Why build rail transportation in the United States, Seattle costs so much and takes so long
Rail transportation projects across the United States take longer to build and cost on average nearly 50% more than in Europe and Canada, according to a new study of 180 megaprojects, including some successes and failures of Sound Transit.
The Seattle-based agency typically spends five years in the planning phase trying to appeal to everyone, until executives finally decide on a route, the researchers learned. Los Angeles comes across underground utilities and methane gas leading to costly construction changes. Minneapolis builds inexpensive, uncontroversial trails near freeways, instead of locating stations where people live.
The project’s delays reflect a lack of political will, concludes the report released Thursday by Eno’s non-partisan Washington, DC-based transportation center titled “A Plan to Improve Public Transit.”
“The United States suffers from a political climate that does not uniformly view investment in transportation infrastructure as a net positive. Instead, transit project proponents devote a great deal of their public education efforts to simply justifying their existence and the value of transit, rather than committing to the details of a project. », Explains Eno. “The lack of acceptance of public transit by the general public also means that communities are demanding measures to mitigate the negative impacts of construction rather than demanding faster deadlines. “
As a result, eight transit tunnels in the United States cost an average of $ 1.2 billion per mile, compared to $ 347 million in Europe and Canada.
And 56 other U.S. projects with little or no tunnels still averaged $ 118 million per mile, compared to $ 81 million overseas. Construction takes an average of 90 months for US tunnels compared to 73 months for other countries – not to mention years of planning delays.
Eno says America’s timelines are so intimidating that they discourage the spread of high-capacity mass transit.
No single cause explains the problem, but the study points to “over-personalization” to meet excessive local demands, delays in purchasing land, and an environmental review system that blocks decisions. Time is money, says Eno.
Eno’s warnings come at the right time for Sound Transit, whose executives are considering which voter-approved plans to delay in an exercise called “realignment,” as cost estimates soared from $ 6 billion to $ 8 billion more than long-term income.
“It’s hard for me to argue with all of this,” said Sound Transit chairman Kent Keel, who saw the Seattle portions of the 214-page report.
Claudia Balducci, Transit Board Member, offers to recruit a panel of technical experts from outside Sound Transit to help the Board accelerate projects.
If current trends do not improve, thanks to faster delivery or more money, the streetcar may not reach Ballard until 2039, while downtown Everett will wait until 2042.
The report comes as the Biden administration released its latest infrastructure plan last week, developed in discussions with senators, that would increase federal public transit funding by $ 39 billion and add $ 66 billion to Amtrak and other passenger rail services.
Sound Transit is one of four US agencies and four international agencies examined in depth by the Eno study.
Protection against earthquakes and “unique habitats” such as salmon streams require special attention. The Seattle area is hit by skyrocketing house prices and a two-year process to buy or condemn land, according to the report.
A bigger problem is political culture.
“They need to get permits in 84 jurisdictions. It’s often complicated and contentious, ”said study lead author Paul Lewis in an interview.
“Interviewees expressed frustration that the region spends a lot of time addressing community concerns without a clear and consistent process to narrow down requests. One of them said that the region as a whole places great importance on leaving everyone happy, ”the report said.
Eno cites East Link, which the transit board sent to voters in 2008, before deciding how to build between I-90 and downtown Bellevue – which areas would have surface, elevated, or tunnel lanes. .
After getting its sales tax boost, Sound Transit identified 36 possible alignment combinations and sent 24 of them into an environmental study. Following tense negotiations, Bellevue City Council finally approved a route in 2013, while providing an additional $ 160 million in cash and services, to secure a short downtown tunnel. The service is scheduled for 2023.
“We got to a point where there was very unchallenged support, but it was four years in the process and behind schedule,” Balducci said. “We have to go faster than that.
Sound Transit staff tend to avoid controversial track alignment questions until planning is complete, officials told Eno.
For example, the study tells how Sound Transit in the late 1990s rejected a tunnel for the low-income, mostly non-white Rainier Valley, until it was pushed by community demands to launch new studies, hearings, cost estimates and environmental reports. The agency finally rejected the tunnel again, after a nine-month delay, and built tracks in a median.
As for the future, Eno quotes an official saying that Sound Transit 3, approved by voters in 2016, will not move faster than previous programs, despite early efforts to cut the design phase by six months.
During a presentation in July, transit staff said eight of the 34 projects, including the West Seattle light rail and I-405 bus rapid transit, would not experience any delays due to the finances but would lose one or more years due to environmental review slowdowns during the COVID -19 pandemic, negotiations with third parties, acquisition of rights of way or delays in choosing specific routes.
By comparison, in Vancouver, British Columbia, TransLink says it can build a 9-mile elevated line in suburban Surrey by 2025, after the federal government provided funding last month. Kevin Desmond, former CEO of TransLink, said the province’s simple environmental checklists, done in cooperation with local tribes, are helping provide a two to three year advantage over Seattle.
Eno has found ways in which Sound Transit excels.
The study praised the 3-mile tunnel from Westlake to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington, despite costing $ 511 million per mile, due to the benefits to busy neighborhoods. Shortly after the extension opened in 2016, overall tram use nearly doubled, reaching 80,000 daily passengers before COVID-19.
The report found that the Northgate extension, which opens on October 2, will cost $ 419 million per mile, cheaper than $ 1 billion and more for the purple Los Angeles line, or $ 1.3 billion. expected by mile in downtown Austin, Texas.
Sound Transit has gained project experience, says Eno. Extensions to UW, Northgate, Angle Lake and Bellevue were built as part of final budgets, leaving contingency funds for future projects.
Still, Eno points to a 2020 Washington state audit that blamed $ 100 million in contract changes on agency errors, such as failure to locate underground utilities and toxic soils in Tacoma before. construction.
Sound Transit’s original streetcar segments from Angle Lake to the University District cost 86% more than when voters approved them in 1996, according to a previous analysis by the Seattle Times.
Eno devoted 18 months to its study, by four authors and three research assistants, as well as an advisory committee of 21 members. They gathered other expert articles on megaprojects, local reports, government project reports and 117 “informal” interviews.
Madrid has established itself as a model, delivering tunnels for just $ 215 million per mile. This city emphasizes shallow trenching and coverings, rapid construction, and standard designs using close stations.
By comparison, Lewis mentioned the section of the Purple Line subway from LA Metro in Beverly Hills, where crews could only build the covered trench tunnel on weekends. After the COVID-19 hit, the timelines eased and they ended seven months earlier, he said.
In Europe, where transit projects are routine, agencies will block neighborhoods 24/7 and move in a matter of weeks, he said.
To cut red tape, the report urges Congress and the Federal Transit Administration to allow pilot projects, where some transit agencies ignore the environmental review process.
Eno encourages US agencies to spend more time listening to communities, but then gives staff more power to say no to costly requests.
“It sounds like a major change that would be a shock to the system, especially in the western US where we’re really democratic with a little d, where people expect to be consulted along the way,” Balducci said.
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said his staff would be more assertive, to alert the board when a change or request would delay ST3 projects.
“Cost awareness is the order of the day,” Rogoff said, “and this report can only add fuel to that.”