Posts Tagged: Cost Estimates



Is Public Transportation 340% More Expensive Than It Needs To Be?

Why is the Koblenz system so cheap compared to public installations?

Cable Propelled Transit systems could prove a boon to public transportation scholars and researchers because the technology’s curious history could open up the ‘black box’ of public transportation funding in the developed world and throw into question our entire model of how we build things that move other things.

Because cable has a long history of being utilized in a variety of other installations, we have an excellent model of how much these systems should – and do – cost. Problem is, this model seems to increasingly run up against the cost estimates prepared by government agencies.

If history is any predictor of the future, then a cable system built in an english-speaking country for the primary purpose of public transportation is likely to cost 300 – 400% more than an equivalent system built for recreational purposes. That’s concerning because whether for recreational or public transportation purposes, both systems are essentially doing the same thing – moving people from Point A to Point B.

Now let’s not make any mistake here: Of course a system built by a public agency for public transportation purposes will be more costly than those built by the private sector for recreational purposes. But should the gulf between these two purposes be so wide?

Consider the Koblenz Rheinseilbahn: It was built for ~$20m USD. It’s state-of-the-art 3S technology and is just under 1 km in length.

Now compare that to the Burnaby Mountain gondola which is estimated to cost $120m CAD (note: at time of writing, USD and CAD were basically equivalent). Now the Burnaby system is 2.7 km long. That additional length should add no more than ~$15m USD to the line costs for the system.

Assuming an alternate universe where the Koblenz Rheinseilbah was the same length as the Burnaby Mountain gondola, the total cost of this alternate reality Rheinseilbahn would therefore be ~$35m USD. That means that the public sector Burnaby gondola is 342% more expensive than the private sector Koblenz gondola.

Granted, there are a few caveats to this analysis which are important:

  • Government is always more expensive than the private sector.
  • The Koblenz Rheinseilbahn doesn’t have any of the air rights or privacy challenges that the Burnaby Mountain gondola has to wrestle with.
  • We have little understanding of the funding mechanism used in Koblenz. It’s possible the system was built at or below cost in exchange for a cut of the gate – a situation that would be all but impossible to replicate in Burnaby.

Nevertheless, a 342% premium is startling. And we don’t have anywhere near enough information to understand why that premium exists.

This isn’t an argument against the Burnaby Mountain gondola. Let me repeat that: This isn’t an argument against the Burnaby Mountain gondola. It is instead a concern about how we build transit in a western, developed city.

After all, we’ve seen equivalent situations with the Portland Aerial Tram, London Cable Car and Oakland Airport Connector. All display similar price points that are simply out of line with what we know and understand about cable technology.

This suggests a problem that is not specific to Burnaby but is systemic to our public transportation model. Either we’re paying a price that’s 3 times higher than is necessary or we could be building 3 times as much transit for the same amount of money. Either situation is unsustainable and should be subject to intense public scrutiny as it undermines our ability to quickly and cost-effectively build transit.

Maybe after we look a bit closer, we’ll conclude that’s just the way the system is. But if so, then shouldn’t we at least be asking why that is?

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