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Someone killed a congressional inquiry into America’s sky-high transit construction costs

The life and death of great American GAO reports.

Work Continues On The Crossrail Railway Project Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Mass transit construction costs in the United States appear to be far higher than what European countries pay for comparable projects.

The Second Avenue Subway in New York City, for example, is being built at a cost of nearly $1.7 billion per kilometer while new subway lines are being built in Paris, Copenhagen, and Berlin for about $250 million per kilometer. It’s not entirely clear what accounts for those differences or what the United States can do to increase the cost-effectiveness of its tunneling. But one clue could come from studying what Los Angeles, the city that’s doing the most rail construction in the US these days, is doing to deliver lower-than-normal costs. They’ve also been publishing project management best practices to explain what they’ve gleaned.

Some people in the United States Senate had the smart idea that the federal government ought to do something similar and included language in their appropriations bill commissioning a Government Accountability Office study of the issue. It’s normally the kind of thing that’s an uncontroversial measure, but the language was stripped out when the bill had to be reconciled with the House’s language as part of the big government funding deal earlier this year.

And it’s a shame. Obviously one study won’t make a huge difference. But beyond being interesting and useful on its own terms, the first step to increasing productivity in American transit construction is for people to acknowledge that it’s an issue. Mass transit proponents are understandably sensitive about anything that might end upon labeling existing projects as wasteful, but if the United States could start building at European unit costs we’d be able to build drastically more tunnels and have much more useful transit systems. Shying away from the truth is short-sighted.

The case of the missing GAO study

Looking at the final omnibus document to see what Congress was doing with the DC area’s mass transit system, I found this curious line:

That led to a search for when, exactly, the GAO was going to be directed to report on this.

Poking around got me to the Senate’s original text contained this language calling for a GAO study of transit construction costs:

Increasing Costs of Transit Projects. -- Not later than 6 months after the enactment of this act, the GAO shall report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations regarding the construction costs of transit capital projects in the United States in comparison to other developed G-20 nations, such as South Korea, Japan, Spain, France, Italy and Germany. The GAO shall examine potential cost drivers, including: contracting and procurement, project and station design, routing, regulatory barriers, interagency cooperation and legal systems. The report shall compare practices both between various cities in the United States as well as to practices in other nations. The report should, if appropriate, make recommendations to DOT on steps it can take to address the issues identified by the reports to help bring best practices in the United States in line with international standards within the boundaries of current U.S. law. These recommendations may take the form of changes to funding guidelines or prioritization, regulatory changes, contracting practices, or intergovernmental technical assistance.

Nobody seems to want to officially claim credit for killing this or to point the finger at exactly who did it, since for better or worse mass transit construction costs aren’t anyone’s top priority on Capitol Hill. But there was an effort to get the federal government to take a look at this, and then someone else squelched it.

Transit advocates need to care about costs

That back-and-forth encapsulates a dispute within the American transit community about how to think about this problem.

One popular school of thought holds that transit advocates essentially ought to circle the wagons and deny that there’s a problem here. The Second Avenue Subway may be ungodly expensive, but it is a really valuable and useful project. The United States wastes plenty of money on highways, too, and there always seems to be enough money for another cruise missile or stealth bomber, so why should we nickel-and-dime transit projects?

I’ve come to think that this is fundamentally misguided. The reality is that if you want to build a lot of transit projects, it’s really helpful to be able to build them at an affordable cost. Not only does that stretch a given pile of dollars further, but precisely because it lets you stretch further it means that your project touches more people’s lives and can garner a broader coalition of political support. Paris’s ability to build subways cheaply doesn’t mean Paris has become stingy on its transit projects — the ability to get a lot of bang for the buck is one reason they can do the enormous $25 billion Grand Paris Express expansion project.

It’s precisely the people who do want to see the United States build great new transportation projects who ought to worry about why we are so bad at executing on them. Unfortunately, not everyone in politics sees it that way.