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Eno Study: U.S. Rail Transit Projects Cost More than They Should

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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A new study from the Eno Center for Transportation, “Saving Time and Making Cents: A Blueprint for Building Transit Better,” analyzes current and historical trends “to understand the drivers behind mass transit construction, cost and delivery in the United States and abroad.”

The study’s authors, all from the Eno Center for Transportation, are Policy Analyst Romic Aevaz, Senior Policy Analyst Brianne Eby, Vice President of Policy and Finance Paul Lewis, and President and CEO Robert Puentes.

The study’s database of available data and metrics of 171 transit projects in the U.S. and peer countries in Western Europe compares investments among them. “The resulting federalist agenda for both policy and practice aims to shift the current national conversation from simply diagnosing problems to identifying and implementing opportunities to deliver better and more cost-effective projects,” Eno said. “The study provides a detailed roadmap intended to make sure we get the most bang for the public buck. A few very visible projects have reinforced the narrative that rail transit investments have systemic issues that are endemic to [the U.S.] We set to find out if it’s true, if so, why, and what should we do about it?”

“If we are going to make a dent on climate, deal with traffic congestion and make sure people have access to jobs and opportunity, we are going to need more and better transit,” noted Robert Puentes. “We’re not going to get more if we can’t figure out how to do them in a timely and cost-effective way.”

The study (downloadable below) says, in summary:

• U.S. rail transit projects cost an average 50% more to build, both at-grade and tunneled, compared to peer projects in Western Europe.
• The tunneling premium in the U.S. rises to roughly 250% when New York City’s disproportionately expensive projects are included.
• Just 12% of the U.S. rail transit projects in the database were constructed primarily below ground, compared to 37% of non-U.S. projects.
• Many international projects constructed below-grade have similar costs to those that are at-grade in the U.S.
• Many international projects run through dense city centers and are often more complex, with more stations that are built closer together, than U.S. projects in dense city centers.
• U.S. projects with minimal tunneling take about 6 months longer to construct than non-U.S. projects. 
• U.S. projects that are almost all underground take nearly 18 months longer to build.
• U.S. projects tend to be routed along “paths of least resistance” such as freight rail or highway corridors, and are specifically intended to limit impacts on the local community and minimize the need to acquire private property.

“We need to get the institutions, oversight, and decision-making right,” Eno stressed. “Delivering major transit construction projects requires support from local jurisdictions, as well as the ability to acquire land, secure local permits to close streets and relocate utilities, and flexibility to hire top talent to lead the project. Special-purpose, self-permitting delivery vehicles are often the best way to achieve that.

“Project sponsors need to better manage their relationships with private construction firms, find the right balance between being too prescriptive or too vague, and avoid expensive change orders once work has begun. Construction contracts should be broken into manageable sections, and the federal government should help sponsors apply best-value selection rather than lowest bid. For their part, agency staff need to be better trained and supported by a small team of high-quality, experienced public sector executives with control over on-the-spot decisions. The federal government can help identify workforce needs and project labor agreements should be used to keep projects moving.

“We need to fix slow, cumbersome, and outdated processes, procedures and practices to make it easier to build more and better transit. The way federal agencies reach decisions about environmental and community impacts needs reform. The federal government should create a pilot project to test out whether exempting transit projects from this kind of review makes sense. Better coordination among disparate federal agencies is an oft-cited need, as is outreach, training and capacity-building for local agencies and project sponsors.

“States should set up their own permitting councils to help agencies navigate regulations and lend staff with expertise in other fields such as highway construction. In places with strong regulations, the federal review could be waived in favor of the often-duplicative state oversight. Speeding up processes also means better public engagement on the local level. Project sponsors should work with the community and push for greater short-term disruption in order to advance construction faster. They also need to do a better job coordinating utility relocation.

“We need a new framework for how we think about transit, the standards that are applied, and the policy environment in which it operates. The over-customization of transit projects should be deemphasized in favor of standardization to save on construction costs and speed up delivery. Since international cities have more experience and a better track record at building transit projects, the federal government should establish dedicated programs to exchange best-practices on project delivery and station design, including regular study tours.

“The tradeoffs between cost, complexity, and ridership should be considered carefully when designing projects. Ultimately, just because a project is cheaper does not mean it is better.”

Download Saving Time and Making Cents: A Blueprint for Building Transit Better:

Or, open the study in your browser.

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