A Missing Datum

Thursday, September 20, 2012

An article titled, "U.S. Taxpayers Are Gouged on Mass Transit Costs" is interesting for several reasons: (1) just how true this is, (2) how much worse it is here even than in many other countries, and (3) what is blamed for the problem.

Here's an excerpt illustrating the first two points:

Perhaps the most ostentatious violation of [Metro de Madrid CEO Manuel] 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.
Unfortunately, it is regarding the last point that the article is weak.
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.
That's right: Our government-run transit system does interface with vestiges of capitalism -- but please note how government-regulated they are -- and so capitalism gets much of the blame! By focusing only on comparisons of American transit construction costs to those in other countries -- where all the systems are government-run -- the article misses an important lesson from history that we would do well to consider:
Why have Americans so trusted politicians on infrastructure in the past century? Even without today's advanced technology and financing, the much-maligned "Robber Barons" of the 19th Century, operating amid greater freedom (and no environmentalism) could have made California's bullet train commercially viable, while completing it in under 3 years, not the 21 years Jerry Brown plans.
The problem with mass transit costs in America is anything but too much freedom for some tiny portion of a  government-distorted "private" sector. By neglecting to look at historical data, one can easily fail to reach such a conclusion.

-- CAV

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