We’ve known for a long time that the US pays more than most other wealthy countries to build rapid transit lines, and especially for tunneling. If the incoming Biden administration wants to invest more in transit construction, then it’s time to get a handle on this.
The transit researcher Alon Levy has been working on this issue for many years, has generated a helpful trove of articles is here. Alon’s work triggered a New York Times exposé in 2017, focus on the extreme costs (over $1 billion/mile) of recent subway construction there.
But while the New York situation is the most extreme, rapid transit construction costs are persistently higher than in comparable countries in Europe, where they are tunneling through equally complex urban environments.
- Yes, US appears to spend more to build rail transit lines than comparable overseas peers.
- This difference is mostly about the cost of tunneling, not surface lines. The US pays far more to tunnel 1 km than Europeans do, even in cities like Rome where archaeology is a major issue.
- Needless to say, the type of rail doesn’t matter much. Once you leave the surface, either onto viaducts or into tunnels, any cost difference between light rail and heavy rail is swamped by the cost of those structures. (This is true of bus viaducts and tunnels too, of course)
- Remarkably, stations don’t seem to explain the difference in rail construction costs. European subways with stations closer together still come out cheaper than US subways with fewer stations.
Most of us have known this for a long time — though I admit to being surprised by the last point. But it’s good to see a respected institute like Eno building out a database to make the facts unavoidable. If you want more rail transit in the US, it simply has to be cheaper.