Is Metro's budget train about to derail?This post is actually not about Metro's FTA problems. Instead, it's about this ominous Dallas Morning News article on DART rail budgets spiraling out of control. A new line from downtown through Irving to DFW airport has a new cost estimate that is almost double the original: from $988 million to $1.8 billion.
DART officials said that project could be delayed and others could be deleted, as the higher costs force it to re-evaluate the scope of its long-range plans.Is it possible that the estimates for Metro's new lines are similarly out of date? These lines have the same target dates we do around 2012. One thing in our favor is that our lines are much shorter than Dallas - meaning fewer raw materials to drive up costs. Nevertheless, it doesn't look good. Could they be forced back to BRT? In light of the DART announcement, it would be good to hear some sort of official statement from Metro reaffirming their confidence in their cost estimates.
But the impact on the Orange Line may be the least of the changes wrought by its huge cost increase. Other projects – including a second rail alignment in downtown Dallas – could be delayed for years, as DART looks to free up money to pay for the Orange Line.
Mr. Thomas said DART will begin immediately re-evaluating nearly all of its other major projects in the 2030 plan for possible savings.
Map and schedule of the DART plan here
DART officials realized only recently that the cost projections for the Orange Line were badly flawed, Mr. Thomas said.
The Green Line, now under construction, will cost between $60 million and $65 million per mile, more than anticipated. With Orange Line construction still several years away, officials at DART began to worry that its cost estimates were flawed.
Rising costs are nothing new in construction, however. The Texas Department of Transportation has been sounding the alarm for years about soaring costs of raw materials. Costs for highway projects – which use many of the same raw materials as transit projects – have jumped 62 percent over the past five years.
Experts put the blame on a seemingly insatiable demand for new infrastructure in India and China, which together are spending trillions of dollars on roads, rail and bridges.
"This is not a DART problem. It's not a Dallas problem or a Texas problem," Mr. Thomas said. "It's a global issue."
DART estimated Orange Line costs years ago, and used a 4 percent rate of inflation. Mr. Thomas said Tuesday the agency has only just now begun designing the project in detail.
Some changes may be necessary to save money, however. Those steps could mean a lower maximum speed – 45 mph – for the trains, and a single track, rather than a double track.
Later in the article, it talks about privatization options similar to toll roads. Of course, a key difference is that toll roads are profitable, and rail lines are far from it, so it just means a steady stream of subsidy payments to a private builder/operator. Not really sure where the value would be there. My understanding is that Metro is not allowed to issue debt, so this would be a way of getting around that, by having the private operator take on the debt and Metro commits to regular payments. Of course, that liability is just as big a constraint going forward as debt would be, with the taxpayers ultimately on the hook.
"Rail is very different from highways," Mr. Reinhardt said. "The success that we've seen in the highway side is impressive, but it doesn't easily translate in the rail side. Rail is a lot more complicated in every way."No doubt. One issue immediately comes to mind: it would be no problem to have several different operators operating several different toll roads in a region (just have to have an EZ tag standard), but I would think an interconnected rail network would really need a single operator of both track and vehicles. Sure, you can have competitive bidding for the first phase, but aren't you then stuck with them for all future extensions too? Monopoly lock-in. In which case, you might as well kept it all within the public transit agency all along.
(to clarify: talking about operations and maintenance here. Obviously private contractors should always competitively bid for the actual construction projects.)
Hat tip to Erik for the heads up on the DMN story.