Why Are US Rail Projects So Expensive?

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.

Now, Eno Foundation has dug into this, building a database of case studies to help define the problem.  Their top level findings:

  • 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.

10 Responses to Why Are US Rail Projects So Expensive?

  1. RossB December 28, 2020 at 4:15 pm #

    If I’m not mistaken, Alon Levy also thinks that privatizing the planning process may have a lot to do with it (https://pedestrianobservations.com/2019/11/08/what-is-the-anglosphere-anyway/). I don’t know if there is any other evidence to support or refute that theory. Also, Alon prefers the “they” pronoun (not “he”).

  2. RossB December 28, 2020 at 4:56 pm #

    “European subways with stations closer together still come out cheaper than US subways with fewer stations [per kilometer].”

    That suggests that Europe is building stations far cheaper as well. If you have a ten kilometer line, and in the U. S. you have 7 stations, but in Europe you have 10, you would expect the European line to cost more. If they are the same, they are simply building cheaper stations. That really isn’t surprising. In the United States, we tend to laud our stations, and want to proclaim to the world that yes, we really have built a world-class subway line (“Behold! A Metro!). In Europe, its just another stop. No fancy mezzanine, nothing special — its just a stop, not the main entrance to the city. Porte de Vanves is not Gare du Nord.

    • Gustav January 1, 2021 at 12:22 pm #

      European subway stations are actually pretty fancy, but the major reason why they are cheaper though, is (1) due to high volume production (economics of scale) and (2) due to the existence of many highly specialized firms that effectively work together and provide a high degree of standardized methods and prefabricated products. In the US these industries are basically dead, so transit agencies rely on expensive custom builds by a few contractors that rip them off in order to avoid bankruptcy. How to solve this issue? Well, ask how to solve a broken economic system! Not an easy task.

  3. Stephen Wickens December 28, 2020 at 6:45 pm #

    When the tunnels get really deep, the stations do too.
    Alon Levy’s work was also a great help in producing this report on the soaring costs of subway building in Toronto. https://www.rccao.com/research/files/RCCAO-STATION-TO-STATION-REPORT-APRIL2020.pdf

  4. Rob December 29, 2020 at 5:21 pm #

    I know one rail agency I’m familiar with made a conscious decision at the outset to keep as small a staff complement as possible, and hired planners to manage their engineering processes. My impression is those decisions put their legions of consultants fully in charge of developing all engineering products, and these companies are in the soup-to-nuts megaproject business. It’s always seemed to me (a non-engineer) that it’s critical to have a strong and skillful client agency if there’s to be any hope of cost control. It would be really interesting to have a dataset showing cost/mile correlations with client staff size, in-house engineering capability and approach to contracting — I’ll bet it would show that letting self-interested consultants write their own scopes is a recipe for high costs for sure.

  5. david vartanoff December 31, 2020 at 3:01 am #

    If one looks at the Second Ave Subway in NYC and the Central (streetcar) Subway in San Francisco, they are both overly deep IMHO. When the first IRT Subway was built in NYC, most of it was shallow cut and cover which is bvastly less total effort than grinding out a tunnel several stories below the surface. There are smaller amounts of ‘spoils’ to remove, each ton has to be moved much shorter distances, shorter sairways, escalators, elevators, all saving millions. Not only are specific segments much cheaper, but the simple act of getting between the sidewalk and the actual work areas is faster saving labor costs again.
    I toured the latest BART stations on the Saturday revenue service started. These are subway stations, but they have elaborately expensive above ground areas. Cleaning and maintenance will be very expensive. If this segment get decent service (10 minute headways) the average rider will spend very few minutes being entertained by the artwork and the vast spacious feel of them. Give me the rather plain tilework of the IND division of the NY system. Spend the money on express tracks.

    • Henry January 2, 2021 at 11:08 am #

      At least for SAS, some level of depth was always unavoidable, given that the SAS has always maintained a track connection to a tunnel that has to be even deeper to clear a river.

      • david vartanoff January 3, 2021 at 1:59 am #

        The segment above 96th was cut and cover done in the70s. There is another a few blocks north–again cut and cover in the 70s. Yes the connectors to the 63rd St crosstown tunnels had to go lower, but that did not force the 72nd or 86th st stations to be so deep.

        • Henry January 10, 2021 at 11:01 am #

          72nd St is limited because it has to meet the trains from 63 St.

          72 and 86 Sts are deeper primarily because Second Avenue itself is higher elevation than 96 St in those areas. http://web.mta.info/capital/sas_docs/feis/figures-08.pdf

          I suppose you could introduce a grade to follow elevation at 86 St, but I don’t think this would be some kind of significant cost savings.

        • Eric January 11, 2021 at 2:51 am #

          Yes, the deep tunneling was mainly done to appease NIMBYs.

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