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Old Posted Dec 29, 2016, 7:44 PM
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Why we can't have nice things

New York's incredibly expensive new subway explains why we can't have nice things


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As President-elect Donald Trump is about to take office having promised a burst of infrastructure spending, it's worth taking a look at the newest, shiniest piece of infrastructure in Manhattan and what it says about why it's so hard to get anything big built in major American cities.

On January 1, the Second Avenue subway extension will open about 100 years after it was first proposed — or at least, a little bit of it will, running from 63rd Street to 96th Street.

It's pretty and shiny, and it's also the world's most expensive subway ever built on a per-mile basis: $4.45 billion for two miles.

Manhattan, of course, is a dense place with lots of existing stuff underground that complicates the digging of tunnels. Building a subway there will never be cheap.

But infrastructure in New York isn't just expensive compared with younger, sparser cities. It's expensive compared with places like London and Paris — places that are also pretty old and also have well-compensated construction workers represented by powerful unions.

The bad news is we have been overpaying for our underground infrastructure for stupid reasons. The good news is we can avoid overpaying in the future with smarter, more strategic choices.

Why so expensive?

The main thing that seems to set apart American transit projects is engineering choices — especially choices to build bigger stations than necessary, with more complicated designs than necessary, deeper underground than is necessary.

In the case of the Second Avenue subway extension, most of the construction cost is in the stations and not the tunnels.

Of the nearly $4.5 billion price tag for the project, $2.4 billion went to build three new stations and expand an existing one at 63rd Street. Building the tunnels and track systems cost just $734 million.

About $500 million went toward design and engineering. The remaining $800 million covered the rest: construction management, real estate, station artwork, fare-collection systems and other sundry items.

Big, deep stations cost a fortune

The enormous cost for stations reflects an engineering choice: The subway is built much farther below ground than most lines in New York. It also features capacious station layouts with full-length mezzanines over the station level, meaning the underground stations are two stories high.

Boring a tunnel deep below ground isn't especially expensive compared with building one close to the surface (the tunnel-boring machine just goes where you point it). But excavating very large, very deep station caverns is extremely expensive.

In some places, deep construction is necessary to avoid existing tunnels. Sometimes it's chosen for political expediency, because a deep construction process is less disruptive on the surface.

Where deep construction is necessary, there is all the more reason to choose a smaller station profile. We could have cheaper subway expansions if we used slimmer designs, for example by omitting full-length mezzanines.

Deep stations on the London Underground do not have mezzanines. They are less spacious than these expensive new ones in New York, but they work fine.

A repeated theme: Expensive projects that are overengineered

The Second Avenue subway's costs will soon be eclipsed by East Side Access, the project to bring Long Island Rail Road commuter trains into a new terminal, 140 feet below Grand Central Terminal.

When this project is finished in 2022 (or later, if it gets delayed again) it is expected to have cost over $10 billion while serving fewer riders than the new Second Avenue line.

In this instance, union labor seems to have been a significant cost driver, as Nicole Gelinas wrote last year for City Journal. That's in part because this project involves many agencies, with conflicts between Amtrak and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (and their workers' unions) adding to labor hours and project duration.

But much of the cost story is similar to that of the Second Avenue line: a very large station, built very deep underground, excavated and constructed at enormous expense.

Of course, the area around Grand Central is already full of tunnels, so if you were going to build a new terminal, it had to be deep.

But the existing Grand Central Terminal has 44 platforms and 67 tracks, more than any other train station in the world. It has more than twice as many platforms as Penn Station, and yet it serves about half as many daily passengers.

You may see where I am going with this: The new LIRR tunnel could have been connected to the existing terminal tracks, greatly reducing costs by avoiding the need to build a new station or even any new platforms.

But this would have required the LIRR to share facilities with another commuter train, the Metro-North Railroad, and the agencies produced a report insisting that sharing facilities at the world's largest train station would be so difficult that GCT had to become even bigger, adding eight more tracks, even at the cost of billions of dollars.

Building the new terminal instead of sharing the existing one was an appealing option in part because it wasn't supposed to be that expensive: As originally estimated in 2001, the terminal-construction portion of the project was supposed to cost only $700 million. The final cost (surprise, surprise) is going to be closer to $2 billion.

The white dinosaur that shows why we can't have nice things

The poster creature for New York's insane transit construction costs is the new PATH terminal at the World Trade Center, which opened in 2015.

Santiago Calatrava's design for the station was supposed to evoke a bird taking flight. After engineering challenges and cost overruns that forced officials to tell Calatrava the station could not have the expensive, operable wings he wanted, the station has ended up looking like a stegosaurus — more a white dinosaur than a white elephant.

It cost $4 billion, making it the world's most expensive train station.

Back in 2014, The New York Times published a useful, detailed account of how the station became so expensive.

The decadelong saga of building the terminal is full of stories of political fights that ended in compromises in which elected officials chose to make the project more expensive rather than upset any group of constituents.

Suspend the tracks, suspend the memorial

For example, one challenge in building the new terminal for the PATH train, which connects Manhattan with New Jersey, was that the 1 subway line runs right through it, at a level higher than the main station concourse.

The simplest way to deal with this complication would have been to close the southernmost two stations of the 1 line during construction, including the one that serves the Staten Island Ferry.

This closing would have been inconvenient for some commuters — but not that inconvenient. Lower Manhattan is full of close-together subway lines, and ferry commuters diverted from the 1 could have taken the 4, 5, or R trains to get uptown.

But Staten Island was an important political constituency for the then-mayor and governor, so work had to proceed around the operating subway line — at an added cost of $355 million.

Working around the 1 train could also have been made cheaper and easier with a design change: supporting the 1 line's tracks with columns from below, standing on the floor of the new PATH station hall.

But this would have interfered with Calatrava's vision for a sweeping, column-free space. His architectural vision prevailed, and the 1 line is instead expensively suspended from the ceiling.

Other work proceeded upside down, too. The World Trade Center memorial is above the station, essentially sitting on its ceiling, so it would have made sense to build the memorial after the station.

But then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted the memorial finished for the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks — so the order of work was reversed at a cost of $75 million.

We can build cheaply and quickly when we really care

Most gallingly, the World Trade Center PATH terminal project isn't just a demonstration of how infrastructure projects become extremely costly and take forever. It's also a demonstration of how we can build cheaply and quickly when it's really important.

The new station replaced a temporary PATH terminal that opened in 2003, just 26 months after the previous PATH terminal was destroyed in the attacks, at a cost of just $323 million.

That station had the same capacity as the new one that cost more than 10 times as much.

To my eye, it was built of sturdy concrete that could have been used on a more permanent basis, if necessary.

With design practices like this, we don't deserve nice things

Now that Manhattan has the world's most expensive subway and its most expensive train station, New York and New Jersey officials at the Port Authority are bickering over where and how to build the world's most expensive bus terminal.

They want to spend $10 billion on a bus station.

They claim it's impossible to rehabilitate and improve the existing Port Authority Bus Terminal. Given the way the Port Authority has mishandled so many other capital projects, I don't believe them.

Not only will the new terminal (if ever built) be insanely expensive, but it will also be built west of the existing terminal, meaning it will be farther away from subway lines and offices that bus commuters who use the terminal are trying to reach.

This project is bogged down in a proxy fight between Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey — and I'm glad, because the longer they fight over it, the less likely it is that our money will get wasted on another white elephant.

This should not be so hard

One maddening aspect of the problem of American transit construction costs is that the big problems are not especially ideological.

Liberals like to complain that transit is underfunded. But at least in New York, the MTA and Port Authority capital programs contain plenty of money to build lots of transit if we spent as wisely as do transit authorities in Europe.

Conservatives point to unionized construction labor, but the countries that are beating us on cost also have well-paid workers who enjoy strong labor protections.

There is no White Elephant lobby as such, and it seems as if liberals and conservatives ought to be able to get together and agree that more, cheaper, simpler infrastructure is better than a handful of shiny, incredibly expensive projects.

They could also agree that transit agencies should be expected to find ways to get more capacity out of their existing infrastructure before they dig more caverns and pour more concrete.

They should be able to get together and say, "Gee, do we really need these mezzanines?" when the cost of a single subway station approaches $1 billion.

The Penn Station test

Penn Station will also soon (well, probably not that soon, given how these things go) be expanded at great expense, even though its 21 tracks serve a similar number of commuters as Châtelet-Les Halles, a downtown station on Paris' commuter rail system with just six tracks.

The Parisians use their infrastructure smartly: Trains start far outside the city, stop at Châtelet, and then keep going, so they don't spend a lot of time sitting at a platform. By contrast, nearly every train that calls at Penn Station terminates there, requiring it to take time to turn around.

If trains started in New Jersey, stopped at Penn Station and then continued on to Long Island, New York could make more use of its existing station infrastructure instead of building more of it at great expense.

But this would require New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road (and therefore, Cuomo and Christie) to work constructively together.

That probably would be harder than scraping together the billions needed to add more tracks and platforms south of the existing Penn Station. But it shouldn't be.
http://www.businessinsider.com/secon...ucture-2016-12
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Old Posted Dec 29, 2016, 8:52 PM
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While this article is making some good points, it's also missing some major points. Union labor in the U.S. is MUCH better compensated than in other first world nations, and the regulatory framework is MUCH more cumbersome. Have you ever seen an environmental impact statement somewhere like NYC or Coastal CA? We're talking 1,000 pages of every esoteric consideration in existence, written/implemented by hundreds of people making fat salaries.

Did the 742 separate contracts include considerations for handicapped/ethnic minorities/veterans, etc.? Was ever pebble of dirt scanned for historic artifacts? Was every possible affected plant catalogued and reviewed? Did the community have dozens of different venues over the course of many years for public comment, and were all comments adequately addressed?

Everyone involved in transit in the U.S. knows it's insanely expensive, and in NYC it's 3x worse than anywhere on the planet. But there are no easy solutions. The U.S. needs to better fund transit, because regulations and salary/benefits aren't going away. The Second Avenue Subway is a terrific investment, even at widely inflated cost. And, yeah, the new PA bus terminal will supposedly cost $10 billion. Unbelievable, but the land/ramps alone will cost many billions.
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Old Posted Dec 29, 2016, 9:26 PM
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Ummmm, I would actually say we have nice things because of that. Going cheaper and quicker is not the way to go, imo. Doing it the RIGHT way is. Better pay for our workers. More consideration of the environment. Those things might not be cheap but they're worth it.
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Old Posted Dec 29, 2016, 9:44 PM
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Ummmm, I would actually say we have nice things because of that. Going cheaper and quicker is not the way to go, imo. Doing it the RIGHT way is. Better pay for our workers. More consideration of the environment. Those things might not be cheap but they're worth it.
Wrong wrong wrong.

The whole point of this article is to stress that we don't build a damn thing because of this nonsense. At least nothing important unless it's privately funded and will generate a ton of money.

You can't keep expecting everything to be a bloated job creator. I'm so damn sick of Americans thinking that everywhere you look, we should have 400 useless people with desk jobs drawing a salary in order for it to get a stamp of approval. Sometimes we need to be efficient, people. Just ONCE in a damn while!
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Old Posted Dec 29, 2016, 9:58 PM
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Wrong wrong wrong.

The whole point of this article is to stress that we don't build a damn thing because of this nonsense. At least nothing important unless it's privately funded and will generate a ton of money.

You can't keep expecting everything to be a bloated job creator. I'm so damn sick of Americans thinking that everywhere you look, we should have 400 useless people with desk jobs drawing a salary in order for it to get a stamp of approval. Sometimes we need to be efficient, people. Just ONCE in a damn while!
Where are you getting these useless 400 people from? I'd really like to know. I'm an American and I don't mind the cost of the 2nd Ave. subway as long as it means it was done right with an environmental conscience in mind and appropriate pay. I think the problem here is not too much funding for projects rather than the lack thereof.
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Old Posted Dec 29, 2016, 10:21 PM
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Ummmm, I would actually say we have nice things because of that. Going cheaper and quicker is not the way to go, imo. Doing it the RIGHT way is. Better pay for our workers. More consideration of the environment. Those things might not be cheap but they're worth it.
The economist Milton Friedman said that once, while he was taken to see a canal that was being dug, he expressed astonishment that there was no heavy earth-moving machinery, only men with shovels. A government official said that was because the project was a jobs program. Well, then, Friedman replied, shouldn't they use spoons rather than shovels?
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Old Posted Dec 29, 2016, 10:26 PM
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While this article is making some good points, it's also missing some major points. Union labor in the U.S. is MUCH better compensated than in other first world nations, and the regulatory framework is MUCH more cumbersome. Have you ever seen an environmental impact statement somewhere like NYC or Coastal CA? We're talking 1,000 pages of every esoteric consideration in existence, written/implemented by hundreds of people making fat salaries.

Did the 742 separate contracts include considerations for handicapped/ethnic minorities/veterans, etc.? Was ever pebble of dirt scanned for historic artifacts? Was every possible affected plant catalogued and reviewed? Did the community have dozens of different venues over the course of many years for public comment, and were all comments adequately addressed?

Everyone involved in transit in the U.S. knows it's insanely expensive, and in NYC it's 3x worse than anywhere on the planet. But there are no easy solutions. The U.S. needs to better fund transit, because regulations and salary/benefits aren't going away. The Second Avenue Subway is a terrific investment, even at widely inflated cost. And, yeah, the new PA bus terminal will supposedly cost $10 billion. Unbelievable, but the land/ramps alone will cost many billions.
I think theres some element of "penny wise, pound foolish" going on where we underfund our transit agencies which then can't afford good staff to know when they're being ripped off by contractors.

And not every city is as bad as New York. While still above world averages, Los Angeles does a decent job of controlling costs. NYC isn't even in the ballpark though. For the price of the Second Ave Subway other rich world cities could build huge, sprawling networks of subways. It's fucking egregious.
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Old Posted Dec 30, 2016, 1:03 AM
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The economist Milton Friedman said that once, while he was taken to see a canal that was being dug, he expressed astonishment that there was no heavy earth-moving machinery, only men with shovels. A government official said that was because the project was a jobs program. Well, then, Friedman replied, shouldn't they use spoons rather than shovels?
Very nicely said by MF
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Old Posted Dec 30, 2016, 1:16 AM
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This is a new york specific problem.

LA and DC's subway expansions have gone in at relatively low cost.

Same for Denver and Florida commuter rail.
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Old Posted Dec 30, 2016, 1:37 AM
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This is a new york specific problem.

LA and DC's subway expansions have gone in at relatively low cost.

Same for Denver and Florida commuter rail.
New York has the worst cost structure on earth, by far, but U.S. rail expansion costs are far above those of other first world nations. There's still something wrong when a suburban California light rail line costs the same or more as an urban subway line in Spain.

And you can't compare directly between projects like Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access and rail expansion projects in places like LA or DC, for a variety of reasons. For one, NYC is really the only place in the U.S. where high capacity heavy rail is being run deep underground through ultra-dense urban real estate.

For example, the new terminal for East Side Access is a giant 350,000 square foot complex 14 floors below ground, connected by 22 elevators and 47 escalators to Grand Central above. That's a massive undertaking, even if you could use slave labor or something. The new Amtrak station on the West Side, once the new Hudson River Tunnel is built, will be similar depth, and probably even be bigger and more complex. I don't think any other city on earth does this kinda deep cavern stuff.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Side_Access

Also, saying the U.S. has no cost structure issue for transit excepting NYC is kinda missing where people are actually riding transit. Most rail transit riders in the U.S. are in the NYC area (I think 70% or something). If NYC has a cost problem with rail transit, the U.S. has a problem.
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Old Posted Dec 30, 2016, 3:01 AM
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^ Exactly.

If you guys want to see significant transit infrastructure investment in the US, it will simply never happen at the current pace, and at current costs
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Old Posted Dec 30, 2016, 3:14 PM
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We're talking 1,000 pages of every esoteric consideration in existence, written/implemented by hundreds of people making fat salaries.
hahahahahahahahahnot to sound flippant but that's not true. sorry, just had a laugh at that, that's my business.
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Old Posted Dec 30, 2016, 3:20 PM
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Originally Posted by dc_denizen View Post
This is a new york specific problem.

LA and DC's subway expansions have gone in at relatively low cost.

Same for Denver and Florida commuter rail.
LA and DC extensions are still several multiples of what it costs in France, but I guess it's because of France's cheap labor costs and lax environmental standards?

Also, if we're looking for out of control costs, the Bay Area is worse than NYC. Half of a bridge cost us $6 billion+ (original projected cost of ~$1 billion), and BART extensions in the suburbs where there's literally nothing there and the ROW is already owned routinely top $500 million per mile.
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Old Posted Dec 30, 2016, 3:22 PM
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Crawford, I don't know about your other points, but I have a hard time believing that union labor in the US is better compensated than in the UK, France or Germany.
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Old Posted Dec 30, 2016, 3:27 PM
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Originally Posted by ChargerCarl View Post
The economist Milton Friedman said that once, while he was taken to see a canal that was being dug, he expressed astonishment that there was no heavy earth-moving machinery, only men with shovels. A government official said that was because the project was a jobs program. Well, then, Friedman replied, shouldn't they use spoons rather than shovels?
prove he said that.
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Old Posted Dec 30, 2016, 3:28 PM
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the real problem is overpaid companies, owned by friends and family of the polis.

cost overruns should be paid by the companies who failed at bidding correctly, from the pockets of the owners if necessary, selling their assets as needed.
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Old Posted Dec 30, 2016, 4:55 PM
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Construction contracts are pretty specific about who pays for overruns. The responsible party usually ends up paying.

If the bid price had errors, the contractor pays.

If the overrun was due to owner choices or new scope, the client pays.

Of course there are a lot of gray areas too, which are then argued about.

You can push more risk to the contractor, but bids will increase to compensate.
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Old Posted Dec 30, 2016, 5:40 PM
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I think theres some element of "penny wise, pound foolish" going on where we underfund our transit agencies which then can't afford good staff to know when they're being ripped off by contractors.
This.

Other transit agencies around the world routinely hire construction and engineering experts to work internally. In fact, American transit systems were designed the same way. You look at the blueprints for the old-school elevated structures in New York or Chicago, they were drawn and stamped by some anonymous engineer working for the IRT or Chicago Electric Railways.

Today, pretty much all design and engineering is done by outside consultants. The OP article noted that $500 million of the Second Ave Subway was spent on design and construction. Assuming your engineers are well-paid at $200k/year, you're keeping 250 engineers busy for 5 years, working on nothing but the Second Ave Subway. How is this reasonable?
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Old Posted Dec 30, 2016, 6:13 PM
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hahahahahahahahahnot to sound flippant but that's not true. sorry, just had a laugh at that, that's my business.
In the NYC area, I think planners/consultants make good money. Maybe the people I know aren't the norm, but I have Urban Planning buddies (Masters from NYU or Columbia) and they are with private firms that do the environmental reviews.

They make good money (no, not Wall Street, law firm, or top doctor salary), but good; enough to have a kid or two and maybe a two bedroom in NYC, assuming spouse also works.
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Old Posted Dec 30, 2016, 6:19 PM
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Crawford, I don't know about your other points, but I have a hard time believing that union labor in the US is better compensated than in the UK, France or Germany.
Union construction labor is very well compensated in the U.S., especially in NYC, and I would be very surprised if any country were close.

Do you know what the average member of the sand hog or crane operator union makes in NYC? It's crazy. I think they make significantly more than the average U.S. doctor (and doctors in the U.S. are extremely well compensated compared to Western Europe). Granted, most union jobs aren't for crane operators or sand hogs (the tunneling union) but it's insane nonetheless.

And remember that medical costs in the U.S. are borne by employer, not govt. So you have to add tens of thousands in extra compensation to the average U.S. full-time employee, even if all things are equal.
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