My students’ super visualizations of construction cost escalations on the Expo Line LRT in Los Angeles

I have my students examine Flyvbjerg’s Megaprojects work, and I ask them to do some of the legwork on a forensic budgeting exercise. This time out, we did the Expo Line Phase 1 LRT. It’s a difficult project, as the students have to do quite a bit of digging through board minutes and decisions. However, it’s useful because it allows us to really discuss the issues at hand: is it merely strategy to underestimate, over and over, the costs of projects?

In the case of the Expo Line, the project as delivered was quite a bit different than the project as envisioned. There were a lot of additions, and some of those additions were probably good ones. So here are some of my students’ visualizations.

The Cost of Doing Business Forensic budgeting forecasting By Justin Pascone Jewel Deguzman and Keegan McDonald

This cool, web-based, interactive one is by Justine Pascone, Keegan McDonald, and Jewel Deguzman. SO COOL.

Expo Line Assignment Visualization 2 pdf page 3 of 15

This graphic above is by Jinhao Mai, Daniel Bernstein, and Soma Senhat

Https blackboard usc edu courses 1 20153 ppd 599 51295 db 1414122 1 Expo Budget Analysis pdf

Above by: Justin Bleeker, Amauri Casarin, and James Hamilton

Https blackboard usc edu courses 1 20153 ppd 599 51295 db 1414314 1 ExpoLineBudget pdf

Https blackboard usc edu courses 1 20153 ppd 599 51295 db 1414314 1 ExpoLineBudget pdf

These bottom two are by Ben Frazier, Teppei Yoshida, and Emily Finkel. I really like that second one because it shows where the money came from. They had to work pretty hard digging that out.

And yeah, my USC Price and Viterbi students are the freaking shizzle, in case any employers are watching.

The Expo Line unsafe?

Yesterday the LA Times had a feature with my colleague from Viterbi Najmedin Meshkati discussing the physical design of LA’s new light rail:

Najmedin Meshkati, a professor and safety expert at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, asserts that precautions at three crossings along the 7.9-mile route between downtown Los Angeles and the Westside are “woefully inadequate.”

Two of the crossings at Western and Denker avenues bracket the Foshay Learning Center, which has about 3,400 students in kindergarten through high school. Meshkati, who has studied the Expo project for years, says Metro needs to add signs at crosswalks specifically designed to warn children of oncoming trains.

He says there are more potential safety problems at Rodeo Road and Exposition Boulevard, where parallel streets cross forming an X, with Expo trains traveling at 35 to 40 mph cutting through a complex array of traffic signals, signs and pavement striping.

Great picture of him, too. I have no comments, as I know nothing here–just trying to get more people thinking about these issues.

Transit and energy

The Melbourne Urbanist, Alan Davies, commented on my commentary about rail cost benefit analysis:

I don’t fully get your argument about the relative impact of high energy prices on transit agencies and drivers, maybe you could expand on that one day?

Happy to.

Of course higher energy costs will affect drivers–we see it all it the time as gasoline prices change. If we can get our transit vehicles full of people, there’s no doubt that we can use less energy per person than if every person uses a car.

So the “relative impact” here in Alan’s question has more than one dimension. On the one hand, many transit advocates believe that higher energy prices are good for transit companies because it changes the relative prices between transit and cars. And transit companies sometimes do very clever things, too, to help reinforce that point: LA Metro, for example, is lowering its fares and doing a bunch of other promotions over the summer to try to get more gas-shocked drivers to jump on board. For transit companies operating half-empty vehicles, the marginal cost of serving another person is very small. If you are operating the vehicle anyway, it’s better for you if it’s full. For advocates, increasing the demand for the service is where they begin and end thinking about transit operations (and this has been a pressing issue, but it’s not the only issue.)

However, transit companies will also feel a pinch in higher energy costs in their operating expenses. Transit companies have a lot of energy-related costs, not just costs associated with powering their service. Even if all their own employees take rail transit (which they don’t, which means that transit companies will have to compensate labor differently than in low-cost energy contexts), they have maintenance and construction obligations, and all of those inputs rely in turn on energy inputs that are unrelated to the relative efficiency of transit itself as a mode.

While we can be happy about the energy efficiency of rail transit, high energy prices will hit transit companies every time they deploy service vehicles (a lot in big systems) and with every construction and maintenance project that requires materials (all of them).

The transit company’s service, then, may be cheap relative to driving, but the agency’s fixed and operating costs are going to go up vis-a-vis higher energy costs.

Transit companies are therefore going to be an environment where they are facing higher demand and higher costs. Because transit companies are not recovering a full share of the operating costs from passengers, the question for how well they fare under increasing cost and demand scenarios depends a lot on policy. Either they will raise fares (decreasing their price advantage over cars), find a stable and sustainable source of operating subsidy (my favorite), or they will cut service (or cut service and raise fares).

Finally, I don’t know why it’s so hard for people to understand that buses matter to operations. In all the rock throwing between bus rapid transit (BRT) and light rail, the very important role that buses have in supporting rail networks has gotten lost.

Even if people like me to stop objecting to every money-gobbling light rail project in every little podunk Portland-wannabe mid-size city that has been losing population since 1940, we still need good-quality bus services to support train operations, even in cities where the subways are king. Ever notice how many buses there are all over high-transit usage towns, even though there are a lot of trains?

Good quality transit requires both trains and buses, and buses require fuel. When fuel gets expensive, transit companies will feel that, too. Atlanta cut down its bus service after it invested in its light rail, and it lost riders instead of gaining them. That’s the sort of thing that could easily happen to places that cut their buses hoping that people will be able to make do with the rail service alone: in many, many systems, they can’t.