NYC subway construction costs (vs LA), transit isn’t all rainbows: HWR, Jan. 3

Art of Transit: Some pics from the Crenshaw/LAX Line taken last week.

The most expensive mile of subway track on Earth (NYT)

Feature: the case for the subway (NYT Magazine)

The first link is to a long investigate piece that found that the New York MTA was spending well over one billion dollars on building new rail lines under Manhattan — far more than the average cost of $500 million per mile across the world.

Deep into the article comes this nice comparison:

Across the Atlantic Ocean, Paris is working on a project that brings the inefficiency of New York into stark relief.

The project, called the Line 14 extension, is similar to the Second Avenue subway. Both projects extend decades-old lines in the hopes of reducing systemwide overcrowding. Both involved digging through moderately hard soil just north of the city center to make a few miles of tunnel and a few stations about 80 feet underground. Both used tunnel-boring machines made by Herrenknecht. Both faced strict regulations, high density and demands from neighbors, which limited some construction to 12 hours per day.

But while the Second Avenue Subway cost $2.5 billion a mile, the Line 14 extension is on track to cost $450 million a mile.

Ouch.

For those curious about our local subway projects, the first section of the Purple Line Extension subway that Metro is building is 3.9 miles long and has a budget of $2.82 billion with three new stations (stations add to the expense). The Regional Connector is 1.9 miles long and has a budget of $1.75 billion with three new stations.

The second NYT article is another long one — from this coming Sunday’s NYT magazine. It explains why the subway and life in New York (as well as the NYC economy) are inextricably linked. The article, too, argues that it would be wise to spend tens of billions of dollars fixing the subway.

I’ll cherrypick one sentence that I think says it all:

Most countries treat subway systems as national assets. They understand that their cities are their great wealth creators and equality enablers and that cities don’t work without subways.

The article also features some pretty amazing photographs by Damon Winter that show how decrepit parts of the Gotham system have become.

My takeaway: I think the NYT was a tad bit late realizing the problems facing the NYC subway but the paper has responded forcefully and it’s great that there are still media organizations that have the resources to do this kind of reporting.

Fun fact: Through the the first three quarters of 2017, there were about 7.2 billion boardings on transit in the United States. Of those, about 2.055 billion were on the New York Subway, meaning about 28 percent of all transit rides in the U.S. were on the NYC Subway.

Speaking of subways…

A Vermont Avenue subway should be a priority for Metro (Urbanize LA) 

I’m of two minds on this post.

Part me of likes that writer Alon Levy is looking at transit on Vermont purely from a transportation planning perspective. He thinks given the density and ridership potential on Vermont, a subway makes more sense than the bus rapid transit project that Metro is proposing for Vermont from Hollywood Boulevard to 120th Street.

But part of me also cringes that the post doesn’t include words like “funding” or “dollars.” A subway would cost billions, whereas Metro has $425 million for the Vermont BRT project between Measure M and other sources. With funding always an issue, where does the money for a subway come from? Why weren’t advocates fighting for this in 2016 when Measure M was approved by the Metro Board and put on the ballot?

My two cents: I think Vermont is a good opportunity to show what bus rapid transit can do. A lot of the BRT projects built in the U.S. are BRT Lite, meaning they’re compromised in one way or the other (buses have to mix with general traffic). It doesn’t have to be this way and I hope the conversation with Vermont is about making BRT as good as it can be.

Can we mock Elon Musk and maybe stay real about transit at the same time? (Lisa Schweitzer) 

Twitter is, as we all know, a cauldron of hatred and contempt, where at any given time millions of people are hurling insults and anger every which way. In that context, one of the more fun bouts last month featured Elon Musk and transit planner Jarret Walker, a fight that was triggered after Musk’s negative comments about transit went public (specifically, Musk said transit was a likely place to bump into a serial killer).

That’s the set up for this post by USC planning professor Lisa Schweitzer, who finds Musk’s words contemptible but was also puzzled by the response from transit advocates and urbanists who unleashed a barrage of tweets about all the great things that happen on transit.

Her point: transit isn’t all rainbows. And pretending that buses and trains are rainbow making machines isn’t a great way of selling transit either. Rather, she’d prefer everyone be honest about transit’s benefits and flaws. Key excerpt:

“Transit is everything human beings in cities are, good and bad, because transit itself is public. And it has its problems as a mobility service that are taking us a very, very long time to resolve. (As I pointed out earlier, we hardly need Musk to inform us of them.) I think we have to be ready to embrace that reality even as we join Walker to clap back at Musk.”

Well said, Lisa.

23 replies

  1. Can anyone honestly say BRT is as comfortable to travel as heavy rail?

    The Orange Busway is one of the most uncomfortable semi-rapid transit rides. Cramped seats and bumpy asphalt compared to the smooth ride of the Red Line.

    Yes, money is an object, but BRT will never achieve ridership numbers that grade separated rail does.

    • Not only comfort, but convenience. The Orange Liner has little grade separation and no crossing gates, so the buses have to slow down for most intersections.

  2. The plans for Vermont BRT are full of compromises. Seeing as how unlikely getting rail down Vermont is- BRT there needs to have a much separation from traffic as possible. Painted bus lanes as opposed to physical separation will make the bus prone to delays. This means taking away parking and driving lanes- I hope there’s political will for that at the very least otherwise BRT will be everything but the “R”

  3. “Why weren’t advocates fighting for this in 2016 when Measure M was approved by the Metro Board and put on the ballot?”

    Because the loudest voices don’t always align with the communities that are the most in need?

  4. Don’t give Elon Musk (really his name?) any more space in The Source. He has blown any credibility with his hysterical and fear mongering generalization of public transit!

    • Hi Tom,

      I think that Musk has accomplished enough with his car and space companies to be taken seriously — and to be taken to task when he says something dumb. I do not view him as a threat to transit. People aren’t dumb and they can decide for themselves.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  5. I thought the Orange Line was supposed to show what real BRT could do…

    As for funding: from my outside perspective, I’d look for less cost-effective projects to cannibalize. The Foothills extension is pretty weak, and I think so is the Gold Line Eastside extension. The West Santa Ana LRT line is nice, but would you rather have it or Green Line to Norwalk Station + better Metrolink service (leveraging the upcoming LAUS through-tracks) + part of a subway on Vermont?

    • Hi Alon;

      In theory, that’s the way the Orange Line was touted but we have written here about the ways it has been compromised by the slowing down of buses at intersections and the fact that many buses catch a lot of red lights when crossing north-south streets in the SFV.

      As for funding, I think it’s important to understand that Measure M came with a funding plan with protections for different projects — so the plan approved by voters is enacted. Imagine a scenario where an agency says we’ll build this, this and this and then after the election says no we won’t build this, this and this because we’d rather fund this.

      The Measure M funding plan was approved by the Metro Board in July 2016 and approved by voters in Nov. 2016. Moving money from one project to another is possible but very, very difficult. The reality is this: if you want better versions of the projects that are in the Measure M ordinance, you’ll need to find extra dollars. That is hard at this time — the White House is trying to shrink federal funding for big transit projects and as large as Measure M is, it’s not an infinite amount of money.

      I think it’s awesome that you and others are taking a close look at the projects and kicking the tires hard and with intelligence. But I think you also need your readers to understand that there is a financial reality here. That doesn’t mean you have to accept projects as they are. But I think it does mean that you need to explain what it will take to improve the projects.

      Best,

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

      • It is very unlikely that Vermont BRT will perform better than Orange Line BRT. Vermont BRT will intersect many busy streets. It will also need to compete for signal priority at Expo / Vermont with the Expo Line, which also suffers from low travel speed because of sharing intersections.

        There are only two ways a BRT can be done right in LA where buses and trains need to slow down for irresponsible drivers running red lights. Fully elevated or fully tunneled, with no intersections with other local traffic. Individual transit may not be needed, but maybe a tunnel boring machine will help.

      • Steve – I agree that Vermont is a good opportunity to show what BRT can do. The problem is that Metro has shown no interest in actually doing that. The technical study that you released on this blog showed almost entirely curb side running buses. Only one of the four alternatives showed any center-running lanes, and even then, it was only along 33% of the route. Curb side running bus lanes do NOT equal BRT. At best this project will be a slight improvement on the Wilshire bus lanes, which are a complete joke. Maybe the recent P3 proposal changes that, and we’ll see real, South American style BRT. But unless that is the case, the current plans for the Vermont corridor are a slap in the face to the poor and working class people of LA County who rely on transit the most.

        • Hey Kyle —

          Fair enough! 🙂 Here’s the thing: this is a project that is still in the early stages planning-wise. I encourage you and anyone else interested to stay on top of it and get your opinions heard with Metro and elected officials. I’m always very glad to hear what’s on everyone’s mind but — as you might have guessed — I am clearly not The Decider in these parts.

          Best,

          Steve Hymon
          Editor, The Source

  6. The NY Times piece about NYC construction costs should really occasion some soul searching in Los Angeles. Obviously your cost problem is nowhere near as bad as New York’s, but how is it that a subway beneath Wilshire Avenue costs so much more than Paris’s Line 14, despite the almost suburban density of LA compared to Paris?

    The answer to this is also the answer to your question to Alon Levy about where the money for a Vermont subway/el would come from. If LA could build as cheaply as European cities, there would be enough money in Measure M to build it out.

  7. Hi Steve,

    I would turn around your comment above and ask “Why wasn’t Metro staff/Metro Board fighting for Vermont heavy rail in 2016 when Measure M was approved by the Metro Board and put on the ballot?” Metro staff/Metro Board have an obligation to pursue the most worthwhile projects, so it is frustrating not to hear analyses of cost per rider when deciding which capital projects to pursue. Metro has also not effectively convinced the public that fixing public transit in the densest part of the county will aid the county as a whole, and that lack of effective communication has lead to the inefficient project selection in Measure M that grants rail projects to areas that have political sway, not density.

    You can point out that the cost per mile of rail construction in recent LA projects is less than in NYC (which is good), but the cost per rider in NYC is surely lower. The NYT article points out massive inefficiency in the NYC rail construction labor arrangement, but inefficient project selection is just as critical of a type of waste. Ultimately Metro should be doing the most with its dollars (as the UrbanizeLA article points out) regardless of political pressures. While I understand that’s difficult, I am frustrated by Metro’s lack of effort in this area.

    • Hi Andrew:

      Good comment and fair points. I think the answer is that Vermont is a very long street (longest in city of L.A. I think) and not everyone is convinced that heavy rail is right for the entire stretch covered by this project. I stand by my conviction that BRT done right with very frequent service could be very effective on this corridor and others.

      That said, I agree in principal that transportation planners should bring forth the projects they think that will be most effective. Not everyone agrees with me on this point. I’ve had some say that duty should be balanced with financial realities — that a planner pushing a project with no viability of being funded isn’t really helpful. It’s a good debate and I can see both sides although I lean toward my stated conviction.

      Best,

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  8. I’ve ridden a decent amount of BRT. It’s a hard no as a rail substitute for me. Keep in mind — I ride the bus daily. Lack of rail won’t deter me from riding, but the lower ride quality and packed conditions of a bus should not be my acceptable standard for what I’d like mobility to look like.

    Keep in mind this stuff is hard to pay for with local sales taxes alone. Federal and state grants have become harder to find.

  9. “Rocket Man Musk” may launch good rockets, but he still has not gotten his everyperson’s Tesla out of the gravitational pull of his investors nor escape the “Tucker” factor. His hyperbole matches that of POTUS which brings into question the intelligence of 45% of his public. BRT works, light rail works, heavy rail works, so we don’t need to waste time and money on his 700 MPH pea-shooter to solve public transport. If it looks like a Ponzi scheme and it smells like a Ponzi scheme, you can bet it’s a Ponzi scheme– just like the White House.

  10. Hi Steve-

    “Why wasn’t Metro staff/Metro Board fighting for Vermont heavy rail in 2016 when Measure M was approved by the Metro Board and put on the ballot?”

    Did you ever think that maybe the reason why they were not fighting for HRT funding in Measure M is because the areas served by a potential subway line down Vermont are some of poorest and most transit dependent neighborhoods in LA and that the citizens would naturally vote for Measure M regardless of whether rail was included in the plan?

    Part of getting measure M passed was playing politics with the SGV and it was more politically expedient to do the gold line foothill over Vermont Subway.

    • Hi Spencer;

      I totally agree there were politics involved, as there have been with all transportation ballot measures here and elsewhere. That’s life.

      I disagree that South L.A. got the raw end because it’s poor. The Blue Line, Expo Line, Green Line, Silver Line, Crenshaw/LAX Line and Vermont project all serve parts of South L.A. The Rail-to-River bike/ped path is being built to initially run between Crenshaw/LAX Line, Silver Line and Blue Line. Although it’s a well-into-future project, the Crenshaw/LAX Line will be extended north to better link South L.A. to rest of the transit network.

      I do think it’s important to understand that Measure M tried to invest equal amounts of money into transit in different parts of the county (the subregions, as Metro calls them). That was the big limiting factor. Subregions were asked to prioritize projects. Ultimately, the Central Subregion put money into Crenshaw north expansion, Vermont BRT, West Santa Ana Branch to Union Station and Metrolink and Amtrak improvements (http://theplan.metro.net/projects-subregions/#central).

      Should some subregions have received significantly more funds than others? Some folks have certainly argued that, pointing to factors such as population density, development, transit dependency and others. Should the benefits of Measure M been distributed more equally? Some folks have also argued that pointing to the fact that if you’re going to tax people across vast L.A. County, everyone should share some of the benefits.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

    • You have to play politics because you do want the thing to actually pass, right? If Measure M failed, nobody gets anything.

  11. The cost of subway construction in this country is a travesty. Imagine if the Purple Line could be built for 20% less than is currently budgeted. This would free up billions of dollars for other lines (like the Vermont HRT proposal). Finding less expensive subway building technologies and practices should be one of Metro’s top priorities. But unfortunately, it’s not.

    London is building the Elisabeth line at a cost of 15 billion pounds ($20 billion). It will have 13 new miles of twin tunnels. At first glance, this seems about as expensive as our rail projects. But consider the project will include not only 10 new stations but 30 upgraded stations. This is a far bigger undertaking than our projects. And, the new line will serve 1.5 million people per day: the benefits of the route are enormous and well-documented.

    I would love to see more coverage of not just cost-per-mile but cost-per-rider (which gives a better measure of the benefit of a line). Surely cost-per-rider for Vermont HRT would be lower than cost-per-rider for the Whittier extension of the Gold Line.

  12. Some years ago I rode BRT in Ottawa…smooth and quiet. Not my first choice for public transit, nor the best use of resources, but if you build it right it, it will be right. If you build it to LA street standards it will be wrong.