» Norfolk, Virginia celebrates the opening of a relatively cheap new rail corridor. It’s not as out-of-the-ordinary as we might hope, though.
Last weekend, Norfolk’s Tide light rail line opened to big crowds and lots of excitement in a state that has never before seen modern light rail technology in action. But the project was overbudget and the subject of years of controversy. What was once supposed to be a $232 million line had ballooned in cost to $318.5 million and in the process taken down political leaders who had supported it. Perceived mismanagement delayed consideration of extensions into nearby Virginia Beach. And the scheme’s implementation flaws emboldened conservative activists insistant on playing up the poor performance of government.
The irony of the story, it turns out, is that even at its higher-than-expected cost, the Tide’s construction came in at just $43 million a mile, less than any recently completed or under construction light rail system in the United States — even better than Salt Lake City’s just-finished Mid-Jordan and West Valley light rail lines, which cost $50 and $73 million per mile, respectively. It came close in price to the cheapest such project in generally less expensive France, Besançon’s $35 million a mile tramway.
What does this mean for other U.S. cities hoping to keep costs down and get the biggest bang for their buck? Has Norfolk done something tremendously different than other places?
One explanation is the corridor chosen for the rail line: The 7.4-mile right-of-way was almost entirely located within either an existing freight railroad corridor or along public streets. This reduced the need for land acquisition and land grading. It also made it simple to serve some of the region’s most important destinations pretty directly, including the Medical Center west of downtown, Norfolk’s central business district, a baseball stadium, and Norfolk State University. The line’s position along the edge of I-264, a major highway, and the quite limited residential and commercial populations of downtown Norfolk won’t do the project any favors; its eleven stations are only expected to attract 2,900 daily riders this year and 7,200 by 2030. But its alignment parallel to Virginia Beach Boulevard — the route of the most popular bus line offered by Hampton Roads Transit — means it would likely do better than any other rail line in the city.
Let’s return to the matter at hand, though: Just how different is Norfolk? Has it been able to apply some magic elixir to reduce its costs of construction?
Perhaps the most accurate answer is that it’s not clear. A review of 32 urban rail transit projects across the nation that have either been recently completed, are under construction, or are soon to enter construction suggests that there are limited margins for cost differentiation among similar projects.
In the following chart and the table at the conclusion of the article, I have compared service miles with construction costs among five types of projects — some that are fully underground; some partially underground, partially above ground; one that is fully elevated; some fully on the surface (or partially elevated); and two fully on the surface with only one track in service for parts of their routes.
As the chart demonstrates, there is clear evidence that the type of service provided — surface, elevated, or subway — is the primary determinant of construction cost differences. Unsurprisingly, of course, rail projects that operate within independent rights-of-way such as along elevated viaducts or underground are likely to cost more than similar-length projects running at ground level. The easiest way to lower construction costs would be to convert every subway project to an elevated and every elevated line to surface running and every surface-running corridor to one with just one track.* Yet this is no answer at all: This would be an ineffective solution, since it would reduce capacity in corridors where it is necessary.
But within each of these groups, evaluating like project to like project, we are given the opportunity to compare similar schemes addressing similar ridership demands. If Norfolk is cheaper, why? How do light rail programs serving equivalent populations fare?
Unfortunately, this comparison indicates that there isn’t much we can do to differentiate between projects. For surface-running lines and those that are planned to run on the surface and in subways, for instance there is relatively strong evidence (note those trendlines) that construction costs will be close to $73 or $239 million per mile, respectively.
The most expensive surface-running rail line now under construction is Portland’s Portland-Milwaukie light rail, which will cost $204 million per mile to construct as of the most recent estimates. That’s expensive, but it includes a significant bridge over the Willamette River and a series of elevated sections. The large majority of light rail lines like Norfolk’s will come in at less than $100 million per mile, most between $50 and $70 million per mile. Streetcar lines, running in shared automobile lanes, are a bit cheaper. Overall, this suggests that regional differences do not seem to matter much (see Sacramento’s South Corridor, in a union-friendly state, versus Phoenix’s Central Mesa Extension, in a right-to-work state), nor a reliance on federal funding (see Salt Lake’s West Valley line, which was funded without Washington’s support), nor indeed the existence of private investment (see Denver’s Eagle project, funding that city’s East and Gold Lines).
What conclusions can we take from these data? One must be that construction costs in the U.S. are relatively steady across the country, at least when taking into account differences in grade separation. The other is that if we consider it in the public interest to reduce construction costs because of a declining ability to afford infrastructure, a national solution, rather than a local one, may be necessary.
|Table of recent American rail transit projects, either under construction or soon to enter construction|
* In essence, this means reducing the degree of provisions for independent rights-of-way for each project is the best way to save costs. But those same reserved rights-of-way are the best ways to keep transit reliable and fast; the effort to reconcile this problem is the raison-d-être of BRT. Data for charts and table above from either agency websites or Federal Transit Administration 2012 New Starts Report.