Home MTA Construction Link: Explaining the high costs of building new subways

Link: Explaining the high costs of building new subways

by Benjamin Kabak

Salon, on its Dream Cities blog, tackles a question near and dear to my heart: Why does it take so damn long to build a new subway system? As the MTA already has nearly 17 years worth of documents on its website for only the current attempt at a Second Ave. Subway, by the time construction on Phase 1 alone is wrapped, it will have been over 20 years from the release of the initial scoping document in 1995 to revenue service in 2016. At that rate, it’ll take 80 more years for the other parts of the subway extension to see the light of day.

So what, then, takes so long? According to Salon’s Will Doig, seven different elements, many of them interrelated, slow down transit expansion plans in the United States. Up front, he pinpoints the obvious. By combining funding from various sources — the feds, states, cities, the bureaucracy slow distribution of money, and oftentimes, there isn’t enough money guaranteed up front to see megaprojects through to completion. He also pays heed to the physical challenges of working around 100-year-old city infrastructure that was never properly mapped, and he fingers a societal addiction to cars that often serves to marginalize transit. He certainly isn’t wrong there.

In my opinion, though, his two key elements concern mismanagement and what he terms basic fairness. With a small group of companies qualified to build subways, mismanagement runs rampant. That is a problem that should be addressed if other SAS phases receive funding. The fairness element though is a tough one. He writes:

Good public transit is a cherished ideal of many progressives. Ironically, progressive values can end up making transit construction take longer. Part of the reason we don’t build as fast as China does is because we have workers’ unions, ADA compliance rules, and environmental concerns that require time-consuming impact studies. “If we didn’t have to put elevators everywhere and we imported non-union Mexican immigrants to do the work, you could build a lot more of everything,” says Duke, who hastens to add that he’s not in favor of that. Good, affordable transit is a human rights issue too, though, and in many ways the common link in our desire for healthier, less wasteful cities that serve everyone equally.

Many transit advocates may whisper that the fairness balance has tipped too far to the other side. The MTA issued its notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement for the Second Ave. Subway in March of 2001. The FEIS saw the light of day 38 months later in May of 2004, and the authority had to further revise its assessment in 2009 to find no material impact when it had to redesign station configurations at 72nd and 86th St. That is a time-consuming and costly process that should be streamlined as well.

Doig doesn’t dwell on another issue — NIMBYism — that can often stop subway expansion projects in their metaphoric tracks before they move much beyond an idea on paper. Lawsuits and community outrage can slow down worthwhile projects as well. Still, his list of seven can serve as a primer for readers of this site who want to know just why it’s taking so long for such a short subway extension underneath Second Ave. to become a reality.

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Chet February 7, 2012 - 5:13 pm

It would be an interesting experiment to start work on Phase 3 of the T line (63rd St south to Houston Street) without any, or at least most of the rules that stymie work now.

In a perfect world:
-The MTA, the State, the City, and the Feds, all put forward a total amount of money estimated to complete the entire project.

-The engineers design it after an environmental study that takes no more than six months to complete.

-Community input is allowed during one 30 day period at four different meetings. The design is updated if needed.

-Work starts.

I wonder how much time and money would be saved.

nyland8 February 7, 2012 - 6:38 pm

How about this? Rather than trying to swallow a mega-project whole, as we do now, a single environmental impact statement is filed for the entire length of the project and beyond. First local, state, and federal governments legislate to reduce the impact of NIMBYism – using eminent domain or equivalent powers. Then, local, state and federal governments, AND the MTA, commit for enough combined monies to advance the project one station a year for the next 30 years. Elements of the contracts are bid consecutively to operate in only one year’s duration, and to include seamless transition. After every three to six stations are built, depending on what type of tunneling is being performed, a new section has to open to the public.

Then, rather than waiting two more generations for some much needed project to start creeping along at ten times what it now costs, the entire metropolitan area will be treated to the feedback and gratification of seeing a new useful length of subway augment the current system roughly every 4-5 years. If we were to apply this principle to the SAS alone, it would mean that by 2040, it would already run across Harlem to 125th Street at the Hudson River, connecting to every N/S line along the way, including a new MetroNorth Station on the Empire Line. By 2040, it would already run south of Hanover Place, down onto Governors Island, across the Buttermilk Channel to Red Hook, down 2nd Avenue in Brooklyn to Ft. Hamilton, across the Narrows and link to the Staten Island Railway.

But it requires a change of philosophy. Instead of thinking in terms of grand projects that take forever to design, fund, approve and complete, think in terms of never stopping a project once it has begun.

Before you know it – or before your grandchildren know it – the mass-transit cityscape becomes transformed, growing in an organic way – rather than the convulsive big-budget mega-projects that seem impossible to get funded, let alone started.

Anon256 February 8, 2012 - 7:06 pm

This was how SAS was supposed to work. An EIS was written for the whole thing, it was divided up into phased openings, and these were further divided up into contracts of 1-2 years duration. There was a general understanding that as one phase finished the next would commence. But neither congress nor state legislatures can force their successors to allocate funds, so when government revenues and political will start to run short, funding for phase 2 just doesn’t happen.

None of what you said addresses the truly ridiculous costs of infrastructure construction in the US and especially New York. Neither do other commentors bringing up red herrings about labour and environmental laws. Germany, France, Denmark and Spain all have strong labour and environmental laws, and yet subways in NYC cost five to ten times what they do in those countries. The only explanation I can see for this is a mix of incompetence and malice (embezzlement) on the part of those designing and constructing NYC’s subway projects.

Nathanael February 13, 2012 - 3:32 am

There is some evidence of a particularly broken bidding/contracting process in NY.

Lucille February 7, 2012 - 11:21 pm

Affordable transit a human right? Somebody took their crazy pills this morning.

Bolwerk February 8, 2012 - 1:08 am

Mismanagement is probably more like mis-mandating. There really isn’t anything especially problematic about rules concerning worker safety/rights, ADA compliance, and environmental impacts. Places like Germany have similar rules at least in principle, but in practice achieve the same outcomes at a fraction of the cost.

Of course, the rules in the USA seem so onerous that there are probably only a few mismanaged companies that can comply with them.

With a small group of companies qualified to build subways, mismanagement runs rampant.

I dunno, there are many critical competencies needed to build a subway, but they don’t all need to be under one roof. Many construction firms can dig a the trench or build the stations to be ADA compliant. A civil engineering firm can handle grading and more sophisticated tunneling. Laying track is hardly proprietary. Things don’t exactly get proprietary until you start dealing with signaling, communication, and rolling stock – the latter is sort of expensive, but has to be done anyway sometimes, and NYCTA seems to have a few suppliers.

petey February 8, 2012 - 11:12 am

while frustration is totally reasonable, let’s remember why there have to be unions, environmental impact statements, ADA laws etc. these things didn’t come out of nowhere.

“Doig doesn’t dwell on another issue — NIMBYism — that can often stop subway expansion projects in their metaphoric tracks”

literal, too

tom February 8, 2012 - 2:01 pm

To nyland8: The Board of Water Supply created our water source/distribution system by just not stopping, but then they had no funding problems.

BTW: the 4th Avenue line has space for two extra tracks south from the 59th Street station. They were meant, a hundred years ago, for the eventual tunnel to SI. Sound familiar?

Miles Bader February 9, 2012 - 12:16 am

It seems pretty dishonest of him to use a strawman like China for comparison though—there are plenty of modern developed countries with equally strict (or stricter) regulations and labor/environmental-standards and high labor costs, which nonetheless somehow manage to way to build subways way more cheaply than NYC…

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