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Transportation

Why It's So Expensive to Build Urban Rail in the U.S.

It’s not just the Second Avenue Subway: Nearly all urban rail projects in the U.S. cost much more than their European counterparts.
A construction worker inside the 86th Street cavern of the Second Avenue Subway tunnel in 2014
A construction worker inside the 86th Street cavern of the Second Avenue Subway tunnel in 2014Bebeto Matthews/AP

In late December, The New York Times published a bombshell article by Brian Rosenthal about high construction costs on the New York City subway. Doing painstaking investigative work building on a set of numbers I blogged about in 2011, Rosenthal showed how, at $2.6 billion per mile, New York’s Second Avenue Subway broke records for its costs, and that all of the reasons subway officials offered were excuses. The article documented poor contracting practices, bad management, and union featherbedding.

Unfortunately, what Rosenthal portrays as a New York affliction is in fact a nationwide problem. The construction costs of American rail transit are a multiple of such costs in peer countries, for both subways and light-rail lines. Many U.S. lines that would be easy to justify economically if they cost as much as in France or Sweden are marginal at current American costs. Every city that hopes to expand its transit network should pay closer attention to best industry practices abroad if it wants its investments to be cost-effective.