Thursday, September 24, 2015

The DOT Secretary's tangled argument: Red Line tunnel cost too low or too high?

Ironically Secretary Rahn had to explain the administration's take on the Red Line Rail tunnel as the deciding factor to kill the project once again on the morning after a party in which he had celebrated the idea of  a high speed Maglev train between Baltimore and DC envisioned to run almost entirely in a tunnel! Cost for the glitzy train is estimated to be $12 billion at this time.

Initially Rahn and Governor Hogan had declared the Red Line tunnel under downtown and Fells Point a "boondoggle" and with a billion dollars way too expensive to make sense. That, though, didn't stop either one to be full of enthusiasm for the Maglev tunnel project for the 30 mile rail segment that connects to nothing since it is incompatible with current passenger rail of any kind.
From B&P study

But another detail was interesting on Rahn's Tuesday morning explanations in Annapolis at a briefing of the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Federal Relations. Secretary Rahn changed the tunnel cost argument and stated that the Red Line upon their "analysis" was not too expensive but that "the cost was too low", presumably meaning it was low-balled and would have cost in reality more than what was in the project estimate. "The build this tunnel...under the city of Baltimore was too it didn't take it much to analyze, this became the fatal flaw."

Of course, the  analysis to underpin such an argument was a scant as their analysis of the entire Red Line project. Apparently the cost of the Red Line tunnel was compared to cost estimates for the rail tunnels currently under study along the Amtrak alignment. (B&P and the earlier "Great Circle" tunnels studied for Amtrak, MARC and freight)

The comparison to those tunnel projects is like apples and oranges for many reasons:

  • The 1.4 miles B&P and Great Circle tunnel studies are in the NEPA phase and are nothing but general alternatives that are analyzed and compared in very general terms as is typical for the initial stage before an alternative or project is clearly defined
  • Freight tunnels suitable for double stacking require larger diameters than LRT, 
  • Those freight and Amtrak tunnels were studied as four bores with one track each not two single bores as the Red Line. 
    From B&P study: Four single bores
  • The B&P and Great Circle tunnels have no stations
  • They are deeper and go under buildings, the Red Line stayed for the most part under streets
  • The heavy rail tunnels were ballpark cost estimates based on nothing but lines on maps without any engineering, while the Red Line cost estimate was based on a fully engineered project that included geo-tech samples over the entire length of the tunnel, accurate assessments of neighboring structures and utilities to a point that there would have been only very limited possibilities for real surprises for which the cost allowed a 23% contingency.
  • The Red Line tunnel cost had followed a very stringent FTA risk management procedure out of which followed that the tunnel represented a risk standard for similar projects
  • Red Line tunnel: Two single track bores
In fact, most of the cost increases on the Red Line which brought the budget to nearly $3 billion had come from those very intense tunnel investigations. 

One could argue that it is really time to move beyond the Red Line discussion and look at what could be done as short-term transit improvements while the current administration is in office. That means improvements that don't require NEPA, a EIS and federal funding, all long- lead issues that would require another six or so years to even get going.

Agreed. But how can a constructive and trustworthy dialogue even begin when the ground from which to start is so shifty, the arguments so shaky and the line of reasoning so not supported by fact?

The Governor's Chief of staff agreed in a recent meeting that transit should solve problems that are in their nature neither Republican nor Democratic. That should certainly hold true for assessing tunnel engineering and the cost of construction.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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