Why is Infrastructure so Expensive to Build in New York?

On approximately the same timeline that London has been building Crossrail, our Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been building East Side Access, which will bring Long Island Rail Road trains into a new terminal beneath Grand Central. The Regional Plan Association, an urban-planning think tank for the New York region, describes East Side Access as “a commuter-line extension similar to London’s Crossrail in scope and scale.” 

“People will say to me, ‘Why are MTA construction costs so high?’ And the answer is ‘Everything,’ ” says Julia Vitullo-Martin, a senior fellow at the RPA and co-author of its 2018 report comparing New York’s construction costs to those in peer cities. “Every factor you look at is flawed the way the MTA does business, from the first step to the end.”

The MTA often needs utilities moved in order to do construction below city streets, but it lacks the city’s power to boss the utilities around, so it pays more for the same sort of utility relocations that the city might demand. It can’t force the city to make zoning changes that would aid its capital projects or its finances; because of this, several station-entrance and ventilation sites adjacent to the Second Avenue Subway were not developed to their full potential, costing the authority $100 million in the RPA’s estimation.

While you may think of the subway as a tunnel, what made the project expensive to build wasn’t the tunnels. The cost problem with the Second Avenue Subway was primarily in its stations, whose construction cost $425 million each, according to the RPA. 

You could start with all the projects that get kicked around but haven’t been funded. The full Second Avenue Subway, from 125th Street to the Financial District. An extension of the 7 train to Secaucus, New Jersey, where it would connect with train lines and a relocated bus terminal. The N train to La Guardia airport. A subway under Utica Avenue. The Gateway Program.

But it’s possible to think even bigger. The RPA has one such vision it calls T-REX, or the Trans-Regional Express. You can think of it as New York’s version of Crossrail or the RER. T-REX would start with the already planned Gateway Program, bringing two new tracks from New Jersey into Penn Station, then it would extend those tracks to Queens, adding a new station along the way at Third Avenue and 31st Street. Instead of terminating at Penn Station, commuter trains would begin service in New Jersey, proceed through Penn Station and that new station in Midtown East, continue to Queens, then branch off toward Long Island or north to the Bronx and Westchester.

Commutes would be transformed. The RPA estimates you would be able to get from Williamsbridge in the North Bronx to the Financial District in 28 minutes, down from just over an hour today. Getting from North Bergen, New Jersey, to Midtown East would take 11 minutes, down from 50. 

The problem with this transformational plan is that, given the way New York does construction now, it would cost $71 billion in the RPA’s estimation. And that cost isn’t all-inclusive; it doesn’t even include trains.

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