“Nobody knew what those people were doing, if they were doing anything”
December 29, 2017 12:15 PM   Subscribe

The Most Expensive Mile of Subway Track on Earth How excessive staffing, little competition, generous contracts and archaic rules dramatically inflate capital costs for transit in New York. (SLNYT by Brian M. Rosenthal)
posted by crazy with stars (35 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
*snort* Sounds just like Boston. Good article, thanks.
posted by Melismata at 12:18 PM on December 29


Wouldn't be a Times piece if it didn't shit all over labor.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:34 PM on December 29 [22 favorites]


Well, it points out that plenty of countries with strong labor movements have much lower costs (specifically comparing subway construction in NYC and Paris).
posted by tivalasvegas at 12:48 PM on December 29 [18 favorites]


Even given the comparatively lower costs and strong labor movements in other countries, it is perverse to implicitly suggest that the problem with things in the USA is that workers are too well compensated.
posted by entropone at 12:51 PM on December 29 [23 favorites]


I thought the article pointed fingers more directly at contractors who are cozy with city government, and a transit authority that kept changing its mind on things.

Neither of which are particularly partisan bugbears to my mind. At least here in Chicago, calls for good, efficient and transparent governance typically come from the left -- but then our Republican Party could fit in the men's washroom of the Billy Goat Tavern.
posted by tivalasvegas at 12:57 PM on December 29 [8 favorites]


The people I know who work for nyc transit describe it as a paramilitary organization where each level is encouraged to abuse the level beneath them. It doesn't sound like a fun place to work.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:00 PM on December 29 [3 favorites]


I work for NYC Transit. It can be a fun place to work, depending on your department.

I don't think the article shits on labor. The main complaint (and I agree with this) is the work rules, not the compensation for the work. $X per hour for task is fine. Rule requiring 5 people do the task when one person can do the task is not fine.
posted by millipede at 1:05 PM on December 29 [31 favorites]


You have to admit, 200 no-work jobs on a single job site trumps anything Tony Soprano could pull off.
posted by killdevil at 1:18 PM on December 29 [7 favorites]


I thought the article did a good job of eventually explaining the structural reasons for the high labor costs: because of the way the labor bargaining is located at the contractor level and the profit structure of the contracts, nobody in the bargaining process has an incentive to contain labor costs. It then explored non-labor drivers of higher costs, including the fact that the profit markup is much higher than in other cities and that NYC spends way more on soft costs. (I thought this article was crying out for one of those data infographics showing each of these cost drivers comparatively for NYC and Paris.) But it's a long article and a reader who lost interest after the first third or so could easily come away with the impression that it's all about greedy unions.
posted by yarrow at 1:58 PM on December 29 [8 favorites]


Lack of competition is also problem for the M.T.A. A Times analysis of roughly 150 contracts worth more than $10 million that the authority has signed in the past five years found the average project received just 3.5 bids.

“In other cities, you get eight bids for projects,” said Gary Brierley, a consultant who has worked on hundreds of projects in the last 50 years, including the No. 7 line extension and the Second Avenue subway. “In New York, you get two or three, and they know that, so they’ll inflate their bids if they think they can get away with it.”


This sounds like price fixing 101.

Curiously, though:

France’s unions are powerful, but Mr. Probst said they did not control project staffing. Isabelle Brochard of RATP, a state-owned company that operates the Paris Metro and is coordinating the Line 14 project, estimated there were 200 total workers on the job, each earning $60 per hour. The Second Avenue subway project employed about 700 workers, many making double that (although that included health insurance).

At various points in the article, it talks about how health care is a cost input (with some disagreement about its overall impact), the point being that countries with national public health care (i.e., the rest of the industrialized world, pretty much) have lower project costs. Funny, that.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 2:16 PM on December 29 [3 favorites]


I've been lurking in the MBTA forum on railroad.net for several years now, and the one important thing I've learned is that I really know nothing about how big infrastructure is planned/constructed/operated/maintained,

There are a handful of self-righteous right-wing trolls who occasionally post half-hearted complaints to the forum about the costs and delays of big projects, and their bloviations are always met by a small group of dedicated forum-members who do know what they're talking about:

It's expensive to design around bad decisions that were made a century ago while simultaneously future-proofing things for the next 100 years.

It's time consuming to get all the various stakeholders together to come to an agreement that provides a net benefit.

It's difficult to manage construction timelines when there are so many public and private externalities.

I've come to the conclusion that the only reason why Europe does things better/cheaper/faster is because at every level they actually give a crap about public transit and aren't as vulnerable to bad actors as we are.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 2:20 PM on December 29 [13 favorites]


At various points in the article, it talks about how health care is a cost input (with some disagreement about its overall impact)

Maybe I'm missing something but the only thing I saw in the article said that it's about 1/10 of the difference:

Because most countries have nationalized health care, projects abroad do not have to fund worker health insurance. That might explain a tenth of the cost differences, contractors said.
posted by ripley_ at 2:44 PM on December 29 [1 favorite]


Well, it points out that plenty of countries with strong labor movements have much lower costs (specifically comparing subway construction in NYC and Paris).

Sure, but literally every article in the NYT about the MTA quotes the pay of a group of people we're clearly meant to consider "overpaid". And, moreover, it always includes benefits in that number, meaning it's not actually comparable to the salary of the expected-to-be-outraged reader, who obviously works in an office or something and is just appalled that you can earn more money in an "lesser" job.
posted by hoyland at 2:59 PM on December 29 [10 favorites]


Cost of the project = $12 billion
$1000/day * 365 days/year * 900 workers * 10 years = $3.285 billion

It does sound like labor costs were considerably higher than average, but there's no way that explains the majority, or even 15%, of the cost overruns.
posted by miyabo at 3:35 PM on December 29 [4 favorites]


I guess I'd like to understand how the labor negotiations are so different elsewhere. At some point, someone in Paris said "well, we had a crane oiler (or whatever) on the last project, but we don't need one with this new equipment."

Why did the union agree? What are the former crane oilers doing now?
posted by smelendez at 3:37 PM on December 29


The good news for you New Yorkers is you've got Andy Byford incoming as NYC Transit's new President. He is, as they say, a man known in my parish - he's British and is ex-London Underground.

Byford spent his formative years as a station manager at Kings Cross immediately after the Kings Cross Fire, which was the Underground's absolute nadir and (I think I've said on here before) a direct parallel to the current situation in New York.

He then made his name as a senior manager sorting out the Victoria line (he's the chap who successfully oversaw the new trains and introduction of CBTC). After LU, he ran the whole system over in Sydney then got swiped by Toronto to sort out the clusterfuck there - warring state and local politicians, twenty years of under-investment, shitty contracts (Bombardier I'm looking at you), antiquated ticketing, terrible reliability, union issues and a management layer resistant to every kind of change.

That was five years ago. I'll quote you a bit from the article about him we've got scheduled to go live on Jan 1st (the day he officially takes over at NYC Transit):
In his five years as CEO, the transit service substantially improved in Toronto. Subway delay minutes are down 21% year-on-year, delay incidents down 7%, track fires - a major cause of delay - down 42% and short turns, long the bane of bus and streetcar riders' lives, down nearly 90%. In addition, the system is cleaner, information is clearer and, over the last five years, customer satisfaction has risen significantly.

These improvements resulted in the TTC being recognised by the American Public Transportation Association as its 2017 ‎Outstanding Transit System of the Year.‎
He's made his career delivering hard change - both to physical infrastructure and to organisational culture - first in London, then Sydney and now in Toronto, which is the 3rd largest transit system in North America. He does it with a smile, but behind that smile lies an absolute willingness to wield a knife where he needs to, and he's ruthless about putting the passenger first. He refused to buy a car in Toronto, for example ("If I don't use my own bloody network then I can't ask anyone else to") and the disappointment in Toronto when he announced he was off to New York was near universal - from passengers, through staff, to the politicians.

Basically, New York is seen as the biggest metro clusterfuck in the world right now (within the transport community). But if anyone can even come close to putting it back on the right path, it's probably Byford. He's got the right skills, the right recent experience and a bizarre knack for making warring politicians love him.

It was an inspired appointment from an organisation that has lacked inspiration lately. I'll post a link to our full bio piece on him when it goes live on the 1st.
posted by garius at 3:51 PM on December 29 [48 favorites]


smelendez, this brief Twitter thread by Matt Yglesias explains it. Basically, since France is much more widely unionized, there's no incentive for unions to protect specific jobs, so workers can move around more easily.
posted by asterix at 5:16 PM on December 29 [12 favorites]


Well when you New Yorkers are done with him please send him over to northeastern Illinois thanks
posted by tivalasvegas at 5:35 PM on December 29


Yeah I think the article talks about the pay rates in a misleading way. The benefits portion can be really large. NYC's current public works prevailing wage rates are here, and a slightly out of date but easier to read version from Philadelphia's SEPTA is here. A "carpenter - heavy and highway" in NYC makes $51.63 in hourly wages, but the supplemental benefits are $48.62.

I would have liked them to go more into why there might be so few bidders. That definitely seems to have the effect of pushing bids up, even if the bidders aren't actively colluding. I'm not too surprised that Europe would have more bidders, being denser with cities with public transit. Could also have to do with contract requirements, and why those requirements are included. Is it to tilt the bid towards known bidders, or because certain contract safeguards are more important here than elsewhere? Public works bids do come with a lot of paperwork and restrictions that are may be included for good reason but still have costs.
posted by sepviva at 6:04 PM on December 29


I wonder what role federalism plays, as well. In the US you've often got stakeholders at local, state and national levels each of which have differing processes for evaluating environmental & labor standards and I imagine that countries where one particular level of government (be it the national, subnational or local level) is empowered to lead on awarding contracts and funding projects would create a more streamlined and transparent process.
posted by tivalasvegas at 7:03 PM on December 29


I would have liked them to go more into why there might be so few bidders. That definitely seems to have the effect of pushing bids up, even if the bidders aren't actively colluding.

There is a serious labor shortage in many parts of the US right now would be my guess. In the years I've been monitoring public works bids (about 5 yrs), they don't get 8 bids, they get 1 or 2, and my city (not NYC) groups projects so that total budgets get high enough (generally in the $250k range) to get bids at all. And this is not for complex projects like an underground subway, it's for basic highway and bridge building work. I would doubt there even are many more than 8 companies in the entire US who are able to manage and staff a major subterranean construction project, and they are multinationals also working on every other subterranean/subway/rail project in the US.

Also the bidding process really rewards relationships and cities tend to give the projects to the same companies over and over as they are the ones who are completing them (generally on time and/or on budget).
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:08 PM on December 29 [3 favorites]


I wonder what role federalism plays, as well. In the US you've often got stakeholders at local, state and national levels each of which have differing processes for evaluating environmental & labor standards

I would say this is a problem as well, not that the standards are all that different place to place, but rather the list of requirements precludes small firms from bidding on huge projects because of insurance or EEOC inability to meet any number of requirements at the state and federal level.

I have a brother-in-law who lives in southern California but is currently working on hazmat/Superfund work in Chicago because there are few companies nationwide qualified to do the work.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:15 PM on December 29 [2 favorites]


garius: He's made his career delivering hard change - both to physical infrastructure and to organisational culture - first in London, then Sydney and now in Toronto, which is the 3rd largest transit system in North America. He does it with a smile, but behind that smile lies an absolute willingness to wield a knife where he needs to, and he's ruthless about putting the passenger first. He refused to buy a car in Toronto, for example ("If I don't use my own bloody network then I can't ask anyone else to") and the disappointment in Toronto when he announced he was off to New York was near universal - from passengers, through staff, to the politicians.

One challenge Byford faced as CEO of the TTC here in Toronto was serving under two successive mayors (Rob Ford and John Tory) who can only be described as "cars first, transit last." To put it crudely, on the transit file, John Tory is a desperately stupid and ideologically driven human being - he's effectively Rob Ford without the crack cocaine.

Despite that, as a TTC patron, I'm of the opinion that Byford made some tangible headway by getting some of these morons to see their way clearly to tangible improvements on the service side.

Here's a bit of a retrospective on Andy Byford's tenure in Toronto from Toronto transit watcher/advocate/blogger/citizen expert Steve Munro.

It will indeed be interesting to see him grapple with this MTA Tammany Hall scenario - or whatever the hell it is (it also sounds like a Biblical plague of consultants among other things).
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:30 PM on December 29 [4 favorites]


Dude, its a jobs program. One of many. Everything costs more in NYC, even the graft.
posted by sfts2 at 8:56 PM on December 29 [4 favorites]


I'm actually considering asking my friend, who was the 2nd Ave Line PM what he thinks about this all. But...I really don't want to put him on the spot publicly.
posted by sfts2 at 8:58 PM on December 29


I did like the way the break-room spaces were labeled with Union Local numbers.
posted by mikelieman at 9:22 PM on December 29


Boondoggle incarnate.
posted by fairmettle at 11:28 PM on December 29


Because most countries have nationalized health care, projects abroad do not have to fund worker health insurance. That might explain a tenth of the cost differences, contractors said.

Do these people think the rest of the world just plucks the money required for health care from trees or something?
posted by DreamerFi at 9:03 AM on December 30


This article points out something I have witnessed over many years living in NYC - riding the subways on the weekend (i.e. when there is always construction) anyone can see how 1/3 people on a construction team are sitting around doing nothing while 2/3 of the others are working at a seemingly leisurely pace. When I see this, I say to myself "hey guys, don't work too hard..."

By contrast, watch and be amazed at the coordination and efficiency of Japanese rail construction at Shibuya station: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=4&v=wIbZqqLra9k

As far as I can tell, the only time anything like this happened in NYC was the round-the-clock effort to reopen the lower Manhattan 1 line that was damaged after 9/11.

I wouldn't mind all the extra jobs and cost if the trains weren't a complete disaster. However, they obviously are, and I'm glad that NYT has devoted coverage to shining the light on all of this nonsense.
posted by eusebis_w_adorno at 11:26 AM on December 30 [2 favorites]


They discuss health care costs, and then immediately dismiss that as being only about 10% of the cost difference. Then they move on to dozens of paragraphs about labor, unions, etc, and I kept waiting for a similarly simple estimate of the share of the cost difference due to labor. As far as I can tell, none was forthcoming despite many calculations and much-touted spreadsheets that suggest that such a calculation could easily be made from the data they have. Why? As miyabo suggests, labor might be only another 10-20% of the cost difference, hardly more than the health factor, and of course pointing that out would vitiate the entire slant of their story. As with the thousands of articles examining health costs in the US, the first thing any of these articles should do is give us a basic pie chart (or stacked bar if you dislike circles) showing the major factors contributing to the cost difference between the crappy US X and the European X. Without that, we learn virtually nothing about what's actually going on, while reading endless discussions of labor malfeasances with no overall context to suggest how important a contributor they actually are. Which is exactly what every anti-labor news story on Fox does day in and day out.
posted by chortly at 8:33 PM on December 30 [4 favorites]


As miyabo suggests, labor might be only another 10-20% of the cost difference, hardly more than the health factor, and of course pointing that out would vitiate the entire slant of their story.

It would be remarkable if the marginal workforce healthcare cost factor was anywhere near the total cost difference due to labour, since the total cost difference due to labour apparently includes having 20-25% of the workforce not actually doing literally anything, having up to three times as many actual workers as is needed to do a job, paying up to four times the base wage rate for off-hour shifts, and also includes the marginal workforce healthcare costs.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:33 PM on December 30


As many have already hit upon, there are many factors all contributing toward relatively high costs in building public transit in the US relative to other countries. Consolidation, arcane rules that make it hard to bid, some of which are quite necessary while others are made necessary to satisfy one of many funding sources, high benefits costs, and design requirements like ADA.

ADA is a huge driver of increased capital cost in station construction, equipment acquisition, and keeping timetables in the case of buses. I don't consider that a bad thing, by the way. If it didn't turn out that a separate door to door service always ends up being terrible relative to making buses and trains accessible that might be a reasonable thing to do, but I have never once heard of a paratransit service that is satisfactory to a majority of its users.

An extra 10%, if it is even quite that high is totally worth it. The problem is that all the extra 10 percents, both the good sort and the bad sort, add up to real money. But really the largest problem is underinvestment and deferred maintenance driving up costs and driving away users, which makes the value proposition look a lot worse anywhere it isn't absolutely necessary. That can be largely laid at the feet of the budget hawks, of course, who never met a road they didn't like so much it needs to be widened (aside from the one in front of their house, of course) but insist that transit pay for itself.

Thankfully (?) the high cost of driving, especially in time, is increasing the ranks of those who want to see a more balanced approach so that cars aren't necessary in cities any more.
posted by wierdo at 2:48 AM on January 1


ADA is a huge driver of increased capital cost in station construction, equipment acquisition, and keeping timetables in the case of buses. I don't consider that a bad thing, by the way. If it didn't turn out that a separate door to door service always ends up being terrible relative to making buses and trains accessible that might be a reasonable thing to do, but I have never once heard of a paratransit service that is satisfactory to a majority of its users.
Other countries have accessibility requirements too though. The 2 newest tube lines built in London, Crossrail and the Northern Line Extension, are costing £200 million and £600 million per mile. All new London trains and stations are built to be fully wheelchair accessible. Somehow the cheapest MTA project is costing 3 times that per mile.
posted by leo_r at 2:35 PM on January 1 [3 favorites]


IIRC not every entrance on crossrail has step free access, though all the stations do at some place or another. That doesn't fly under the ADA. The buses typically don't have wheelchair ramps, either.

(Ironically, all the original Underground stations had elevators before they were replaced with escalators and stairs and most of the elevators were closed)

Anyway, I didn't say it was even the largest driver of increased cost, only that it is one factor that increases cost relative to projects in other countries with less strict accessibility rules. Only in combination with a bunch of other (mostly completely unnecessary) 10% bumps do we suddenly find ourselves paying out the nose for every transit project.
posted by wierdo at 11:09 AM on January 2




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