Just about every urban dweller has spent time mired in a traffic jam, or stewing on a train platform waiting for a delayed ride to work, and thought, "if only this city had more or better public transportation options, my commute wouldn't be so horrendous." Americans can take a perverse pride in our not-so-great public transit systems, often much less expansive and reliable than those in other countries. While we often claim our auto-focused culture is the culprit, research by Alon Levy (graphed and commented on by John Ricco) makes it clear that the price of construction plays a key role in inhibiting the expansion of public transportation in this country.
The cost of property and construction in the United States versus other countries certainly skews the comparison a bit, but projects in extremely expensive cities such as London and Tokyo listed on the chart come out significantly cheaper per square kilometer. London's Crossrail project, a significant and tricky expansion of the city's subway, costs 80% less per kilometer than the East Side Access project in New York City, which will bring the Long Island Railroad to a new station below Grand Central. New York actually claims the top three most expensive projects on the chart by a long shot, with the Second Avenue Subway Expansion and the 7 Subway Extension.
Pitting one mega-project against another isn't necessarily the best comparison, but the point being made, that our construction costs dwarf those in other countries, is true across the board, and affects developments in cities across the country. Ricco notes projects in D.C. and other cities, and to provide a stark comparison, points out that the expansion of the Northeast Corridor, the rail link connecting major American cities on the Eastern Seaboard, will be twice as expansive, per mile, than a magnetic levitation train under construction in Japan. Amtrak isn't nearly as technically complex as a bullet train.
Why the problem? Ricco theorizes a number of answers, from labor and land costs to over-engineering. While many countries face similar issues, he believes lawsuits may be part of the reason U.S. projects are so expensive. Whatever the root causes are, it's a serious disadvantage that continues to be one reason that ride to work is a little less enjoyable.