Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Something is very wrong with MBTA project procurement

When the news broke about the escalating costs of the MBTA's Green Line extension to Medford and Somerville, I can't say I was surprised, but the cost numbers have now escalated in to absurdity. I'm not an expert in the bizarre project procurement, but the costs are now to the point where the project really should be reviewed and rebid, even if there is a delay. It is far beyond what similar projects cost in other cities, and the project procurement team at the T should be removed to allow someone from the outside to bid the project.

How ridiculous are the T's numbers? Let's take a look at them, and compare them with some other projects:

Minneapolis-Saint Paul Green Line
Distance: 11 miles
Cost: $957 million
Cost per mile: $87 million
Completion date: 2014
Engineering difficulties: rebuilding bridge over Mississippi River for light rail, rebuilding the entirety of University Ave lot line-to-lot line, junction and flyover with existing Blue Line in Minneapolis. Likely cheaper than the Green Line extension. But not 9 times cheaper.

Los Angeles Expo Line Phase II
Distance: 6.6 miles
Cost: $1.5 billion
Cost per mile: $227 million
Completion date: 2016
Engineering difficulties: Several grade separations, parallel bike/walk facility. Still four times cheaper than the GLX.

San Francisco Central Subway
Distance: 1.7 miles
Cost: $1.6 billion
Cost per mile: $941 million
Completion date: 2019
Engineering difficulties: full deep bore tunnel in a seismically active area with three underground stations. In a rather expensive city to work in. And barely more than the GLX, which is being constructed in a grade-separated right of way!

Seattle University Link
Distance: 3.1 miles
Cost: $1.9 billion
Cost per mile: $613 million
Completion date: 2016
Engineering difficulties: full deep bore tunnel below the water table in a seismically active area with two underground stations. And quite a bit cheaper per mile than GLX.

Now, here are two MBTA projects:

Red-Blue Connector
Distance: 1300 feet
Cost: $750 million
Cost per mile: $3 billion
Completion date: ???
Engineering difficulties: Cut and cover tunneling below the water table in a constrained corridor. Certainly no greater than building the Central Subway in San Francisco, yet somehow three times more expensive. This should probably be in the lower end of the $100 to $200 million range, not three quarters of a billion.

Green Line Extension
Distance: 4.3 miles
Cost: $3 billion
Cost per mile $700 million
Completion date: 2019?
Engineering difficulties: Relocating existing parallel commuter rail line, building a flying junction, parallel bike/walk facility.

Here's the thing: none of the engineering challenges faced by the GLX and RBC are unique (flying junction in Minneapolis, parallel path in LA) or insurmountable, yet the costs are an order of magnitude greater than in other cities. The Green Line Extension is between three and nine (!) times more expensive than similar light rail lines, and more expensive than new light rail lines which are being built using deep bore tunneling techniques, which are not cheap. High construction costs? Seattle and San Francisco have pretty high construction costs and labor wages too. The remaining GLX construction should be rebid mimicking the processes used in these cities with a new team at MassDOT, and if costs aren't cleaved significantly, there should be a full investigation as to why.

The for the Red-Blue connector, which everyone agrees is a very important link, somehow costs three to four times what much more complex projects cost in Seattle and Los Angeles (while the Blue Line uses heavy rail equipment, it is the same diameter as light rail trains). The project is only 1500 feet long, doesn't require a deep bored tunnel, and has only one station at Charles, and the headhouse there already exists with provisions to connect it to the Blue Line. The fact that it costs $2.6 billion dollars per mile is laughable. For the cost of one mile of construction in Boston, Minneapolis could build 30 (!) miles of light rail, and Seattle four miles of deep bore tunnel (about what you'd need for the North South Rail Link) and at a cheaper rate per mile than the Green Line Extension. It's not even in the ballpark of reality, and whoever at MassDOT comes up with these numbers needs to be sent out to pasture.

There is no logical reason why a project in Boston should cost triple—or more—what a similar project costs in another city. $2 billion was suspiciously high. $3 billion means that a lot of people are on the take, or that money is being pissed away. I'm all for transit expansion, but not at these prices. An outside manager is a good start. But this has been a problem for a long time, and the T's project procurement staff has shown no ability to do their jobs. Get rid of them.

This is correctable. It needs to be corrected.


  1. The Red-Blue budget figures are sandbagged. The budget was one third that high until Menino decided he didn't want to build the connector, and then the cost magically tripled.

    1. And even at a third as much it's $900m/mi ($1.5b/km) for a cut-and-cover tunnel with one station, which is double what it should be. When do MGH and MassPort put their collective feet down and say "this needs to be built"?

    2. You have a unit conversion error. It's actually about $550 million per km, which is a lot, but not unheard of, plus I'm willing to buy that such a short project has high fixed costs.

  2. In your analysis above, were you able to uncover the contract delivery method that was used in those projects? Part of the issue at hand is the CM/GC method the T chose for its alleged ability to reduce overall project cost.

    1. I really don't know how the contract works, and that is well above my pay grade. But whatever they have done isn't working, and I'm trying to point out that the costs have ballooned so far that it isn't just a "well it costs more in Boston issue" which I would understand if it was, say, 2-3 times the cost of other projects, but not when it's 9 times as much.

  3. Why would simply replacing DOT staff make things cheaper? The problems are likely more complicated and deeper than that.

    1. It would help, I would surmise.

    2. I think... looking into the MBTA's GLX project office team staff, instead of MassDOT, would be more effective?

  4. Ari,
    I think that bridge height may be an issue of double-stacked containers on flat bed rail cars. I have no idea about how the double-decker coaches fit into the scheme of bridge height.

    1. a) I think this is the wrong blog post.
      b) I'm writing about not the railroad clearance but of the height of the structure above.

    2. a. Correct. I should have deleted it and reposted on the correct post.
      b. My bad.

  5. The thing that I think is killing the GLX and may not be present with the other projects listed is they are building a new maintenance facility with the GLX and it was decided based on residents complaints it couldn't be located where it was originally planned but rather it will be on a parcel of land further from the rail line. The project is still costing a lot more than it should but that could have an effect.

  6. The subway system in new york and the T in boston are surprisingly similar agencies in many ways. Both of them are run by state agencies from a different era, so created to remand responsibilities (and also to insulate dedicated monies, in principles) for maintaining and funding the system out of the hands of the elected state government.

    In the case of both of these agencies, costs are completely out of control. It's not only procurement -- although that's one of the biggest pieces, perhaps the biggest problem -- it's also union involvement, incessant NIMBYism and legal problems, and generally a lack of respect for public transportation by state politicians.

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