“There’s more”: the case for scrapping London’s Garden Bridge

The bridge in question. Image: Heatherwick Studio.

Congratulations to Sadiq Khan, the new mayor of London. That he prevailed so convincingly in the face of a despicable campaign by Zac Goldsmith has temporarily renewed my faith in democracy. I still don’t think that the right person won; but the wrong person didn’t. Good enough.

The mayor’s in-tray is overflowing with issues left unresolved by his predecessor. Housing, transport and the environment are surely at the top of the agenda – all intractable problems that won’t be solved overnight.

But there is one decision that needs to be made quickly, and it will immediately signal the type of Mayor that Sadiq Khan intends to be: the Garden Bridge.

Boris Johnson famously ignored the fine detail of any issue, always opting for expediency over process. It’s a quality that produced a lot of media-friendly soundbites, and a great 15-minute spot on the Letterman show. It also lies at the heart that of all that has gone wrong with this troubled project.

So, what can we expect from Sadiq? Will it be four more years of hollow rhetoric and throwaway quips? Or will Khan be the kind of mayor that learns the facts and does the maths? Who exactly did we elect: Jed Bartlett or Bingo Bob? How Sadiq Khan approaches the vexed issue of the Garden Bridge will be a good indication.

The project has been a thorn in Sadiq’s side since Day One. Shortly after launching his campaign, he came out unambiguously against the Bridge, calling it a “white elephant” and claiming he’d scrap it because:

“...it no longer represents value for money. This was supposed to be an entirely privately funded project costing £60m, but the overall cost has tripled, and £60m is being paid for out of the public purse.”

There followed some savage criticism by the Evening Standard that portrayed Sadiq Khan as a sour puss killjoy who hates flowers.He promptly went into a huddle with Transport for London and The Garden Bridge Trust and emerged as the project’s apologist-in-chief.

The face-saving device that allowed this dramatic u-turn was a new financing deal through which part of the TfL grant would be converted into a soft loan. It allowed Khan to duck every subsequent question with the phrase: “The money has all been spent”.

But that isn’t true.

So here is another memo for the mayor’s in-tray. These are the facts. Will they inform his first big decision? Or can we expect another eight years of superficial bullshit masquerading as policy?

 

SUBJECT:The Garden Bridge

Mr mayor:

When you refer to all of the money having been spent, you mean just that part of the funding over which the Mayor’s Office has direct control – namely, the grant from TFL.

Some £10m of that really has been spent – on design, engineering, planning, and professional fees, as well as a comically biased poll to fool the public and a costly VR gimmick to fool Nick Clegg.

The next £20m from TFL was converted from a grant into your peace-in-our-time repayment plan.Let’s leave aside the fact that a 50-year low-interest loan deal is not what any reasonable observer could describe as either “a loan” or “a deal”. It is also undermined by the fact that the GLA, through TfL, has guaranteed the operating costs of The Garden Bridge, including the repayment of its own loan.

It’s like taking a loan from one branch of Barclays that is insured by the Barclays branch across the street. Admittedly, that sounds like something that Barclays might do, but I’d like the mayor of London to be a little smarter than that.

That’s £20m right off the bat that can be put to better use.

There’s more.

Your predecessor loved to crow about the fact that “the public funding element of the project is being used to secure considerable private sector investment”.The only thing that mattered to Johnson was that every pound of public funding was matched by two pounds of private investment. To Boris, the cow goes moo, that cat goes meow, and private investment is A Good Thing.

That is, however, a misleading interpretation of the facts. The Garden Bridge is not so much levering new private investment as it is cannibalising funds that would have been spent anyway.

The Garden Bridge Trust has, to date, been notoriously secretive about its funding. Fortunately, in their inevitable correction to an earlier version of this article, the Trust provided the most revealing breakdown to date of where all the money is coming from. 

This is what we now know:

Sources of capital funding for the Garden Bridge. Source: The Garden Bridge Trust.

This shows just how little additional investment is actually being leveraged by the £60m of public funding. 

First, much of the private funding comes from Trusts and Foundations that exist only to fund good causes. That isn’t “new” money: without The Garden Bridge, the £20m pledge from The Monument Trust and the £2m grant from the Garfield Weston Foundation would be available to other charities.

Much the same could be said about corporate sponsorship. Most sponsorship comes out of designated funds within an organisation’s marketing budget. Glencore might struggle to shift 240 metric tonnes of cupranickel, but it stands to reason that Citi would have likely found some other cause to support with its £3m.

Put simply, the Bridge is tying up some £60m that has not “already been spent” and that could be released to fund other, better projects.

There’s more.

Boris has committed the GLA to guaranteeing the Bridge’s operating costs. That’s the little poisoned pill that he approved just days before he left office.

According to Transport for London’s Strategic Outline Business Case:

“The estimated cost of ongoing operation and maintenance for the Garden Bridge is estimated to be around £2.5m per year from 2018 onwards. Over a 60-year period this equates to £150m (2014 prices).”

As taxpayers, we are on the hook for that £150m. Yet nobody outside the Garden Bridge Trust or Transport for London has seen the business plan that describes how these operating costs will be covered. 


What we do know isn’t encouraging. In order to secure a deal with the planning authority and the landowner in Lambeth, the Trust gave away most of the income from the South Bank landing. That is some valuable real estate, but the rent will be split between Coin Street Community Builders and Lambeth Council. Most of the sponsorship inventory has been capitalised to pay for the build, and there can’t be much of it left to pay for operations. The Trust insists that it has no intention to ticket or charge and it is limited to 12 closures per annum for private hire.

Just how much does the Trust think it can charge for cocktail parties on the Thames? You can hire the whole of Kensington Roof Gardens for £5,000. If this is the Trust’s main source of income, then it would need to be priced higher than one day’s exclusive use of a Formula One track. That’s not going to happen.

It begs the question that Johnson never cared to ask: where is the rest of the money going to come from?

Most councils would not approve this kind of guarantee without poring over the business plan and having it independently challenged. To endorse the Garden Bridge guarantee without similar scrutiny is irresponsible beyond measure. You must do better, Mr Mayor. That is a lot of future bail-out money that has not “already been spent” and can still be saved.

There’s more.

We are careering towards the start of construction, and the Trust still has a £30m gap to close. In the context of The Garden Bridge – with its exorbitant £175m budget – that may seem trivial. By comparison to almost any other project, that is still a mountain to climb. You could get change back from a whole other bridge in Pimlico for £30m.

And this is just the gap that the Trust itself has acknowledged: it may actually be larger than that. Another revealing nugget from the background information usefully provided by the Trust is this:

“Some organisations are anonymous at the moment because we are in the process of finalising contracts with them, and several major announcements are planned soon.”

In other words, some deals haven’t actually closed yet.

So what happens if the Trust fails to close the gap?According to the funding agreement with TfL, payments are subject to the Trust’s demonstration that it has secured “or is able to secure” the necessary funding. In the event that a shortfall remains, this puts the decision to start at TfL’s discretion.

In light of the Greater London Assembly’s damning critique of TfL’s procedural failures in procurement, can it really be trusted to provide robust oversight of the project’s funding and finance?

There is at least £30m more at stake and TfL is, by now, more politically than financially invested in the project. That is more money that hasn’t “already been spent” – but it’s a burden that looks increasingly likely to fall on the public sector.

There’s more.

A large proportion of the private investment is still unaccounted for. Try as you like, it is impossible to fully reconcile the list of donors on the website with the funding breakdown provided by the Trust. There must be a few very large givers in the mix who are as yet unidentified.

There are any number of legitimate reasons – fiscal, personal or spiritual – why some givers would want to remain anonymous. Some aren’t interested in the praise and plaudits. Others are anxious about opening themselves up to endless requests from other charities. They may not want to be drawn into any surrounding controversy. In most cases, the anonymity of donors is not a cause for concern.

But most projects are not so closely associated with senior politicians. Thew hole air of mystery surrounding the Trust’s fundraising is therefore disturbing. Caroline Pigeon AM wrote to the Trust asking for a detailed breakdown of donors and was fobbed off by a letter saying, “a list of contributors who are content that their commitment be publicly acknowledged is publicly available on our website”.

Johnson was worse. In response to an official question from the London Assembly, he wrote:

“The Garden Bridge Trust’s accounts and details of its fundraising are commercially sensitive and these are not routinely shared with TfL or the GLA.”

Huh? This is an organisation that is spending £60m of taxpayers’ money and is ultimately underwritten by the public sector. How can its financial details be too “commercially sensitive” for the GLA?

Mr Mayor, you should be deeply concerned that your predecessor worked so hard to shield this project from the prying eyes of Freedom of Information laws. When projects are known to be the personal favourites of particular politicians, they can become fertile ground for “tactical” giving. Remember the Hinduja Foundation and its £1m donation to the Millennium Dome? That cost Peter Mandelson his job.

I’m sure that nothing anything like so sinister is happening here – but for the avoidance of doubt, it’s in TfL’s interest to prove it. I’m not a conspiracy theorist by nature, but I’d be a little bit fidgety about “anonymous” donors to The Garden Bridge.

Yesterday, it was announced in The Observer that you’ve already initiated a review of the project “looking in more detail at some of the issues raised about the procurement”. It’s a good start, but you will hopefully look beyond the narrow procedural issue of a faulty procurement process. That the procurement process was so badly handled is but the symptom of a much more malignant disease that has infected every aspect of this project, including its funding and finance.

This whole project is a hospital pass that went from Joanna Lumley to Thomas Heatherwick to Boris Johnson. The ball is now waiting for you at City Hall. Will you simply pass it off as “Johnson’s folly, not my fault”; or will you get stuck into the gory details?

We all hope it’s the latter. The details are important. Whatever you think you know about The Garden Bridge –

There’s more.

Dan Anderson is an economist and a director at destination consultants Fourth Street.

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.