Four reasons the zero-sum argument misses the point.
For the increasingly desperate opponents of California’s high-speed rail project, one bad argument deserves another. Earlier this month, it was House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy who suggested that bullet train money be diverted toward dams and drought relief. Now, State Senator Patricia Bates has upped that false choice with a falser one, arguing in the San Diego Union-Tribune that the rail money should go toward the state’s crumbling roads:
If the state has more money than last year and has money to burn on a high-speed train, than [sic] why not use that money instead on our roads?
In fact, there is a plan to do just that. I have co-authored a measure written by state Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, that would allow Californians to vote on whether they want to continue funding the high-speed rail project and immediately freeze any further spending until after a vote next year. If approved by the voters, any unspent high-speed rail dollars would be redirected to repair and construct new state and local roadways.
It’s common for high-speed rail skeptics to see roads and rails as a zero-sum game in which one mode must perish for the other to survive. In truth, California needs both transportation options if it stands any hope of improving life for residents who endure awful air pollution and even worse traffic on a daily basis. By perpetuating car reliance, Bates isn’t solving a problem but rather putting it off for another representative to handle in the future.
But setting that larger context aside for a moment, consider four more specific points that weaken the supposed roads-versus-rails debate.
1. Roads already won the funding battle
California’s high-speed rail line will cost about $68 billion by the time it’s done circa 2030. That’s not pocket change, but it pales beside the $157.5 billion that will go toward highways over the next 15 years (if you assume the annual Caltrans budget holds steady). That 30-70 rail-road split falls generally in line with the standard 25-75 federal rail-road funding division—and there’s a decent chance some private company will foot part of the HSR bill, too.
Meanwhile, California’s GDP will amount to $36 trillion over the same timeframe (again, assuming current figures hold steady). In other words, the bullet train will represent less than a fifth of a percent of total state GDP during this period. The U.S., for what it’s worth, currently spends about 2.5 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, and even that rate is low relative to other leading nations.
2. Rail costs may balloon, but road costs do the same
It’s quite likely that California’s fast train will end up costing more than expected, but only because that’s true of most infrastructure mega-projects—road work included. Bent Flyvbjerg’s famous mega-project analysis reports an average cost overrun of 28 percent. Rail projects have done worse historically, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule; Bates herself, in trying to argue against the rail project, points out that the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge reconstruction—a road project—also went way, way over budget.
The real lesson here is not to stop building rail projects, but to recognize that all major public works spending—rail or road or otherwise—must be scrutinized and held accountable.
3. Roads are falling apart because the gas tax is too low
Bates says she wants drivers to “pay their fair share” of road repairs. But the suggestion that high-speed rail money be redirected to roads is, in a sense, an admission that America’s highways can no longer pay for themselves. For fear of voter reprisal, real or perceived, public officials have kept the gas tax artificially low for decades—the result being the poor roads that greet cars across California and the rest of the country.
So while Bates laments that Californians pay a high gas tax, at 59 cents per gallon, she neglects to point out that this rate is too low to cover the physical (let alone social) costs of driving, and that by global standards it’s actually quite low. It’s one thing to push for low taxes. It’s another to push for low taxes then complain about the very public service these taxes would provide.
4. California spends 40 percent of its road money on expansion
The real reason California (and all U.S.) roads are in such bad shape is that too much money is spent expanding highways and not enough goes toward maintaining them. Between 2009 and 2011, for instance, the state spent 40 percent of its annual road expenses on expansion. That’s actually much better than the average state maintenance share, but given that California reached peak driving in 2003-2004, a fix-it-first policy that prioritizes repairs is more fiscally responsible—especially once you consider that new roads soon become old roads in need of an upgrade.
So the better question for Bates might be this: If the state has so much money to burn on new roads, why not use some of it on a train instead?