Home Asides Building a subway most expensive

Building a subway most expensive

by Benjamin Kabak

A few weeks ago, when MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu spoke at a New York Law School breakfast on the state of the MTA’s megaprojects, he let loose some interesting information on construction prices. During the Q-and-A session when I asked why construction in New York costs so much more than construction everywhere else, he said one thing: work rules. The MTA is required to overstaff projects so that the same TBM work, for instance, that can be done in Spain with 9 workers must be done in NYC with 25 workers. Thus, everything costs far too much.

Today, over at The Atlantic’s new-ish Cities blog, David Lepeska examines how $1 billion doesn’t go too far these days. Noting how projects in New York are orders of magnitude more expensive than similar efforts around the world, Lepeska wants to know why. To find out why, he spoke with Robert Paaswell of City College of New York, and the professor points to the age of our system and the general costs of regulation. The main culprits, he says, are “New York’s higher regulation costs, over-conservative labor laws and financing via bonds, which lead to longer-term debt plans.”

Paaswell also pondered on the length of time it takes to get work done. There, he blames neighborhood sensitivities. “There’s no urgency by governments or citizens here to get subways done, and when it finally happens the construction causes so much inconvenience that people don’t like it,” he said. “In Europe, they don’t care too much about it, they just blast right through and get it done.” It is a perfect storm of inefficient construction and a public that wants the results but fears the means.

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Andy K November 9, 2011 - 5:18 pm

This is a subject of huge interest to me. Thanks for the info.

Isaac November 9, 2011 - 6:29 pm

Unions, Unions, Unions. Supported by- repeat after me- Libs, Libs, Libs. Dont like labor laws? Dont vote in the libs all the time. Unions control democrats. And dont tell me Pataki and Guiliani were “conservatives”

Alex C November 9, 2011 - 8:23 pm

Agree on the insane work rules. But can we please me logical here and agree that the contractors and politicians taking kickbacks are also at fault?

Also, seeing as how Pataki did everything he could to dismantle rail service of any kind in NY, I’d say he’s pretty conservative.

Larry Littlefield November 10, 2011 - 9:37 am

Pataki decided all road work should be done nights and weekends. On overtime.

That’s when people who use transit and bicycles for their daily commute and chores are using their cars.

BBnet3000 November 10, 2011 - 12:05 pm

The ridiculously partisan “union” and “lib” complaints dont really carry much weight with me. I dont doubt that work rules are a contributer, but lots of countries full of “libs” and unions build things a lot cheaper than we do.

Alon Levy November 11, 2011 - 5:12 pm

How come every post like this we get a commenter by another name making the same incoherent, irrelevant-to-the-post’s-content point against unions?

Adirondacker12800 November 13, 2011 - 12:41 pm

Not that we shouldn’t lessen or eliminate the featherbedding but…. 9 TBM workers in Spain versus 25 TBM workers in Manhattan means there’s 14 extra TBM workers in Manhattan. They get paid well. Lets just say their wages and benefits come to $250,000 a year. Or three and half million dollars a year. Over a ten year project 35 million dollars. There’d have to be an enormous amount of featherbedding to make projects ten times as expensive as in Spain.

ScottC November 9, 2011 - 7:09 pm

I know someone very high up in the MTA finance department. I asked him this same question some time ago and he said that the biggest problem is the 24-hour system because work can only be done for a few hours each night. Because they must vacate the track/tunnels for service to resume, about 1/3 of the total time is lost just to mobilize at the start of the shift to position all the tools and equipment to do the work and start working, and to de-mobilize at the end of the shift to allow service to resume. This causes the cost to increase because it takes more man hours to finish the work, and the work also takes longer to complete.

Benjamin Kabak November 9, 2011 - 7:12 pm

That’s not really applicable for SAS where the vast majority of work doesn’t conflict with any tracks in revenue service (or non-revenue service for that matter).

Larry Littlefield November 10, 2011 - 9:37 am

Right. I heard the same excuse. It’s bogus for new lines.

ScottC November 10, 2011 - 2:06 pm

Correct, but it certainly applies to the bulk of the capital budget which is maintaining and upgrading existing ROW.

Ed November 9, 2011 - 11:07 pm

Also, alot of commentators here, and even Jay Walder, at some time proposed that when the MTA has to rehab a line they just shut the line down until the work is complete. The 24 hour thing is really just an excuse.

John-2 November 10, 2011 - 12:06 am

Whether it’s unions, contractors or just bureaucrats looking to justify their jobs via excessive rules and regulations, there are a multitude of reasons from the inside why you can’t get anything done in New York for a reasonable price. Meanwhile, from the outside the media savvyness of large segments of the NIMBY public means that even if you could eliminate some of the featherbedding, contract padding and excessive state and federal work rules, you’d still couldn’t do things anywhere near as quickly as 75-100 years ago, because there’s always some localized special interest group that has to be placated (see the other thread about the Astoria NIMBYs and the LGA line, or the battle for the Heckshire Playground 40 years ago that pretty much ended cut-and-cover subway construction in the city, other than connecting up to existing close-to-the-surface lines).

As long as you have so many different factions who have no interest in seeing that new lines are built cheaply (because they want the cash and/or the power for themselves), and enough clout to enforce their will on local and state pols, the situation isn’t going to change.

pea-jay November 10, 2011 - 12:09 am

who changes work rules? The Legislature? MTA at time of contract renegotiation? Do rules require MTA subcontract in a particular way? Everyone touts work rules as fait accompli yet all they are artificially set, somewhere?

I understan the complexity of the dig itself and NIMBY challenges add to the cost and time, but does raw material costs factor in as well? Public works projects around the country blew their budgets during the mid 2000s thanks to skyrocketing steel, concrete and oil-product related price hikes that were not factored into the original budget.

SpendmoreWastemore November 10, 2011 - 12:39 am

Bring back one cut’n cover tunnel, fill with NIMBYS, done.

al November 11, 2011 - 1:19 pm

On a more serious note, some of the recent innovations in cut and cover make the cut and cover less intrusive than early IRT and BMT construction. There will still be utility relocation issues. But then again many of these utilities are nearing, at, or beyond end of service life anyway. Additionally, increased demand from development has put more strain on existing systems.

It would be a good idea to relocate the utilities in underground linear cells under the sidewalk/parking lane, with modular access panels while they renew infrastructure. Such a setup would reduce the need (and the costs) to tear up the road for utility work.

The MTA has not moved away from cut and cover construction for stations. Having stations near the surface isn’t a bad thing, as it increases accessibility to the surface. Having a humpback tunnel profile also is advantageous for line speed, as a train accelerates downhill away from stations and decelerate uphill into a level station.

Links roundup « Public Authorities November 10, 2011 - 5:58 am

[…] Why are infrastructure costs so much higher in New York than everywhere else? “The main culprits… are ‘New York’s higher regulation costs, over-conservative labor laws and financing via bonds, which lead to longer-term debt plans.’” [2nd Ave. Sagas] […]

J B November 22, 2011 - 11:43 pm

“In Europe, they don’t care too much about it, they just blast right through and get it done.”

This sounds like an excuse- “you people should just learn to live with it like those Europeans.” Perhaps it’s true, but I wonder if it isn’t because other countries do a better job of mitigating the annoyances caused by construction.

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