The collective stupidity of politicians and transportation agencies can be breathtaking. As of 2015, Boston’s transit system had a $7.3 billion maintenance backlog. But, instead of fixing it, the MBTA has been busy planning — and planning — and planning — a new rail line it won’t be able to maintain, the Green Line extension to Medford, Massachusetts.
Planning began, in fact, before 2005, which is the date of the project’s major investment study, which projected that it would cost $390 million. There’s been a little cost escalation since then: it is now up to $2.3 billion. That money could have done a lot to reduce the maintenance backlog.
Did I mention that the new line uses the right of way of an existing commuter rail line? Even with free right of way, it will cost $621 million a mile. And that doesn’t count all of the tens of millions spent on planning for more than a dozen years.
The MBTA has just gotten around to selecting a contractor to build the extension. The project won’t be completed until 2021 at the earliest. That happens to be the year that Ford plans to flood Boston with driverless ride-sharing vehicles. In other words, it will have taken the MBTA nearly 20 years to plan and complete a light-rail line for which it already owned the entire right of way.
Meanwhile, Illinois is spending $2 billion on a not-so-high-speed rail line between Chicago and St. Louis. The line was originally supposed to open in 2014. More recently, it was postponed to 2017. Now they are saying 2018.
The top speeds of the trains will be 110 mph, which doesn’t meet the modern definition of high-speed trains. Some people call 110-mph trains “higher-speed trains,” but that could be confused with trains going faster than high-speed trains. I’ve called them moderate-speed trains in the past, but until they actually run them at such speeds they are still just ordinary trains.
Way back in 2012, Amtrak ran a train in the corridor at 111 mph. But the trains currently operating run on the same 5-1/2-hour schedules as they did before any of this money was spent.
Over the 284 miles between the two cities, 5-1/2 hours is an average of about 52 mph. The state projects that the new trains will take “about” an hour less, for average speeds no greater than 63 mph. We’ll see. Amtrak has supposedly speeded up trains in the Chicago-Detroit corridor to 110 mph, but trains between those two cities today are only about 15 minutes (out of 6-1/2 hours) faster than they were in 2009.
However much speeds increase, it will have taken Illinois nearly a decade to do the work needed for this project. California’s high-speed trains won’t between operating between Los Angeles and San Francisco before 2029, more than two decades after they received approval from state voters. Moreover, the trains won’t be true high-speed rail for the full distance until at least 2040, assuming funding is available, which it isn’t.
On one hand, it is a good thing these projects take so long, otherwise there would probably be more of them. On the other hand, these lengthy time periods are a symptom of something wrong with our system. President Trump has attempted to streamline the approval process, but much of it is out of his hands due to Congressional legislation.
Until that legislation is changed, we should stop expecting miracle cures from infrastructure improvements, which means we should probably stop planning such improvements entirely. Instead, we need to make the most of our existing infrastructure, which includes 4 million miles of roads (2.7 million of which are paved) and 15,000 airports (of which 376 have scheduled air service).
The real problems with this infrastructure is not a short supply but mispricing. If we can improve the effectiveness of how we use it, it should be plenty to last us for the foreseeable future.