The Leakage Problem

I’ve spent more than ten years talking about the cost of construction of physical infrastructure, starting with subways and then branching on to other things, most.

And yet there’s a problem of comparable size when discussing infrastructure waste, which, lacking any better term for it, I am going to call leakage. The definition of leakage is any project that is bundled into an infrastructure package that is not useful to the project under discussion and is not costed together with it. A package, in turn, is any program that considers multiple projects together, such as a stimulus bill, a regular transport investment budget, or a referendum. The motivation for the term leakage is that money deeded to megaprojects leaks to unrelated or semi-related priorities. This often occurs for political reasons but apolitical examples exist as well.

Before going over some examples, I want to clarify that the distinction between leakage and high costs is not ironclad. Sometimes, high costs come from bundled projects that are costed together with the project at hand; in the US they’re called betterments, for example the $100 million 3 km bike lane called the Somerville Community Path for the first, aborted iteration of the Green Line Extension in Boston. This blur is endemic to general improvement projects, such as rail electrification, and also to Northeast Corridor high-speed rail plans, but elsewhere, the distinction is clearer.

Finally, while normally I focus on construction costs for public transport, leakage is a big problem in the United States for highway investment, for political reasons. As I will explain below, I believe that nearly all highway investment in the US is waste thanks to leakage, even ignoring the elevated costs of urban road tunnels.

State of good repair

A month ago, I uploaded a video about the state of good repair grift in the United States. The grift is that SOGR is maintenance spending funded out of other people’s money – namely, a multiyear capital budget – and therefore the agency can spend it with little public oversight. The construction of an expansion may be overly expensive, but at the end of the day, the line opens and the public can verify that it works, even for a legendarily delayed project like Second Avenue Subway, the Berlin-Brandenburg Airport, or the soon-to-open Tel Aviv Subway. It’s a crude mechanism, since the public can’t verify safety or efficiency, but it’s impossible to fake: if nothing opens, it embarrasses all involved publicly, as is the case for California High-Speed Rail. No such mechanism exists for maintenance, and therefore, incompetent agencies have free reins to spend money with nothing to show for it. I recently gave an example of unusually high track renewal costs in Connecticut.

The connection with leakage is that capital plans include renewal and long-term repairs and not just expansion. Thus, SOGR is leakage, and when its costs go out of control, they displace funding that could be used for expansion. The NEC Commission proposal for high-speed rail on the Northeast Corridor calls for a budget of $117 billion in 2020 dollars, but there is extensive leakage to SOGR in the New York area, especially the aforementioned Connecticut plan, and thus for such a high budget the target average speed is about 140 km/h, in line with the upgraded legacy trains that high-speed lines in Europe replace.

Regionally, too, the monetary bonfire that is SOGR sucks the oxygen out of the room. The vast majority of the funds for MTA capital plans in New York is either normal replacement or SOGR, a neverending program whose backlog never shrinks despite billions of dollars in annual funding. The MTA wants to spend $50 billion in the next 5 years on capital improvements; visible expansion, such as Second Avenue Subway phase 2, moving block signaling on more lines, and wheelchair accessibility upgrades at a few stations, consists of only a few billion dollars of this package.

This is not purely an American issue. Germany’s federal plan for transport investment calls for 269.6 billion euros in project capital funding from 2016 to 2030, including a small proportion for projects planned now to be completed after 2031; as detailed on page 14, about half of the funds for both road and rail are to go to maintenance and renewal and only 40% to expansion. But 40% for expansion is still substantially less leakage than seen in American plans like that for New York.

Betterments and other irrelevant projects

Betterments straddle the boundary between high costs and leakage. They can be bundled with the cost of a project, as is the case for the Somerville Community Path for original GLX (but not the current version, from which it was dropped). Or they can be costed separately. The ideal project breakdown will have an explicit itemization letting us tell how much money leaked to betterments; for example, for the first Nice tramway line, the answer is about 30%, going to streetscaping and other such improvements.

Betterments fall into several categories. Some are pure NIMBYism – a selfish community demands something as a precondition of not publicly opposing the project, and the state caves instead of fighting back. In Israel, Haifa demanded that the state pay for trenching portions of the railroad through the southern part of the city as part of the national rail electrification project, making specious claims about the at-grade railway separating the city from the beach and even saying that high-voltage electrification causes cancer. In Toronto, the electrification project for the RER ran into a similar problem: while rail electrification reduces noise emissions, some suburbs still demanded noise walls, and the province caved to the tune of $1 billion.

Such extortion is surplus extraction – Israel and Toronto are both late to electrification, and thus those projects have very high benefit ratios over base costs, encouraging squeaky wheel behavior, raising costs to match benefits. Keeping the surplus with the state is crucial for enabling further expansion, and requires a combination of the political courage to say no and mechanisms to defer commitment until design is more advanced, in order to disempower local communities and empower planners.

Other betterments have a logical reason to be there, such as the streetscape and drainage improvements for the Nice tramway, or to some extent the Somerville Community Path. The problem with them is that chaining them to a megaproject funded by other people’s money means that they have no sense of cost control. A municipality that has to build a bike path out of its own money will never spend $100 million on 3 km; and yet that was the projected cost in Somerville, where the budget was treated as acceptable because it was second-order by broader GLX standards.

Bad expansion projects

Sometimes, infrastructure packages include bad with good projects. The bad projects are then leakage. This is usually the politically hardest nut to crack, because usually this happens in an environment of explicit political negotiation between actors each wanting something for their own narrow interest.

For example, this can be a regional negotiation between urban and non-urban interests. The urban interests want a high-value urban rail line; the rest want a low-value investment, which could be some low-ridership regional rail or a road project. Germany’s underinvestment in high-speed rail essentially comes from this kind of leakage: people who have a non-urban identity or who feel that people with such identity are inherently more morally deserving of subsidy than Berlin or Munich oppose an intercity high-speed rail network, feeling that trains averaging 120-150 km/h are good enough on specious polycentricity grounds. Such negotiation can even turn violent – the Gilets Jaunes riots were mostly white supremacist, but they were white supremacists with a strong anti-urban identity who felt like the diesel taxes were too urban-focused.

In some cases, like that of a riot, there is an easy solution, but when it goes to referendum, it is harder. Southern California in particular has an extreme problem of leakage in referendums, with no short- or medium-term solution but to fund some bad with the good. California’s New Right passed Prop 13, which among other things requires a 2/3 supermajority for tax hikes. To get around it, the state has to promise somthing explicit to every interest group. This is especially acute in Southern California, where “we’re liberal Democrats, we’re doing this” messaging can get 50-60% but not 67% as in the more left-wing San Francisco area and therefore regional ballot measures for increasing sales taxes for transit have to make explicit promises.

The explicit promises for weak projects, which can be low-ridership suburban light rail extensions, bond money for bus operations, road expansion, or road maintenance, damage the system twice. First, they’re weak on a pure benefit-cost ratio. And second, they commit the county too early to specific projects. Early commitment leads to cost overruns, as the ability of nefarious actors (not just communities but also contractors, political power brokers, planners, etc.) to demand extra scope is high, and the prior political commitment makes it too embarrassing to walk away from an overly bloated project. For an example of early commitment (though not of leakage), witness California High-Speed Rail: even now the state pretends it is not canceling the project, and is trying to pitch it as Bakersfield-Merced high-speed rail instead, to avoid the embarrassment.

The issue of roads

I focus on what I am interested in, which is public transport, but the leakage problem is also extensive for roads. In the United States, road money is disbursed to the tune of several tens of billions of dollars per year in the regular process, even without any stimulus funding. It’s such an important part of the mythos of public works that it has to be spread evenly across the states, so that politicians from a bygone era of non-ideological pork money can say they’ve brought in spending to their local districts. I believe there’s even a rule requiring at least 92% of the fuel tax money generated in each state to be spent within the state.

The result is that road money is wasted on low-growth regions. From my perspective, all road money is bad. But let’s put ourselves for a moment in the mindset of a Texan or Bavarian booster: roads are good, climate change is exaggerated, deficits are immoral (German version) or taxes are (Texan version), the measure of a nation’s wealth is how big its SUVs are. In this mindset, road money should be spent prudently in high-growth regions, like the metropolitan areas of the American Sunbelt or the biggest German cities. It definitely should not be spent in declining regions like the Rust Belt, where due to continued road investment and population decline, there is no longer traffic congestion.

And yet, road money is spent in those no-congestion regions. Politicians get to brag about saving a few seconds’ worth of congestion with three-figure million dollar interchanges and bypasses in small Rust Belt towns, complete with political rhetoric about the moral superiority of regions whose best days lay a hundred years ago to regions whose best days lie ahead.

Leakage and consensus

It is easy to get trapped in a consensus in which every region and every interest group gets something. This makes leakage easier: an infrastructure package will then have something for everyone, regardless of any benefit-cost analysis. Once the budget rather than the outcome becomes the main selling point, black holes like SOGR are easy to include.

It’s critical to resist this trend and fight to oppose leakage. Expansion should go to expansion, where investment is needed, and not where it isn’t. Failure to do so leads to hundreds of billions in investment money most of which is wasted independently for the construction cost problem.

I’ve written before about tourism by rail, but only in an intercity context, and it’s worthwhile talking about leisure travel by rail at more local and regional scale too. Most travel is local, and this includes leisure travel.

Local neighborhood travel

A trip to dinner in a neighborhood well-known for a specific kind of cuisine is a type of local leisure trip. Ethnic enclaves abound in diverse cities and people routinely go to other neighborhoods to enjoy food; this kind of trip is so common that it’s not even treated as a leisure trip, just as ordinary consumption.

This can be done by car or by public transportation. The advantage of cars is that such trips tend to happen outside rush hour, when there’s less traffic; that of public transport is that usually ethnic business districts are in busy areas, where there’s more traffic, even if they’re not at city center. The best example of a diverse auto-oriented city is Los Angeles, where getting from one region to another takes too long even off-peak, making it cumbersome for a Westsider to have Chinese food in San Gabriel Valley or Vietnamese food in Orange County regularly. New York and London do a lot better on access to such amenities, thanks to their greater centralization of destinations and public transport networks.

Regional travel

Regional travel starts including things people conceive of as leisure trips more regularly. These can include any of the following:

  • Museums, galleries, and other cultural amenities
  • Concerts, sports games, conventions, and other special events
  • Beaches
  • Non-urban outdoor recreation such as hiking and biking trails
  • Historic towns that have fallen into the orbit of a larger city

It is striking, in retrospect, how local such travel is. For example, when I LARPed at Intercon, in 2012-6, I was almost the only person flying in from another country, and a large majority of the attendees were local to the Boston area rather than flying in from far away – and the top locations people were coming in from otherwise were New York and Albany, not Chicago or California. This is equally true of conventions in general, except for a handful of international and national ones like Worldcon or Comic Con.

These are all regional rather than local destinations. If they’re not tethered to a geographic feature like a beach or a mountain, they try to locate based on the transportation network as far as possible, so that the biggest and richest conventions are in city center. New York Comic Con is on the Far West Side, but Dexcon is in Morristown. The upshot is that such events want to be close to public transportation and the issue is then about providing both good transit and sufficient event space in central areas.

The issue of TOD

Transit-oriented development is usually thought of as permitting more residential and commercial buildings near public transport. But this is equally true of leisure destinations. The term TOD did not exist then, but early urban renewal involved building event spaces in or near city centers, for example Lincoln Center.

This is equally true of outdoor places. Of course, TOD can’t create a beach or a suitable hilly region for hiking. But it can promote growth at particular places. Historically, New York had excursion railways to Coney Island, which then became much of the subway in Southern Brooklyn, and the same companies that owned the early railways also developed beachfront hotels. Later, amusement parks developed in the area, back when the main uses of other city waterfront were industrial.

Trails, too, can be served by public transportation if it is there. Germany has patches of forest, rehabilitated in the last 200 years, and some of these patches are near train stations so that people can walk through. The Appalachian Trail has segments accessible by commuter rail from New York, even if the weekend frequency leaves a lot to be desired.

Good transit practices

Leisure travel practically never takes place during commute hours. It peaks on weekends, to the point that in areas close to regional leisure destinations, like the Museum of Natural History or Yankee Stadium or Coney Island, trains have as many riders on weekends as on weekdays or even more.

The point of running regional rail on an all-day, everyday takt is that it facilitates such travel, and not just commuter travel. The same timetable can be used for work trips, errand trips, school trips, intercity trips, and leisure trips, each peaking at a different time. Some trains from Berlin to leisure destinations like the trolleyferry are filled with commuters, others with tourists; either way, they run every 20 minus to Strausberg.

This remains best practice even if there aren’t obvious leisure destinations nearby. A transit city like New York is full of transit users, and providing better suburban service is likely to gradually create transit-oriented leisure in the suburbs catering to these millions of carless city residents. Those can be beaches near convenient train stations, or hiking trails, or historic and cultural places like Sleepy Hollow. But the transit has to be there for any such development to happen.