Last week, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced that Richard Davey, a former Massachusetts transportation secretary, will be the next president of New York City Transitthe city’s bus and metro system.
When he takes over in early May, it won’t be an easy gig. The city’s subway and bus systems are struggling to return to pre-pandemic levels. (Right now, everyone is carrying a little more than half of its pre-pandemic traffic.) This is in addition to serious flooding problems, long waiting times and a spike in crime.
The New York subway system was also catapulted to the forefront of the national scene earlier this year when Michelle Go, 40, was pushed onto the subway tracks ahead of an oncoming train. In response to the public outcry surrounding anti-Asian violence and other crimes, the MTA announced a pilot program this would place protective screen doors at three stations in the city.
It is a step towards modernizing and securing the 117-year-old public transport system. Landing door technology has has been around for decades and advocates for public transit and public safety point out that other countries have already installed the security systems that could have prevented Go’s death – and the deaths of hundreds of others.
One of the reasons New York’s public transit system has fallen behind? A big sticker price. The installation of screen doors in three stations is estimated at around $100 millionwith completion scheduled for 2024.
The MTA has also published a feasibility study from 2020 – totaling nearly 4,000 pages – examining the cost and viability of screen doors. He estimated that installing platform gates at 128 stations (about a quarter of all MTA stations) would cost somewhere in the ballpark of $7 billion.
It’s expensive to build in the United States
“We’re spending a lot more money here in this country, and it seems to be particularly acute in New York. But the kind of cost per mile of building new public transit, you know, is considerably higher than in other developed countries with similar economies and democratic structures,” said Paul Lewis, policy director of the Eno Center. for Transportation, a nonprofit think tank.
Take the transit projects in Paris and Madrid, for example – they cost between $160 million and $320 million per mile, according to an analysis by the Eno Center. Similar investments in the United States are much more expensive.
Los Angeles’ Purple Line, for example, cost $800 million per mile, and San Francisco’s Central Subway cost around $920 million per mile. And the heavyweight? New York’s Second Avenue subway, at a cost per mile of $2.6 billion. (Oh, and don’t forget New York’s East Side Access tunnel. cost $3.5 billion per mile track.)
According to an analysis of the Eno Center 2021, the United States spent on average 50% more per mile on at-grade and tunnel transit systems than other peer countries. Highways and roads are also expensive. A 2019 Brookings Institution Paper found that interstate construction spending more than tripled between the 1960s and 1980s.
Meanwhile, a bulletin from the American Society of Civil Engineers gives U.S. infrastructure an overall score Dec-.
So what gives?
There is no one particular reason why infrastructure and public transit investments are more expensive in the United States; rather, it is a myriad of reasons.
A big reason has to do with a failure to invest in public transit infrastructure over timesaid Eric Goldwyn, assistant professor and director of the transportation and land use program at NYU Marron. Goldwyn is also involved in the Transit Costs Project, which compares costs and conducts case studies for transit projects around the world.
“In Paris, for example, they have constantly built, improved, modernized and extended their [subway] system, you know, for about a century now. In New York, we’ve basically taken 60 to 70 years off, and we’re not maintaining our system in some way.
Meanwhile, transit in the United States is kind of like “you patch up and bandage up and kind of slap together, you know, whatever you can to make it work, rather than creating a transit system entirely healthy,” Goldwyn added.
Part of the band-aid solution process is causing future headaches. In the New York City subway, for example, cars of different ages have doors located in different places, which makes installing platform doors all the trickier.
Then, of course, there is the bureaucracy associated with an infrastructure project. There may be environmental reviews, land acquisitions, permitting processes and utility relocations. There is also good governance of the entities in charge of infrastructure projects.
“We seem to miss the target on governance. The institutions that we have that build transit, that maintain transit are not always sufficiently prepared and able to do that – from a board perspective, from a structural perspective, from a view of the authorities,” Lewis said. “And these projects are not sort of in a vacuum. They become projects about, like, ‘how do I satisfy all these other people who can potentially stop my project?’
Time is money, especially when it comes to infrastructure. And all of those processes (and delays in those processes) can inflate project costs.
How to break bloated budgets?
This is a great question with a complicated and (a bit unsatisfying) answer.
The $1 trillion infrastructure bill signed into law late last year means a much-needed investment boost in roads, bridges and, yes, public transit. Although this is a landmark investment, many argue it’s still not enough repair, expand and fully modernize public transit systems.
But solving a myriad of problems requires a myriad of solutions. the Eno Center’s 2021 analysis offered a list of recommendations structured around three key themes: governance, standards and processes.
In short, it’s about working smarter, not harder, to ensure that historical investments get value for money. As Paul Lewis of the Eno Center said, there are never unlimited funds. So priorities are weighed, and sometimes it takes political pressure — like the one that came after Michelle Go’s death — to spur demand for transit updates.
But things like screen doors mean other priorities get reshuffled. For example, almost only a quarter of New York’s subway stations are accessible to people with disabilities, although the MTA aims to make 100% accessible by 2034. And the metro signaling system – which dictates how many trains can run and how many passengers can be carried per hour and literally dates back to the Great Depression — was a slow burn.
On top of that, Lewis said, as the catch-up is underway in updating New York’s subway system, a simultaneous, forward-looking change of mind may need to occur. The public transport system is largely oriented towards the city centre. Although Mayor Eric Adams has encouraged workers to return to officeshis unlikely to be all. So what would public transit look like if it was designed with the knowledge that more people would be working from home? How would this change the way we think about transit design and infrastructure?
In other words, how do we invest in public transit now to accommodate a world we may not even recognize later? I guess that’s the trillion dollar infrastructure question.