By Noel T. Braymer
When it comes to transportation spending, particularly for rail passenger service, the knee jerk reply is we can’t afford it, it’s a waste of money! So I’ve done a little research on where our tax dollars go. Most of our Federal Government spending is non-discretionary. That means there isn’t much Congress can do to cut this spending. So what is the most expensive budget item for the Federal Government which is also non-discretionary? Is it defense, welfare, the national debt or transportation? No, it’s for health care. If we look at all levels of government: Federal, State and Local the total amount of all government spending is around $6.7 Trillion dollars this year, of which $1.4 Trillion is for Health Care. Next comes Pensions at $1.3 Trillion, Education at $1 Trillion and the direct cost of Defense spending at $0.8 Trillion.
When it come to transportation spending by all levels of Government the total is $303 Billion Dollars. Most of that is for highways. The Federal Government’s share of Transportation spending this year is only $92.4 Billion dollars with the greatest share of spending by local governments at $155 Billion. When we look at the Federal Government’s spending on transportation of $92.4 billion, $51 billion goes to the Federal Highway Administration, $18.3 billion goes to the Federal Transit Administration and $4.8 billion goes to the Federal Railroad Administration.
America is better off with a healthy population. Without a doubt America has the most expensive health care in the world, but not the most effective. The United States ranks around 43rd of countries in Life Expectancy. We are seeing in this country improvements with the rate of medical costs increases slowing down. This is because of a combination of people living healthier and more people having health insurance. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure as Ben Franklin said. With people avoiding getting sick and having people getting treated earlier, Trillions of dollars in savings is expected from healthcare costs in the future.
Now lets compare these numbers to the cost of California’s High Speed Rail Project. It is budgeted for $64 Billion dollars with completion by 2029. The project finally started construction in 2015. If we look at the Initial Operating Segment (IOS) with about $23 Billion Dollars for almost 300 miles of High Speed Rail planned to be running by 2025. So up to 2025 the project is expected to cost about $2.3 Billion a year over ten years. The problem is the California High Speed Rail Authority has about $20 Billion dollars which is enough for about 230 miles of track which would run from Wasco just short of Bakersfield to San Jose with a short connection to Merced. With an additional $2.9 Billion dollars the IOS can be extended to Bakersfield and downtown San Francisco. These extensions would greatly increase the ridership and revenues of the IOS. This is important since this service is expected to operate at a profit. This will be needed to get the roughly $41 Billion Dollars in funding to expand future service to Southern California including private financing. The original plan when the voters approved the construction of High Speed Rail in November, 2008 was that the project be paid with a third State funding, a third Federal funding and the last third with Private funding. The Federal program which had been in place during a Republican Administration between 2000 to 2008 was expected to help fund and expand higher speed rail passenger service in several major corridors in this Country including California. Since the election of 2008 this program has been subjected to partisan game playing.
If we look at the IOS at 300 miles for $23 Billion dollars, that’s around $77 million dollars a mile. How does this compare to other construction projects? Let’s look at what Los Angeles County is spending now for the under construction Crenshaw/LAX Light Rail line. This will have a mix of tunneling and surface running along a 8.5 mile right of way. This is estimated to cost $1.8 billion dollars and be running by 2019. That is over $200 million dollars a mile. Why is it so expensive? Construction in an urban area is always expensive to build where there is dense development. It is more difficult to build in urban areas with utilities to be relocated than on open land and the land is more expensive to buy. The Crenshaw/LAX Line has miles of tunneling which is very expensive to build. When we look at the $64 billion dollar estimate for the 520 miles of Phase 1 for California High Speed Rail, that come out to around $123 million dollars a mile. This will include the major tunneling needed between Bakersfield and the San Fernando Valley. Considering the capacity of High Speed Rail to move people in the major traffic corridor between Northern and Southern California, that is not an unreasonable amount of money. Compare this to the cost of the last freeway built in Los Angeles County, the 105 Freeway which opened in 1993. Including construction of the Green Line the entire project cost $2.3 billion dollars for 17.3 miles at roughly $135 million dollars a mile in 1993 dollars. Building Freeways in California and the rest of the country slowed down by the 1970’s in large part because of the rising costs of buying land, particularly in urban areas, and the large amount of land needed to build freeways.
This is the main problem: buying land. This is the reason in this country there are few new airports being built today, or major new roads except in rural areas and why building a new railroad is next to impossible to build. Increasingly just to keep up with the demand for travel we will need to get better use out of the rights of ways we have. We also have to spend more money repairing and replacing existing roads and railroads. In California, most of the rail transit being built is on former freight rail branch lines, many of which were all but abandoned over 20 years ago when local agencies bought them from the railroads. It costs less to put rail in tunnels in urban areas which can carry more people in a faction of the space of a freeway. That is if you try to build a new freeway in an urban area or a freeway size tunnel. Having more people walk, ride bikes, buses and light rail on existing streets will carry many more people than 1.2 people in cars on the same road. It is not a question of if, only of when these changes are made .
The sooner we accept reality, the sooner and cheaper it will be to improve our transportation system for the future. These lessons were discovered years ago in most major urban centers around the world. Most major cities have plenty of cars and roads. But civic leaders in these major cities outside of the US knew better than to let public transport or rail passenger service be neglected. They realized they couldn’t afford to buy too much imported oil so they have high taxes on gasoline. That is why gasoline prices are so high in most places overseas: taxes. They also didn’t have the amount of open space America had over 60 years ago when the post war road building boom began. In most urban center in this country we are now facing the same problems that many major urban areas started to deal with more than 40 years ago.