As the United States dithers, China and Britain show how modern countries build rail systems
Unlike almost every other developed nation, writes James S. Russell, the U.S. has no national transportation strategy. The nation fails to raise taxes that are supposed to pay for roads and rails. This is in stark contrast to what's going on in the rest of the world, particularly in China.
NEW YORK — The train from Shibi in Guangzhou to Hong Kong will reach speeds of 217 mph before arriving at a 15- story atrium topped by impossibly thin ribbons of solid roof alternating with glass.
This is the $8.6 billion West Kowloon Terminus, fed by 88 miles of high-speed rail. The package was commissioned in 2009, began construction this year and will start receiving passengers in 2015. And it's not the only eye- opening rail project in progress today.
In London, builders are preparing to tunnel a length of 13 miles under the city's center for the eight-station Crossrail project. It will move about 200 million passengers annually beneath one of the most intensively built urban areas in the world. The $25 billion undertaking remains intact despite British budget cuts.
By comparison, the 9-mile Hudson River tunnel project that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie canceled in October seems puny. Christie dropped it because he claimed the $8.7 billion budget would rise as high as $14 billion. The message: One of the wealthiest states in the country can't manage a major infrastructure project.
It wasn't a lavish design. The tunnel would dump 45,000 peak-hour passengers on a long, nondescript concourse deep below the streets of midtown Manhattan, leading to a bleak 14-story ascent on cramped stacks of escalators.
The governor's small thinking is shared by newly elected governors and members of Congress who have pledged to cut rail investments, even projects already approved. Meanwhile, the tax- cut package just signed into law leaves little room for direct investment.
So does the United States have the will to do anything about its sclerotic transportation systems?
Unlike almost every other developed nation, the U.S. has no national transportation strategy. The nation fails to raise taxes that are supposed to pay for roads and rails. Gasoline taxes, for example, cover only about 50 percent of road projects, much lower than in the past, according to recent Federal Highway Administration figures.
America certainly isn't developing the design, construction and management capacity to build on a large scale to global standards.
Looking at renderings of the West Kowloon Terminus, I see giant roof-supporting columns that ascend through the 600-foot- long atrium like intertwined tree limbs. From the exterior, the heavily planted roof, threaded with walkways, curves in a great U around a parklike plaza, which will lead to the West Kowloon Cultural District, a waterfront complex of parks and arts institutions that will rise just to the south.
I am willing to bet that the 15-track station's 4.6 million square feet of engineering bravura couldn't be built by any U.S. contractor. Some of the largest public-infrastructure building agencies in the U.S. shred schedules and bust budgets with depressing regularity.
The budget for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's PATH Terminal at Ground Zero ballooned to $3.2 billion from $2 billion, according to the Port Authority. The Metropolitan Transit Authority's upgraded Fulton Street transit interchange has risen to $1.4 billion from $750 million in 2004, according to the MTA.
How do they do it in Hong Kong? Labor costs are much lower in China, of course, and the government doesn't have to observe the extensive public-consultation niceties that slow projects in the U.S. and Europe. Still, that's hardly the whole story.
U.S. architect Andrew Bromberg, 42, is leading the West Kowloon Terminus design for Aedas, a 39-office architecture giant.
"The design process is not radically different than in the States," he said. "But decisions are made quicker, and there's less fear because megaprojects are commonplace in this part of the world."
Bromberg went on to describe a gigantic team effort of a kind I have never seen in the U.S., organized by MTR, the government-led public railway company.
"They brought our 100 people into a large office space with the engineers of all disciplines and their local and in-house architects. It was a big think tank where most of the production was done."
Cost-estimating companies "constantly monitored quantities of materials and building systems," he said. His firm even developed alternative designs in parallel so that they could be compared for cost and performance with the original.
"That's phenomenal, given the 21 months from start of work to bidding," said Bromberg. A work of similar scope might take four years or more to design in Europe or the U.S.
Global firms like Bromberg's can take advantage of rapidly advancing building technology and computer-aided design. They help make complex assemblies easier to construct and their costs easier to track. U.S. firms can't ride this wave of innovation if they have no projects to apply it to.
Once the U.S. recognizes that it needs diversified and integrated air, rail and road transportation, it could well end up importing the technologies, products and expertise it has failed to develop. Already talented architects like Bromberg, as well as engineers, builders and managers, are taking their acumen to places more welcoming.
James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News.