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.

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  1. I wonder if we could also worry a little more about which projects would have the most benefits. I have a tough time imagining that an extension of the subway south would get much ridership. The whole point of the Navy Yard conversion to commercial use seems to be to serve people who don’t value transit access.

    Otherwise, why not site your business in Center City? Which has plenty of space, even declining rents. Or, if even Center City is too expensive for you, any of the existing large, empty lots next to or near subway or el stations outside Center City — there are several of these. Clearly, this subway extension is not going to be a significant business draw, because, frankly, few businesses in this town seem to care about rapid transit service.

    But if there has to be a subway extension, Olney has a lot more ridership than Pattison, so extending the subway north to Cheltenham would probably get more ridership than an extension south. Or a branch northwest, to Germantown and Mount Airy, or West Oak Lane. Or extending it instead southwest to the industrial parks around the airport — there are definitely more people taking the 68 from Oregon than the 17 from Pattison.

    Or… we could do some of the “Bus Rapid Transit” that other US cities have been getting federal funding for lately. Which is essentially just stop consolidation, offboard payment, proof-of-payment, and signal prioritization — they are (usually) not even creating bus-only lanes. It would get much more bang for the buck than anything else. And I guess it’s in the works for Roosevelt, but how about all the routes with packed, bunched buses going to Center City? As a bonus, the Select Bus Service expansion is going so pathetically slowly in New York that we could easily overtake them if we really tried.

    I guess I feel like there’s a lot of emphasis on improving service to the wrong places — Lansdale and Westchester and the Navy Yard are not going to be heavy users of transit anytime soon. Instead we could be focusing on places where people are already overflowing the transit that exists.

  2. Do it. Do it. Pull it off successfully. Well, honestly, pull *any* extension off successfully. You want to prove that Philly can do at least what Denver and Salt Lake and San Diego can do in terms of cost control.

  3. Maybe I’m too cynical. But I’m not sure the general public distinguishes much between a $1 million transit project and a $10 billion one. I think they just hear “lots of money” and “waste.” Would love to be proved wrong though! Thanks giving me a reason to tolerate the hype about a BSL expansion.

    1. Oh, I have no illusions about the ability of a random person to distinguish between a $1 million project and a $10 billion one (if I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say that digging a new subway tunnel would “save money” vs., well, anything, I could finance the Roosevelt Boulevard Subway myself). But the real target audiences of this argument are politicians and their staff, as well as civil servants, who have to actually deal with numbers and arithmetic and budgets. Not that they are always on the ball about orders of magnitude either, but it is actually in their job description to be better than the average citizen.

      1. It’s not a very good project for proving the region’s transit-building or financing ability, precisely because it largely hinges on one developer’s whims on how they want to go about controlling parking; I think it’s pretty iffy by New Starts standards. Planners have also failed and failed again at creating reasonable 5-10 year feasibility projections for multiple unforeseen reasons, and now we’re going at it again without any certainty whether residential will be allowed in the Navy Yard and if that’s even feasible. The lesson we need to learn here is how to get these otherwise indifferent state politicians to become cheerleaders directly for the comparatively marginalized and ignored constituencies of Lower North and Northeast Philadelphia, assuming little to no support from City Hall itself (as they’ve done for the past 30 years). They are by and large the only meaningful determinant of federal support. More depressing and utterly self-defeating is the utter lack of any meaningful citizen-led transit coalition that actually informs the public of our true spectrum of possibilities beyond what the agencies arbitrarily push for.

        Planners here are very, very cognizant of hard cost limits w/r/t heavy rail, it’s second-nature to them — and then they throw all consideration by the wayside when inevitably looking at the downgraded half-assed alternatives. Alon Levy described the problem back in 2011; the most egregious local example being the South Jersey Route 42 “BRT in general traffic lane” project that literally moved forward with a projected upper cost limit north of $70,000 per new rider.

        “In an environment of high costs, it still make sense to draw plans as if the costs are normal, and when the costs are not normal, build more slowly and start with the most cost-effective lines. If agencies and activists behave as if there’s no money for good transit, they will only get bad transit.”

  4. As a resident of West Oak Lane, I personally would like to see the BSL extension to Cheltenham and Ogontz. West Oak Lane and Cedarbrook are poorly served by Regional Rail (there are no feeder buses from west of Broad to Fern Rock, no feeder buses of any kind really to Melrose Park, and many trains bypass Melrose). It would allow TOD style redevelopment of the Cheltenham Mall area and the Ogontz Avenue corridor. It could basically replace the 6 bus entirely (cost savings!) and maybe allow useful reconfiguration of other routes. West Oak Lane and Cedarbrook have way, way nicer rowhouses than Fishtown and other similar neighborhoods experiencing a resurgence.

    I realize this project does not have a constituency the size of the advocates of the Navy Yard and Roosevelt proposals (but it could, Dwight Evans are you listening?). It’s definitely cheaper to build than Roosevelt, and maybe cheaper than the Navy Yard. In the spirit of “let’s build ANY subway extension for starters, pick one,” it’s an alternative worth a closer look.

    1. On a purely absolute cost basis, you’re not going to get anything better for greenfield construction than 300-ft wide Roosevelt Blvd. Spatially, there is still a latent opportunity to introduce better crosstown feeders to Chestnut Hill East and Fern Rock stations; at minimum the Route 18/K interface needs to be rationalized and supplemented with more routes and better RRD service. There’s also the possibility of adding an additional terminus for CHW along the former PRR Ft Washington Branch to Wyndmoor/Cedarbrook. All of these should be considered as part of a well-functioning network precursor to the subway.

      1. I argue with kclo all the time—as I am not a fan of inner city buses, but here we go again. The former Fort Washington PRR line is long abandoned, has been paved over for the 309 Expressway and Wyndmoor is served by the CHE line. In terms of the best use of federal funds for a subway tunnel, there is far better return in taking the Locust St tunnel out to University City and re-connecting it at 8th Street to the BSL than 2 stops into the Navy Yard. The Navy Yard can be served with light rail connecting at Pattison and continuing up Delaware Ave. But certainly, we need subway, light rail and yes, express bus (perhaps taking over one of the Roosevelt Blvd roadways)improvements.

        1. It’s not about being a fan or not of buses, it’s acknowledging how to best utilize where we’ve already sunk the overwhelming amount of capital dollars into. Competent, free transfer bus service is an undeniable requirement of any global city, and Philadelphia doesn’t have that yet. (It makes me wonder whether you actually live in the city and/or deal with buses on a daily basis.) For termini located in the outer reaches of the city, direct connections to the CBD are a fundamental requirement and the overwhelming basis of its ridership. Thus light rail from the Navy Yard to the outer margin of the waterfront is possibly a viable transit option but does not serve as an in-kind replacement to the BSL extension. The Cedarbrook/Wadsworth Ave corridor is more than a mile away from the CHE stations, and the outer CHW stations from St. Martins are not particularly important compared to Wyndmoor-CHE stations. So alternating outbound trains between CHW and Cedarbrook/Cheltenham Ave. is not that bad of a idea, in lieu of an Ogontz Ave. subway.

          1. I’m not following where there is existing rail that branches off CHW and ends up in Cedarbrook. In any event, actually rerouting the K could by itself create a new feeder route to Fern Rock.

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