urban planning

Why New York Can’t Have Nice Things

It costs three times more to build a subway station here than in London or Paris. What if we could change that?

Illustration: Zohar Lazar
Illustration: Zohar Lazar

Imagine being able to get from the North Bronx to the Financial District in less than half an hour by train. Or being able to take a train straight from Peekskill or Greenwich or White Plains that, instead of terminating at Grand Central, ran straight through the city — stopping in midtown, at Union Square, in the Financial District, in Downtown Brooklyn, and then proceeding on to JFK airport — offering a one-seat ride to most any place you might need to commute to.

If you live in London, you won’t have to imagine it for long: London is nearly finished with work on Crossrail, a megaproject that will funnel commuter trains from London’s eastern and western suburbs into a new, 14-mile underground line that will serve seven stations across London’s urban core. Crossrail is not arriving quite as soon as expected — like many megaprojects, it has suffered some delays and cost overruns — but it should open in 2020 or 2021 or so. When it does, it will enable a new service, to be called the Elizabeth line, which will increase the capacity of London’s rail-transit system by 10 percent. It will shorten and simplify commutes, letting workers get off their suburban trains at stops near their offices instead of changing from commuter trains to the subway.

By building this project, London is just catching up to its peers. Paris has had a similar system, the five-line RER, since the 1970s. Berlin’s S-Bahn predates World War II. The genius of these systems is to create a hybrid of subway and commuter rail, serving long- and short-distance commuters alike and quickly connecting far-flung parts of a metropolitan area. That’s why the E in RER stands for express and the S in S-Bahn stands for schnell, or “fast.” If you’ve vacationed in Paris, you likely saw the RER as a quick way to get between points within the Paris core as well as a good way to get out to Disneyland or Versailles.

It feels like New York ought to be able to have something like this. Our city is even wealthier than London or Paris. Our buildings are taller. Our people are supposedly more entrepreneurial. And yet we cannot seem even to properly maintain the infrastructure we already have. The subway is plagued by delays. The New York City Housing Authority struggles with a multibillion-dollar backlog of deferred maintenance. The city is considering closing the Brooklyn Heights Promenade for six years, turning the park into a temporary six-lane highway, just so it can close and refurbish the freeway below. And even when we do set out to build things, rather than just figuring out how to hold together what we have with duct tape, our new projects are incremental rather than transformational because even incremental projects cost us billions of dollars and take decades to complete.

Cost Disease: Madrid (left), $14 million per station. The three-mile, two-station Line 9 extension was completed in 2015 for a total cost of $140 million. Los Angeles (right): $120 million per station. L.A. spends as much as New York to dig tunnels, but “cut and cover” station construction has kept the cost of its four-mile, three-station Purple Line extension down to $2.8 billion. Photo: Sebastien Berda/AFP/Getty Images; LA Metro. Source: Regional Plan Association..
Paris (left), $168 million per station. Adding nine miles and seven stations to Line 14 will cost the city $4.4 billion in total — a lot for a city that usually spends between $90 million and $135 million per station. New York (right), $425 million per station. The world’s most expensive subway line per mile, the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway cost $4.5 billion after two miles and four stations. Photo: Soma/Alamy Stock Photo; MTA Capital Construction Mega Projects/Flickr.

On approximately the same timeline that London has been building Crossrail, our Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been building East Side Access, which will bring Long Island Rail Road trains into a new terminal beneath Grand Central. The Regional Plan Association, an urban-planning think tank for the New York region, describes East Side Access as “a commuter-line extension similar to London’s Crossrail in scope and scale.” This is true only in the sense that the core, underground section of East Side Access will cost about the same amount as Crossrail’s underground core and will take just a few years longer to deliver. For that same amount of money, more or less, London is getting three times as much infrastructure. ESA will eventually serve 160,000 passengers a day; Crossrail will serve half a million.

We will get four new miles of tunneled LIRR route and one new terminal station; London will get 14 miles serving seven stations. For $7.3 billion, we will get improved access to one key office district; for about $10 billion, they will get a system that distributes passengers virtually wherever they would like to go in central London. (To produce an apples-to-apples comparison, this cost measure looks only at the construction costs of the downtown, underground portion of Crossrail and ESA; both projects have billions more in additional costs.)

Cost estimates for other proposals in the New York area are similarly eye-watering. Another project focused on a few miles of tunnel and the expansion of one central terminal station — the Gateway Program to add two new tracks for Amtrak and commuter rail trains under the Hudson River and enlarge Penn Station — is slated to cost $24 billion. The Port Authority expects to spend $10 billion to replace or reconstruct a single bus station, Port Authority Bus Terminal.

New York’s infrastructure problems are not the same as the whole country’s. This is not an article about “our crumbling roads and bridges.” Some of New York’s roads and bridges (and tunnels and stations) are indeed crumbling, but those can be fixed in normal ways through normal financing mechanisms. The experience of New York City Transit head Andy Byford’s “speed team,” which is accelerating service by fixing faulty speed sensors and raising unnecessarily low speed limits in the subways, shows some of those fixes can even be inexpensive. And the repairs requiring significant additional labor time can be addressed by making maintenance a spending priority, as the MTA already did once when dragging the subways out of the malaise of the 1970s.

Where New York stands out is the massive price tags associated with proposed and actual new projects, and the delays and limitations of vision they impose on new construction. Second Avenue — perhaps the most appropriate corridor for a subway line in the United States that, as of 2016, did not have one — has taken nearly 100 years to go from proposed subway service to actual service and then only along a fraction of the planned route. Dense but unserved corridors in the outer-boroughs, like Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, are unlikely to see subway lines in your lifetime. They would simply be too expensive to build.

The problem isn’t just megaprojects. Small projects are cost disasters too: New York now routinely spends $3 million or $5 million on freestanding public-park bathrooms, a situation that “has to change,” Mayor Bill de Blasio has said. And inflated costs are a major reason our subway system remains inaccessible to many people with disabilities. New York intends to spend $39 million per station for the next round of accessibility retrofits, which will add elevators and ramps to make stations accessible on a step-free basis. According to figures gathered by transit researcher Alon Levy, $39 million is double what it costs to make a station accessible in London, five times what it costs in Madrid, and 15 times what it costs in Berlin.

Spending so much on individual projects is not just a waste of taxpayers’ money — though, of course, it is that. Needing to spend so much on the mundane has made it impossible even to imagine the sort of transformative transportation projects our peer cities have shown are possible. A truly transformative project — many miles of new underground rail lines through our city’s core, designed to allow us to increase the use of our existing suburban rail network and tie outlying districts closer together, giving us what they have in Paris — would be so expensive it’s barely worth discussing.

If we want to break out of our infrastructure malaise and give ourselves permission to think about really big things — and about financing, building, and operating them — we will have to get our hands around the cost problem. Here’s how.

“People will say to me, ‘Why are MTA construction costs so high?’ And the answer is ‘Everything,’ ” says Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the RPA and co-author of its 2018 report comparing New York’s construction costs to those in peer cities. “Every factor you look at is flawed the way the MTA does business, from the first step to the end.”

Preferred project alternatives are chosen by politicians, and then review and outreach processes are run to support those preferences, even when they add cost and even when they provoke community objections that must be expensively addressed. Design choices are often grand instead of practical. Environmental reviews take too long and do not consider the cost and negative environmental impact of tying transit projects up in environmental review. Government agencies do not work well together. Projects are overstaffed, and labor rules — often made more complicated by the difficulty agencies have in working together — reduce productivity. The MTA tries to shift the risk of cost overruns onto outside companies it contracts with, even if those overruns are caused by factors outside their control; the companies are not stupid, and they respond to this by inflating their bids for work on MTA projects in what’s known as the “MTA premium.” New York has unusual laws about contractor liability that make insurance very expensive. And on and on.

When you’re doing everything wrong, the best way to fix the problem isn’t usually to go through the list of things you’re doing wrong and fix them one by one. It’s best to step back and ask why you’re so bad at everything, whether a systemic problem is causing you to make so many separate mistakes. And in the case of the MTA, the root cause of its capital-construction failures is usually diagnosed as unaccountability: Nobody knows who’s in charge, so nobody has to be terrified of taking the blame for obscene costs and endless delays.

Many city residents assume the mayor is already responsible for the MTA’s subway and bus systems, even though the state controls the MTA budget and the governor appoints all its board members, albeit a bare majority of them on the recommendation of other elected officials. For years, Governor Andrew Cuomo seemed uninterested in the transit agency he oversees; now he wishes to swoop in and be looked at as the agency’s savior, while still claiming not to be in charge. And it’s true that when it’s unclear whom to blame, more blameworthy things tend to happen.

“It’s sort of like a dark money pit where money just keeps getting thrown at projects,” says City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who is running for mayor on a platform that includes giving the mayor direct control over the city’s subways and buses. “When the projects are being negotiated, many, many times, the MTA just signs off on what the contractors put in front of them. There’s no forensic auditing or effort to see if costs have been inflated in an unscrupulous way.”

Less discussed than the accountability problem is the MTA’s institutional lack of power. When the MTA wants to build a big new shiny thing, it’s at the mercy of a lot of people and entities it doesn’t control. The MTA often needs utilities moved in order to do construction below city streets, but it lacks the city’s power to boss the utilities around, so it pays more for the same sort of utility relocations that the city might demand. It can’t force the city to make zoning changes that would aid its capital projects or its finances; because of this, several station-entrance and ventilation sites adjacent to the Second Avenue Subway were not developed to their full potential, costing the authority $100 million in the RPA’s estimation.

A theme with wildly expensive New York transit megaprojects — as seen with East Side Access, the Port Authority’s World Trade Center transit hub, and planning for the Gateway Program to add new rail tracks under the Hudson River — is that things go to hell when agencies have to work together. In practice, the MTA acts as a collection of fiefdoms. Even though these people are theoretically part of the same team, executives overseeing the MTA’s capital construction may lack the authority to boss around its operating agencies such as LIRR and NYC Transit. And even when the MTA’s internal units work constructively together, they are dependent on outside agencies like Amtrak to cooperate and make rights of way available for construction in a timely manner; when they don’t, which is frequent, expensive labor time is wasted.

In the case of East Side Access, the new LIRR tracks to Grand Central must connect with existing tracks at the Harold Interlocking in Queens, which is already the busiest rail junction in America. Coordinated labor is often required, with Amtrak and LIRR employees and workers for various private contracting firms needing to be present simultaneously. But sometimes Amtrak’s crews don’t show up and everyone else sort of stands around, getting paid but not building East Side Access. Or work gets rescheduled; the crews do something else they can do without Amtrak present, but even then juggling the schedule adds time and cost. In an April 2018 letter, MTA chief development officer Janno Lieber alleged that Amtrak’s failures to cooperate on the East Side Access project — for example, by canceling planned service outages and not providing its workers as scheduled — had added $340 million to ESA’s costs over four years.

The mess with Amtrak and East Side Access is a great example of how daunting New York’s construction-cost problems are. On the one hand, $340 million is a ton of money, and it would be great if New York’s elected federal officials, who spend a lot of time decrying President Trump for not financing our infrastructure needs, had devoted more attention to pushing Amtrak to be helpful. On the other hand, a $340 million cost reduction would have shaved just 3 percent off the total price of East Side Access, and the project would have remained drastically expensive compared with what our peer cities pay. Each additional increment of savings — a few million dollars here, a few dozen million dollars there — would have involved picking a different thorny political fight with a different person or entity not accountable to the MTA itself.

Fixing the MTA’s accountability problem will require fixing its power problem: giving the agency the tools it needs to have even a chance at success, so somebody will be willing to be blamed if it fails. Some of the power and accountability problems could be fixed by restructuring the agency; mayoral control would consolidate more power in the hands of a highly visible elected official, who would, for example, have the authority to tell utility companies what to do. (Though this would leave the question of what to do with the commuter railroads, which can’t be put under the city’s control.)

Of course, one barrier to granting the MTA more power is that the agency might use it to do something that someone who currently wields power doesn’t like. Megaprojects built in New York today are subject to extensive delays and costs imposed by community input, as with the requirement that all the excavation spoils from East Side Access be carted out via tunnel to Queens, avoiding disruption in midtown Manhattan but adding significant costs and delays to the project. Those costs and delays don’t just mean a longer wait for LIRR trains to roll into Grand Central; they impose opportunity costs that mean other projects don’t get built or proposed at all. A more empowered MTA would mean fewer costs like that, but it would also have to mean a reduction in the fetishization of community input. As a public that has chosen Jane Jacobs over Robert Moses, we would have to get more comfortable with the idea that sometimes things won’t be built exactly as we want them.

A Not-Unrealistic Transit Utopia: By bringing costs in line with other cities’, New York could meaningfully expand its commuter-rail footprint and make transportation within the metropolitan area much, much faster. Some potential commute times, above. Photo: New York Magazine

Even an empowered MTA would still need to use those powers to make better choices. For what not to do, let’s look at the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway, which opened in 2017 at a cost of nearly $4.5 billion. It is, on a per-mile basis, the most expensive subway line ever built. What made it that way?

While you may think of the subway as a tunnel, what made the project expensive to build wasn’t the tunnels. The cost problem with the Second Avenue Subway was primarily in its stations, whose construction cost $425 million each, according to the RPA. A similar extension of Los Angeles’s Purple Line subway is currently under construction with stations on track to cost just $120 million each. (In every case, to make the comparison cleanest, construction-cost figures exclude associated budget items, such as those for design, land acquisition, and site preparation.)

Why were our stations so much more expensive? For one thing, Los Angeles is building its stations with a “cut and cover” approach, which is what it sounds like: digging up Wilshire Boulevard to create station boxes.
Because the MTA didn’t want to disturb the streets, most of the Second Avenue Subway stations were mined from underground, which is more expensive.

The stations under Second Avenue are also extremely deep — nearly 100 feet below ground, about twice as deep as the Purple Line. Digging deep was supposed to save money because there would be less need to relocate utilities that run close to street level. But deeper stations are more expensive to build, as you might expect; they require longer escalators and more digging. And the MTA still incurred hundreds of millions of dollars in costs to relocate utilities that had to be moved for the stations. This is a theme: Utility relocation is a cost nightmare for large and small projects in New York.

“If they’re projecting that the cost of an elevator or accessibility in a station is $50 million, the actual elevator itself is 15 percent of that cost,” Johnson says. “The other 85 percent is all sorts of stuff, but a big portion of it is utility relocation. When you don’t have coordination between Con Edison and DEP and DOT and the city and the MTA, and you do it in a vacuum or siloed, it inflates the cost significantly and it takes a lot longer.” Los Angeles, for one, seems to do a better job managing utility-relocation costs when building subways. If the city or the state brought more of its utility-oversight powers to bear to hold down costs for the MTA, we might be able to take a bite out of this particular cost problem.

Second Avenue Subway costs were also inflated by design choices. Some lessons have been learned: After the boondoggle of the Santiago Calatrava–designed World Trade Center PATH Terminal, which cost $4 billion and is leaking, political leaders are more wary of falling in love with starchitects. But New York’s transit stations are still overdesigned. All recent stations have full-length mezzanines, which require larger station caverns and therefore more expense. (Why must all these new stations look like the Batcave?) The 96th Street station includes extensive back-office facilities that could have been more cheaply built aboveground; this is an example of a transit operating agency being able to insist on an expensive design feature it won’t have to pay for. The stations even feature custom-cut granite entrance archways, not the most expensive thing the MTA has ever bought but an example of a design feature that adds cost with no particular transit purpose.

Finally, the MTA’s limited financial resources are themselves a factor that has driven up the cost of the Second Avenue Subway. Having completed Phase 1, MTA officials are now looking for money to start construction again and build Phase 2, which will extend the line from the Upper East Side into Harlem. A nice thing about Phase 2 is some of the tunnels for it were already built in the 1970s, before the last iteration of the project was shut down. And yet Phase 2 is slated to be even more expensive than Phase 1, at $6 billion. Lieber, the MTA construction leader, is spearheading a project to trim those costs to $5 billion, which would be less bad but still higher than the bill for Phase 1. A major reason for the high cost is the delay: It would have been more cost-effective to keep the same construction crews in place and keep digging northward instead of wrapping up the project only to start anew several years later. But the MTA just didn’t have the money.

A question we should be asking about all these projects is at what price they’re no longer worth building. We think of big subway expansions as good ideas or bad ideas. What about a project that’s a good idea at $4 billion but no longer worth building if it’s going to cost $11 billion? Part of conserving capital so we can afford the projects that make sense is having the discipline to cancel projects that become too expensive.

This was a choice Massachusetts officials faced in 2015: The Green Line Extension project, a planned 4.7-mile, seven-station, aboveground extension of Boston’s light-rail system, was expected to cost $2 billion. When the bid came in, it turned out the price was going to be $3 billion. So the state announced it would delay the project, tear up its existing contract, and put it out to bid again with a mandate: The project could cost no more than $2.3 billion. If the bids all came in higher than that, the state would cancel it. In the end, Massachusetts obtained a fixed-price bid of $2.3 billion, and the project is now in construction.

Compare the way Massachusetts officials talked about the Green Line Extension with the way New York and New Jersey officials talk about the Gateway tunnel, the planned additional connection between New Jersey and Penn Station, whose projected cost is $11 billion and counting. When you include the expansion of Penn Station and other related improvements, the expected price tag swells to $24 billion. This project has gotten so expensive that we, in one of the richest metropolitan areas in the world, feel we cannot afford to build it on our own. Instead of finding a way to build it at normal Paris-level, or even London-level, prices, our leaders shout from the rooftops how essential it is that Amtrak be given federal money to build it at the currently projected costs (which would likely rise further during construction) lest a prolonged and disruptive closure of the existing Amtrak tunnels be necessary.

You know who, besides Trump, can hear those politicians when they say Gateway is necessary at any price? The construction firms that will bid on the project. And what they hear is “You can charge any amount you want, and we will pay it.”

What would New York build if we were capable of building at the same prices as Paris or London — a city that is older than New York, shares many of our engineering challenges, and has high construction costs by world standards, even if they are much lower than ours?

You could start with all the projects that get kicked around but haven’t been funded. The full Second Avenue Subway, from 125th Street to the Financial District. An extension of the 7 train to Secaucus, New Jersey, where it would connect with train lines and a relocated bus terminal. The N train to La Guardia airport. A subway under Utica Avenue. The Gateway Program.

But it’s possible to think even bigger. The RPA has one such vision it calls T-REX, or the Trans-Regional Express. You can think of it as New York’s version of Crossrail or the RER. T-REX would start with the already planned Gateway Program, bringing two new tracks from New Jersey into Penn Station, then it would extend those tracks to Queens, adding a new station along the way at Third Avenue and 31st Street. Instead of terminating at Penn Station, commuter trains would begin service in New Jersey, proceed through Penn Station and that new station in Midtown East, continue to Queens, then branch off toward Long Island or north to the Bronx and Westchester.

Then we would build a brand-new express subway line running the full length of Manhattan under Third Avenue. Commuter trains would enter this line from the Bronx, stop a few times on their way south through Manhattan, then proceed to Atlantic Terminal and onward to Queens and JFK airport. And then we’d build two additional subway tunnels from New Jersey to Manhattan to carry even more commuter trains into the city; they’d run in a half-loop with stops at Columbus Circle, Grand Central, and Union Square.

Even if you have no interest in the suburbs, you could use the system to zip from the Upper East Side to Downtown Brooklyn, or from Columbus Circle to JFK. And added capacity in the core of the rail system would make it feasible to do something city politicians have wanted for years: harmonize fares within the city on commuter-rail and subway trains, so residents of eastern Queens and the Bronx could use the extensive existing rail infrastructure in their neighborhoods at a reasonable price.

Commutes would be transformed. The RPA estimates you would be able to get from Williamsbridge in the North Bronx to the Financial District in 28 minutes, down from just over an hour today. Getting from North Bergen, New Jersey, to Midtown East would take 11 minutes, down from 50. Carl Weisbrod, a former MTA board member, notes that better transit connectivity to New Jersey is especially important because it’s the part of the metropolitan area that is adding new housing development, and we need a way for people to get from new homes in New Jersey to new jobs in New York.

The problem with this transformational plan is that, given the way New York does construction now, it would cost $71 billion in the RPA’s estimation. And that cost isn’t all-inclusive; it doesn’t even include trains.
It assumes Northeast Corridor improvements, including the planned Gateway tunnel, will be built first at a cost of $39 billion. And Gateway is dependent on federal funding Trump is reluctant to provide. All told, realizing this vision would likely cost about $130 billion. At what point is the price too high for a project like this to be worth building, however cool it would be?

Perhaps the better question is: What if this project didn’t cost what a New York project normally does? What if it cost what they normally pay in London or Paris?

The core of T-REX — 71 track miles in tunnels serving 17 stations — would be about two and a half times the size of the core underground portion of the Crossrail project. And once Crossrail is finished, officials in the U.K. intend to proceed with a north-south project called Crossrail 2. That is, while it is a decades-long project, a system comparable in size and scope to this fantastical-sounding project for New York is well underway in London.
London has found a way to afford it, in part by having substantially lower unit costs.

Crossrail did not get built because it is cheap. Nor has it been without cost overruns and delays. But Crossrail is cheap enough for a wealthy city in a wealthy country to find it worth paying for. A better capital-construction process for New York wouldn’t have to be perfect. It would just have to be good enough for us to look at a completed project and want to go on and build the next thing. It’s almost hard to imagine, given projects that have been as consistently overpriced, delayed, and underwhelming as New York’s.

This story has been updated to clarify the relationship of Amtrak to the Gateway project.

*This article appears in the May 27, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!