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Why Nothing Is Shovel Ready Anymore: Worst Practices Seminar

If the rest of the world wants to know how to build transportation infrastructure, America’s metropolitan transit supervisors give them a pretty good idea of what not to do. On both sides of the country, transportation bureaucrats are demonstrating that they never fail to projects which cost too much and take too long. Bloomberg names a few examples:

Tunneling in any dense urban environment is an expensive proposition, but the $5 billion price tag for just the first two miles of [Manhattan’s] Second Avenue subway cannot be explained by engineering difficulties. The segment runs mainly beneath a single broad avenue, unimpeded by rivers, super-tall skyscraper foundations or other subway lines.

American taxpayers will shell out many times what their counterparts in developed cities in Europe and Asia would pay. In the case of the Second Avenue line and other new rail infrastructure in New York City, they may have to pay five times as much.

Amtrak is just as bad. Its $151 billion master plan for basic high-speed rail service in the Northeast corridor is more expensive than Japan’s planned magnetic levitating train line between Tokyo and Osaka, most of which is to be buried deep underground, with tunnels through the Japan Alps and beneath its densest cities.

The numbers for California’s proposed high-speed rail system are similarly shocking.

At one point, a French operating firm tells California that it could probably shave about half the price off of its proposed high speed rail. It is unlikely that they will get this chance. The contracts for design and project management have already gone to a transit construction company called Parsons Brinkerhoff. Jeff Morales, the current CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, was a senior vice president with Parsons before going to work for the state.

As the article states, American transit projects give contractors relatively few incentives to finish quickly or cheaply: American transit authorities employ too many “consultants who [consult] with consultants and too many advisers who advise advisers”. But this is only a part of the price tag. Costs which the article does not talk about are those created by the need to appease the NIMBY and environmental lobbies. Building a rail line through a farmer’s cabbage patch or across a waterfowl’s ancestral breeding ground is a sure way to invite legal action.

The article ends on a hopeful note, suggesting that the resources are available to build an ambitious mass transit system quickly and cheaply. It is just a matter of amending bad habits and reforming failing practices. But the cheaper and more efficient way to solve America’s transportation infrastructure problems is to update it for the technologies of the 21st Century like Google’s self-driving automobiles. America’s infrastructure may not be up-to-date, but building a faster version of a 19th Century transit system is not necessarily progress.

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