Stephen Smith on the Egregious Inefficiency of Public Mass Transit in the U.S.

Bloomberg View has just published the first part of a two-part essay by Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism fame on the fact that U.S. taxpayers tend to pay far more for large-scale public infrastructure projects. It offers a number of broader lessons for the public sector:

A huge part of the problem is that agencies can’t keep their private contractors in check. Starved of funds and expertise for in-house planning, officials contract out the project management and early design concepts to private companies that have little incentive to keep costs down and quality up. And even when they know better, agencies are often forced by legislation, courts and politicians to make decisions that they know aren’t in the public interest.

Comparing American transit-construction practices with those abroad yields a number of lessons. Spain has the most dynamic tunneling industry in the world and the lowest costs. In 2003, Metro de Madrid Chief Executive Officer Manuel Melis Maynar wrote a list describing the practices he used to design the system’s latest expansion. The don’t-do list, unfortunately, reads like a winning U.S. transit-construction bingo card.

Perhaps the most ostentatious violation of Melis’s manual of best practices is expensive architecture in stations. “Design should be focused on the needs of the users,” he wrote, “rather than on architectural beauty or exotic materials, and never on the name of the architect.”

American politicians have different priorities. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is spending $3.8 billion on a single subway station at the World Trade Center designed by Santiago Calatrava, a Spanish architect known for his costly projects. If New York could build subways at the prices that Paris and Tokyo pay, $3.8 billion would be enough to build the entire Second Avenue subway, from Harlem to the Financial District. [Emphasis added]

Smith reminds us that it is actually American conservatives and libertarians who should be policy cosmopolitans rather than left-liberals, as the inefficiencies of the U.S. public sector stand out in particularly sharp relief in comparative perspective. 

I can imagine champions of the U.S. public sector noting that, as Smith notes, U.S. transit agencies are often starved of funds and expertise for in-house planning, which is true. There is a profound short-sightedness in terms of where and how U.S. transit agencies spend, and the right shares the blame. Yet a lack of flexibility regarding staffing levels and compensation often contributes to the neglect of investments in in-house planning and other domains that could actually yield significant savings over time, as the political costs associated with identifying redundancies is much higher than that of starving transit systems of analytical resources. This doesn’t just apply to transit agencies, suffice it to say.   

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

Most Popular

Law & the Courts

Obstruction Confusions

In his Lawfare critique of one of my several columns about the purported obstruction case against President Trump, Gabriel Schoenfeld loses me — as I suspect he will lose others — when he says of himself, “I do not think I am Trump-deranged.” Gabe graciously expresses fondness for me, and the feeling is ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More
Elections

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More
U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More