 am

I find it strange how the SAS has been planned since the 30ies or so, but utility relocation is always cited as making the subway so expensive now. If the city knew they wanted to built the subway for 80 years, why did it not reserve the right of way underground, and force utilities elsewhere?

Nathanael January 2, 2011 - 7:06 pm

Good question, isn’t it? They call that process “safeguarding” of routes in the UK. Yet it simply doesn’t seem to be *done* in the US; there’s no legal procedure for it or anything.

Adirondacker12800 January 2, 2011 - 10:27 pm

They did, they forced ConEd to keep the gas lines underground instead of running them along the El. The El opened in 1880. Most of Second Ave was developed by the time anyone was contemplating, much less planning a subway on Second Ave.

Nathanael January 2, 2011 - 7:04 pm

Utility relocation does seem to be a serious problem in Manhattan.

It *shouldn’t* be. London has more utilities than New York, and they’re older. The difference is that in London, *they know where all the utilities are*; the maps are perfect. The laws requiring accurate mapping of underground infrastructure date back to a very early period in London.

Apparently New York’s underground infrastructure maps are *inaccurate*, which is what causes the utility relocation to be such a nightmare.

Anon January 2, 2011 - 12:21 pm

Olympic Subway Cover Up

Subway Collapse

Subway Explosion? what subway explosion. We don’t have Subway explosions because we say we don’t

Death-defying Grandpa Exposes substandard work

deficiencies of safety measures, neglect of dangers once they are discovered, insufficient or nonexistent training for workers, excessively informal hiring practices, and the failure of government oversight.

Anon January 2, 2011 - 12:45 pm

Structural integrity is for wimps


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