Quick and dirty: Once more on cost disease.

After stumbling across my old blog post on “Cost disease and Canadian transit”, the writer and transportation researcher Stephen Wickens sent me a link to a study he authored earlier this year:

Station to Station: Why Subway-Building Costs Have Soared in the Toronto Region

It’s an in-depth look at the question I asked, and failed to answer, in my original post and its 2019 follow up: why are modern rapid transit projects so ridiculously expensive – even after you adjust for inflation – compared to similar projects from as recently as the 1990s?

Subways cost far more now in real dollars than they did decades ago, even though the latest projects have had fewer stations per kilometre and traverse simpler, less-dense contexts. The new lines are projected to cost more despite being delivered during an extended period of record-low borrowing costs. Further, these projects will be delivered using the province’s public-private partnership (P3) program, which is supposed to offer better value for the money.

Although this topic is old news to me and many of my readers – and to readers of Slate Star Codex, whose 2017 post “Considerations On Cost Disease” brought it to my attention – Wickens mentions that the extent of the problem has yet to be recognized by some of our decision-makers:

When asked why we were more efficient at delivering infrastructure in the 1950s and ’60s, the president and chief executive of Canada’s Infrastructure Bank, Pierre Lavallée, smiled and asked: “Is that actually true?” Moments later, SNC-Lavalin executive vice-president, Dale Clarke, responded with: “I think that [greater efficiencies in an earlier era] may be more of a perception than a reality.”

I wish I could say that Wickens’ study had cracked the question of why cost disease took off so dramatically around the turn of the millennium, but I’m afraid that, despite the impressive breadth of his research, his conclusions aren’t much more definitive than mine. Essentially, he concludes (as I did) that it’s the result of the convergence of a number of trends.

From Wickens’ summary of his study at BlogTO:

The biggest factors in these skyrocketing costs, the study finds, are station depths—some stations on the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension, completed in 2017, go seven storeys into the ground—as well as things like rising labour costs and reduced construction productivity, corridor clearing and maintenance, and the cost of delays and “political meddling in the planning process.”

Many of Wickens’ Key Recommendations line up with cost drivers I identified in my earlier posts: rising land values, “infrastructure clutter” complicating construction, and the short-sighted selling-off of disused rail corridors forcing planners to default to pricier alternative routes.

Others, like Wickens’ suggestion to “reuse excess soil beneficially”, would never have occurred to me.

I’m a little skeptical about at least one of his recommendations, “Expand the cost-crisis conversation beyond the usual transit experts”.

I’ve argued that one of the factors driving rising costs is that it’s easier these days for ordinary schmucks (like me) to keep on top of construction plans whose details, in the past, would have been known only to a handful of insiders.

As I wrote in 2019, “The internet has made it cheaper and easier for obstructionists to organize and demand pricey compromises.” Whether the compromises are for the better or the worse, they lead to expensive reversals of already-made plans – in other words, to “political meddling in the planning process”.

I’m not saying “let’s just leave it to the experts” – only that soliciting a wider range of opinions is unlikely to result in greater consensus, and may well lead to more expensive dithering over the drawing board.

If we’re looking for an honest answer to the question, “How were they able to build so cheaply in the 20th century?” part of it is that they had 20th-century ideas about how to get things done – with less community engagement and more guys in suits barking orders into telephones.

***

The above reference to budget-busting seven-storey underground stations is just one of many in Wickens’ study, which began as an attempt to figure out whether overruns on the Line 1 extension to Vaughan were driven by overly grandiose station designs.

Wickens repeatedly draws our attention to the added expense of bored subway tunnels – necessitating bigger, deeper stations – over the cheaper, shallower cut-and-cover construction used in the last century. Cut-and-cover has been ruled out in more recent projects because it tends to rile up residents and businesses along the affected corridors.

Vancouver readers will be interested in the discussion of the construction of the Canada Line, and subsequent lawsuits brought by Cambie merchants over the effects of having a huge trench outside their storefronts for three years.

canada line construction vancouver cambie street

Cambie Street in 2007. Source: Whatever2009, Wikimedia Commons.

Observing that the choice of cut-and-cover rather than a bored tunnel shaved $400 million from the Canada Line project budget, Wickens writes that:

Courts have awarded three merchants compensation for “injurious affection” totalling $181,040 (though that decision has been appealed), with 97 more cases still to be ruled upon. Even if the $60,000-plus payout average were to hold, a cumulative $6 million would still be a good tradeoff for a $400-million saving. [1]

True, but (as Wickens concedes in the following paragraph) many Cambie residents and business owners would raise a holler at that cold-blooded calculation. The root of the dilemma can be glimpsed in this comment, which occurs in a discussion of “under-investment” in Toronto’s 1959 University-Bloor-Danforth subway project:

Nine construction workers lost their lives and many more were injured on the job. Protecting lives adds costs, but it is not something we should ever economize on.

Never? Never ever? I mean, there’s always going to be some level of risk wherever you have soft, fleshy humans working in the vicinity of enormous metal teeth tearing into the earth. Today we’re willing to accept far less risk than we were in 1959, and in another sixty years our grandchildren may shudder at today’s level of unsafety. Imagine, workers standing out in the sun without OHS-mandated parasol-holders shielding them from harmful UV rays! They were a foolhardy breed, those cancer-ridden hardhats of 2020…

What if future planners decide that protecting the psychiatric well-being of people living in construction zones “is not something we should ever economize on”? What are we, monsters, knowingly exposing children, the elderly, and neurodivergent individuals to dust-filled air, the sound of jackhammers, and burly men using gendered language, just to save a few hundred million bucks?

Forgive me if my facetious tone makes it sound like I’m scoffing at the unnecessary deaths of those 1950s construction workers. I’m not – but it’s easy to imagine them scoffing at the level of safety-consciousness that has taken hold in recent years. In any case I suspect that that safety-consciousness is a big factor in the “rising labour costs and reduced construction productivity” mentioned by Wickens above, and if we’re not going to resist it – which, perhaps, we shouldn’t – then we’re going to have to find somewhere else to cut back. Don’t ask me, I’m all out of ideas.

M.

Update, Sept. 9, 2020: Stephen Wickens kindly emailed to suggest that I’d “misconstrued” one of his Key Recommendations. He’s right. Here’s his recommendation in its entirety:

1) Expand the cost-crisis conversation beyond the usual transit experts. Even people who never ride public transit benefit hugely from its existence and, with constraints on our ability to add more road space, the benefits of expanded transit will increasingly be more important than ever. The infrastructure cost crisis is growing, and without prompt and appropriate responses it will damage the long-term competitiveness of the [Greater Toronto Area], with harmful knock-on effects for all of Canada. Cities that make wise transit planning decisions will have major competitive advantages in the 21st century. Merely building will not be enough. If we spend foolishly, we undermine the public’s willingness to fund future projects, no matter how urgent they might be.

He’s not arguing, as I lazily implied, for “ordinary schmucks (like me)” to have greater input into the transit planning process. He’s merely saying that a wider range of decision-makers need to be made aware of the fact that cost disease, or the “cost crisis”, as he prefers, is a problem at all.

In fact, you could read a later Key Recommendation as advising that we ordinary schmucks be kept in our place:

9) Approve long-term transit plans based on real evidence. Politicians have hugely important roles to play in ensuring contracts are fulfilled and in choosing service-policies (ridership growth versus broader network coverage for example). They should also retain the best and most powerful role in the process: choosing which projects get approved and funded, but only from a menu of options prepared by transit experts who have been freed to exercise professional independence and publicly speak truth to power. The GTA’s multidecade descent into a transit crisis is rooted at least partly in an ethical breach that needs to be sealed off immediately. When politicians can interfere in preparing the menus of options, we inevitably waste and misuse experts by having them engage in “decision-based evidence making.” Planners and consultants need to be able to safely raise and study good options even if those options are seen as threats to projects promised by politicians in power, or seeking office. Often, the only options that make it to the table are unnecessarily costly and of questionable worth, while more practical solutions receive little or no consideration.

(In a democracy, the rules of polite discourse preclude us from saying, “Keep those uninformed plebes out of the planning process, they inevitably mess everything up”. We must instead direct our ire at the politicians elevated to power by those same uninformed plebes.)

Anyway, I have mixed feelings about Key Recommendation #9. I’m not sure I have much more faith in the wisdom of supposedly impartial transit experts than I do in the squabbling mayors, premiers, and prime ministers who continually rip up and rearrange their tidy plans.

Ideally the two sides offset each other’s worst tendencies – with the experts providing some ballast to politicians’ pie-in-the-sky promises, while the politicians rein in the experts’ tendency to prioritize current fashions in urbanism over the preferences of real, unruly humans. Perhaps the sides were better balanced in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, when Toronto constructed the bulk of its subway system at what now seem impossibly modest prices – but I’m not sure. Were experts really more independent back then? Were politicians really more deferential?

However we apportion the responsibility, the politicians and experts of 20th-century Toronto made a lot of what are now generally regarded as dumb decisions – a lakefront expressway; the Scarborough RT; subways stretching ever deeper into the suburbs while downtown stations became dangerously overcrowded. But they made those dumb decisions quickly. In 21st-century terms, they moved fast and broke things.

20th-century infrastructure was cheaper, in part, because decision-makers were willing to risk breaking things. They could take those risks because everything was cheaper – hence, the financial stakes for each decision were lower.

This update is now nearly as long as the original post. You should ignore my blethering and, if you haven’t already, go read Wickens’ study.

1. That $180,000 award to three Cambie businesses affected by Canada Line construction was later overturned by the BC Supreme Court.

Stephen Wickens hasn’t updated his blog for a while, but his 2019 article advocating a commuter rail “Smart Spur” to Scarborough Town Centre (instead of the planned $4 billion subway extension) makes a lot of sense to me. I haven’t been writing much about transit issues either, in part because I fear that, in light of recent events, mass transportation has become passé. If you’re looking for a more literary variation on how they used to do things better back in the 20th century grumble grumble goddamn rap music, I’ve got you covered.

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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