The American difficulty in building and funding major infrastructure projects, California high-speed train edition

The cost and time needed to build a high-speed rail line in California keeps increasing:

Photo by David Dibert on

A New York Times review of hundreds of pages of documents, engineering reports, meeting transcripts and interviews with dozens of key political leaders show that the detour through the Mojave Desert was part of a string of decisions that, in hindsight, have seriously impeded the state’s ability to deliver on its promise to create a new way of transporting people in an era of climate change…

When California voters first approved a bond issue for the project in 2008, the rail line was to be completed by 2020, and its cost seemed astronomical at the time — $33 billion — but it was still considered worthwhile as an alternative to the state’s endless web of freeways and the carbon emissions generated.

Fourteen years later, construction is underway on part of a 171-mile “starter” line connecting a few cities in the middle of California, which has been promised for 2030.

Meanwhile, costs have continued to escalate. When the California High-Speed Rail Authority issued its new 2022 draft business plan in February, it estimated an ultimate cost as high as $105 billion. Less than three months later, the “final plan” raised the estimate to $113 billion.

This is not the first time this has happened in the United States. Many major projects, ranging from highway construction to tunnels to bridges, involve expanding timelines and budgets. Even though people may not care as much about these changes once the project is done and things work, the extra time and money comes from somewhere and can affect a lot of people.

There must be some major projects that are completed on time and on budget. Are these properly celebrated?

Three reasons for opposition to a proposed Dallas-Houston private high-speed rail project

Eric Jaffe categorizes opposition to a proposed high-speed rail project between Houston and Dallas. First, a brief description of the project:

A quick recap: Texas Central Railway, a private firm, is pushing a very promising proposal to link Dallas and Houston with a Japanese-style high-speed train capable of doing the trip at 200 mph. By relying on investors rather than taxpayers, the plan seemed poised to avoid a lot of the fiscal (slash ideological) squabbles that have plagued its federally-funded counterparts in California, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

And a little bit about each ideological camp:

Metcalf isn’t alone in this sentiment. Another elected official, Ben Lehman of Grimes County, has questioned whether the train will attract enough riders. He’s also been quoted as saying that the 18 million people who drive between Houston and Dallas each year have “gone through this decision-making process” and concluded “it’s more feasible to drive.”…

Other local officials are pushing a bill that “would strip firms developing high-speed rail projects from eminent domain authority,” reports the Texas Tribune. Fears of misused eminent domain are both valid and welcomed in any democratic setting. But what’s strange here is that the bill targets high-speed rail despite the fact that lots of private firms in Texas can wield eminent domain for the greater public good…

Which leads to the final major criticism of the privately funded Texas Central plan: that it won’t actually be privately funded. Or, rather, that it will start out privately funded but fail to meet its ridership goals and call on the public for a subsidy.

Three separate issues: is there enough demand? How much can a project like this exercise eminent domain? Would taxpayers ever be on the hook for such a project? My thoughts on each one:

1. On ridership. This may be a valid question but perhaps it matters less if this is a private project. If a company wants to spend the money, isn’t this their responsibility? Perhaps the real concern here is what happens if the project fails – what would happen to the infrastructure or the land that was taken?

2. On eminent domain. This gets at a classic American question of property rights versus the common good. Not easy to solve, particularly in a place like Texas.

3. On taxpayers left on the hook. This fear would seem to have some basis with large corporations or development projects (think sports stadiums) often using or having to use public money to close the gaps.

I would also be interested to see how these arguments are made together; a cluster of arguments could be more convincing than a single concern. Throwing up lots of negativity about the project can go a long ways in today’s media (traditional and otherwise) driven world.

Tunnels as infrastructure and symbols of pride

Boring machines broke through today at the opposite end of a 35.4 mile tunnel in the Alps, creating the world’s longest tunnel in Switzerland and taking the title away from Japan. While this is a feat of engineering (allowing high speed trains to carry cargo under the mountains rather than have it be shipped on trucks over the Alps), it is also interesting to read about the emotional responses people are having:

Trumpets sounded, cheers reverberated and even burly workers wiped away tears as foreman Eduard Baer lifted a statue of Saint Barbara — the patron saint of miners — through a small hole in the enormous drilling machine thousands of feet (meters) underground in central Switzerland.

At that moment, a 35.4-mile (57-kilometer) tunnel was born, and the Alpine nation reclaimed the record from Japan’s Seikan Tunnel. Television stations across Europe showed the event live…

Peter Fueglistaler, director of the Swiss Federal Office of Transport, called Friday “a day of joy for Switzerland.”

“We are not a very emotional people but if we have the longest tunnel in the world, this also for us is very, very emotional” he told The Associated Press.

This project is not just a boon for business and the environment; it is seen as a testament to the will and determination of the Swiss. As a project that has been in the works for decades (with the referendum votes for funding taking place nearly two decades ago), to see the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” is a big accomplishment. This is cultural moment that will likely become part of the Swiss collective memory.

How might the response in the United States to such an engineering feat differ?