February 7, 2011

Growth and the Role of Rail

When the cost of HSR is discussed in that way that makes it seems formidably, unAmericanly expensive, the context of HSR's pricetag is rarely established: i.e., that if rail does not happen, many billions will be spent, regardless, on freeways and airports. Obviously, rail does not end the need to spend billions of dollars on roads, freeways, and parking, but it relieves congestion and saves the expenses of expanding those networks. The San Antonio Express-News gets it right:

According to a study commissioned by the Texas Transportation Commission, during the next 20 years, more than $300 billion in 2009 dollars needs to be invested in Texas roads and freeways just to keep commute times from worsening. Adjust that figure for expected inflation and the cost balloons to $488 billion.
The gasoline tax, which provides most of the funding for road construction and maintenance, is expected to provide only $160 billion in revenue during the same period. Legislative leaders have characterized the state's transportation funding as a crisis: Texas is running out of money to build new roads.
California, long maligned as the golden state of governmental malaise, has embarked on a different path. In 2008, California voters approved $10 billion in bonds as a down payment on a $40 billion high-speed rail system that will link San Diego to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to San Francisco and Sacramento via the Central Valley.

Eventually public transit becomes cheaper (and more attractive) than continuing to expand road networks. Los Angeles hit a breaking point: look at the popularity/buzz around Villaraigosa's 30/10 plan to expand transit in Los Angeles. I hope more cities and states see those costs, too, and mobilize in favor of transit.

A good place to start would be spreading an appreciation for the fact that Caltrains saves 2.5 lanes of traffic on 101 during each commute. Is it more expensive to add miles of highway or close a $30 million operating budget for the beleaguered rail agency?

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