Monday, May 20, 2013

Expanding Amsterdam’s Metro: Helpful or Headache?

Amsterdam’s bicycle infrastructure and culture are frequently touted, but what about it’s other modes of transportation? Since the 1970’s, Amsterdam has enacted a number of polices to discourage car use in the central city. In conjunction with these polices, Amsterdam has built a large and multi-modal public transportation network. The network includes an extensive bus system, sixteen tram lines, passenger and bicycle ferries, and the Metro, which consists of rapid transit and light rail lines.

The centerpiece of the Amsterdam’s transportation network is the Metro. Four lines were planned in the late 1960‘s and construction of the Metro began in 1970. The first line was completed in 1977 and the fourth line opened in 1997. In general, the Metro runs underground in the central city, and above ground away from downtown. The project has been widely hailed as a success, and the Metro now carries over 100 million passengers per year.

The main criticism of the Metro is that it does not provide enough intercity access, especially in the historic center of Amsterdam’s downtown. As a result, construction has begun on a new north-south line that will greatly enhance Metro’s service in downtown Amsterdam. The line is expected to have headways of four or five minutes throughout the day, and the southern terminus will be in Zuiadas (the transit orientated development chronicled last week on this blog).

While the new line seems like a simple solution to one of Amsterdam’s transit problems, in reality, it has been rife with problems since planning began on it in 1996. A 1997 referendum on the project saw 65% of residents opposed to the project. However, due to low voter turnout, the city council was able to ignore the referendum and approved a budget of € 1.5 billion and a timeline to complete the line in 2011.

Currently, the costs of the project have skyrocketed to over €3 billion and the line will not open until 2017 at the earliest. The massive delays and cost overruns are primarily due to construction issues. Tunneling under Amsterdam’s extensive canal network is an exceedingly difficult task. In most areas the soil under Amsterdam immediately fills up with water when it is removed, requiring large pumping systems in addition to the tunneling equipment. Additionally, many of the historic homes in Amsterdam have deep wooden foundations to keep them from sinking. The tunneling activities have upset many of these foundations and caused a number of historic buildings to sag.  While many have called to stop the project, most analysts agree that halting construction would be more costly than finishing the line.

Overall, it will take years to understand the cost-benefit ratio of the new Metro line. Improving intercity accessibility is a clear transit priority for Amsterdam, but is tunneling under its soggy and unstable soil the best way to address this issue? Had Amsterdam’s government known the full price tag of the project, it is likely other solutions would have been able to address the problem without the headaches of this project.


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