- New commuter rail service to New York City's Grand Central Terminal began last week.
- The new station cost more than three times its initial budget and faced significant delays.
- It's an example of the US's broader struggle to build in recent decades.
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Commuters from a swath of New York City suburbs have a slick, new way to get to the east side of Manhattan by train. And it took only 50 years and $11.1 billion to make it happen.
The new rail service, which began limited operations last week, delivers riders to a gleaming new station some 15 stories beneath the soaring limestone facade of Grand Central Terminal. All told, commuters using the new lines on the Long Island Rail Road could save 40 minutes round trip compared with connecting through the LIRR's main station on the city's west side.
The time savings for passengers on North America's busiest commuter rail line aren't insignificant — if they materialize — yet the project's duration and price tag pose an obvious question: Was it worth it?
The years of delays and exploding costs that plagued the LIRR expansion highlight a broader problem imperiling transit projects across the US: They're rarely on time or on budget. As an infusion of cash enters state coffers under President Joe Biden's infrastructure law, some analysts worry that efforts to modernize the nation's aging transportation system will face similar setbacks that leave the country far behind where it needs to be.
"If you look at other Western-style democracies, be it Japan, South Korea, or Western Europe, we just don't see anywhere near the kind of costs that we see in the US," Ethan Elkind, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the director of the school's climate program, told Insider. "This is a national problem."
America's slow and expensive building isn't constrained to rail projects. Some experts say the US has a broader problem of scarcity and that it's among the reasons that prices for housing, healthcare, childcare, energy, and even college have skyrocketed in recent decades. Various analyses have put the size of the US housing shortage, for instance, at somewhere between 1.5 million and 5 million homes.
It's led some politicians and economists to call for an "abundance agenda" to make it easier to build more homes, train more doctors, increase access to great education, and invest more in renewable energy — all initiatives that could help drive prices lower.
The 'most expensive mile of subway track on earth'
A rundown of how the new LIRR station came to be shows how big projects can spin out of control.
The idea for the expansion is roughly 50 years old, though recent construction didn't begin until around 2010. In 2001, the plan to bring LIRR trains to Manhattan's east side was estimated to cost $3.5 billion, or $1 billion for each mile of the 3.5-mile tunnel. By completion, the cost for the new station — called Grand Central Madison — had surged to more than $11 billion, or nearly $3.5 billion for each mile of track — seven times the average cost in the rest of the world. In 2017, The New York Times called it the "most expensive mile of subway track on earth" as part of an investigation into the city's transit woes.
John McCarthy, chief of external relations at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the LIRR, told Insider that the agency learned from Grand Central Madison and has since taken stepsto reduce the construction time and cost of projects. The changes include contracting a single entity to design, build, and schedule projects as well as putting planned service outages into the contract so construction can be done on a predictable timeline.
With Grand Central Madison, there were dozens of contractors leading the project over time, which created a culture of finger-pointing and delays that had a cascading effect, he said. As the project got pushed, costs added up.
McCarthy noted that another recent LIRR expansion project, known as Third Track, was completed on time and $100 million under budget; it opened last year.
Problems with transit projects don't just happen in New York. There are overruns from Maryland to California. A 16.2-mile metro line linking the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, was initially estimated to cost $2.4 billion. Construction costs rose to an estimated $3.4 billion in 2022, and the project, known as the Purple Line, is about five years behind schedule.
In 2008, California voters approved a high-speed rail system from San Francisco to Los Angeles, in what was America's first attempt at a bullet train. The estimated cost of the project has nearly tripled since then, from $33 billion to $105 billion. It's also years behind schedule and might not be even partially open until 2030.
Elkind pointed to several causes for the runaway costs: The US has many layers of federal, state, and local government involved in big infrastructure projects. This creates opportunities for officials to block projects from moving forward or extract political compromises that can come with higher costs, Elkind said.
The US also has lengthy permitting processes and a slow legal system for resolving disputes. Local landowners and homeowners, environmental groups, and other parties can lodge complaints that set a project back.
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, the director of the Heritage Foundation's Center for Energy, Climate, and Environment, put it this way: "The problem is that our governmental system works too well. Everybody can have input, and because everybody can have input, there's numerous opportunities for slowing it down. Then costs go up."
Furchtgott-Roth, who served as a deputy assistant secretary at the Transportation Department during the Trump administration, added that federal and state project agreements requiring unionized labor could also inflate costs.
Elkind said the bipartisan infrastructure law didn't include major changes to the status quo, adding that made him worried that a lot of the $550 billion in authorized new spending would be "wasted on the inefficiencies" in US planning, permitting, and construction processes.
Biden joined Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York and Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey on Tuesday in New York to announce a nearly $300 million federal grant to jump-start construction on a long-delayed rail tunnel under the Hudson River. The so-called Gateway Program has been a political football for years.
"No more talk," Hochul said. "We had four presidents, five governors, and a lot of talk. That's just in our state. Now things are starting to happen."
Building wasn't always so much of a struggle. Between 1900 and 1904, New York City built and opened each of its original 28 subway stations. A century later, it took 17 years to construct just three new stations.
Supporters of the abundance agenda say more building projects should be done in a timelier fashion and don't have to come at the expense of the environment.
"We can have more energy, more housing, better roads, airports, and trains, and better access to education/job training without destroying the planet," Adam Millsap, a senior fellow at the right-leaning funding organization Stand Together, previously told Insider.