Continuing my series on taking Chicago’s public transit system to the next level, I wanted to address a few miscellaneous topics before moving on to the matter of how to pay for it. For those of you who did not see them already, click through to read part one on building the vision and part two on raising the bar on design.
I mentioned in my previous installment how we need to raise the bar on the design of the system. While some of this would be nearly free, other items, particularly L stations, would appear to legitimately cost a lot more money to do right. How do we reconcile this?
In the spirit of Burnham’s “more study, not more money” quote, I’d like to suggest we need to take a serious look at how to drive step-change reductions in the cost of heavy rail projects. Consider this: the proposed Red Line extension to 130th is 5.3 miles and $879 million – a cost of $163 million per mile – nearly $21,000 per new daily rider. This is for a line with limited ROW needs. And my numbers are very generous, since they are current year, not construction year numbers, and they exclude a $200 million yard reconstruction that is part of the project. Frankly, at those rates, highway investment actually starts to look like an attractive option. IDOT’s Dan Ryan reconstruction, which included adding a lane south from 67th or so to 95th, was about the same the cost as this proposed extension.
The proposed Orange Line proposal is even more expensive on a per unit basis. It is $455 million in current year dollars for 2.26 miles – a cost of $197 million per mile. This is for 7,800 new boardings per day, or over $57,000 per boarding (likely around $100,000 per passenger assuming most people make round trips).
I’ve read of estimates up to $4 billion to renovate the North Main embankment. Just that segment would cost more than the Kennedy reconstruction + the Stevenson reconstruction + the Dan Ryan reconstruction + the Kingery reconstruction and widening + the recent resurfacings on the Edens and Calumet Expressways + the Ike bottleneck reconstruction from a while back – all combined.
I’m not saying anyone is making these up or anything, but the numbers themselves just seem way out of line.
Let’s consider some rail transit construction costs from around the world. Seoul, Korea is building a heavy rail route called the New Bundang Line as a public/private partnership. It will cost 1.1809 trillion won ($966 million) for 18.5km (11.5 miles). This is a cost of $84 million per mile – far less than Chicago’s expansions. And the New Bundang line is partially underground, requiring tunneling, and is a fully automated, driverless system with state of the art technology too. Read more here.
Madrid too has a much lower cost approach. Its Metrosur line (admittedly opened in 2003) was euro1.55B ($2.25B) for 40.5km (25 miles), including 29 new stations, six of which permit transfers with commuter rail. This is $90 million per mile, again, far less than Chicago’s proposed expansion even if you inflate the numbers to current dollars. Again, this included extensive tunneling (full on boring, not just cut and cover) in terrain where that was very difficult. See here for more info on the line, or this excerpt from an article titled simply, “Madrid confirms its low cost approach“.
It seems like every time I read about a metro line outside the United States, except in the UK, it is way cheaper than we can do. I don’t think there’s anything unique to Chicago about this. We seem to have a system in the US that significantly inflates the cost of construction vs. the rest of the world. Many of the typical complaints as to why this might be would seem to have no merit. Other countries are heavily unionized and regulated, for example, so don’t blame organized labor. (South Korean unions are famously militant). Spain is not exactly a low cost country. And basically all new systems world are fully compliant with equivalents to the ADA.
Any dollar we can take out of the cost of these systems is found money. It can either be invested back into quality of design, used for more projects, or returned to the taxpayers and riders.
I would propose that we create some sort of a task force with a mandate to drive significant reductions in the cost of construction – I’m talking a target of 25-50% or greater. This would include the CTA and FTA, but also outside experts brought in from overseas and from outside the fairly small circle of US transit consulting firms. US engineering firms need to be included, but frankly outside leadership and new seats at the table are going to be needed to really drive new thinking. We need to examine every aspect of these systems. What is the minimum we are legally required to build? What requirements are driving excess construction costs versus overseas systems and can we eliminate them? Are there new techniques such as pre-fabrication that could drive large savings? Can we pool purchasing with NYC or elsewhere? Can off the shelf systems be used where possible instead of bespoke (admittedly, maybe difficult in an other legacy system like Chicago)? Can we use more grade level construction and street crossings instead of expensive elevated construction and viaducts? What could we do with public-private partnerships? There would appear to be all sorts of things that could be investigated as means of materially reducing the cost of the system. Some of them might require legal or regulatory changes, but given the dollars at stake both locally and nationally, it is worth fighting that fight.
Again, we need an aggressive target for cost savings and incentives to drive results. At a minimum, someone should be able to detail why our costs are so much higher than the rest of the world’s as right now there is no prima facie reason evident.
Regional Transit Governance
Chicago has three more or less independent transit service boards: the CTA, Metra, and Pace. The RTA provides financial oversight and is also chartered with coordinating these agencies. It’s been long noted that in fact the three agencies mostly don’t cooperate that much, and there are frequent turf battles, etc.
I think a bit of this is overblown. I don’t subscribe to the idea that a lack of integration between the CTA and Metra is a major barrier to improved transit regionally. Would integrated fares and more coordinated schedules help? Sure, but that’s not the secret sauce to really moving the bar.
However, the various turf battles do lead to challenges on occasion, and the fact that these agencies are so independent in their operations leads to bad “optics” and provides ammo to those who would oppose change in the region. It’s like when the CTA had a bus on Lake St. Regardless of the merits or lack thereof of that route, it was really minor in the grand scheme of things. But it was always something people could point to as an example of misplaced priorities. (“As long as the CTA has a bus running underneath the L, I’ll never take them seriously” and such). It plays into the whole “gotcha” mentality of politics.
So this is something we should probably take a look at while putting together that vision. And there are some legitimate items that need to be addressed. Again, I won’t be prescriptive as to what that more integrated vision is, or how governance would change, just say that it ideally ought to be part of the discussion.
Unfortunately, this is likely to be the most troublesome aspect in many ways. Consider this: the CTA carries 80% of the region’s transit ridership. But the CTA gets far less than 80% of the money. This is true of the RTA tax, the stimulus, the recent capital bill, etc. Someone labeled my winning entry from the Chamber of Commerce competition as “suburb infuriating”. Actually, I’m not anti-Metra. I think they are a fantastic agency and love riding Metra trains. In fact, I budgeted for heavy increases in Metra ridership and significant investment in that system in my winning entry. The but the fact remains that the lion’s share of the region’s transportation ridership is on the CTA. All service boards aren’t created equal.
For their part, Metra also has some legitimate complaints. They’d no doubt say that since they carry passengers over longer distances, passenger-miles, not passenger counts is the best measure. There’s something to that. (Though I’d argue it leads to certain perverse outcomes such as rewarding service to far exurban areas like Elburn. Why are we using precious transit dollars to subsidize non-transit oriented sprawl developments even further from downtown?) Also, Metra provides significant service in the city, but doesn’t receive any of the RTA sales tax in the city. It should come as no surprise to anybody that their service priorities follow the funding. And Metra is arguably the long pole in the tent when it comes to feeling the pain of transit underinvestment. As Metra trains get more crowded and turn into standing room sardine cans, this is going to very negatively affect the perception of the Loop as a business destination. It won’t take that much ridership growth to get there.
So there is a lot to consider here and it will obviously be something difficult to pull of politically, but a challenge that should be tackled along with the rest.
Lastly, I received an email followup to part one of this series from someone who had some interesting insights as to offer about why Chicagoans don’t seem to demand better transit. Presented here in an anonymized fashion.
Your discussion of what Chicagoans want or are willing to pay for vis-a-vis world-class mass transit reminds me of a concept I learned in the early ’90s.
The concept is “Racquet”. I learned of it related to organizational behavior but it sounds like the inhabitants of Chicago may have a racquet as well. A racquet is when folks have something they complain about and commiserate about but don’t fix it. Upon delving into the roots of racquets one finds that the folks don’t really want it fixed – the subject of the racquet is a unifying force that if corrected will remove the common complaint and thus the unifying force. The cultural changes that would ensue from the change in practices that “no one wants” are not acceptable to the people (the complainers).
I worked for a rapidly growing company in the early 90’s. We were a company with many cowboys. We (the top 70 leaders in the company) commiserated on any number of things. The CEO hired two consultants to help “transform” the company into a modern, international company with cohesive leadership. They introduced us to the “racquet” theory. In corporate organizational behavior, it is important to break the racquets. It is also difficult. But, I imagine far easier in a company with some semblance of common objectives that it would be in a each-man-for-himself city.
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