Natasha Plotkin

Transit Infrastructure and the Temptations of Techno-Autocracy


What does it take to build a railroad? In 2014, such an endeavor might sound prosaic, but the democratic processes and bureaucratic machinations involved make it anything but, at least in the United States of America. In fact, when it comes to building and running modern rail, subway, buses, and the like, our city- and state-level democratic and bureaucratic structures are utterly dysfunctional. Across major urban areas in the country, we spend between two and upwards of ten times  as much to build new transit infrastructure as does any other industrialized country, on projects of comparable size and complexity, while also spending longer getting things built and completing fewer projects. To pick just a couple out of numerous examples of overly expensive and poorly managed infrastructure projects cities and states have recently undertaken, consider the Second Avenue Subway, which will run along the east side of Manhattan in New York, and the California high-speed rail system, which will run from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento, connecting other cities, including Los Angeles, along the way.

Before ground was broken for the Second Avenue project in New York in 2007, politicians and transit officials had been discussing the idea of a subway running along the far east side of Manhattan for literally nearly a century , and the proposal for the version of the line that is now, finally, under construction had been working its way through relevant authorities since 1995. The first phase, a two-mile underground between 63rd Street and 96th Street that will contain three subway stations, is being built at a cost of almost $3 billion per mile, while similar projects in Paris and Berlin have cost less than half a billion per mile, and a recent tube extension in London cost around $700 million per mile.

The high-speed rail (HSR) line on which construction is scheduled to begin this year in California had also been under discussion for decades. Californians voted by referendum to approve the project and fund about a fifth of its originally budgeted cost in 2008, with plans to draw the rest of the requisite capital from federal and private-sector sources. Since then, the project has been plagued by cost overruns, which have at least doubled the size of the original budget, and construction delays, which have stemmed in large part from a scramble for extra funds to accommodate the inflated project cost.

What’s at stake in these projects and in transit agendas more broadly is not just how long it takes for people to get to work—though that’s important in itself—but the very shape of our communities and their patterns of growth. Transit infrastructure, more than any other public investment, determines the shape of a city—where, and often whether, businesses, housing, and amenities arise—and the difference between a fully realized agenda and a stunted one, or one that represents the interests of the many or only an elite, can affect where millions of people live, work, and hang out with their friends and family over decades or even centuries.

So why the dysfunction? A number of transit experts, both inside bureaucrats and contractors and outside observers, have analyzed the issue and come up with lists of notable common differences, particularly to explain cost differences, where we have numbers to compare. These include but are far from limited to:

  1. Higher labor costs: The MTA, for example, requires 25 workers to run the same tunnel-boring machines that Spain does with 9.
  2. Over-reliance on private contractors: American cities tend to have fewer in-house planners and designers and are quicker to turn to outside consultants in the initial stages of large projects.
  3. Lack of agency expertise in the most modern construction technologies, which are often more cost effective.

Tempting as it is to conclude that all we need is an outsider to come in and apply lessons learned from Spain or Italy, two of the most efficient industrialized builders, the insightful transit blogger Alon Levy correctly points out that, while we can learn something from the ways in which our infrastructure-building practices differ from elsewhere, understanding these differences is unlikely, on its own, to lead to more cost-effective building here, because our poor building practices are largely symptomatic of more deeply rooted differences: “The value of international comparisons... is not really for single items or for precise estimates. In reality, the differences are subtler, involving contracting practices, and the health of the local political system. It’s of course not easy to think of Spain, Turkey, and Italy as leaders of good government and of Germany and the Netherlands as Continental Europe’s high-cost leaders, but government on the agency level works differently from on the national level. The US scores very poorly on this measure...”

To scratch the surface of some of these deeper differences: We tie the hands of our bureaucrats more than most rich countries. In New York, for example, government procurement rules originally introduced to improve transparency and crack down on corruption in the early 20th century require the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which builds and manages city transit infrastructure, to award contracts to the bidder who offers to complete the job at the lowest price. Later, if disputes arise between the MTA and the contractor, state courts tend to side with the contractor, according to Larry Littlefield, a blogger on New York politics and former city transit budget analyst. The combination of restrictive contracting rules and inability to hold contractors accountable in court, Littlefield argues, leads the MTA to resort to “writing longer and longer and longer contracts, expressly prohibiting every way it has been ripped off in the past.” The arduous nature of the process deters new contractors from competing for contracts leaving the field with limited competition, which drives up costs.

Also in the name of avoiding corruption and promoting efficiency, U.S. cities and states have created numerous independent agencies with some degree of legal and operational separation from municipal governments, which are charged with constructing and managing transit within a particular geographic area or a particular transit system or project, such as rail, buses, or subways. In practice, these agencies tend to obscure lines of accountability and act a lot like warring feudal fiefdoms (analogy: Levy’s) engaging in turf battles for control of transit resources. These dynamics explain much of the cost inflation of the California HSR project, for example: Levy explains that the cost growth is largely attributable to the addition of new, marginally useful or useless features tacked on to the original construction plan, and “the biggest overruns were in the Bay Area, where power brokers from different agencies wanted separate territory at stations, leading to additional tunnels and viaducts.”

To trace these issues back one (speculative and hazy) step further, it seems likely these broken bureaucratic structures and unproductive political cultures arise from more fundamental differences between Americans and other developed countries in our relationship, as citizens, to government: We’ve settled into an equilibrium where low trust in government institutions and low engagement in democratic processes among citizens allow agencies to run themselves opaquely and lazily, and we’ve allowed kludgy rules to accumulate on the books as a low-effort method of keeping these bureaucracies reigned in. Hemmed in by over-restrictive rules and overly-complicated institutional arrangements, these agencies are then poorly managed, which reinforces low engagement and trust. Add on top of this a thick layer of NIMBYism in matters where government does try to engage the public, and you’ve got something that looks a lot like our current mess.

(Given the deeply rooted nature of these issues, it’s unlikely a coincidence that dysfunction in the realm of transit is reminiscent of a large swathe of other problems of governance that challenge our country. One prominent instance of counterproductive hands-tying at the national level is the filibuster, which effectively requires a 60-vote majority in the Senate to pass legislation, preventing even elected majorities in both houses of Congress from passing bills in the absence of a Senate supermajority. This yields not so much the originally intended function of protecting of the minority party against governance that attacks their interests as simply lack of governance. And in the realm of healthcare, our policies have heaped layer upon layer of corporate and state bureaucracy on top of each other only to do a worse job of providing health services than many countries do with much simpler institutional arrangements at much lower cost. Political scientist Steven Teles identifies this type of interlinked policy complexity, incoherence, and high cost as a recurring syndrome in American governance and dubs the disease “kludgeocracy” in an intriguing recent essay exploring the issue.)

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To begin to imagine a path forward from where we stand, it’s instructive to look back at the last time in recent history we did manage to build quickly and relatively efficiently in urban America, and to recall the great power broker who can take the lion’s share of credit for the accomplishment: Robert Moses.

To say that Moses built New York is not a wild exaggeration. In the 1920s and 30s, New York’s population exploded, as did the number of cars in the city, and New York was “strangling on its traffic,” in the words of Moses’ famous biographer, Robert Caro. Citizens and politicians had recognized the growing issue for years, but politics were dominated by the infamous political machine Tammany Hall, which ate through city budgets doling out patronage and graft while desperately needed public works languished.

Moses, meanwhile, had been working his way up the ranks of New York state and city bureaucracies and, through a combination of political cunning, fierce intelligence, and a certain amount of luck, managed, by the 1940s, to secure himself positions at the top of virtually every agency with jurisdiction over city construction and planning, giving him unprecedented authority to devise, approve, and implement public works projects. These positions, along with his indispensable knowledge and expertise in the intricacies of city governance, and the unflagging support of the press, made him almost literally unfireable to a series of city mayors, beginning with Fiorello LaGuardia in 1934. Later in his career, he reinforced this grip on power by building up an elaborate patronage system fed by a surplus of funds enjoyed by the Triborough Bridge Authority and associated entities, which he put to use not only to plan and implement new projects but to drum up support for his agendas within mayoral administrations and stamp out the objections of critics. Moses deployed the power he amassed to steamroll projects through city and state government. Without needing to worry about the possibility of electoral retribution, he repeatedly invoked eminent domain in order to put concrete down where neighborhoods got in the way of his plans for new expressways, parks, and public housing. All told, he built 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds, and 150,000 housing units, at a price of about $150 billion in today’s dollars.

Some of Moses’ projects, particularly those undertaken later in his career and in the realm housing, were disastrously managed, and benefited the middle class and wealthy much more than, or at the expense of, the less well off. Of the public works that were most universally appreciated by residents—parks, pools, and playgrounds—he built few in areas accessible to the poor; his grandest parks were generally accessible only by car. To undertake urban renewal projects, he displaced tens of thousands of primarily poor, non-white New Yorkers, with wildly inadequate support for their relocation. The public housing he built for the poor was mostly ugly, isolated, and quickly fell into disrepair and became a hotbed of crime. He leveraged his unchecked power to ram highways through densely populated, vibrant communities, causing their collapse. While most of these highways would have been impossible to build without displacing substantial numbers of people, he appears to have disregarded opportunities to significantly reduce disruptions with little apparent reason other than the fact that these alternatives happened to conflict with his original plans. To build Gowanus Parkway in Brooklyn, he tore through Sunset Park, and for the Cross-Bronx Expressway in the Bronx, he bulldozed a path through East Tremont and several other neighborhoods, despite alternative proposals that would have avoided thousands of evictions and the displacement of many businesses at seemingly low or no cost.

But especially in the realms of parks and infrastructure, most of what Moses built was sorely needed. His success in building highways helped usher in an era of auto-oriented development in the New York metropolitan area for which he is today often criticized, but it’s important to remember that his efforts rested on a broad elite consensus in favor of suburbanization and highway-based commuting in the early-to-mid 20th century. Urban economist and policy advisor Ed Glaeser makes a strong case that Moses’ highways were a crucial factor in enabling New York to continue to grow throughout the latter half of the 20th century: “Some say Moses was wrong to build for the car. Some say the city should have bet exclusively on public transportation that would better serve the poor. But those critics ignore the millions of people who fled the older cities that weren’t car-friendly. Every one of the 10 largest cities in the country in 1950—except for Los Angeles and, miraculously, New York—lost at least one-fifth of its population between 1950 and today. Moses’ bridges and highways helped to keep some drivers living and working in New York. Those middle-class drivers helped New York to survive and grow, while every other large, cold city in the second half of the 20th century shrank.”

It’s apparent from the text of his biography that Caro hated Moses—his arrogance, his megalomania, his racism. Caro’s book, indeed, is remembered alongside several works by urban planning theorist Jane Jacobs for severely tarnishing Moses’ once-respectable reputation. Yet even Caro, in his final assessment of Moses’ legacy, can’t dismiss the man’s achievements, given the politically confounding nature of the challenge he took on:

“Would New York have been a better place to live if Robert Moses had never built anything? Any critic who says so ignores the fact that both before and after Robert Moses… the city was utterly unable to meet the needs of its people in areas requiring physical construction. Robert Moses may have bent the democratic processes of the city to his own ends to build public works; left to themselves, these processes proved unequal to the building required. The problem of constructing large-scale public works in a crowded urban setting, where such works impinge on the lives of or displace thousands of voters, is one which democracy has not yet solved.”

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The models imagined for a better future for transit in U.S. cities by its critics range from techno-utopianism, to a more democratic and consensus-based system for project selection, to something that looks much like the status quo, with a few less cars and a few more bike lanes. Apart from the status quo, the Moses model of, essentially, techno-autocracy, has the distinction of having once been real. And, as such, it does a better job than more speculative models of capturing the real challenges and tradeoffs involved in planning and building infrastructure, which are deep-rooted and to a large extent intractable, but must be dealt with in one way or another by any new approach with the goal of improving outcomes.

The first and foremost of these challenges is that of NIMBYism: New transit projects in urban areas almost always have an extremely large, immediate, negative effect on a small group of people and smaller, more distant, positive effects on everyone else. The negatively effected group has a much greater and more immediate incentive to raise objections to building than beneficiaries do to promote projects, even if the net benefit of the project in question is very large. Second, and not much less challenging, is the issue that transit projects often cross jurisdictions, necessitating the involvement of many community boards, councils, county chairs, or other relevant authorities, in ordinary circumstances. Third, construction and transit operation involve doling out huge contracts to private contractors, which tends to invite corruption. Last, but not least, transit is boring and technical—the opposite of an issue that can easily engage citizens, particularly in the process of planning—which tends to further bias priorities toward elite and business interests.

Moses dealt with the first two of these issues by fiat: He amassed the power he needed to disregard the objections of individual neighborhoods negatively affected by his projects, and he exploited loopholes in quasi-corporate government institutions known as “public authorities” to broaden his reach across systems and geographical areas, allowing himself to single-handedly implement projects that would normally have required input and approval from many separate entities. Of course, this same authority enabled his bias toward the interests of the middle class and the rich and his eventual turn toward patronage and corruption. The compromises New York made under Moses’ reign were serious, but because transit is so difficult an issue on which to engage a broad cross-section of citizens, it is difficult to imagine a more democratic alternative that does not get bogged down in NIMBYist stagnation. It is the recognition of these tradeoffs that led Roosevelt advisor and law professor Raymond Moley to make the exaggerated but provocative claim that “from the pyramids of Egypt, to the rebuilding of Rome after Nero’s fire, to the creation of the great medieval cathedrals… all great public works have been somehow associated with autocratic power” and that “pure democracy has neither the imagination, nor the energy, nor the disciplined mentality to create major improvements.”

If this all sounds hopeless on paper, what’s important to recognize is that greater attention and engagement from voters and politicians would be extremely valuable whether or not a benevolent techno-autocrat comes around: It would help us begin to emerge from the vicious cycle of bureaucratic hands-tying and “kludgeocracy" that seems to separate us from so many other countries, and reduce the extent to which transit agendas are biased toward elites. And attention and engagement on transit issues appears to be on the rise in spite of transit’s inherently technical and boring nature, theoretical predictions to the contrary be damned. Indeed, it was the rise of a small but incredibly engaged and active transit blogosphere that first prompted comparative cost-effectiveness analysis of transit a few years ago. And a much broader set of mostly-millenials have started to prefer dense urban living over car culture, prompting greater interest in promoting mass transit systems that complement walkable neighborhoods. At the level of politics, America’s two biggest cities, New York and Los Angeles, have mayors with strong popular mandates pursuing promising priorities, including subway and bus improvements that will disproportionately benefit working-class commuters. It’s a series of developments that would have Robert Moses rolling in his grave, though we should welcome the rise of any new leader who can harness this growing support for transit with anything like his talent for getting things built.