By Noel T. Braymer
Imagine if Congress had rejected President Roosevelt’s call to declare war on December 8th 1941 because it was too expensive. We were still recovering then from the 1929 Great Depression. All wars are expensive, they are very wasteful and with war the United States had to greatly increase spending, ration resources, increase taxes and the National debt still went over 100% of Gross Domestic Product. But even though Roosevelt still had opposition to him from some members in Congress, there was a near unanimous vote to declare war on Japan. This soon brought declarations of war on the United States from Germany and Italy at a time when we didn’t need more enemies.The end result for America after the end of the war was it had the largest economy the world had ever seen at the time and was a nation with a much higher standard of living and larger middle class than any nation ever had. Because of this many countries economies recovered from the war within 10 years or less after it was over. A major factor in our growing post war economy was consumer spending from pent up consumer demand after the war was over. After the war, workers could spend the money they saved with war bonds for things that were unavailable during the war.
The United States now has new problems. Much of the infrastructure that was built in this country during World War 2 and up to 30 years after the war has now over the last 44 years not been maintained to the high levels we see in much of the rest of the world. At the same time this is happening, we are seeing in just the last 7 years or so more extreme weather. Just from Hurricane Sandy in 2012 the damages in this Country came to almost $62 billion dollars. Since then we are seeing more more damage from extreme weather every year. We are often hotter in summer, colder in winter, droughts last longer, storms drop more rain and snow causing more flooding and water damage. With melting ice packs and warming water temperatures causing water to expand, we are seeing more low lying areas flooded on almost a daily basis in places like Florida. This year we had record snowfalls which shut down transportation in the west in the higher elevations. Just with the recent rains in California the local roads are left with many potholes. Almost as soon as road crews patch the potholes, a new storm washes away the patches.
The weather is increasingly disruptive. Water is the cause of most landslides.There have been additional landslides recently after a rainy winter at the buffs overlooking the beaches at Del Mar. One major landslide at Del Mar could cut the rail connection between San Diego and Los Angeles for who knows how long or how much it will cost to fix. Some people might say to that so what? These people clearly haven’t ridden or even seen what traffic is like on the I-5. One thing countries do in a war is to try to destroy the other countries transportation system to prevent reinforcements and supplies getting to the enemy. Doing so also shuts down the enemy’s economy .
Much has been said about how “expensive” it is building rail passenger service. What is never brought up is what is a cheaper alternative? Right now San Diego County is improving and double tracking almost 60 miles of railroad in the county. Most of this work is planned to be finished before 2040. Why is San Diego County doing this? It was due to popular demand. The original plan was to fully rebuild and expand the number of lanes on the 5 freeway between Del Mar and Oceanside. When there were Open Houses for the public of the plans of the 5 freeway, people living near the freeway went to see what was planned. What they found was many of the plans called for using their property as part of the freeway expansion or the expanded freeway would be much closer to their homes. This brought out the question “why isn’t the county expanding the existing Coaster Rail Passenger service?” The result was the county is only planning to add a couple of Car Pool lanes on the freeway while expanding rail service by 2021.
But San Diego now finds itself with money problems. SANDAG or the San Diego Association of Governments is the planning body for the County of San Diego. SANDAG in particular is responsible for funding transportation projects for the county. Much of the funding for Transportation in San Diego County comes from an added sale tax in the County passed in 2004 which is used to qualify for matching State and Federal grants. The problem SANDAG has now is they goofed in their estimates of the revenues the sale tax would bring. They had covered up this mistake as construction costs for projects already under construction also went over budget. Now that this cash shortfall is public comes the problem of delaying projects. Most of the projects that now will be delayed are road projects in the rural parts of the County. This is making many of the politicians in the rural areas very unhappy. The ironic thing is funding of the reconstruction of much of the I-5 between Del Mar and Oceanside may have to be delayed. But the rail improvements both for Coaster Commuter rail service and extension of Light Rail north of Old Town to the UCSD area are now well underway and funded.
These same problems can be seen across the State and the Country. Widening freeways are expensive and doesn’t relive traffic; it makes it worse. Public transportation needs to be well organized for people to get around.Too often traffic congestion can impact bus service reliability which is needed to connect to rail service which depresses ridership for both bus and rail service. Much has been said by some politicians claiming rail passenger service is too expensive.This despite that most developed countries around the world spend money improving their rail service, as well as roads, utilities and so on. They do it because they know infrastructure is critical to a healthy and growing economy. Much of the economic growth of the 1950’s and 60’s was based on the new infrastructure built between the 1930’s to the 1970’s. While much is claimed that building rail service is “too expensive”. What would it cost to build new freeways or airports in California? The answer is you can’t at any price. Most communities will oppose construction of a new airport or a new freeway in their neighborhood. As it is some areas are working to close existing airports. Santa Monica is closing its airport (the home of the DC-3) by 2028. The Navy Department moved the Marine Air Wing at El Toro in Irvine to Miramar in San Diego in 1999. The expectation was Orange County would use El Toro as a new civilian airport and shut down John Wayne Airport. But the city of Irvine had no desire to allow a new airport in their back yard and refused to allow one to be built.
Opposition to rail service follows much the same pattern as it is for new roads and airports. Much of what makes rail service so expensive is the need to grade separate rail service from surface roads and residential areas. Much is made of the costs of High Speed Rail construction in California. Based on 2033 dollars the 520 miles of High Speed Rail between Anaheim and San Francisco is estimated to cost $77 billion dollars. That is a lot of money for most people. On a per mile basis its construction costs come to $148 million dollars per mile. Now let’s look at the least expensive rail construction project now being built in Los Angeles County which is the Crenshaw/LAX Light Rail Line which is almost finished. At 8.5 miles long it is costing in 2019 dollars $2.1 billion dollars which includes 3 miles of tunnels. That comes to a cost per mile of about $247 million dollars a mile. This is much higher on a per mile basis than what is projected for High Speed Rail. The most expensive rail project for Los Angeles County on a per mile basis is the 1.9 mile Regional Connector Tunnel in downtown Los Angeles to extend the Blue and Expo Light rail lines to Azusa and East LA. At a price of $1.8 billion dollars this comes close to a billion dollars a mile cost for this project. This project did go a little over budget in large part due to delays when faulty utilities maps failed to show areas with steel embedded in the soil in the path of the tunnel digging machine. Still Los Angeles County doesn’t have anywhere near the level of opposition to building these expensive projects compared to the California High Speed Rail project. Much of that oppositions comes from out of State and most of that is partisan politics.
The California Economy had an annual gross domestic product of $2.747 trillion dollars in 2017. A $77 billion or even a $100 billion dollar rail project spread out over a time frame of over 20 years hardly makes a ripple in the California economy. California is now the 5th largest economy in the world. California and the United States have allowed themselves due mostly to politics to fall behind in building and maintaining its infrastructure. Another area of failing infrastructure has been in the construction of affordable housing in California. This is important to our transportation needs since all trips start and end from one’s home. New housing built near good bus and rail service will help control the cost of living for more people while reducing their need to drive. To reduce the costs from weather related damage, new infrastructure is needed to replace aging roads and bridges which can better survive heavy rains, flooding and landslides. While tunneling is expensive, we will likely see more of this worldwide to build fast rail service with the least disruption to local communities. The advantage of good rail service is it needs much less space to carry more people faster than even the widest freeways could hope to handle. Eliminating space now used for parking in urban areas can be used to build more needed housing. For the opponents of building more rail service in this country I ask the question what is your solution? Our roads often have bridges which are overdue for replacement. Traffic congestion is bad most places, but it worse in California. Building rail tunnels will be cheaper than freeway sized tunnels and wouldn’t need the level of ventilation needed in a freeway tunnel. Train travel for long distances can be faster than by auto even when there isn’t traffic congestion. Plus this new spending and construction will stimulate the economy and create jobs. Just with the construction now underway for High Speed Rail construction has brought about some of the lowest unemployment rates the San Joaquin Valley has seen in years.
So what is a popular solution to our road congestion problem from conservative pundits: privately owned and operated toll roads as part of a Public, Private Partnership. Often this has been used to get road projects built which didn’t have major public support. The plan is to pay off the road with the tolls with the greater efficiency of private enterprise. So how well do these toll roads which are built all over the world do. The answer is most don’t make enough money to pay back the loans which include those that have been built in California. So how do these private operators make money? Part of their standard agreement with the local government is that should the toll road project fail to make money, the government body will bail out the company that built and operated the toll road and the local government then takes over the road. The private company can’t lose money with the government insuring that they will get paid. So what’s in this for local governments? Often by borrowing money for a road projects instead of spending tax dollars, a new road can be built without getting funding approved by local government. Of course after the project goes bankrupt, the builder/operator gets paid off and the county or State keeps the new road which they add to their local government debt.