The California high‐speed rail project was originally projected to cost $25 billion and is now projected to cost $100 billion. It was originally expected to be complete by 2020; now they are saying some time in the 2030s. Since they don’t have the money to complete it, it may never get done, and the part that will be finished serves the least‐populated part of the route.
Hawaii has its own rail debacle that sounds like California’s system on a smaller scale. Honolulu decided to build a rail transit line that was originally projected to cost less than $3 billion. The latest estimates are that it will cost $12 billion including finance charges. The line was supposed to open in 2020; now they are saying 2031. But that date may be irrelevant because the transit agency building the project is $3 billion short of what is needed to finish it, and the part that will be finished serves the least‐populated part of the route.
These two examples are a little extreme, but rail transit projects on average cost about 50 percent more than their original projections and very few end up costing less than 20 percent more than projected. While it is too soon to tell for California or Honolulu rail, ridership projections also average 70 percent more than actual ridership. A planning process that systematically overestimates benefits and underestimates costs is effectively biased towards capital intensive, high‐cost projects.
This makes it particularly frightening that the Biden infrastructure plan calls for spending $85 billion more on transit. Transit carries only 1 percent of passenger travel in the United States and zero percent of freight, yet under Biden’s plan it would get nearly as much money as highways, which carry more than 85 percent of passenger travel and nearly 40 percent of the nation’s freight.
Biden’s proposal specifically calls for bringing “rail service to communities and neighborhoods across the country.” But rail transit was rendered obsolete by buses nearly a century ago, which is why between 1920 and 1975 around a thousand cities replaced rail lines with buses. Only when the federal government agreed to pay part of the cost of building new rail lines did many transit agencies get interested in new rail transit construction. Since then, the number of cities with rail transit has quintupled.
This is just one way in which the Biden infrastructure plan will waste money. Another is a “fix‐it first” provision associated with Biden’s proposed highway spending. Although highways nominally get a little more money than transit ($115 billion vs. $85 billion), the “fix it first” rule means that states will not be able to build new roads until all existing roads are considered to be in good condition. No such rule will be applied to transit.
In fact, America’s state highways and bridges are already in pretty good condition. The number of bridges rated to be in “poor” condition has declined from 124,000 in 1992 to 45,000 in 2020. The average roughness of pavement has also declined, meaning fewer potholes. These improvements were made without a giant infrastructure bill.
Transit infrastructure, meanwhile, is in terrible shape and deteriorating faster than agencies are maintaining it. The latest estimate is that transit needs $174 billion to get into a state of good repair. (It would cost a lot less to convert most rail transit to buses, which could be done in most cities whose initials are not NYC without harming transit systems.) If a fix‐it first rule should be applied to anything, it would be transit.
An even more fundamental flaw with the Biden plan is that it completely ignores recent events, namely the pandemic. Even after everyone is vaccinated, it is expected that more people will work at home, fewer jobs will be located in downtowns, and more households will move to lower density areas. All of these changes hurt transit ridership, which is not likely to recover to more than about 75 percent of its pre‐pandemic levels. This is a bad time to increasing spending on transit infrastructure.
The federal government should stop giving cities incentives to build expensive rail transit lines they don’t need. If Congress really wants to help infrastructure, it should just give money to the states based on a formula that takes population, land area, and miles of passenger travel and freight shipping (or user fees) into account and let the states decide how to spend the money.