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There is no question that California needs to invest in more and better transportation. California’s population is expected to grow from 37 million today to 50 million people by 2030, and 60 million by 2050.
There is no cheap option: roadway and airport expansions have a steep price tag, and an environmental cost.
Providing transportation infrastructure for 20 million additional people in California will require significant investment, no matter which mode we choose. The Brookings Institute reports that 6 million people already fly between the Los Angeles basin and the San Francisco Bay Area each year, making it the second-busiest air corridor in the nation. Official predictions show that traffic on Interstate 5 and California 99 in the Central Valley will double over the next 25 years.
Unless we invest in alternatives, traffic will grow worse and airport delays more frequent. For crowded areas like Los Angeles, building major new highways and runways would be extremely difficult and expensive.
Although the price tag for high-speed rail is daunting, it is important to consider the budgetary and societal costs of highway and airport expansions that California would need without it. As with rail, the costs are particularly high in crowded urban areas where investment is most needed.
To build similar capacity via roads and airports would require 2,326 new lane miles of highways, 115 new airport gates, and four new airport runways, at an estimated $171 billion to build.
California’s need to invest coincides now with unprecedented opportunities: an extremely low cost for borrowing capital, a construction industry with idle capacity, and federal rail grants already committed.
So, we have a choice in California. Invest in highways and airport expansions, or high-speed rail? The rail will also reduce harmful air pollution, give travelers an attractive option to avoid crowded freeways, and encourage denser development around stations. Investing in high-speed rail is the smarter choice.
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