On February 12, California’s governor Gavin Newsom announced to the state legislature that plans for America’s first high-speed rail project would have to be scaled back. The projected costs of the project—originally proposed as a rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco—had recently soared to $77 billion. Over a distance of about 380 miles, that put construction costs at more than $200 million per mile.
By comparison, the LGV Méditerranée, a segment of French high-speed rail that connects the town of Valence to the city of Marseille and makes it possible to travel by fast train from Paris to the Mediterranean, a distance of over 400 miles, in under three-and-a-half hours, cost perhaps 15 or 20 million dollars per mile, less than a tenth of California’s projected cost over a comparable geography, a mix of rugged hills and river valleys, and including, before entering Marseille, a tunnel over five miles long.
Something is impossible, but it’s not railroad construction.
Newsom did not cancel the project entirely. Part of the project, already under construction in the Central Valley, will go forward, eventually linking Bakersfield and Merced. There is nothing wrong with building in phases; Western Europe’s mature high-speed rail networks were built over a period of several decades. But Newsom explicitly disavowed any further pursuit of “a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A.” Instead, he extolled the virtues of rail in the future development of the agricultural heart of the state: “It’s about economic transformation. It’s about unlocking the enormous potential of the Valley.”
Beware the politician who comes bearing the keys to your unlocked potential. A fast train is the best method ever invented to move large numbers of people efficiently and comfortably between population centers, but by their very nature they make few stops in between, and they do not carry cargo. The only reason this part of the project is being built is because it’s already being built, and the reason for that is a simple matter of geography and engineering. It was the least complex part of the project, so that’s where the project began.
Newsom’s don’t-call-it-a-cancellation comes at a moment when politicians and news personalities from the limp center through the lunatic right are howling about the package of proposals still loosely bundled under the wrapping of a Green New Deal.
Newsom’s don’t-call-it-a-cancellation comes at a moment when politicians and news personalities from the limp center through the lunatic right are howling about the package of proposals still loosely bundled under the wrapping of a Green New Deal. Pundits who love to tweet from airport lounges howled that it would eliminate air travel altogether, and conservatives mocked the idea of getting rid of cars. Reasonable Democrats wrung their hands and worried about linking labor and economic policies to environmental policies, as if the decarbonization of the economy would not necessitate massive state interventions in business and labor markets.
Megan McArdle, a self-styled contrarian libertarian who writes well-actually columns for the Washington Post in the style of a “For Dummies” book, wrote three columns about it in a week. Along the way, she devoted one entire op-ed to explaining why American cannot have high-speed rail, arguing (among other extraordinary claims) that cities in China are closer together than they are here! China, whose geographical area is essentially identical to that of the United States, has 18,000 miles of high-speed rail lines, and the trip from Beijing to Shanghai covers the same distance as the trip from New York to Atlanta.
Hidden within all this no-nice-things nose-thumbing is a legitimate problem, however. Railroads that cost as much per mile as the entire annual operating budget of a small city really are ruinously expensive. Building a China-sized network at United States prices would cost more than $3.5 trillion, which, in perspective, approaches the nominal GDP of Germany, the fourth-largest economy in the world. These hyperinflated costs are endemic and uniquely American: you need only read the daily stories of the preposterous failures and costs of New York City subway repairs and improvements to see another example, even as cities around the world, from Paris and Madrid to Moscow to Hyderabad are building and expanding their metros.
This demonstrable ability of other nations to build public works at reasonable—or at least bearable—cost puts lie to the most common excuses for the cost and complexity of American transit projects. America is densely populated and right-of-way property is expensive here? Same goes for Western Europe. America is big? So is China. Unions? Europe, again. You can easily believe that the unique combination of these exacerbating factors of cost and distance would lead to a state where American rail would be the most costly in the world. But more costly by an order of magnitude?
American infrastructure is this costly because of immense, endemic, universal public-private corruption—systems of both direct and financialized graft at every stage of infrastructure development.
American infrastructure is this costly because of immense, endemic, universal public-private corruption—systems of both direct and financialized graft at every stage of infrastructure development, from the planning to the ribbon-cutting to the use of deferred maintenance to ransack public transportation budgets for cash, year after year, after which the responsible authorities claim that fixing the century-old signals is just too damn pricey. This system of legal fraud begins with the bevies of project consultants, continues through ludicrous private contractor and labor costs, and continues when, years later, high-paid administrative fixers and new armies of consultants and contractors arrive to fix what broke because it was never maintained. It is a system of tolerated kleptocracy that may be the only thing that America still does better than anyone else in the world. It is baked into every assumption about building for the public benefit.
You will of course notice that the responsible scolds saying of a 400-mile railroad, It cannot be done, were not so much in evidence when TransCanada and ConocoPhillips, for example, ran the Keystone Pipeline across 2,000-plus unfriendly miles. But the pipeline was built to transport gas, not mere people, so there would be profits for everyone for many years to come. No need to skim the money up front.