By Noel T. Braymer
The favorite unsubstantiated claim of critics of rail service in general and of High Speed Rail in particular is that it is too expensive and wasteful. Yet no comparison is given of construction costs of other forms of transportation. What would be the cost of a new airport in California? There is no way to know since it is almost impossible to build a new airport in California. San Diego spent years looking at several options for a new, larger airport which there was major opposition to building at all the places they proposed to put a new airport. Finally San Diego gave up and is rebuilding its small downtown airport with new terminals to get the maximum numbers of gates possible for its one runway airport. As for major highway construction, there is not much of that in California now. There is some new road construction in rural areas. But most of the construction in urban areas is rebuilding freeways generally built in the 1950’s and 60’s. There are often efforts to try to add extra, usually High Occupancy Vehicle lanes to get more people on the freeway while reducing freeway traffic congestion. But what always happens when additional lanes are added to freeways is there is no reduction in traffic congestion. Usually months after new lanes are added, the traffic congestion is soon back to the level it was before the additional lanes. The classic example of this was the construction of HOV lanes on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles that opened in 2014 between West Los Angeles over the Sepulveda pass to the San Fernando Valley. Right now the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority aka LA Metro is planning to build what will likely be a 22 mile subway parallel to the 405 between Van Nuys to West Los Angeles hopefully before the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The cost estimate for the subway to serve the westside along the most congested freeway in California and likely also the United States is budgeted at around $5.7 billion dollars.
Now lets compare this to the planning for California High Speed Rail. The current estimate for High Speed Rail construction between Anaheim to San Francisco is roughly 77 billion dollars. This is for 520 miles of new high speed rail. The current construction of around 171 miles between Merced and Bakersfield is budgeted at 10.6 billion dollars. This will be the lest complicated segment of the HSR project. The future extensions to complete service between San Francisco and Anaheim will require 3 major tunnels. The first is from Gilroy to Los Banos in the San Joaquin Valley. The second tunnel is through the Tehachapi pass between Bakersfield and the Mojave Desert. The third tunnel will be in Los Angeles County between Palmdale and the northern San Fernando Valley. Governor Newsom is acting like the politician that he is and is demanding that construction costs outside the San Joaquin Valley be lowered before extending any service outside of the San Joaquin Valley.
What Governor Newson as well as the many critics of rail passenger service love to ignore is behind much of the increased costs of major projects comes from spending unplanned money to appease local opposition to most major projects. Local communities often demand construction projects go underground even though cheaper alternatives are available. But the biggest cause of out of control spending comes from project delays. Not having a right of way ready to start construction can create major delays. A classic example of rising construction cost was the replacement Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland after the original was damaged during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. By 1996 the State announced plans to start construction of a $1.3 Billion replacement bridge which would take 6 years to build. This was opposed by many people because the proposed bridge was too boring and plain. What was demanded was a unique and iconic new bridge much like the Golden State Bridge. This delayed the start of construction of the project so it was 2002 before construction of the new iconic bridge was started and 2013 when it was finished at a final cost of 6.5 billion dollars. The main reason construction projects cost rise is due to delays. Fixed costs for a project have to be paid even when no work is getting done. Also when doing something that hasn’t been done before, mistake are often made which also delays a project.
To get an idea of the true costs of transportation construction, a good place to check would be Los Angeles. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority aka LA Metro is responsible for almost all transportation in the County. This includes roads, county bus services, county owned rail rights of way and construction of local rail transit. Some current LA Metro rail projects include the Regional Connector, the Crenshaw/LAX Light Rail line and the extension of the Purple Line subway from Western Ave to Westwood. The Regional Connector is a 1.9 mile light rail tunnel in downtown Los Angeles extending the Blue Line to the now Gold Line to Azusa. It will also extend the Expo Line through more of downtown LA to the now Gold Line tracks to East Los Angeles. The budgeted cost for this project is around 1.8 billion dollars. This gives a construction cost of just short of a billion dollars a mile.
Now lets look at the Crenshaw/LAX light rail line. Based on current estimates for this 8.5 mile project which includes tunneling, surface and elevated operation is budgeted at 2.1 billion dollars. Based on a per mile cost of construction this gives a cost of about 247 million dollars per mile. Now looking at the 9 miles of extension of the Purple Line with a budget of 8 billion dollars gives a cost of 888 million dollars per mile. If we combine the costs of all three of these current projects that gives about 19.5 miles of construction at cost of 12 billion dollars for an average cost of 615 million dollars per mile.
So how does this compare to current cost estimates for California High Speed Rail? The cost estimates for 171 miles of construction between Bakersfield and Merced is 10.6 billion dollars. That comes out to about 62 million dollars a mile. That’s a lot cheaper than construction of any rail project on a per mile basis in Los Angeles. So what would be the cost of building per mile of phase 1 of the 520 miles between San Francisco and Anaheim for 77 billion dollars? That comes to 148 million dollars per mile. That’s less per mile than the cost of the Crenshaw/LAX light rail line. But consider that none of these transit services in Los Angeles are expected to break even let alone make a profit. But just construction of rail projects have created a major economic stimulus in Los Angeles County. This has included new construction around many of the LA Metro Stations. There have been several sale tax increases over the last 30 years or so for improved transportation in Los Angeles County. Clearly people in Los Angeles want better transportation and are willing to pay for it. There has been much criticism that transit is a waste of money because bus ridership continues to decline and many more people ride buses instead of rail in LA. A major reason for reduced bus ridership has been increased auto traffic delaying the buses and making bus service unreliable. The result is more people are driving trying to get to work on time, many with cars they can’t afford. The solution to getting more people on the bus is to give buses priority using the roads at traffic lights and turn signals.
Not only is High Speed Rail cheaper to build on a per mile basis. But it generates much more revenue than short distance rail service. Intercity fares are much higher than fares riding the subway. But a major factor in the revenue of a passenger rail service is the amount of passenger miles. A passenger mile is one passenger going one mile. A passenger who travels 400 miles on a train creates 400 passenger miles. Passenger miles is a common measure in transportation of revenue production and utility. Not only does High Speed Rail generate more revenues by going further, but also when going faster. The faster the train can go, the more people it can carry in less time. High Speed Rail is also planned to stimulate economic development in many places in California with stations.
Running trains just between Bakersfield and Merced doesn’t take full advantage of the potential of High Speed Rail. It is needed for improved transportation for most of California. It might be possible in the short run to extend HSR service to Sacramento and the Bay Area sharing railroad rights of way but not the freight tracks for speeds up to 125 miles per hour. That will require the cooperation of the railroads and likely changes in the Prop 1A legislation approved by the voters in 2008 which kicked off the California High Speed Rail Project. But such cooperation sharing rail rights of ways is being seen with local services in the north for ACE, Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin rail passenger services. But well over half of California’s population is south of Bakersfield and the some of the busiest traffic in the State is between Northern and Southern California. Where are we going to find the money and public support to build more freeway and airports in Metro areas of California? The reality is in the long run the most economical use of taxpayers money will be High Speed Rail for improved future transportation for all of California .