As transit projects become more and more expensive, with the cost for the 1.7 mile Central Subway project in San Francisco approaching $1.6 billion and the cost of the 8.5 miles Second Avenue Subway in New York expected to cost over $17 billion, it is expected that project managers will attempt to cut costs in an effort to save money. This cost cutting is known as "value engineering".
In some respects, value engineering helps the project team focus on the core aspects of the line. While fancy station design features are nice, they are not important to the success of the new line. Because of "value engineering", it is unlikely that the stations of the Moscow Metro will ever be recreated. While architects and urban designers may lament this fact, in their haste to arrive at work or return home it is unlikely that commuters will notice.
However, when value engineering attacks at the core of the project the result can negatively impact passengers. For example, it resulted in only one entrance being built at the North Hollywood subway station in Los Angeles. Because of the lack of an entrance at the Orange Line BRT station across the street, thousands of Los Angeles Metro Orange Line riders are forced to cross busy Lankershim Blvd to access North Hollywood Station.
At the extreme, value engineering can cause entire stations to be cancelled. The recently opened Canada Line in Vancouver, BC does not have several of the stations originally planned for it because of this concept, and the Los Angeles Crenshaw Line is in danger of not having a station at Leimert Park, the center for African-American Culture in the city. "Value engineering" even resulted in the shortening of subway station platforms on the aforementioned Canada Line, dramatically limiting the capacity of the line.
Value engineering can come into play during the stage of a project where mode choice is debated. We can see it being played out in a current transit battle in Toronto, where the Mayor wants to spend all available capital expansion money on one subway line, while the City Council wants to spend the money on a larger number of light rail lines as detailed in the Transit City project . More usually, value engineering comes up in the discussion on whether to build BRT, which is cheaper, or LRT, which is more expensive but theoretically can attract more passengers and development. Read more about the BRT versus LRT debate .
One major danger in value engineering is that we can engineer all the value out of even building a project, which would make the project worthless. For example, Los Angeles finally seems to be ready to move on constructing a rapid transit connection between the LAX airport and the closest rail station, which is about one mile away. Currently in order to access the rail station you must take a bus from the terminal to the station. Few people take advantage of this bus because it takes too long. One of the options being considered as a rapid way to travel from the terminal to the station is.....a bus line. While the bus lines is much cheaper than any rail alternative, what is the value in building a bus line that is much the same as an existing bus line that does not carry a lot of passengers?
Another major danger is that if we build a project on the cheap, we can eventually find it over capacity with no room to accommodate additional demand. Due to traffic signal priority not working if a bus or rail line operates more often than every four minutes, both the Orange Line and the Blue Line in Los Angeles are at capacity during peak periods and are unable to absorb additional passengers. In transit, as in life, we need to both expect the worst but prepare for the best - and not let value engineering allow us to limit our options. Overall, while value engineering has an important place in the effective financial management of expensive capital transit projects, overuse of the concept could leave us in a position where our transit options are limited.