The argument for Philadelphia from cost control

A lot of local political bigshots came out to the Navy Yard last Monday to announce full funding for another study of the case for extending subway service to the South Philadelphia office park.  It may not be the most pressing transit need in the region, but it does have good potential.  Perhaps more important: if Philadelphia can build subway tunnel at a tenth of the cost of New York, then that creates a strong political argument to shift federal funding here, to build and strengthen our network.

BSL Navy Yard Extension Map
Proposed routing of the BSL extension from the Navy Yard Master Plan

Discussions of the politics of federal transit funding are always fraught.  I have argued in the past that our fundamental political position with respect to the Federal Government (and the State Government, for that matter) is so weak, that we should not rely on it, and instead look to more self-reliant methods to support our rebuilding efforts.  But there is a moment right now, where federal transportation funding is in limbo, and the urgent transit megaprojects seeking federal funding are all coming from the New York City metropolitan area, a national disgrace of project cost control.  Philadelphia is in a fairly rare place in being able to justify several moderately-expensive ($10^7 to $10^9) projects with very good ROI and ridership numbers, while having a solid foundation in maintenance and state of good repair, and lack of hostility from Governor Wolf, as compared to his transit-skeptic counterparts in Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York.

In contrast, the eyes of the nation (and Congress) are on New York City, which has a majority of transit riders nationwide, and has several expensive ($10^9-$10^10) megaprojects in construction, or in the planning pipeline.  However, New York City is a dumpster fire of project management and cost control.  Scope creep alone accounts for billions of dollars of waste, as station terminals are expanded in the hopes that the fractured, balkanized pieces of New York’s transit agencies might never have to share assets with each other.  Projects are delayed years and overrun their budgets by billions, and yet neither the contractors, nor the agencies, nor the politicians are ever held to account for it.  The three most expensive rail tunnels in human history, by cost per kilometer, are all in New York: the 7 Line Extension ($1.3B/km), the Second Avenue Subway ($1.7B/km), and LIRR East Side Access ($4B/km); the most expensive outside of New York is London’s Crossrail 1 at $1.0B/km.  The two most expensive rail stations in the world are a few blocks from each other in Lower Manhattan: the Fulton Street Transit Center ($1.4B), and Santiago Calatrava’s White Stegosaurus, the World Trade Center PATH Terminal ($4B).  The next big project is the Gateway Tunnels under the Hudson River into Penn Station, whose estimated $20 billion price tag, proposed to be split 50-25-25 between the Feds, New Jersey, and New York, dwarfs the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts budget, which runs at about $2 billion per year.  And in tacit recognition that there is no longer any authority trusted to lead the construction efforts, an entirely new Gateway Development Corporation is proposed to fill that role, an astonishing rebuke to the very existence of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

If Philadelphia can develop a reputation for delivering transit infrastructure projects at rates that are affordable, and not an international disgrace, we can attract the attention of federal funding in a way that we have not since Frank Rizzo secured funding for the Center City Commuter Connection from the Ford Administration’s UMTA (and that our present Congressional delegation has notably failed to replicate).  This will take co-operation and careful management from SEPTA, the City, PIDC, the construction trades, contractors, and luck (it’s possible that terrible soil conditions at the Navy Yard will drive up costs in a legitimate and unavoidable way).  Liberty Property Trust should probably be hit up for some of the marginal cash they will make from building more midrise offices and hotels at the Navy Yard instead of parking lots; development-oriented transit should always have a funding component from the private entities it enriches, as happened at SEPTA’s new station at Lansdale 9th Street with Stoltz Real Estate Partners.

If this strategy works, all those worthy local projects that are languishing for lack of funding, from the City Branch to the West Chester Restoration to the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway, will have a fighting chance at becoming reality.  And that is something that can pay dividends across the city and throughout the region.  I don’t think I’m alone in making this calculation; why else would IBEW 98 head John Dougherty be the primary political champion of the Navy Yard subway extension?  But one political leader and one union is only a start; the commitment to keeping costs down has to come from everyone at all levels of the project.  And it starts with an alert and informed public, keeping an eye on the project as it proceeds, and committed to expediting its completion.