Many years ago, around the time William Mulholland proposed to “stop the waste” by damming Yosemite Valley into a reservoir, the city fathers of San Francisco did exactly that with the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which was a comparably beautiful place. It’s now proposed to demolish the dam and “reclaim” the valley, and to do so while preserving a water supply for the Bay Area would cost between three and ten thousand million dollars.
Is this a good idea? It’s hard to think about numbers so large, or unique natural treasures, especially as this is not a question of preserving a going-concern ecology but doing an experiment; no-one really knows what will come back when it’s been under water for seven decades.
If it’s a California resource, we’re talking about spending at least $1000 per person. What would we get for it? Obviously, people would go and visit. Currently Yosemite next door gets more than 3 million visits a year; perhaps as many would also go to Hetch Hetchy, perhaps they would just divide and half go to each. Choosing a price in the middle of the guesstimate range, say seven thousand million, the annual cost would be about $350 million (at 5%); that would be $100 per visit if it matches Yosemite, possibly twice as much if there’s no additional tourism. $100 is the price of two medium seats at the opera or a nice dinner out; it’s neither a ridiculous number that makes the proposal look silly, nor a ridiculous number so low that it’s a gimme. Reducing the $100 per visit are all the benefits people get from just knowing such a wonderful place exists, or reading about it and seeing pictures, benefits no less real because they are received by people who don’t experience it directly.
While I still lived in Boston, Tip O’Neill had the nice idea to give his congressional district, and those around it, a nice retirement present, namely a thousand million federal dollars to bury one of the most ill-conceived, badly designed, blighting, and ugly fruits of the urban freeway era. At the time, a lot of people I knew thought that was a really silly way to spend that much money in Boston. Now that the Big Dig is complete, it’s totally obvious to me, without a doubt, that it would be hard to find a way to improve the quality of life for Bostonians more for a one-time expense of five hundred bucks (the urban area has about two million people in it), even if it were local money. It’s completely transformed a whole swath of the downtown, never mind the millions adjoining landowners have made. Would Paris pay this kind of money for the Champs Elysées? I’m sure, and properly so.
However, the project cost fourteen thousand million and the meter is still running. $7000 per person once; not such an obvious good deal, especially considering that lots of those two million don’t get downtown to enjoy it very often. It’s another awkward number that doesn’t settle the issue either way. $350 per year forever…a dollar a day? Somehow it seems to make more sense that way.
In 1903, a bunch of civic leaders in New York had the insane idea to build a railway under the streets of Manhattan, threaded among existing sewer pipes and building foundations, four tracks wide to allow express service, and extend it way out into the farms of the Bronx three tracks wide (though elevated rather than underground out in the boondocks). It’s hard to justify heavy rail transit investments by the tools of benefit-cost analysis, but it’s obvious to me that this (and the parallel and intersecting lines that followed it) would be a bargain for the city even if it had to buy them again for zillions. Something like this, a serious and comprehensive investment in urban transportation rather than a tentative dabble such as LA is fooling with, changes the whole quality of life of a region. New Yorkers can go where they want, not have to park when they get there, come home at any hour of the night, and do so from childhood (my parents never had to chauffeur me to anything). When they’re not in the train or bus, they’re on their feet encountering their neighbors, not sealed in tin boxes on a freeway. What’s that worth in money? What analysis would be persuasive either way?