Reducing US Transit Costs: An Empirical Review and Comparative Case Study of Portland, Manchester Rail Systems


The cost to build and operate transportation infrastructure, including mass transit, in the United States is consistently higher than it is elsewhere in the developed world. As America’s population becomes increasing urban, addressing this issue will become increasingly important. This study seeks to understand why this cost discrepancy exists, and what to do about it, through a review of existing cost data (using operations costs from the US and International governments, and capital cost data from prior studies) and a comparative case study analysis. Two light rail systems, MAX (in Portland, Oregon) and Metrolink (in Manchester, UK), share many design and operations characteristics, and recently completed two similar capital projects. While MAX’s operations and capital costs are lower than the national average, they remain above comparable costs for Metrolink. This similarity in specifications, combined with a divergence in cost, provides an opportunity to understand why US transit is comparatively expensive.

Research Objectives

This study develops a set of hypotheses for high US transit costs based on prior literature, published data, and a comparison of these two systems. These hypotheses are then evaluated against the two case studies. For those which appear promising, the study seeks to find corroborating information from other sources to confirm or reject these hypotheses. Based on this analysis, this study provides a series of recommendations for policy makers, engineers, and transit agencies. In regards to capital costs, these recommendations include:

  1. Reducing abuse and misuse of the environmental review process,
  2. Clarifying project governance structures to ensure a confluence between project authority and project responsibility,
  3. Developing comprehensive design standards,
  4. Avoidance of overdesign
  5. Developing a public database of unit costs for transit projects.


Joseph chow

Professor, NYU

Joseph Chow is the Principal Investigator on this project.

Chetan Sharma

Researcher, NYU

Chetan Sharma is a Researcher on this project.


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