Why Does Everything Take So Damn Long?

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.

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7 thoughts on “Why Does Everything Take So Damn Long?

  1. Paul

    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.

    We are getting taken for a ride with these criminal construction costs! Unless they have to bore tunnels under existing commuter rail line.

    Here’s an idea, instead of spending millions on flashy stations & ticketing systems why not improve the trains to handle unimproved track better attract more riders, and just have open air platforms & flag stops.

  2. Frank

    “Why Does Everything Take So Damn Long?”

    Have you ever worked for government? If so, you would know that government workers are not productive, and most want to get paid just for showing up. The goal of a government worker is to expend as little effort as possible.

  3. prk166


    The top speeds of the trains will be 110 mph, which doesn’t meet modern definition of high-speed trains
    ” ~ Anti-planner

    A top speed of that meets the commonly-held definition of high speed rail for an existing line. The real issue is that the commonly held standard isn’t much. It is overly simplistic. What matters isn’t how fast the train goes but how long the trip takes.

    Look at another domain like air travel. Do you care is your jet hits 300 MPH or 400MPH or 500MPH? No, if you’re travelling you care is how quickly you can get there. You know if you fly the flight will take you an hour. YOu know you’ll have time at each end getting your bags, going through security and getting to your actual destination. HOw fast the plane went doesn’t really matter.

    After that, or before, you consider price and that you have 20+ direct flights a day to choose from on the route.

    And that’s the problem with the high speed rail on corridors like STL to Chicago. It’s so much slower than flying that you can spend billions to upgrade the route and save an hour. This isn’t surprising. It takes exponentially more resources to increase the speed of a train. It has a huge amount of mass. And the higher the speed, the less room for error. Everything has to be machined just right to go at those speeds or people die.

    So they’re spending billions to speed the train up between Chicago and St. Louis. The irony is that after all that money spent, it will still be faster to drive. Depending on where in St. Louis and where in greater Chicago your’re coming from, it’s a 4 to 5 hour drive.

    The train will still take 4 hr 30 – 45 min. There are just 4 trains a day so even if they double that, it’s 8 ( are they? I couldn’t find anything confirming more trips ). So in total time the train is still going going to be much slower than driving.

  4. Hugh Jardonn

    “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.”

    This really bugs the crap out of me. The natural progression should be “high,” “higher,” “highest.”

    By calling 110 mph trains “higher speed,” they are raising unrealistic expectations. Then they will wonder why they don’t get more public support for their proposals. I recall a Anderson Cooper segment on “high speed” rail upgrades that made this point.

  5. btreynolds

    Your comment suggests that the problem with government is with government workers. Your statement implies (not that you believe this) that if only the right workers were hired with the right people in charge of them, then government would work.

  6. LazyReader

    I don’t expect California to be financially stable by 2020 let alone 2029.
    Sanctuary California could face bankruptcy if the Trump administration follows through on threats to pull billions in federal funding. There are 300 “Sanctuary Cities” and counties around the United States that have policies in place blocking local law enforcement from complying with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer requests for immigration holds. Even if the admin fails to act, inevitably you reach the point of fiscal calamity in a state where you either raise taxes….cut services, Cali is incapable of doing either, well they can raise taxes.
    The new simplified California Tax Return

    Line 1: How much ya’ got?______________
    Line 2: Tax Due: Fill in from Line 1._______________

    But the public pension obligations will be it’s inevitable downfall. When the state goes bankrupt with no rescue plan.

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