Bridges to Nowhere: What the Second Avenue Subway says about American Infrastructure

On New Year’s Day, New York’s celebrated Second Avenue Subway opened to great fanfare, concluding a tortured, century-long history of false starts and continually altered deadlines. First proposed in the 1920s, the project languished for decades due to intermittent financial crises before construction officially started in 2007. City and state officials hailed completion of the project as a momentous milestone, but the initial segment, with only three new stations, is far from the line expected to eventually traverse the length of Manhattan. The initial phase’s tortured history and eye-popping price tag underscore some of the inherent inefficiencies of infrastructure planning in the US. With many competing levels of government and funding sources, good infrastructure planning is hard; too many stakeholders are involved at various stages of the process, providing rife opportunities for inefficiencies introduced by overzealous politicians or the normal vagaries of the regulatory process. Since infrastructure spending may be a rare point of bipartisan compromise during the 115th Congress, it is more important than ever to consider if we are actually getting our money’s worth.

At $1.7 billion per kilometer, the Second Avenue Subway is the most expensive subway line ever built, and its second phase, which would extend to East Harlem, is planned to be even more costly. Part of the subway’s inflated price tag can be attributed to the nature of construction in a densely developed and populated city. But Paris, for example, has embarked on a massive expansion plan at a fraction of the cost. Barcelona’s L9/L10 project, despite including sophisticated technological advancements, cost only $170 million per kilometer. Infrastructure costs in the US are often five to six times higher than in other developed countries; at Paris prices, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) could build the full Second Avenue Subway and plan extensions in the outer boroughs, a more equitable use of funds given that the new extension is limited to the wealthy and politically-connected Upper East Side.

The list of potential culprits for these disparities is long – one study pegged the number at 39. Labor regulations, for example, require New York City to staff a tunnel boring project with 25 workers, whereas Spain gets the job done with nine. Perhaps more important, however, are design considerations. The stations, rather than the tunnels themselves, comprised most of the Second Avenue Subway’s cost, highlighting expensive and unnecessary design decisions. A full-length mezzanine, which effectively adds a second level to the station, is sexy but unnecessary. Some advocates argue that aesthetic indulgences are necessary to attract riders, but the intimidating atmosphere of the New York City Subway has done little to dissuade patrons from the system, which is experiencing its highest ridership levels since the 1940s.

Because it introduces so many different points for policymakers to influence the design of a project, the decentralized nature of political decision-making in the US incentivizes politicians to pack as many flashy bells and whistles into a project as possible. Constructing the Second Avenue Subway required coordination at both the state and municipal levels, not to mention the involvement of the 12-county MTA Board. Interfacing with these overlapping levels of government is difficult and allows diverse actors from county executives to the Governor and even the State Senate to influence the nature of a project.

The decentralized nature of political decision-making in the US incentivizes politicians to pack as many flashy bells and whistles into a project as possible.

The tendency to spend outrageous amounts on flashy projects for political purposes has resulted in notable boondoggles across the country. Some particularly egregious examples include Detroit’s notoriously underused People Mover rail loop and San Jose’s flopped effort to build the “Grand Central of the West.” Boston’s Green Line Extension, in planning for decades, has suffered similar cost overruns due to unnecessary design features demanded by politicians, only to have proposals scaled back in the face of new fiscal difficulties and potential delays. In fact, the Second Avenue Subway isn’t even the most arresting example in Greater New York. The World Trade Center Transportation Hub cost more than $4 billion, an exorbitant amount for a station whose ridership pales in comparison to the better known Pennsylvania and Grand Central Stations.

Transit funding is limited, and lavish undertakings only feed the perception that transportation projects are an unaffordable luxury, distracting from more pressing infrastructure concerns. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has made landmark projects a signature feature of his second term, ranging from a new Tappan Zee Bridge to the redevelopment of LaGuardia Airport. One such initiative is a plan to finally refurbish New York’s widely-maligned Pennsylvania Station. While the complex is certainly in dire need of transformation, the focus on the station itself has directed attention away from a far more pressing issue: the deteriorated Hudson River tunnels that carry over 200,000 passengers daily between New Jersey and Manhattan. Damaged in Hurricane Sandy, the tunnels already account for devastating delays, and when they eventually need to be closed for rehabilitation, a vital link in America’s railway system will be removed. While the spotlight has focused on the new train station, a far more visible sign of progress than the minutiae of rail infrastructure, the new Pennsylvania Station will mean little if no one can get to it.

Transit funding is limited, and lavish undertakings only feed the perception that transportation projects are an unaffordable luxury, distracting from more pressing infrastructure concerns.

This proliferation of ostentatious and easily-publicized projects points to a more general problem afflicting infrastructure spending: the prioritization of expansion over maintenance. The dismal state of American infrastructure can be attributed to years of deferred maintenance, an understandable result given politicians’ fiscal and verbal prioritization of more visible spending priorities. Yet as anyone involved in the I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis will tell you, spending money on maintenance, as boring as it may be, is critically important.

New York’s infrastructure follies are representative of a larger American problem.  Sustainable infrastructure spending must realign this perverse influence on planning priorities. Unsurprisingly, President Trump’s long-awaited infrastructure plan, far from the more generalized stimulus many advocates had hoped for, doesn’t seem like it will have that effect. There are many potential flaws, but the most relevant is the fact that market-based solutions, particularly the public-private partnerships, require by nature that the new infrastructure be monetized. This solution is often unfeasible and is especially detrimental to maintenance projects, whether due to statutory limitations on new toll facilities or the fact that there’s little money to be made in repairing an aging bridge. In fact, former Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx estimated that only 10 to 20 percent of the country’s infrastructure needs could be met through public-private partnerships.

It’s no surprise that Trump’s policy prescriptions incentivize the sort of grandiose projects favored by Governor Cuomo and other politicians the country over – after all, a gleaming new airport is more symbolic of “making American great again” than a refurbished highway bridge or a renewed rail tunnel in the Northeast. The irony, though, is that most of the improvements his plan could realize would be focused on large population centers, rather than the neglected rural areas that elevated him to the White House. The Trump plan would have no problem delivering a shining new Pennsylvania Station, whereas a vital bridge in Tucker County, West Virginia would likely continue to decay in relative obscurity.  Rather than overhauling the country as it seems he hopes it does, Trump’s plan would realistically only offer a distraction of new projects that might ultimately deliver little benefit.

America’s convoluted system does not, however, mean all hope is lost – Los Angeles, for example, has embarked on an ambitious transportation plan at far more efficient pricing. Boston too has scaled back its ambitious projects, focusing on quality of service rather than the luxuries that, although pleasant, are not crucial to a project’s success.

Emphasizing maximum efficiency in transport planning is vital to securing political support for transportation projects on a larger scale. If New York cannot build a new subway line without massive cost overruns and delays, it’s hard to imagine that red-state politicians can be convinced to follow their example. And while the impulse for designing and erecting monumental structures is understandable, it cannot come at the expense of what we already have. Trump can create as many beautiful airports and train stations as he wants, but it will ultimately matter little if the roads, runways, and tracks that sustain them continue to decay. If so, his grandiose projects may ultimately serve as empty reminders of excess, luxurious islands in a sea of decay.

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