Home View from Underground A look at three of the ways to reinvent the MTA

A look at three of the ways to reinvent the MTA

by Benjamin Kabak

Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 12.02.11 AM

A fundamental question that isn’t often considered about New York City’s transit network concerns the adequacy of current service. Is a transit network that is essentially the same as it was in 1970 sufficient for New York City in 2014? Even if we flip ahead to 2020 when the 7 line extension, presumably, will be open, and the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway, presumably, will be open, not all that much will have changed over the past 50 years. Other than the advent of the MetroCard, improvements have been around the margins.

Very few things that are so integral to our everyday lives last five decades without change. Now, we can’t overlook new rolling stock and around $70 billion of investment in the region’s transit network, but we also can’t grow complacent. Complacency — or outright complaint — has led to where we are now. The MTA is reviled, and worse, the MTA’s forward progress seems to involve hauling a two-ton rock up a steep hill.

Nothing proves this point quite like the MTA’s Reinvention Commission report. I spoke earlier this week on my disappointment with the commission, and on Tuesday — two days before Thanksgiving — at 5:30 p.m. in a blatantly obvious attempt to bury a much-anticipated report that wound up saying very little, the MTA released the final draft. From the image on the cover of the sun setting on New York City to the fact that the report skirts the very issues that are fundamental to reinvention, the thing was designed to be good P.R. that’s ultimately ignored.

Over at Pedestrian Observations, Alon Levy has printed his very thorough examination of just why this report is so underwhelming. You should read his piece; there’s no reason for me to rehash his (or my) arguments. Instead, I want to look at three ways in which the MTA must be reinvented. I don’t the answers as to how — that’s a question above my current pay grade. But these are issues that have to be addressed for NYC to grow, and shockingly, it’s not all about a steady revenue stream.

1. The cost is too damn high. It’s been repeated everywhere for years, but the MTA’s construction costs are too high. For the amount of money they’ve spent on rather piddling subway extension north on 2nd Ave. or west to Hudson Yards, other countries build massive systems. The MTA’s construction costs are up to ten times higher than they should be. Why? Don’t ask the Reinvention Commission; they’re content with urging the MTA simply to “get the right work done faster and cheaper.”

2. Challenge the GCA … and the unions. A committee brought together by a politician isn’t about to go after two of the stronger interest groups in politics, but two of the main drivers behind the MTA’s high costs are contractors and labor. Someone with political capital will have to go after these two groups in order for the MTA to drive down its costs. Cuomo could have done that four years ago, but those were two interests that helped him gain office in the first place.

3. It all takes too long. Ask the MTA how long until we get countdown clocks at B Division stations, and the answer is, as it has been since 2011 or 2012, “three to five years.” Ask the MTA about a MetroCard replacement and the answer is still unclear. Figure out why it’s going to take over eight long years to build 2.5 miles of subway tunnel and three new stations along Second Ave., and you could win some sort of award. It’s been nearly 11 years since the MTA issued its Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Second Ave. Subway. Does that mean what we plan today won’t see the light of day until 2025? Considering that we as a city are barely planning anything, that’s not a good sign.

Start there; reinvent something. Otherwise, nothing will change.

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lawhawk November 26, 2014 - 9:00 am

The costs are too high; and far too often the costs are set outside of the MTA, which has to contract with a limited number of contractors who can game the costs to their advantage.

Perhaps it is time to bring more expertise into the MTA – give the MTA the resources to design the new infrastructure without relying on outside actors. Then hold the contractors to the costs.

If we can even hold the costs to what it takes to build in London or Paris (cities that are densely developed, have unmarked utilities, and similar technological challenges), we’d have a significant improvement.

anon_coward November 26, 2014 - 9:56 am

the costs go up because of change orders and the MTA is playing the baby steps game like the Pentagon does. start a project with a lower cost projection and when you are told it won’t work as is make change orders and the cost goes up for the new work.

it’s a lot easier to build when you can say a project will cost only $3 billion or so and then add on the extra costs later than get a $10 billion project approved from the outset. any manager or PM with half a brain knows this is the way you do things

Alon Levy November 26, 2014 - 11:20 am

Well, London has the highest construction costs in the world outside the US (possibly even outside New York). Paris is pretty reasonable, but the reinvention commission has a Londoner only and no Parisian.

Bolwerk November 26, 2014 - 11:47 am

Every major English-speaking city probably has a lot of the same problems/hangups, just to different extremes, while Bogota’s needs hardly apply to New York.

I think they missed the point of diversity. Diverse expertise from one country with successful modern transit would be ideal. Two at most, maybe to smooth over cultural hangups. At least Germany, France, and Japan all have English speakers in abundance.

Alon Levy November 27, 2014 - 7:23 am

Vancouver and LA both have reasonable costs for tunnels, and I think New York should invite experts from both, since unlike Madrid, Milan, Athens, and Stockholm, they operate on the same common law system as New York.

Nathanael November 27, 2014 - 5:13 am

At least London’s projects get built on time. The Londoners could tell us why nothing gets finished in NY.

John-2 November 26, 2014 - 9:04 am

The other aspect to deal with is the attitude of a large enough section of the public towards inconvenience due to new mass transit construction. NIBMYs have been around since the IRT wasn’t allowed up Broadway south of Times Square, but it’s only in the past half-century that they’ve been spread out enough around the city to delay or derail new projects just about everywhere, or force the MTA to adopt construction techniques like deep cavern drilling that adds to costs above what modern safety precautions do.

Hopefully, with the opening of the 7 extension and the SAS, the public overall will be more open to supporting future extensions to the point that the NIMBYs are overwhelmed. But for now they remain a not-insignificant reason NYC subway construction costs more than elsewhere.

adirondacker12800 November 26, 2014 - 11:34 am

NIMBYs have been around forever. In the past they had almost no grounds to sue.

John-2 November 26, 2014 - 2:50 pm

The two Central Park fights 15 years apart — the Tavern on the Green battle in the mid 1950s and the great crusade for Heckscher Playground in 1971 were the brackets of modern NIMBYism.

The first showed you could fight planners like Robert Moses when they came up with absurd ideas that were based not on what the public wanted, but what the head planner wanted. The second showed where we are today, where a handful of people with enough influence could totally muck up a public works project because they didn’t want temporary discomfort to their own personal world.

Nobody’s going back to pre-1956 top-down planning in New York. But the city would benefit if it could at least get a little bit away from the post-1971 world, where nothing gets built, or nothing can get built cheaply, because of all the various interests which demand satisfaction.

Larry Littlefield November 26, 2014 - 9:12 am

The Generation Greed response to this would be to stick it to the next generation of workers. As opposed to the next generation of riders, and the next generation of taxpayers, the current plan.

Step one should be to make visible, and be honest about, how much we are paying for the past. The past created by those in the reinvention commission.

How much of the pension cost is due to the pensions workers are earning today, and how much due to the retroactive pension increases of 1995 and 2000, failure to pay for those increases (which cost nothing), and mass goldbricking and disability fraud by 10 generations of LIRR workers?

How much of that debt is due to past unfunded ongoing normal replacement and “reimbursable” operating costs?

How much of the excess MTA contractor cost is due to the requirement that the MTA use union labor, the cost of which has skyrocketed due to their own underfunded multi-employer pension plan, a problem on to which private sector contractors on private sector jobs contributed?

All the politicians, unions and their leaders, and other players that did this are still around, and still looking to grab more, and not just at the MTA.

Larry Littlefield November 26, 2014 - 9:16 am

I would say further, that the TWU was challenged. There was a war back in the Kiley/Gunn administrations to force workers to due their jobs. (The fact that most of the workers had become minorities helped create the political will).

And TWU workers, though they could do better, have done their jobs ever since.

Before that battle, workers used to show up drunk and knock off after half a day. Then kids were assembled to do the routine maintenance that has since become routine, they would throw the parts in the garbage to hide the fact that work wasn’t done. Etc.

No similar battle against the LIRR and the contractors, however.

Larry Greenfield November 26, 2014 - 9:20 am

MTA = Might Take Awhile

Eric November 26, 2014 - 10:01 am

Might? It should be renamed to the WTA.

Christopher November 26, 2014 - 10:19 am

As I said on Twitter, the problem started with the way the commission was set up and their public meetings. There wasn’t anything “reinvented” about them. Traditional format of men in suits listening to endless comments by random special interest groups. There was no co-design, no workshops. No fanciful thinking. Nothing down to earth. The commission could have been hosting local workshops with stakeholders around specifically issues: funding, expansion, payment, etc. If you look at Europe, it’s not just that Europe, especially northern Europe, is doing things better; they are doing things better and have moved the conversation about what is civic service design leaps and bounds in front of how we have those conversations in the U.S. Probably because they actually want government to function. We apparently don’t.

Larry Littlefield November 26, 2014 - 10:32 am

“Traditional format of men in suits listening to endless comments by random special interest groups.”

Nothing random about them. Try forming a new one, and see who is left on the dais when your representative finally gets to say something.

Bolwerk November 26, 2014 - 10:56 am

Reinvention is even besides the point. It presupposes New York has transit needs unique to New York, and can’t use best practices from Tokyo or Berlin.

I almost don’t see the point of a committee. What they need to admit is they need someone from one of those best practice countries to come in an train them how to expand and operate a transit system.

Alon Levy November 26, 2014 - 11:27 am

If you look at Europe, it’s not just that Europe, especially northern Europe, is doing things better

Actually, Southern Europe has lower construction costs than Northern Europe. Sweden and Denmark have some cheap projects, but so do Italy, Greece, and Spain, and meanwhile Germany and the Netherlands have what-are-they-thinking construction costs (i.e. 20-30% as high as in New York instead of 5-10%).

I keep bringing this up, because Southern Europe is not known for its high quality of government; Italy has the highest corruption levels in the first world if I remember correctly, and yet subways in Milan and Naples come in at not much more than $100 million per kilometer. Rome is more expensive, but Rome also has to deal with unique issues like “2,700 years of archeology” that cities that took until 1800 just to get up to 50,000 people don’t.

Tower18 November 26, 2014 - 11:57 am

Does this really all boil down to what is expected of government in these different countries? In the US, government is the provider of last resort in the minds of many, and so endless time is spent bickering about whether the private sector should instead provide typically government services. Once we give up and government wins the day, the actual provision of services is so bad because senior levels of government are hamstrung by the “shrink to bathtub size” mentality, and middle management, unsurprisingly, is concerned only about bureaucracy and job preservation, ie. how can I do as little as possible, staying as invisible as possible, until I can retire with my pension.

Other countries struggle with the second problem of unmotivated front-line employees, but at least at the higher levels, there is the expectation that government actually function, and DO THINGS that governments do. Not here.

adirondacker12800 November 26, 2014 - 3:44 pm

And we keep reelecting people who love to tell us how bad government is. who then spend their time doing everything they can to assure that government is bad.

Nathanael November 27, 2014 - 5:17 am

That may well be the US problem in general. It might even be a serious problem in New York State, though I doubt it.

But seriously, that attitude is not dominant in New York City. It does not explain what’s wrong with NYC construction. What the hell is going wrong there?

It’s been suggested that the private contractors in NYC — the mobbed-up construction firms — believe that it’s OK to simply scam the government. Whereas in LA, the contractors do not get away with that.

AG November 27, 2014 - 10:01 am

Where do you get that idea that in LA everything works fine…? Going back to the original construction of the subway – to street car proposals – to highways… Delays and cost overruns. Everything just gets more magnified in NY… The mafia doesn’t have the same influence as they used to. They are still around for sure – but not as powerful as before…




Nathanael November 28, 2014 - 2:42 am

Perhaps it’s LA Metro’s *reaction* to the problems of the 1990s Red Line construction which have led to on-time, close-to-budget construction for subsequent LA Metro projects.

The highway department sure seems to be making the same sort of mistakes, though.

(The streetcar hasn’t broken ground and is irrelevant. Lots of projects have wild estimate fluctuations in the pre-construction stages.)

If this is correct, than the issue is that the MTA doesn’t change anything after one disaster. South Ferry is screwed up, same guys get the contracts for the next project, there is the same lack of oversight, and the same screwups happen again.

AG November 28, 2014 - 4:46 pm

No doubt the MTA “screws up”…. But it’s also completely false to say those types of things don’t happen elsewhere in this country.. In much less complicated systems at that.

Bolwerk November 29, 2014 - 1:33 pm

It’s not an exaggeration to say that maybe nobody in the entire world screws up transit projects as spectacularly as the MTA. Even the corrupt New York City of yore got projects done at maybe double their costs.

Of course, might be the Tammany types were less corrupt than the crop of anti-accountability reactionaries that swept NYS in 1993 and 1994 in the form of Giuliani and Pataki. Their stench hasn’t been cleaned, and if anything Cuomo carries on their banner. De Blasio probably does too, at least unwittingly.

Alon Levy November 30, 2014 - 12:42 am

The subway lines built from the late 1960s to 2000 – the 63rd Street system and Archer Avenue – are still more expensive per unit of tunnel length than anything that’s been built outside New York, except Crossrail. They were $800 million per km in 2010 dollars, if memory serves.

Nathanael December 1, 2014 - 11:38 am

Remember, Tammany Hall started to collapse over the Tweed Courthouse scandal. Corruption and graft were expected and tolerated — but they went too far when the Courthouse was several times over budget, several years late, and *still unfinished*.

There are limits to corruption. A system can tolerate a certain amount of it — perhaps the Archer Avenue and 63rd St. tunnels were larded with some corruption, but it was a tolerable amount.

But go too far, and the stuff just stops working. And then people (like us!) get mad.

Bolwerk December 1, 2014 - 12:39 pm

I think Tammany stayed pretty strong until at least LaGuardia, and the last Tammany boss was out of power only in the early 1960s (died in 2004).

The Tweeds and Plunketts were a different sort of corruption though. They had selfish appetites, but at least sort of seemed to give a shit about the plebes. People like Giuliani and Cuomo just don’t want government to be accountable to the people it serves. It’s much worse.

Bolwerk November 26, 2014 - 12:32 pm

I don’t know about those comparisons, Alon. Both Naples and Milan, however different they are, are pretty low-density cities. Going by the metro maps, the construction seems to concentrate largely in peripheries of each city.

There is a lesson from them though: you don’t need absurdly high density for successful rapid transit. BRT doesn’t need to be the go-to option for less dense neighborhoods.

Alon Levy November 27, 2014 - 7:30 am

What are you talking about? Milan isn’t much less dense than New York, and Line 5 goes to city center and crosses two older lines. Naples isn’t much less dense than New York, either. It’s Rome that is much less dense than the other cities, although that’s partly a matter of much looser municipal boundaries (Rome is the geographically largest city in Italy).

Bolwerk November 27, 2014 - 12:05 pm

They key point is I think neither is as infrastructure-dense, but if you’re comparing New York now: 75% of Milan’s population living within 3km of the center of the urban core would give Milan urban densities comparable to Manhattan, where all of New York’s heavy rail construction takes place. Maybe that’s so. The vast majority of the Milan Metro is outside that area, in any case, most of the planned construction seems to be too, and ? to ¼ of the network isn’t even in the city proper. So of course they have low construction costs. Is the story so different in Naples or Stockholm?

It’s easy to see why London and Paris don’t compare well, but even with German cities the density numbers could be a bit misleading. Berlin probably has a bigger core of high urban density than any of those cities, but it’s surrounded by provincial hinterland (Berlin is a city-state).

Maybe I am incorrect on this point, but it would appear the more expensive German construction initiatives still take place in where there is high urban density. That high urban density, by itself, may not even matter much, but I would infer the German cities, which had developed infrastructure systems decades before Italian ones, might be more difficult to do construction in.

AG November 28, 2014 - 4:38 pm

I believe your synopsis to be correct… Just as it is less expensive to do rail construction in upper Westchester or in Fairfield county.

Alon Levy November 28, 2014 - 6:30 pm

If we’re talking about infrastructure complexity, then SAS Phase 1 runs under a wide, straight arterial street and crosses zero older subway lines. The high density is not a problem when the line can be built under a street with minimal demolitions of older buildings.

The German cities with the high construction costs are dense because the major subway projects in Germany recently are in Berlin and Munich, which happen to be the two densest cities. But even they are not super-dense: Berlin’s densest borough is about as dense as Milan’s densest zone (but Milan has far less dropoff in density outside it), and both are about as dense as Brooklyn.

Conversely, if you go to Seoul, a city with higher average density than New York, and some very dense wards, construction costs are quite low. Having wide streets to go under is a major benefit.

It is completely insane to compare any of these cities with upper Westchester or Fairfield County.

AG November 29, 2014 - 10:18 am

I guess as insane as comparing Seoul to NY or any other U.S. city… It’s on the other side of the world and a very different world too.

Alon Levy November 30, 2014 - 12:44 am

Huh? Do you think gravity works upside down in East Asia?

AG November 30, 2014 - 1:09 am

If you seriously don’t understand how different life (from labor to insurance) and politics are in Seoul has anything to do with gravity – then never mind.

Alon Levy November 30, 2014 - 4:40 am

“Asians don’t value life the way we do.”

This is a direct quote from an official in San Francisco, I believe at Caltrain, when an activist pressured him on Caltrain’s long train turnaround times and brought Japan as an example of a place with fast-turning trains.

This and other excuses are common for dismissing outside examples. Most aren’t this racist, but are no more interested in actually learning from other places than the racist who said the above quote.

For a more concrete example of why you’re completely wrong, let’s look at labor. Korean labor is cheap by first-world standard, so it makes sense it should have low construction costs, right? Well, developing countries have even lower labor costs, and no lower construction costs: I have on my blog links to subways in China, India, Egypt, Turkey, and other countries that I’m forgetting right now, and some are more expensive than the Continental European average (India, Egypt) and some are cheaper (Turkey). It makes sense when you think about it – the reason third-world labor is cheap is that it’s less productive, and the same is true of the (smaller) differences in wages within the first world.

Or maybe it’s not labor, but politics? Well, Korean politics is probably the most familiar to the Western observer of any East Asian country, with a standard left-right two-party system. Compare that with the autocracy of Singapore (which has high construction costs), the mixed system of Hong Kong (ditto), and the non-ideological dominant-party system of Japan (which has fairly high urban construction costs but not so high intercity rail construction costs).

People tend to overstate cultural differences with areas they’re not familiar with. They especially tend to overstate cultural differences that play to the usual tropes, like Western individualism vs. Asian collectivism, or American capitalism vs. Continental European (especially Scandinavian) socialism, or Germanic efficiency vs. Mediterranean corruption.

AG November 30, 2014 - 2:58 pm

An official from Caltrain? I’m not really sure what this has to do with it.

In any event – my family migrated here to the U.S. If anything – I think cultural differences are UNDERSTATED.

Bolwerk November 30, 2014 - 3:31 pm

Trope: New York is full of tax ‘n spend LIEberals who can’t behave themselves. Justifies just about every problem with New York.

Alon Levy November 30, 2014 - 9:11 pm

Caltrain is in the US, and is facing the same criticism for gross inefficiency and uniquely high construction costs. Hence, that dismissal of other countries, especially ones that Westerners are taught are fundamentally different.

johndmuller December 1, 2014 - 8:27 pm

Outside of Europe, I don’t think that one would find anything like the maze of complicated and sometimes ancient and insufficiently documented infrastructure that contributes to the excess costs.

In many of those Eurasian countries there is much less enpowerment to resist government backed public works projects. This might be either cultural acquiescence to authority or more directed top-down applications of power. Imagine what it would take to build a new super-dam on the Mississippi, relocating millions of people – in China, not as difficult.

Environmental concerns are generally not so major in second or third world countries, where more basic interests like food, water and health are not so easy to come by.

None of this explains away how Europe can be so much cheaper though.

AG December 2, 2014 - 9:23 am

Agreed on all points…
As to Europe – yeah it’s easy to understand why healthcare is cheaper… Rail construction in cities – I’m still scratching my head.

Bolwerk December 2, 2014 - 10:40 am

The same constitutional restrictions against eminent domain exist in many EU countries with significantly lower construction costs.

I suppose this is more toothless, but the European Convention on Human Rights has a similar stipulation.

Alon Levy December 2, 2014 - 9:43 pm

In many of those Eurasian countries there is much less enpowerment to resist government backed public works projects. This might be either cultural acquiescence to authority or more directed top-down applications of power. Imagine what it would take to build a new super-dam on the Mississippi, relocating millions of people – in China, not as difficult.

Congratulations, you’ve just played into the stereotype I’ve been ranting about both here and at my place. You want to talk about less empowerment to resist public works? How about when the 1960s Interstate road builders were planning to use the race riots to buy land in low-income neighborhoods at depreciated price, until civil rights orgs stepped in? How about Kelo? How about the destruction of Native American fishing cultures in the midcentury dam building program?

Likewise, if you look at other high-cost countries, many are quite infrastructure-authoritarian. Singapore is famous for its autocratic decision-making. Andres Duany raves about it, and it can clean out (i.e. gentrify) an entire neighborhood in preparation for a subway; it also happens to be Asia’s capital of high-cost subways. Egypt massacres people; it has higher construction costs than most European countries.

In contrast, if you want to talk about more empowerment, look to Japan’s airport riots. Look to the protests against Stuttgart21, culminating in the election of Germany’s first Green-led state government, which put canceling the project to a referendum (the referendum failed, so the project will go on). Look to France’s years-long process of getting the farmers to agree to high-speed rail route decisions. When French farmers, or truck drivers, or union members, don’t like something, they can shut down the country. China is infamous for Three Gorges displacement, but that’s rural; in urban areas, it’s quite different, and community opposition in Shanghai helped kill plans to extend the maglev train to the CBD and Hongqiao.

If anything, infrastructure democracy correlates with lower construction costs: when the government needs to convince many stakeholders to agree to a plan, it needs to be credible in its construction costs and schedules, and to convince fiscal conservatives that the investment is prudent. It’s autocracies, including the elected kingdoms that are American cities, that can splurge without opposition.

johndmuller December 3, 2014 - 7:52 pm

Alon, your examples of the interstate highway and dam building binges (not to mention heavy handed Robert Moses type city planning), are precisely the reason that there was enough backlash to ennoble the snail darter and empower places like DC to stop some highways and repurpose the money toward transit.

Some of the big western dams and other Corps of Engineer and TVA projects may have been as much work-fare projects as anything else. Environmental consciousness was different then – concepts like ‘making the desert bloom’ and preventing beach erosion were as yet untainted by current ecological theories.

I meant to exclude Western Europe and shouldn’t have used ‘Eurasian’, but in any case, the point I was working on was that the projects in those countries do not necessarily need to budget large amounts of money to overcome public resistance based on environmental or nimby opposition.

Granted that Japan may well be an exception to at least some of this (although I have a hard time letting go of the stereotype of Japanese cultural acquiescence to authority), but as to the rest, it seems that for one reason or another the powers that be do not need to spend EXTRA money to quash opposition to public works projects the way it seems to be in the western democracies. Perhaps higher costs in security-minded states such as Singapore reflect the more general increased costs of quashing any opposition to everything.

Interestingly enough, the Defense Department budget gets nowhere near the same miserly treatment that transit does even with thousand dollar screwdrivers and whatnot.

Alon Levy December 4, 2014 - 12:38 pm

Well, the Interstates went massively over budget, almost as soon as the program was approved.

Singapore is indeed security-minded in idiotic ways – the underground MRT stations are meant to double as bomb shelters, in a country that nobody is going to want to bomb and that has no chance in a major war anyway. But even with that, it’s hard to explain why building Upper Thomson Road is now budgeted at PPP$600 million per km.

But you’d expect South Korea to be even more paranoid about security, and somehow, stuff there gets done on decent budgets.

Bolwerk November 29, 2014 - 12:25 pm

I don’t see why SAS needs to be complex above 63rd Street either. Certainly there is a lot frivolity to the high costs in New York. Germans also build rather ostentatiously themselves (most any picture here), but at a fraction the cost of New York. Still, your per-km stats don’t seem to account for project siting. Milan is building a lot of its urban heavy rail in Milan’s equivalent to eastern Queens. A lot of the more expensive cases you cite at least seem comparable to New York in project complexity.

Many German cities seem to have oodles of empty greenbelt/park space for various historical reasons probably going back to the Habsburg era.

Alon Levy November 30, 2014 - 12:58 am

First, none of the German cities in question was ever ruled by a Habsburg. A few were sacked by mercenaries loyal to the Habsburgs… but these are not major cities anymore, owing to the sacking.

Second, it’s not really correct to compare Milan M5 to a line in Eastern Queens. It runs under a street lined with medium-rise buildings with limited setbacks; its outer end is comparable to Flushing, Jamaica, or Forest Hills, and its inner end is a secondary business district comparable to Long Island City.

And third, no, the really expensive European projects are usually much more complicated than anything that New York builds. Crossrail has to go deeply under the entire Central London Underground network. So did the Jubilee line extension. The central segment of the RER A, which was at the time the most expensive line in the world per km (at about $450 million/km in 2010 dollars), went under the entire Paris Metro network; so did Paris M14, completed at $250 million/km, and to some extent so is the RER E extension to La Defense, which is budgeted at $300 million/km. There’s no real equivalent of any of these in New York, nor could there be outside Lower Manhattan, because there’s a surplus of wide avenues for subway lines to use. The only thing New York has any business building that’s as complex as Crossrail or the RER A is a commuter rail line from Jersey City to Flatbush/Atlantic via Fulton Street; even ARC Alt G isn’t really comparable.

Bolwerk November 30, 2014 - 2:48 pm

Hmm, I was referring to the period anyway, but depends what you mean by “ruled” I guess. Certainly a Habsburg reigned as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire during the Sack of Magdeburg, and Magdeburg was a vassal or constituent (free Hanseatic city?) to the HRE. But the HRE was notoriously decentralized, with probably dozens of minor kingdoms/princedoms/dukedoms. Each probably had royal estates, hunting grounds, fair grounds, later even urban parks like Munich’s English Garden. Even free cities probably had rural territories, river rights, etc.. A 1789 map of the HRE, covers pretty much every remaining city that exists in Germany today.

I agree New York largely doesn’t need that kind of complexity, but at least ESA seems to have it and we’re building the SAS as if we have it.

Alon Levy November 30, 2014 - 11:57 pm

Okay, sure, they were in principle subject to the Holy Roman Emperor’s authority, but in reality the Emperor’s authority only existed on paper. It’s like saying that strictly speaking, all Christian monarchs before the Reformation were subject to the authority of the Pope; in principle that’s true, but in practice the monarchs were sovereign.

ESA does have that complexity, yes… and it’s also much more expensive than the other projects. SAS is deep underground, with expensive stations, but it’s still a line under a wide street.

Bolwerk December 1, 2014 - 12:18 pm

You’re the one who mentioned ruling, not me! I don’t know about them being toothless either. Popes had a lot of power in the 12th century, much less in the 15th. Holy Roman Emperors probably had power akin to POTUS, with a lot of strictly defined powers but with little enough authority to easily be defied by other powerful officers. That decentralization is rather the point though, and to some degree was maintained even by the German Empire until the Weimar Republic abolished monarchy.

SAS seems to be making an effort to a great deal of real estate for station entrances/exits. Probably to preserve parking! >:-o

Nathanael December 1, 2014 - 11:42 am

The 63rd St. subway was arguably very complicated. Recent construction isn’t. Well, ESA is. (Alt G would have been simpler.)

Christopher November 26, 2014 - 2:42 pm

Lower cost doesn’t mean better service. I was specifically speaking toward the work in civic service design and social innovation. For sure, there’s plenty of that happening in southern Europe, particularly Spain and Italy are leaders in this area, but the bulk of the scholarship and laboratories that are on the ground working in communities are happening in Northern Europe.

As for the other comments, there’s no reason not to have a commission or team in place in order to set the agenda and structure. And certainly some of that can come from research into examples from Europe and Asia and fact that foundational research is exactly why a coordinating body is important.

But all stakeholders including the Unions should have been a part of the discussion. My interest is specifically about process and changing old models for government and citizen interaction and that starts with format of public meetings and how the top and the bottom work together to co-create the future we want to see.

Another panel and public comment period is not re-invention, it’s the same model that got us into the problems in the first place. Let’s be more creative.

Eric November 27, 2014 - 3:34 am

Madrid has a very impressive looking recently-built subway network. But I was there recently and it was operating way over capacity. Why? For one thing they seem to have skimped by building short stations meaning short trains. For another, the trains were quite infrequent which I attribute to budget problems due to the economic crisis. So to some extent the low costs translate to a lower-quality product. Of course that only explains a small part of the difference between Madrid and a place like New York.

Nathanael November 27, 2014 - 5:18 am

If you don’t want to go outside the US, you could simply ask how LA does things. Their projects *get built on time*. Or *early*.

Something is extra specially wrong in NYC.

Alon Levy November 27, 2014 - 7:34 am

Well, the frequency is proximately a matter of not having enough money to pay operating costs, and more fundamentally a matter of building manually-driven trains rather than driverless ones in order to keep costs down. But new lines with drivers are built outside Madrid, too, for example pretty much everything in Germany.

Eric November 27, 2014 - 9:44 am

Is that a function of city size, i.e. a large city (as in Germany or Spain) will have more riders per (completely grade-separated) train, so it is cheaper per passenger to have a reasonable frequency of manually-driven service?

Alon Levy November 28, 2014 - 6:34 pm

Sort of? A large city also has enough riders to justify automation, since the capital costs are spread among more riders. Paris is doing a ton of automation nowadays; smaller cities are sometimes automated if they built their systems recently enough that it was feasible to be driverless from the start, but if they have older manually-operated systems, it’s uncommon for them to automate.

Bolwerk November 29, 2014 - 12:37 pm

I don’t see any calculus where manual service is desirable, all things being equal. High passenger counts or low, the costs of employing a driver are probably about the same. Except at the barest minimum of service frequency, too low to be considered urban transit, I would expect the payoff of driverless automation is inevitable.

The only charitable reason to still have manual service in grade-separated transit is because an agency hasn’t had time to implement it. Politics is a more likely reason.

Nathanael December 1, 2014 - 11:45 am

There is never an argument for a driver (/motorman/engineer) in a grade-separated system. Frankly, I don’t really think there’s any purpose for a driver in an at-grade system, but it seems to make people more comfortable.

There is an argument for an employee. DLR has “train captains”, who basically act like traditional conductors or like “guards” (as they call them in Britain). They deal with the passengers — they don’t drive the train.

NYC Subway somehow has ended up with conductors who don’t do the traditional job of conductors, which is ridiculous. The train should be automated and the conductor should be walking the train….

Nathanael December 1, 2014 - 11:45 am

…in reality, of course, they’re employed by a combination of inertia and union featherbedding policies.

Bolwerk December 1, 2014 - 12:26 pm

There may be scant need for staffing for the sake of crowd control and customer service, but there is scarcely any point in having conductors walk the trains.

Safety arguments are mostly ridiculous. As far as crime goes, conductors are no more than another potential victim. Maybe they’re a little better equipped in other emergencies, but the risk calculus probably doesn’t add up to making them necessary.

johndmuller December 1, 2014 - 8:55 pm

I believe that conductors do have some train operations related responsibilities, but those could probably be handled some other way.

A person more like a transit police officer would be a useful position. Some combination conductor/cop would be my choice.

Just because the train might be able to be run automatically doesn’t mean that we should do that. Think of the MTA as a jobs program; lets just update the jobs to this century.

Bolwerk December 2, 2014 - 1:10 am

The only sort of useful policing-related function would be POP inspection agents, but even that would require radically expanding POP use on surface transit.

If you just want to pay people money, just pay them welfare. Don’t pretend we need positions we don’t need. NYPD already has 35,000 cops, and there is little enough for them to do as is.

johndmuller December 2, 2014 - 7:43 pm

Just walking around on the street would be a great thing for the cops to do.

Cops in cars are isolated from the people they protect and serve both ways – they don’t relate as much to the people as they would if they were padding a beat and vice versa. Even cops on motorcycles would be better; or scooters, or bicycles or even on horseback!

When you see people on the news from neighborhoods where there has just been some shootings or whatever crimes, what they seem to want is more police presence (except of course, when it’s the police themselves who are perceived as the problem – and even then probably more officers would put a damper on the misbehavior).

By the same token, more transit police on the subways and buses would make a lot of people feel more comfortable (except for the bad seeds who otherwise would be the ones making us feel uncomfortable). If these cops were also public info officers as well, or did other things, so much the better.

I’d rather pay someone to do this kind of thing (which might not be necessary in an ideal world, but which is helpful in the one we live in) than give them the money and the stigma of welfare.

Can't think of a name December 2, 2014 - 9:43 pm

FYI: MTA doesn’t want a systemwide removal of conductors with the current state of the system. OPTO would only be for those less frequent, shorter routes and CBTC equipped lines. If they truly wanted to get rid of conductors, they definitely would’ve made a hard push for it, just like they did w/ station agents.

They might be useful as a welfare recipient, Bolwerk, but management thinks otherwise.

Bolwerk December 3, 2014 - 1:15 pm

First I’d rather have a working, functional transit system. Having a system people want to use will do a lot more for public safety, and cost a lot less, than having police sitting on empty transit vehicles. We have enough security state welfare.

MTA doesn’t want anything. The MTA exists to do what the MTA does, and not to have an opinion on what its stakeholders want. Keeping crowded rush hour trains crewed may be perfectly logical with one crew member, though it’s hard to see an argument for keeping a crew on emptier trains. The MTA should be aiming for ZPTO, not OPTO.

Alon Levy December 2, 2014 - 9:47 pm

Systems that are partially grade-separated, like subway-surface lines, and systems that share tracks with mainline rail, like RERs and S-Bahns, are never driverless. I believe Tel Aviv is planning to be the first system of the first kind: driverless in the central underground segment, but with drivers getting on to operate the train in tram mode on the surface. Given Tel Aviv’s painful incompetence in everything, I do not think it’s an example worth learning from.

Larry Littlefield November 26, 2014 - 12:28 pm

Which all gets back to that capital plan. There is a $15 billion gap they say. The Move NY plan would pay for one third of it.

I say cut the expected prices by one-third without cutting scope, bid the projects out design-build with all the onus on the contractor, and if no one steps up to take the job — do nothing. Wait.

Private construction is ramping up, so maybe they only want to do the job for higher prices now. Maybe they’ll take the job but stall, shifting workers to those luxury towers or offices. Wait until there is a private construction bust and do the MTA stuff then, if you have to.

That’s two-thirds of the gap. Shifting the bus systems and payroll tax revenues to NYC and the counties nets you close to the other third.

Larry Littlefield November 26, 2014 - 12:28 pm

By one third I mean one-third of the gap — $5 billion.

manny s November 26, 2014 - 1:37 pm

The central problem is that the MTA is a public authority. Unlike traditional State agencies, many authorities conduct business outside of the typical oversight and accountability requirements for operations including, but not limited to, employment practices, contracts and procurement procedures, and financial reporting. Reinventing the MTA should require state legislation to reconstituted it as separate State, City and County agencies.

Ed November 26, 2014 - 2:11 pm

Privatize, privatize, privatize. Can it be done all at once? No, but MTA can start by selling or leasing bridges. This generates the surge of capital they need to finally finish the dozens of projects that have been in the works for generations. Then, when the system is finally up to 21st century standards, it becomes attractive to private operators. Operators of individual subway and bus routes compete to provide the best service at lowest cost (as they do in UK, Ireland, France, etc.). More importantly these private operators become an influential lobbying block to wage all out war on unions, NIMBYs, and outmoded FTA and FRA regulations.
I invite the 2ndavesagas readership to shoot holes through this plan.

Bolwerk November 26, 2014 - 2:59 pm

Is this a satire of neoliberal and Randroid propaganda? I seriously can’t tell.

Chris C November 26, 2014 - 6:28 pm

There is actually very little competition in the UK re bus routes. And ditto for trains.

In the UK there is a current rail franchise that does provide a good service at low cost and makes £millions.

Unfortunately the Government is about to reoffer the franchise back to the private sector – despite the fact that the last two private operators for the East Coast franchise handed them back and the Government had to start operating the service.

Under privatisation public subsidy has actually gone up rather than down.

adirondacker12800 November 26, 2014 - 6:51 pm

But but but Saint Ronnie and Saint Maggie said the private sector can always do everything better.

Eric November 27, 2014 - 3:37 am

“This generates the surge of capital they need to finally finish the dozens of projects that have been in the works for generations. Then, when the system is finally up to 21st century standards, it becomes attractive to private operators.”

So, all the building expenses are borne by the MTA, and all the resulting profits go to the private sector? No thanks.

Bolwerk November 27, 2014 - 12:12 pm

I wasn’t about to entertain this thread further, but now that I think of it: does the MTA even own those bridges or just lease them?

Ed November 28, 2014 - 10:36 am

Actually the building expenses would ultimately be born by drivers in the form of higher bridge tolls under private operators. Congestion pricing anyone?

The MTA just does not have the lobbying power to fight the special interest groups which stifle infrastructure growth. It’s an unfortunate truth in the US that only private industry can do that.

How else can the MTA independently raise the billions in capital funding that it desperately needs?

Jerrold November 26, 2014 - 2:28 pm

A bit off-topic, but very much on-topic for this SITE:

I am sure that I’m not the only one here who gets the E-mails from Transit about weekend changes.
(Normally on Thursdays, but this week on Wednesday for obvious reasons.)

It said (when talking about the gaps in service near Coney Island on the Q and F): “For direct service between Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, use the N or the D”. Now, they obviously must have meant “For direct service TO Manhattan OR Downtown Brooklyn, use the N or the D”.
By “direct” they apparently meant that you won’t have to first take a shuttle bus.

You would think that they would have somebody PROOFREADING those E-mails before they are sent out!

Rob November 26, 2014 - 3:52 pm

The MTA’s construction costs are up to ten times higher than they should be. Why?

One big answer: Davis Bacon. Talk to chuck schumer, et al abt that.

Don Anon November 27, 2014 - 2:46 am

Hardly. Davis-Bacon can’t explain the difference between construction costs here and in Europe. There are unions and high wages over there, too (in fact, I would think stronger unions and higher wages in some parts of Europe).

Nathanael November 27, 2014 - 5:20 am

The construction costs are higher in NYC even than they are in other high-wage cities in the US.

Worse — in the other cities, the construction actually gets finished, and when it’s done, the elevators work. In NYC, it’s years behind schedule and everything’s broken.

Something much deeper is wrong. I have heard it suggested that the NY State Bidding laws are at fault. But *upstate* projects get done on time and on budget.

There is something very wrong in NYC.

AG November 27, 2014 - 9:53 am

“Worse — in the other cities, the construction actually gets finished, and when it’s done, the elevators work.”

Really? DC is not too far away and I hear of these same issues.

Nathanael November 28, 2014 - 2:44 am


The Silver Line is open. Seven months of delays are *nothing* compared to what’s been going on in New York.

The elevators in DC pretty much work most of the time — especially the brand new ones.

AG November 28, 2014 - 4:45 pm

The Silver Line is nothing like ESA or SAS or even the #7 extension… That Silver Line is extension is basically a suburban extension.. Still over budget and delayed… When I was school out in the DC area – there were plenty of things that didn’t work.

Nathanael December 1, 2014 - 11:47 am

The Second Avenue Subway and the #7 extension are simpler than the Silver Line. The Silver Line had to thread its way past secret undocumented CIA cables, for God’s sake, a problem which is not encountered in NY.

AG December 1, 2014 - 7:17 pm

I’m hoping that was a joke… There is a reason NYC is the largest field office for every alphabet spy agency… There is also a reason things are called “secret”… If ppl know it’s no secret.

Eric December 3, 2014 - 7:20 am

Boston is paying $500 million/mile for a surface light rail project which is about 20 years behind schedule.
I think they have even New York beat.


Alon Levy November 27, 2014 - 7:36 am

Over here, 71% of workers are unionized, and if I remember correctly, a total of 87% are covered by collective bargaining agreements. Construction costs, adjusted for living costs, are $110 million per km for subway tunnels (partly through Central Stockholm) and $250 million per km for the local ARC equivalent.

Boris November 26, 2014 - 3:52 pm

A major reason why everything takes too long and costs too much is because there is no accountability for projects that fail. Any organization has some projects that fail, but at least in the private sector attempts are made to fail “better”. The MTA has no quantitative metrics on which projects are judged; and how can you punish or reward if there is no measure of success or failure?

Every major MTA project takes at least three attempts, where the first two times the money is spent with no visible result. After a project fails there is no internal review, no lessons learned, no one is fired, and the public is not informed that hundreds of millions of dollars just went down the drain.

The best known example is, of course, BusTime, where there were two pilot programs that went nowhere before a new, competent internal IT group was created to run and manage it. Another example is countdown clocks on the B Division. According to the 2000-2004 Strategic Business Plan, computerized train tracking using STATIS on the B Division was supposed to be completed in 2005. Another effort followed that and failed a few years later. A third one is now ongoing, which promises countdown clocks by 2020 – a full 15 years late. We’ll see if that deadline is met, but if not it wouldn’t matter, because by that point everyone who was working on the countdown clock project would have retired.

Nathanael November 27, 2014 - 5:22 am

“because there is no accountability for projects that fail”

This is the core description of what’s wrong, yes. And perhaps this explains why upstate, with essentially the same laws, we do NOT have the same outrageous problems with 5-year delays and escalators which don’t work.

But why is there no accountability?

When contractors fail to deliver, why do they get hired by the MTA again? Why aren’t they blacklisted?

pete November 30, 2014 - 3:25 pm

They will form a new “Joint Venture” LLC and therefore not be on the blacklist.

Nathanael December 1, 2014 - 11:47 am

Maybe that’s it. It should be possible to blacklist the lead personnel, however.

Manny S November 26, 2014 - 6:57 pm

Investigation of waste should not be limited to the expense side of the MTA ledger. Revenues designated for the MTA are diverted when debt is issued; fares, tolls and taxes collected; buildings and properties rented; advertising sold, etc.

Eric November 27, 2014 - 3:44 am

Why doesn’t the MTA have a comptroller, or why can’t we force an external investigator on them to discover why they are failing?

Nathanael November 27, 2014 - 5:24 am

The MTA’s releases of financial information and project updates are quite informative in some ways.

It looks to me as if the MTA is being routinely bilked by contractors who aren’t doing the work they contracted to do.

Of course, LIRR workers are also bilking the MTA on a routine basis by not doing their jobs and trying to get paid for hours they didn’t work, as an expose showed fairly recently.

The real question is why nothing is being done to address either of these problems.

John-2 November 27, 2014 - 10:22 am

It might be time for the MTA to expand outside their list of regional contractors to look at bringing in some of the truly big international builders (who, admittedly, offer up some of their own shady problems. But if nothing else, expanding the competition would put pressure on the more localized firms to cut their padding or risk being shut out of future deals).

Jonathan English November 27, 2014 - 3:39 pm

The go-to excuse for the cost of the Second Avenue Subway seems to be that builders have to deal with moving so much underground infrastructure, as if Paris and Madrid don’t have sewers and fibre optic cables. In fact Second Avenue is an extremely simple subway project by global standards: it doesn’t have a single new interchange station, it runs under a broad avenue, and it doesn’t cross any other subway lines. By contrast, a line like Crossrail or Météor runs largely “cross-country” under buildings, forcing subsidence mitigation measures, and must thread its way through a dozen other subway and regional rail tunnels.

What make complaints about dealing with underground infrastructure all the more ludicrous is that we’ve known that the SAS is going to be built at some point for the last 80 years. Why wasn’t the underground infrastructure marked and designed to provide for future subway construction?

Tower18 November 28, 2014 - 10:56 am

Setting aside whether it should have been built this way ever/at all, but imagine if we tried to build the IND 6th Ave line today, threading around all those other lines and stations. If SAS is what it is, I can’t even imagine being presented with REAL infrastructure challenges in 2014.

Alon Levy November 28, 2014 - 6:36 pm

You don’t have to ask about today! Sixth Avenue Subway was expensive for its time precisely because the IND had the bright idea of building around and under an active subway line.

will November 27, 2014 - 11:51 pm

Let’s the chinesese Government build it since they can get projects done with no complaints and for a much cheaper price. They bided to build Mexico high speed rail for 3 Billions dollars and won but Mexico took the bid away to see it bombardier would build to give the project to them since they have a plant near Mexico City

Alon Levy November 29, 2014 - 10:17 am

Mexico canceled the Chinese HSR contract after it discovered that China bribed the president with several million dollars in order to get the contract.

China’s domestic infrastructure construction costs are lower than the US’s because every country’s infrastructure construction costs are lower than the US’s. By Continental European standards, China is a bit cheaper than average, that’s all. It does better than Germany, the Low Countries, France, and the more expensive projects elsewhere; it does worse than most projects in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Greece (yes, Greece), and Scandinavia.

Will November 29, 2014 - 2:43 pm

How is it that the President of Mexico is not brought up on corruption charges if he took $7 million dollars. The point is that crony capitalism only benefit the contractors instead the government that its serves. At least here in my hometown of Lorain Ohio, All contracts bids for infrastructure projects have the least amount of days and monies plus penalties if the project is not done in time. http://chronicle.northcoastnow.....me-budget/

Alon Levy November 30, 2014 - 1:05 am

In many countries, there’s either a law or a tradition of immunity for the head of government. In Israel, a less corrupt country than Mexico, former prime ministers are brought up on charges (one is about to go to jail), but the office is powerful enough to get the attorney general to look the other way until the prime minister leaves office. Likewise, in Italy nobody brought Berlusconi on charges until after he had left office.

Incidentally, China, supposedly a place that Gets Things Done, has a huge cronyism problem, far worse than in any developed country. Authoritarian governments, with their state control of media and easily subdued state prosecutors, are much friendlier to the corrupt official than democracies.

Tower18 December 1, 2014 - 10:56 am

What was this I just read about Brazil that any charges brought against a member of Congress must be tried in front of a special tribunal, outside the normal court system for everyone else, and so cases wait for decades before trial.

D in Bushwick November 28, 2014 - 1:52 am

It’s not just the MTA. Parks take years to be rebuilt and street projects sit for years under partial reconstruction. These half-finished projects are vacant of workers month after month after month.
Forget New York, we are really New Naples.

Nathanael November 28, 2014 - 2:47 am

The lackadaisal “supposedly under construction with no workers” situation is not quite unique to New York. It seems to happen in Boston too. But I’ve never seen it anywhere else.

And in Boston, they’re coming in on budget.

When nobody is present doing the work, and the work is not getting done, and yet somehow the contractor is going over budget, it really starts to look like there’s just a scam going on.

Tower18 November 28, 2014 - 10:59 am

Shouldn’t this be an easy thing for an investigative journalist? You ought to be able to do site observations and compare it to the work that the contractors claim is being done. Surely they have records of people getting paid for work.

Even aside from capital construction, I am always shocked how MTA subway station stairway repairs require 3 month stairway closures. Why can’t that be done in a single weekend, with whatever necessary curing time to follow? When these stairs are closed for repair, there seems to be a handful of days during 3 months where you actually see work happening.

Bolwerk November 29, 2014 - 1:03 pm

Most investigative journalists aren’t accountants, and most accountants aren’t investigative journalists. Neither is likely to be an engineer.

And there is no fucking way to get most people to keep a cool head about labor politics. Offer a reasonably moderate opinion, which unavoidably requires changing work rules at the least, and you’re pegged with sneering right-wing anti-labor groups.

Alon Levy November 28, 2014 - 6:39 pm

I lol at this stereotyping of Southern Italy when Northern England is as poor, and is worse at local infrastructure; the only good piece of infrastructure in Yorkshire is the intercity trains from London to Edinburgh.

Scoop December 5, 2014 - 2:24 pm

That’s just not true. The per capital GDP for northern England is about 24,000 euros. The per capita GDP for southern Italy is about 17,000 euros.

The infrastructure is closer, but it’s a hell of a lot harder to maintain in northern England, because it’s wetter and it freezes several times per year.


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