Eno Releases Major Report on U.S. Transit Costs and Project Delivery
July 30, 2021|Romic Aevaz
Cities, states, and metropolitan areas across the United States are investing in a range of public transit projects in order to connect people to jobs and economic opportunity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, and shape development patterns. According to one estimate, the United States invested about $50 billion in new transit projects in just the last decade. These include underground subways in Los Angeles, light extensions in Seattle, commuter rail lines in Denver, and new light rail lines in Minneapolis.
While these projects are as diverse as the country itself, they all have one thing in common: they are very expensive and take many years to build. In particular, rail transit investments have systemic issues with costs and timelines that are endemic to the United States.
Eno’s newest report Saving Time and Making Cents: A Blueprint for Building Transit Better, is a major research, policy, and communications project to analyze current and historical trends in public transit project delivery. The report analyzes these trends to understand the drivers behind mass transit construction, cost, and delivery in the United States and abroad. A comprehensive database of available data and metrics compares investments between U.S. cities and peers in Western Europe. 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’s analysis of construction cost data from 180 domestic and international projects found that the United States pays 50 percent more to build transit for both primarily tunneled and primarily at-grade projects. When including the disproportionately expensive projects in New York City, the U.S. tunneling premium rises to 250 percent. Construction timelines are also longer for U.S. transit projects—tunneled projects take nearly 18 months longer to build, while those with minimal tunneling take an average of six months longer to construct.
Tunneled projects in the United States are not only more expensive to build, but are also far less common than abroad. Only 12 percent of the transit projects in our database were constructed primarily below ground, compared to 37 percent of non-U.S. projects. Many of these tunneled projects abroad are also built at a comparable cost to at-grade lines in the United States. Among at-grade projects, our analysis found that non-U.S. lines often run through dense city centers and feature more closely spaced stations, while domestic lines often run through existing right-of-way, freight rail, or highway corridors to minimize impacts on the local community.
The responsibility for cutting costs and timelines for transit projects does not rest solely on federal reforms, fixes at the agency level, or with private sector practice. Rather, the challenges are acute, complex, and multi-faceted. The solutions are too. The recommendations in the report are based on this fundamental premise.
We need to get the institutions, oversight, and decision-making right. 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. Reforming governance or using special purpose delivery vehicles with the right authorities needs to be a priority for projects.
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. With the overarching governance in place, project sponsors need to invest in their internal and external project management. This includes better management their relationships with private construction firms, striking the right balance with procurement ad contract language, and avoid expensive change orders once work has begun. Best practice internationally suggests that construction contracts should be broken into manageable sections and sponsors should apply best value selection rather than lowest bid.
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. Similar efforts have been undertaken in Ontario and Madrid. Better coordination among disparate federal agencies is also 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. Lastly, speeding up processes also demands better public engagement at 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.
These findings and recommendations are just the starting point of a long-overdue national conversation to address rising construction costs and timelines for transit projects. The fixes and reforms needed to address these issues will be politically challenging, but the cost of inaction is even higher, with billions of dollars on the line.
Over the next several months, Eno will expand on this work through an analysis of transit governance and decision-making in a broader range of countries in Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia, a separate case study of project delivery practices in New York City, and further analysis of construction cost data. Eno will also be hosting a transit cost and project delivery symposium in October. Additional details and publications will be announced in the coming months.
The full report and construction cost database can be accessed at https://projectdelivery.enotrans.org
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