Awareness Grows That Cost of Doing Nothing Is Not Zero
High speed rail critics’ most consistent line of attack on the project is that of cost. “It’s too expensive, costs are rising too far and too fast,” they tend to say. (See Kevin Drum’s recent post for a good example of this thinking.) And that argument rests on the assumption that we have just two choices before us – either we spend $40-$60 billion on high speed rail, or we don’t build it and spend $0.
This claim has always been utterly false. The cost of doing nothing is not zero. Californians are going to have to get around their state somehow, and as population grows and gas prices rise, the cost does too. The cost of expanding freeways and airports to meet the travel demand HSR will meet is estimated at $100 billion. Compared to that, HSR is a bargain.
Or you could not spend any of that money at all, do nothing to invest in our infrastructure, and lose at least that much money in destroyed economic activity. A 2010 US Conference of Mayors report suggested Los Angeles alone could see an annual green dividend of $10 billion.
This blog has been making that point for years. It’s starting to get more widely discussed. This week’s Sacramento News & Review has a good op-ed on this subject titled Rail debate’s on the wrong track:
If the choice was between spending $60 billion or $80 billion on high-speed rail and spending nothing, that would be one thing. We could just weigh that price tag against the other supposed benefits of high-speed rail and make a decision.
And if you want to make an argument for spending absolutely nothing on transportation infrastructure for the next 20 years, Bites is all ears (and teeth). Let’s not pretend that spending nothing is a real choice. The alternative to building high-speed rail may cost $100 billion. It may cost more or less, but it will cost a lot. Let’s at least have an honest comparison of those costs before we pull the plug on high-speed rail.
So why do HSR critics refuse to have that honest comparison?
It’s because there are two kinds of HSR critics, and both have strong reasons to not want to admit that the project has financial as well as environmental benefits. The first kind are NIMBYs who simply don’t want the trains near their homes. But because NIMBYism isn’t really seen as a legitimate basis for criticism, they tend to couch their arguments by attacking the project on the basis of cost and ridership. You see a lot of this on the Peninsula.
That brings in the second kind of critic, people like Kevin Drum who tend to not really believe anyone will ride trains, despite the evidence to the contrary from around the state, country, and globe. Their minds could be changed, but because there’s no true HSR system on the West Coast – and because California’s own successful intercity passenger trains have a low media profile – it’s going to be difficult to change that perception until HSR is up and running from SF to LA.
Still, for those who are genuinely concerned about costs, there needs to be a full accounting that includes both sides of the equation. The cost of doing nothing isn’t zero. It is probably around $100 billion. I have no idea why we would consider spending $100 billion just so we don’t have to spend $40-$60 billion. And more people are wondering the same thing.