Several weeks ago, a certain article got me all disgruntled about how some congressmen do not take high-speed rail seriously as a viable future for regional transportation – particularly between such major metropolitan areas as San Francisco and Los Angelos. One Californian commented:
“It would be a fun thing to have, but can we really afford a fun thing?”
A fun thing?! Blood boiled. Another said:
“Maybe it’s time to cut our losses and pay down our debt…I have real doubts about the viability and the cost. Just because we’ve [already] invested money doesn’t mean we have to invest more.”
But what about the most costly and inefficient public works project ever undertaken: the Interstate Highway System? Just because we’ve already pumped over 6.5 trillion dollars into it doesn’t mean it has to keep dominating transportation spending, ruining urban development, and limiting who can get around and how (adults with the physical and financial means to take drivers ed and receive their license and own/operate a private vehicle).
As I show below, the direct costs come close to high-speed rail, and when you factor in the indirect costs on the environment and public health, the superiority of high-speed rail to the status-quo-interstate-highway is painfully obvious.
A break-down of state/local and federal government spending on the U.S highway system (for both construction and maintenance) in terms of 2010 USD is below. I added up the costs for each year according to this curve, and estimated a total of over 6,500 billion dollars spent from 1954 to 2010. If we divide this by the interstate’s current mileage, that amounts to a conservative cost estimate of $2,567,846 per mile per year.
Though I also want to take a stab at quantifying the health and environmental costs the highways have imposed. The CDC recently reported that highway fatalities cost the U.S 41 billion dollars each year in medical costs and work loss. Granted, this is not a direct government expense like in the graph above. There have been over 1,313,600 people killed on the U.S highway system from 1980-2010, which averages 65,600 per year, though annual deaths are declining and have been under the 40,000 mark since 2007. What are the fatalities associated with high-speed rail? Well, a Japanese rail line called the Shinkansen has had 0 deaths among its 9 billion passenger rides in over 40 years of operation. Costs associated with noise and congestion from highways has also been quantified in 2000: amounting to over 66 billion dollars just for that one year, again, just for costs associated with congestion and noise.
Several years ago Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser estimated the cost of high-speed rail to be 2.5 million dollars per mile per year for capital costs plus 200,000 per mile per year for maintenance. That brings the projected total cost to be 2.7 million dollars per mile per year. He concluded that while trains are nice, that price tag just is just not feasible.
But let’s look back to the average annual cost of highway construction and maintenance: 2.57 million dollars per mile per year directly out of the government’s pocket. Glaeser estimates high-speed rail to be slightly more expensive, at 2.7 million dollars per mile per year. However, unlike highways, rail will not impose general economic costs upon Americans of over 100 billion dollars per year due to fatality, noise, and congestion. And this doesn’t include costs associated with the reduced air quality, environmental degradation, and greenhouse gas emissions that highways perpetuate. Even though our government has wasted trillions to make it convenient, driving down the highway just is not a smart way to get around. It’s about time we got serious about financing the infrastructure for alternative regional transportation.