How much can a train cost? According to the latest projections from the California High Speed Rail Authority, the answer is over $100 billion. In a business plan released on Tuesday, the agency raised its estimate of the cost to build a 500-mile system connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles. Including the new $5 billion increase, the total is now more than three times the initial budget of $33 billion.
That ever-growing price tag reflects a mounting crisis for American infrastructure: It costs too much. While the budget was modest compared to this California rail effort, the Second Avenue subway in New York cost $4.5 billion — about twice as much as comparable projects in other parts of the world. Nor are trains the only problem. Roads, bridges, and energy projects face similar obstacles.
Some causes of infrastructure inflation are inextricable from the American political system. These include fractured jurisdictions, a weak civil service, and electoral incentives that encourage legislators to reward their own districts rather than promoting the most cost-efficient solutions. Other challenges are associated with the design process. Researchers at New York University argue that plans for fancy stations are driving the exorbitant cost for the extension of Boston's Green Line light rail. Regulatory compliance plays a role, too. However justifiable by themselves, requirements to minimize environmental impacts, ensure disability access, or meet elevated safety standards add up to huge bills.
It's tempting to dismiss these woes as blue states and cities strangling themselves in red tape. But the country as whole won't thrive if its most productive regions are embalmed by decaying infrastructure. Despite its failure to pass Build Back Better, the Biden administration did secure more than $1 trillion from Congress to meet some of those needs. Unless they find ways to control costs, though, more spending is just throwing good money after bad.