The Expense of Infrastructure In The US

For all the attention paid to the question of whether it’s wise for California to spend $68 billion on a high speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a bigger question is being ignored. That question is how come it costs so much money? In contrast, China just completed a high speed rail line from Beijing to Shanghai, a comparable distance for about half the price. While it may seem reasonable for similar projects in China, a country with lower labor and environmental standards than the US, to be less expensive, the difference in the project isn’t just the price. Whereas the San Francisco to Los Angeles line is currently expected to be completed by 2028, the Chinese project took only three years. And it isn’t just China where these projects are cheaper.

In New York, construction is finally started on the long anticipated Second Avenue Subway, which has been planned since before the Great Depression. Right now, only a mile and a half of the line is being built at the cost of a billion dollars a stop. Should the entire planned line be built, running from the Financial District to 125th street, it is estimated to cost $22-24 billion.

Incidentally, this is the same cost as the Crossrail project currently being built in London. The only difference is that Crossrail, involves digging 26 miles of tunnels under London. In contrast, the Second Avenue Subway, which would run a mere 8.5 miles and sections of it have been completed for 40 years. (New York initially started construction in the 1970s before running out of money when the city almost went bankrupt in 1975).

Undertaking complex infrastructure projects is expensive but it shouldn’t be this expensive. There are good reasons why major transportation projects in the US should cost more than they do in China but there are no good reasons why tunneling in London provides a far better bargain than tunneling in New York.

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Ben Jacobs

Ben Jacobs is a journalist living in New York. He is a former reporter for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and contributor to the Boston Globe editorial page. Follow him on Twitter @bencjacobs.