Eno Releases New Rail Transit Project Delivery Report

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) provides public transportation programs with $90 billion in guaranteed funding over five years, a 65 percent increase over previous annual funding levels. In early April 2022, the first tranche of money started going out to agencies across the country. With this significant infusion of investment, there is a particular emphasis on making sure that money for new public transit projects is spent more effectively and that projects are delivered on time and on budget.

Unfortunately, recent Eno research found that urban rail transit projects in the United States suffer from disproportionately high costs and long timelines compared to international peers. This week Eno released On the Right Track: Rail Transit Project Delivery Around the World, a new research study that examines project delivery in 10 peer nations across the globe. This study builds on Eno’s 2021 report Saving Time and Making Cents, and the ongoing initiative to improve transit rail project delivery in the United States. The research includes new case studies of how countries govern, plan, regulate, fund, and construct projects, including:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Chile
  • Germany
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Mexico
  • Norway
  • South Africa
  • South Korea

Adding 132 new projects to our database, the study confirms that the United States pays more than a 50 percent premium to build at-grade and tunneled rail projects. This premium grows substantially when compared to the lowest cost countries such as Chile, South Korea, Norway, and Germany. Even when excluding the most expensive projects in New York City, the United States pays $600 million per mile on average to build tunneled rail, compared with under $200 million per mile in some places.

The higher costs are despite that US projects tend to be relatively simpler in terms of engineering aspects. For instance, projects here often run along the surface and through existing rights-of-way, and with greater distances between stations compared to international projects. The high costs are driving decision making to transit projects that are inherently less useful to users. This makes it all the more important to focus on ways to make meaningful progress in aligning US costs with international peers.

This analysis found there are clear lessons the United States can learn from its peer nations with respect to transit project delivery. More important than the precise governance structure, delivery method, or process employed is the shared commitment at all levels of government to delivering high-quality transit. There needs to be strong public-sector staff capacity and management skills, close collaboration between stakeholders, and the ability for project sponsors to make prompt, firm decisions about projects. No country is inherently predisposed to having higher or lower construction costs, but those that do it best are those places where strong project governance, straightforward processes, and modern standards are aligned. Uncertainty, ambiguity, and lack of coordination are the enemies of efficient transit project delivery.

Assessing how other countries govern, plan, build, and finance their rail transit projects will lead to a better understanding of how to improve delivery in the United States. Trade missions, capacity building, and technology transfer initiatives with agencies abroad are critical to learn what works, what does not, and how lessons can be tailored for other cities and metropolitan areas. Such information exchanges would help U.S. planners, engineers, leaders, and designers better understand the best practices and innovations in governance, planning, standards, and processes of transit project delivery around the world.

This publication is the next in our larger imitative to address cost and timeline issues with US rail transit projects. It also helps shape some of our future research questions and work, including a deeper dive into the FTA’s Capital Cost Database and how various countries and regions structure, attract, train, and retain their public-sector project management teams. We are looking forward to staying involved in this important work.

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