Rail-transit projects across the U.S. take longer to build and cost nearly 50% more on average than in Europe and Canada, says a new study of 180 megaprojects, including some hits and misses by Sound Transit.
The Seattle-based agency typically spends five years in the planning phase trying to please everybody, until leaders finally choose a route, the researchers learned. Los Angeles stumbles into underground utilities and methane that cause expensive construction changes. Minneapolis builds cheap and noncontroversial tracks near highways, instead of locating stations where people live.
Project delays reflect a lack of political will, concludes the report released Thursday by the nonpartisan Eno Center for Transportation, based in Washington, D.C., titled “A Blueprint for Building Transit Better.”
“The United States suffers from a political climate that does not uniformly see investment in transit infrastructure as net positive. Instead, transit project sponsors spend much of their public outreach effort simply justifying their existence and the value of transit, rather than engaging on the details of a project,” Eno says. “The lack of broad public acceptance for transit also results in communities demanding mitigation for negative construction impacts rather than demanding faster timelines.”
As a result, eight U.S. transit tunnels averaged $1.2 billion per mile compared to $347 million in Europe and Canada.
And another 56 American projects with little or no tunneling still averaged $118 million a mile compared to $81 million abroad. Construction takes an average 90 months for U.S. tunnels compared with 73 months for other countries – not including years of planning delays.
Eno says U.S. timelines are so daunting they discourage the spread of high-capacity transit.
No single cause explains the problem, but the study points to “over-customization” to fit excessive local demands, delays in buying land and an environmental-study system that stalls decisions. Time is money, Eno says.
Eno’s warnings are timely for Sound Transit, whose leaders are considering which voter-approved projects to delay in an exercise called “realignment,” because cost estimates soared $6 billion to $8 billion higher than long-term revenues.
“It’s hard for me to argue with any of it,” said Sound Transit Chair Kent Keel, who has seen the Seattle portions of the 214-page report.
Transit-board member Claudia Balducci proposes recruiting a panel of technical experts from outside Sound Transit to help the board accelerate projects.
If current trends don’t improve, through faster delivery or more money, light-rail might not reach Ballard until 2039, while downtown Everett waits until 2042.
The report comes as the Biden administration last weeky released its latest infrastructure plan, developed in talks with senators, that would increase federal transit funding by $39 billion and add $66 billion for Amtrak and other passenger rail.
Sound Transit is among four U.S. and four international agencies the Eno study examined in-depth.
Earthquake protection and “unique habitats” like salmon streams require extra attention. The Seattle area is battered by skyrocketing real estate prices and a two-year process to buy or condemn land, the report says.
A greater problem is political culture.
“They have to secure permits in 84 jurisdictions. It’s frequently caught up in being onerous and contentious,” chief study author Paul Lewis said in an interview.
“Interviewees expressed frustration that the region spends significant time addressing community concerns without a clear and consistent process for constraining requests. One said that the region at large puts a ‘high value on leaving everyone happy,’” the report says.
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 get surface, elevated or tunneled tracks.
After winning its sales-tax boost, Sound Transit identified 36 possible alignment combinations and sent 24 of those into environmental study. Following tense negotiations, the Bellevue City Council finally endorsed a route in 2013, while providing $160 million extra cash and services, to secure a short downtown tunnel. Service is scheduled for 2023.
“We got to a place where there was very undisputed support, but that was with four years of process and delay,” Balducci said. “We’ve got to move faster than that.”
Sound Transit staff tend to avoid controversial questions about track alignment until late in planning, officials told Eno.
For example, the study recounts how Sound Transit in the late 1990s rejected a tunnel for the lower-income, mostly nonwhite Rainier Valley, until being pushed by community requests 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 surface median.
As for the future, Eno quotes an official saying Sound Transit 3, approved by voters in 2016, isn’t going to move any faster than past programs, despite early efforts to shave six months off the design phase.
During a presentation in July, transit staff said eight of 34 projects, including West Seattle light rail and I-405 bus-rapid transit, faced no delay due to finances but would lose one or more years because of slowdowns in environmental review during the COVID-19 pandemic, third party negotiations, right of way acquisition, or delays in choosing specific routes.
By comparison, Vancouver, British Columbia, TransLink says it can build a 9-mile elevated line in suburban Surrey by 2025, after the federal government awarded funds last month. Kevin Desmond, former TransLink CEO, has said the province’s simple environmental checklists, done in cooperation with local tribes, help provide a two- to three-year advantage over Seattle.
Eno found some ways Sound Transit excels.
The study praised the 3-mile tunnel from Westlake to Capitol Hill and the University of Washington, despite its cost of $511 million per mile, because of the benefits to busy neighborhoods. Soon after the extension opened in 2016, overall light-rail use nearly doubled, to 80,000 daily passengers pre-COVID-19.
The report found the Northgate extension, which opens Oct. 2, is coming in at $419 million a mile, cheaper than $1 billion-plus for the Los Angeles Purple Line, or an expected $1.3 billion per mile in downtown Austin, Texas.
Sound Transit has gained project experience, Eno says. Extensions to UW, Northgate, Angle Lake and Bellevue have been built under the final budgets, which leaves contingency money leftover for future projects.
Still, Eno points to a Washington state audit in 2020 that blamed $100 million of contract changes on agency mistakes, such as failing to locate underground utilities and toxic soils in Tacoma before construction.
Sound Transit’s original light-rail segments, from Angle Lake to the University District, cost 86% more than when voters approved them in 1996, a previous Seattle Times analysis found.
Eno devoted 18 months to its study, by four authors and three research assistants, along with a 21-member advisory panel. They gathered other experts’ megaproject papers, local news stories, government project reports and 117 “off-the-record” interviews.
Madrid stood out as a role model, delivering tunnels for only $215 million per mile. That city insists on shallow cut-and-cover digging, rapid construction, and standard designs using stations close together.
By comparison, Lewis mentioned LA Metro’s Purple Line subway stretch in Beverly Hills, where crews could only build the cut-and-cover tunnel on weekends. After COVID-19 hit, time limits loosened and they finished seven months early, he said.
In Europe, where transit projects are routine, agencies will block neighborhoods 24/7 and move along in a few weeks, he said.
To cut red tape, the report urges Congress and the Federal Transit Administration to allow pilot projects, where select transit agencies skip the environmental-study process.
Eno encourages U.S. agencies to spend more time listening to communities, but then give the staff more power to say no to expensive requests.
“It sounds like a major change that would be a shock to the system, of people especially in the western U.S. where we are really democratic with a small d, where people expect to be consulted along the way,” Balducci said.
Sound Transit CEO Peter Rogoff said his staff will be more assertive, to warn the governing board when some change or request would delay ST3 projects.
“Cost-consciousness is the order of the day,” Rogoff said, “and this report can only add fuel to that.”
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