Sunday, July 26, 2009

Does high speed rail cost more than highways?

There's been some discussion over at the California High Speed Rail Blog about the cost of the system. Basically, a Freakonomics guest blogger threw around the figure of $80b for the system, which is considerably higher than the forecasted $40b. No one really knows how much the high speed rail system will cost, but the numbers everyone quotes need to be contextualized. In other words, much did the Interstate Highway System cost? Per person, and adjusted for inflation? Was it considerably more than high speed rail?

According to the wikipedia site about Intersates, the highway system cost $425b (inflation-adjusted) to build over a period of 35 years. In 1950, the population of the country was 150m, and in 1960 it was 180m. So, in 2007 dollars, the Interstate system cost about $2500 per person alive at its inception (425b/165m, the approximate population when the highway system was funded, in 1956) to build. Per year, it cost about $75 per person.

California has a population of approximately 37m, and we can assume that the final bill for high speed rail would come in somewhere in this $40b to $80b range. Running these numbers, California's HSR system would cost about $1100 to $2200 per person, spread over a period of about twenty years. Per person, it would cost less than the Interstate system—perhaps considerably less. Per year, it would be between $55 and $110—quite comparable to the Interstate system.

There is one minor difference between the Interstates and High Speed Rail. Say what you want about CAHSR's business plan, but as far as I know, the Interstate Highway System never had a business plan which showed the system making a profit.


  1. Excellent post, I'd also like to point out that the cost to build the highway system today would likely cost significantly more as construction costs have gone up considerably , and opposition from communities costs a lot more today in legal challenges and delays and additional studies than it would have back then.

  2. Very good point. Rural construction is likely not much more expensive, but urban and suburban construction is now much more costly for two reasons: there's more opposition, and there is more urbanized land to house the opposition.

    In many cities in the 1960s, there was little or no opposition to urban Interstates. I remember reading somewhere that Interstate 35W in Minneapolis, which cut a block-wide swath through a stable, residential neighborhood, was almost unopposed. There were about 15 years (1955 to 1970) when you could build freeways willy-nilly before people realized the harm they did, and we're still fighting the backlash.

    Anyway, the numbers confirm it; it cost triple to build a mile of urban high speed rail as it does to build rural.

  3. highway trust fund has been broken for years, congress has to transfer 10 billion every year from the general fund to top it up or it would go broke
    this has been going on since the early 1990s
    couldn't built two networks with that money