Eno Project Seeks to Understand Transit Costs/Delivery

A recent subway extension in New York City cost around $2.5 billion per mile to build while another under central Paris cost only $250 million per mile. While certain distinctions in the projects likely account for some of the difference, the disparity has caused policymakers to ask tough questions. Do rail transit projects systematically cost more in the United States and take longer to deliver than they do in other countries? If so, why? And, are there changes to governance, processes, and standards that can be made to make transit more affordable?

Those are the questions a major Eno project aims to figure out. In December 2019, Eno convened a high-level advisory panel to help us think through several weighty elements of the project.

First is an empirical component to help us understand if project costs and timelines actually are higher here than elsewhere. Fortunately, there are a number of sources from the federal government, academics, and elsewhere and while we need to be careful about apples/oranges comparisons, costs and timelines do appear to be regularly higher in the United States.

The question, then, is what are the drivers? The Trump Administration asserts the problem is due to overregulation, particularly environmental protections at the federal level. Others point to federal rules like Buy America that mandate U.S.-made steel, components, and manufactured products in public transit rolling stock and track. Transit agency processes, project management, outdated procurement practices are also cited as culprits. Delays and uncertainties as the result of political processes remain an overarching concern.

Those points notwithstanding, there do appear be several critical factors. Our project advisory panel members expressed concern that since most U.S. transit agencies do not regularly build major projects, they may not have the institutional capacity or organization to manage projects as effectively as their international counterparts. Overseeing contractors, managing and assigning risk, and coordinating with other public agencies like utilities were cited as potential problems.

But is also important to note that some drivers are by design. Many transit projects are held to high environmental, safety, security, equity, and technical standards along with architectural and design preferences that drive up costs. So while overruns and delays get a lot of attention, some argue that transit projects ultimately are valuable and worthwhile projects. Other standards—like the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) Program—are intended to deliver on related, but different, public policy goals and objectives.

While some stakeholders are concerned that regulatory reform in the name of cutting red tape may undo necessary policies that protect public interests, there is general agreement that the procedures for planning, approving, and constructing transit projects could be better. Important policies like the environmental review and community engagement processes probably can be improved while retaining a focus on their intended purposes. Minimizing soft costs and change orders were also cited.

To dig into these factors more, the Eno team will conduct detailed case studies of several emblematic projects, both here and abroad.

In the end, this research and resulting policy recommendations will change the current national conversation about systemic problems to opportunities for better mass transit project delivery. It will raise the level of discourse by shifting from idiosyncratic anecdotes to comprehensive national and international data. And it will directly inform federal policymakers as they pursue a reform-minded reauthorization, as well as helping state and local actors invest in transit networks to grow local their economies, reduce greenhouse gases from transportation, and connect people to opportunity. Stay tuned to Eno Transportation Weekly for updates as the project progresses.

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