American Exceptionalism Off the Rails

Why the United States spends so much but gets so little public transit.

After just a few weeks in Madrid, Christine, an American exchange student, was ecstatic about the city’s subway system.

“One of the first things I noticed was Madrid’s metro is much cleaner than New York’s. . . . I haven’t seen a single rat yet! There are no fishy odors coming out of the cracks, and the floors still have their original color, without a shade of brown. And it’s so cheap!” she remarked in an online comment forum.

While Americans might be surprised by public transportation abroad, they don’t need to be told that our public transit here in the United States is coming up short. It’s a grueling reality they face every day.

“It took me four hours to return home. I left around 2 PM and got home after 6 PM,” said Marta, just one of dozens of Los Angeles bus riders who shared their experiences with a local transit advocacy group. “I was feeling suffocated, stressed, and anxious. The bus was overcrowded, and people were standing, and I felt I was going crazy.”

Her story is all too common. While many countries ensure that all their citizens, regardless of where they live, have access to dependable rail or bus services, 45 percent of Americans have no public transit at all in their communities. And when the United States does invest in transit — or health care, or housing — we tend to spend a lot without getting anything like the results of our peer nations.

From the Purple Line project in Maryland (which is now more than $1 billion over budget and four years behind schedule, with an estimated final price tag of $3.4 billion and a completion date of 2026) to the Second Avenue subway line in New York City (just the first phase took ten years and $4.4 billion to build), examples abound of expensive, never-ending transit projects.

While President Joe Biden’s signature infrastructure bill represents the largest federal investment in public transit in US history, the $39 billion in funding it allocated to revitalize America’s train and bus systems is less than half of the $89.9 billion the administration originally proposed — and a small fraction of what’s needed to build an ecologically sustainable transportation system. But no matter how much money the government invests in public transit, if we can’t figure out how to build more efficiently, we’ll continue to see the same old story play out.

If we look to our peer nations across the Atlantic, we can see that they’re able to build far more miles of rail transit for a fraction of the cost. Take Spain, whose capital, Madrid, has experienced a transit boom in recent years and has set a global example for efficient rail projects that benefit workers. The per-mile rail cost in Madrid is just $141 million — one-third of the per-mile cost, for example, in Los Angeles ($458 million), according to a July 2021 report by the Eno Center for Transportation.

What explains Spain’s success in keeping costs down? And what can we learn by comparing that success to the state of transit infrastructure in the United States?

The Rail Not Taken

In the 1950s, rather than invest in expanding public transit, the Eisenhower administration codified the power of the booming auto industry in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. America’s transportation infrastructure has been centered around the private car ever since. As recently as 2020, the United States had over four million miles of highways and just under 125,000 miles of rail lines, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. There is a steady stream of government funding for highway projects, but initiatives like rail projects have struggled to find investment.

“You don’t need a sales-tax bake sale to get a highway funded — the federal government just cuts the check,” UC Berkeley’s Climate Program director, Ethan Elkind, told us.

As a result, just 5 percent of Americans use public transit today, partly because, in many regions of the country, hopping on a train or bus just isn’t an option. And though most Americans think public transit could benefit their community, less than half of them support additional spending for public transit, as reported in a 2015 study by the Mineta Transportation Institute.

It’s not hard to understand why.

Since we have such limited experience building public transportation, when we do undertake major projects, their execution is often incredibly inefficient. Transit authorities have difficulty finding experienced managers to work with contractors and oversee projects, which in turn means managers are unable to tell contractors when to forgo inefficient or unnecessary work. And inefficiencies can lead to an increasing number of delays, which then result in projects that are over budget and way behind schedule.

Due to the infrequency of new projects, explains Eric Goldwyn, program director and assistant professor at the NYU Marron Institute of Urban Management, “The staffing [for new projects] often builds on precedents from older jobs . . . so the staffing plan is a little bit anachronistic and doesn’t take advantage of new technologies.”

And the longer a project’s construction timeline drags on, the more public support for it tends to wither. As Elkind explained,

The fact that it’s going to take a generation in California to build high-speed rail, or that it’s going to take ten or fifteen years to build a tunnel under San Francisco and a rail line down Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and that some projects run multiple billions of dollars over what the original estimate was . . . just makes people feel like it’s kind of hopeless, basically.

Weak public support means few US politicians have an interest in championing public transit. Even looking to New York City, which hadn’t opened a new subway station since the 1940s before the Second Avenue line, Goldwyn said: “I don’t think you could point to a governor or mayor of New York in the last fifty years and say, ‘That’s the transit mayor.’”

The American Way

The American ethos of competition above all else drives up costs even further. For starters, the larger the project, the more agencies and stakeholder organizations competing for influence and resources, and attempting to undertake a project with so many different actors inevitably leads to higher costs.

“Everyone wants to have their political win, so the more players you have, the more money you have to hand out to make sure that everybody is getting something,” said Leah Brooks, an economist at the George Washington University.

With any project at the scale of large transit infrastructure projects, there are hoops to jump through, ranging from the project design and location, permits, and federal funding to geological and environmental surveys and public comment periods. And any project delays — which can be caused by lawsuits, environmental reviews, and labor-related work stoppages — will drive up the project cost.

One key piece of federal legislation that changed the review process for infrastructure efforts is the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires government entities to consider the environmental impact of potential projects. That sounds innocuous enough, but the NEPA is enforced through citizen lawsuits, which means that anyone can sue a federal agency for a potential NEPA violation. And lawsuits can delay projects by years. This means that the looming possibility of a lawsuit causes governmental agencies to spend additional money to increase the likelihood of project approval.

“If you jump through all the hoops, if you spend all that money, you’re bulletproof,” said Goldwyn.

That is why you spend all the money, on some level. Part of it is our own litigiousness, or crankiness, or nimbyism, or whatever it is, because we’re not like, “Okay, you’re building a subway, I trust that it makes sense.” . . . The public agency has to arm themselves and be like, “We looked at every single alternative out there. This is the only option.” And that’s how these things are framed.

Using lawsuits to slow down and even potentially shut down transit projects is a tactic that people in wealthy neighborhoods routinely use. “It’s absolutely true that people use whatever is at their disposal to get what they want. And wealthier communities can hire the right people to pull those levers,” Goldwyn said.

The aim of these lawsuits and citizen input can vary widely — from protecting animal habitats and limiting the hours of construction to wanting the project to occur in a different neighborhood.

“Some of these concessions may be harmless and important and worth the trade-off, but others can delay projects for months or even years, and time is money. The longer the project goes on, the higher the bill,” Elkind explained.

The Madrid Option

The story of rail construction in Spain couldn’t be more different. Madrid has one of the most extensive rail systems in the world. The city’s metro boasts 242 stations and 179 miles of track that connect to an extensive network of additional light and commuter rails. According to the Eno Center for Transportation, “[Madrid’s] subway extension programs between 1995 and 2003 represent some of the most impressive transit expansion projects in modern history.”

Not only has Madrid built rail lines at an astonishing rate, they’ve been able to do so at some of the lowest prices of any peer nation. Costs per station for Los Angeles’s Purple Line extension ran $161 million, while those of Madrid’s Line 9 extension amounted to a mere $14 million per station.

Unlike the United States, Spain has consistently invested in rail construction over the last several decades, to such an extent that more than three times as many Spaniards regularly use public transit as Americans. Since many more residents have a personal investment in the transit system, they are also willing to give it the resources it needs to succeed. A recent poll found over 70 percent of Madrileños supported increased spending on public transport, about twice the rate of Americans who want to see greater investment in our rail and bus systems.

Higher trust in public transit also leads to far less public opposition during those critical early days of project develoPMent and implementation. As Laura Fonseca, an official from one of Spain’s principal labor federations, the General Union of Workers (UGT), explained, rail projects face comparatively little opposition from civil society organizations in Spain because people simply trust that the government has already taken the necessary steps to analyze transit projects for any potential negative impacts on the community or environment. This is not to say that there are never project delays, but when these arise, it’s generally due to unforeseen circumstances rather than deliberate attempts to stymie construction. Since public transit is used by so many in Spain, it’s also a much more salient political issue there than in the United States. “Regardless of whether they’re on the left or the right, all politicians want credit for building new trains,” said Spanish union leader Diego Buenestado from the Madrid Transport Workers’ Union (FeSMC). “It’s about guaranteeing that all citizens have access to the transport they need, everywhere across the country.”

In turn, Spain’s extensive experience with new rail construction gives it additional logistical advantages that keep costs down. Unlike in the United States, Spain’s engineers and managers simply get more practice. And the more they build, the more efficient they get. “Spanish companies have a high level of technical and management capacity,” said Ruth Ruiz Hervás, a spokesperson for Madrid’s Regional Transport Consortium (CRTM), the agency responsible for coordinating public transit construction and operations in Madrid. “In fact, Spain’s infrastructure industry is a world leader in the sector.”

And when it comes to key decision-making processes during construction, Spanish unions get a meaningful seat at the table. Unlike most public transit authorities in the United States, the principal Spanish union federations representing workers in the construction of Spanish rail projects — the UGT and the Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (CCOO) — enjoy direct representation on Madrid’s CRTM.

This allows labor and the government to come to mutual agreements on project specifics prior to implementation, thereby limiting the degree of labor strife — and potential delays. In Spain, Buenestado said, industrial conflicts during the construction of rail projects are rare because stakeholders reach an agreement before any action is taken. While relations between key stakeholders are typically contentious in other countries, in Spain there is a sense, as Goldwyn explained, that “everybody is on the same team.”

But this high level of labor-management cooperation in no way means that Spanish unions are simply in the pocket of the state. On the contrary, Buenestado explained, “When we have to negotiate salaries and working conditions . . . the unions step away from their role as part of the planning authority and defend the workers. . .. We have some hard bargaining between the unions and the administration with respect to worker salaries.”

Spanish labor’s relative strength at the bargaining table also gives it leverage that US unions lack. Buenestado described the dynamic:

Workers on rail construction projects enjoy significant leverage thanks to the threat of a possible strike, since the public works they undertake, like the construction of metro entryways, could not be completed in the event of a strike, and this would cause a series of economic and political problems for politicians.

Finally, since Spain has such extensive experience building public transit, labor contracts reflect state-of-the-art staffing requirements that minimize the costs of overstaffing. Combine this with Spain’s generous, high-quality public health system that provides medical care for all Spaniards — allowing construction companies to avoid bearing these substantial costs — and you begin to see why, especially when health care and pension expenses can cost around half the prevailing wage rate in the United States, rail construction is so much more efficient in Spain.

Rational Planning

Rather than celebrating competition between agencies and jurisdictions, infrastructure construction in Spain prizes efficient, commonsense planning that meaningfully incorporates the perspectives of diverse stakeholders without allowing them to hijack transit projects for their own ends.

Take, for example, the environmental review process. While thorough, the process in Spain has several features that allow it to proceed more efficiently than in the United States. For one, Spain doesn’t require impact assessments on the natural environment in urban areas that are already developed.

In addition, permits for transit projects are streamlined and don’t demand multiple levels of review like they do in the United States. As a result, in Spain, “environmental assessments are mostly limited to construction noise, vibrations, air pollution and site water runoff, as well as some requirements to evaluate impacts on historical artifacts,” according to the Eno Center.

Spain also has a much more top-down process of community oversight that limits the potential for delays and makes project implementation easier. In the United States, by contrast, communities can impose noise restrictions that limit work hours and restrict projects’ ability to disrupt traffic. Not only is the US model more expensive as a result, but in many cases, it leads to more sustained neighborhood disruptions because projects take so long to complete.

This is not to say that Spanish citizens have no input in project develoPMent. To the contrary, as Hervás, the spokesperson from Madrid’s CRTM, explained:

There is a thirty-day period for civil society and interested parties to make as many suggestions and criticisms as they like, and public comments are regularly included in projects. . . . For example, public comments during the extension of Madrid’s Line 11 led to an increase in the number of stations from four to five, and to moving one station to a different neighborhood from the one originally planned.

Spain’s impressive record offers the United States a blueprint of what our transit systems could become. While any hope rests upon major shifts in popular opinion along with an overhaul of decision-making processes, there are a few policy changes we could make in the interim.

One step, which would shorten the timeline for projects and decrease the number of delays, would be to have a statute of limitations on lawsuits, Brooks said. She also pointed out that making the final cost of transit projects in the United States more transparent could lead to improved public transport policies.

Other policy reforms include streamlining the approval and permitting processes and creating clear metrics for success at the state and federal level so that transit projects are required to meet specific standards for design, ridership, land use around stations, and cost effectiveness, Elkind said. He noted that these standards could give government agencies working on transit projects support to get the work done more quickly and affordably, especially when local constituents balk.

But, at the end of the day, the most important changes we could make would be to give transit agencies more power — and find a simpler way to clear up disagreements when they arise.

“Ultimately, I think it’s about making sure transit agencies have more sovereignty over the decision-making authority and process. And making sure that, if there are disputes, there’s a limited process for hearing them. It should be fair, but it shouldn’t drag on forever,” Elkind said.

Even if such much-needed reforms are implemented, however, Americans’ distrust of centralized government decision-making will remain a major obstacle: “In the United States, we really just value different things . . . individual liberties, private property rights, process. . . . When you layer all this together, you end up with counterproductive results,” Elkind concluded.

Unless we find ways to overcome this challenge by showing ordinary people just how much they stand to gain from increased public investment in critical services, from housing and health care to transit, disillusionment with government will only intensify, and our dream of a humane, democratic socialist society will grow ever more distant.