The High Cost of Over-Customized Transit Stations

The High Cost of Over-Customized Transit Stations

October 08, 2021  | Romic Aevaz

Public transit stations are an important part of the communities they serve. Good design can have a positive impact on riders and help embed stations into the existing fabric of a neighborhood. However, U.S. agencies often rely too much on overly custom station designs and rolling stock, which can inflate project costs.

Eno’s database of transit construction costs indicates that, on average, stations account for 25 percent of construction costs for below-grade lines. However, station costs can easily climb to 30-50 percent of total project costs. Many elements of station design can serve as cost drivers, including station depth and customization.

Table One: Station Construction Cost Comparison Among Subway Projects

Compared to older lines, the stations on New York City’s recent subway projects were notably deep, large, and highly customized. The MTA’s choice of granite archway entrances for the Second Avenue Subway project required custom-produced cuts of granite. Procurement was further complicated due to Buy America regulations, which restricted the MTA to a handful of American granite suppliers who could produce the custom pieces, though the need for custom granite would have likely still resulted in a similarly complicated and expensive procurement.

Similarly, portions of the blasted tunnels on the East Side Access stations were supposed to feature pre-cast walls. The pre-cast pieces were sometimes damaged during transport from the project staging site in Long Island and ultimately did not fit together due to the tunnel’s slope, leading workers to cast the walls by hand. Researchers at the Regional Plan Association noted that leaving the exposed bedrock, as is done on the Stockholm metro, rather than adding finishes likely could have cut costs without sacrificing visual appeal. In Stockholm, designers left the natural bedrock in stations across the system and painted them different colors, creating a unique look to the metro that has become an attraction in and of itself.

Exposed Bedrock on the Stockholm Metro

Excluding the cost of retrofits, stations accounted for 52 percent of construction costs for the Second Avenue Subway, 32 percent for East Side Access, and 39 percent for the 7 Line Extension. Stations on Paris’ Line 14 extension were only 36 percent of total construction costs despite large intermodal connections required to connect with the existing system, and 27 percent for Los Angeles’ Purple Line extension.

International examples show that good design and standardization are not mutually exclusive. The most recent extension of the Madrid Metro—Line 9—includes two new stations at an average costs  of $14 million each (21 percent of total project costs), less costly than the European and American projects in Table One. Officials credited the use of standard uniform designs, wide platforms, and simple materials with keeping station costs low.

Aerial View of Nørrebros Runddel Station on the City Ring Line

In Copenhagen, officials opted to use off-the-shelf automated three-car trains from an Italian manufacturer that allowed trains to come as frequently as every two minutes. By emphasizing frequency over capacity, designers were able to create stations with short platforms and compact footprints (210 by 65 feet). As illustrated in the image above, these compact stations were often nestled into existing or new parks and plazas wherever possible to minimize disruption and land acquisition.

Platform View of Copenhagen Metro Station

Additionally, the Copenhagen Metro utilized a “kit of parts” approach to standardize as many elements of station design as possible. Station parts like wall cladding, screen doors, and platforms are all designed to be either 18 feet wide or tall to allow for easy repairs and replacement. As shown above, one of the few custom elements of the new, compact stations on the City Ring line is the color of the wall cladding panels, which allows each station to have a personal look while still retaining standard sizes. The skylights in each station not only allow natural light to reach the platform, but were also designed to double as NFPA-compliant ventilation devices, reducing the need for costly, mechanical ventilation devices and equipment rooms. This design cut the number escape shafts by 30 percent.

Examples from Copenhagen, Madrid, and Stockholm, among others, underscore the importance of smart, innovative, and standardized design in keeping costs and timelines in check. U.S. project sponsors, particularly those constructing new systems, should incorporate these best practices by adopting vehicle and station designs from peer agencies to simplify design and trim costs. One recent, positive step in this direction is LA Metro’s 2018 Systemwide Station Design Standards policy, which outlined common materials and parts to be used on all future BRT and rail stations. The policy was initially developed in response to rising construction and maintenance costs associated with unique station designs. The standards were produced as a kit-of-parts and specify both the materials and individual components to be used across all stations. As in Copenhagen, this approach allows each station to have some level of custom layout and design while maintaining durability, consistent appearance, and cost-effective construction and repairs across the system.

As demonstrated in Copenhagen, other countries have been able to meet or exceed American safety using a different approach than the NFPA 130 standards, or by finding creative ways to comply with NFPA 130. Project sponsors, the FTA, UITP, and APTA should review existing construction standards to see if they can be more performance-based and useful in ways that can maintain safety but open avenues for more creative ways to meet them.

Lastly, the FTA and project sponsors should establish dedicated programs to exchange best practices on project delivery and station design, including but not limited to regular study tours. The FTA currently engages in some international best practice exchange through its International Public Transportation Program, which primarily focuses on technology exchange. A program dedicated to the exchange of best practices and capacity building for project delivery and design would help U.S. designers and practitioners uncover and incorporate best practices and innovations in transit project delivery and design around the world. These programs should expand beyond Western Europe and include other low cost countries in Asia and elsewhere.

International transit projects show that unique visual identity, inviting design, and innovative functionality can be achieved without costly and excessive customization or bespoke materials. Rather than utilizing highly custom rolling stock and station designs on every project and line across regions, U.S. project sponsors should revisit their design approach and think more creatively about their system design. Doing so can not only reduce project costs, but also result in unique, innovative stations that balance form and function.

For more information, register today for Eno’s Transit Cost and Delivery Symposium on October 18-21, 2021.

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