Thursday, December 16, 2010

The way CNN reports on HSR

There would be no need to pay attention to an article like this, by Steve Kastenbaum, CNN Radio National Correspondent, since apparently he has done no background homework. However, It's worth picking out a few of his various statements and suggesting a different reading of them. To really take his article apart would take more space than the article itself.

Nowadays we are all being bombarded by media news about the high-speed train at the state and national level.

In California, the papers are full of comments about the various illicit shenanigans of the CHSRA Board and staff. That national media are playing up the implications of the shift of political power from the Democrats, who support the project, to Republicans, who oppose it. Two new Republican Governors-elect of Wisconsin and Ohio, respectively, have rejected the ARRA stimulus funding for HSR in their states. That's news.

Kastenbaum makes the point in his first sentence that this program is an Obama initiative "that aims to create jobs and economic growth." Further on, Kastenbaum makes the analogy with the public works projects of the Great Depression.

Well, let's put our "crap detector" to work here. An immediate thought is that creating jobs and economic growth as a goal is true of nearly everything we are or should be doing. It's not a good reason to build a several trillion dollar luxury train system.

The public works projects in the '30s were targeted primarily at young people who lacked advanced job skills. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But, the work was primarily manual labor government work; these government jobs were never intended to be permanent. Furthermore, many public works projects themselves, like bridges and national parks, were meant to serve ALL Americans, not just the well-to-do.

Times are different now. Many unemployed have advanced education and training for jobs that no longer exist. Building a high-speed train is not the pick-and-shovel process of 75 years ago. In short, the HSR is nothing like public works projects of the past, unless you want to compare it to the Boston Big Dig; and we know what happened to their costs. . . from $2 billion to $22 billion.

High-speed rail, as I keep reiterating, is a luxury, premium way to travel by train. It's the most expensive train ticket you can buy, and you get first class service in exchange. That is not an appropriate mega-infrastructure project for our government, regardless of side benefits. The interstate highway system or the Golden Gate Bridge is intended for everyone with a car. Hoover Dam provides power and water for everyone. High-speed rail is not for everyone.

So, what's the issue?

My problem with this project at both the national and state level is the ambiguity of intentions. Is it meant to improve public mass inter-city transit at the lowest cost for everyone? And if so, where is the master strategic plan for transportation for the nation and for the state? Shouldn't that come first? Perhaps HSR might be found to be totally unnecessary, or appropriate only for corridors such as between Los Angeles and San Diego, or nationally, for the Washington/Boston corridor. But, since it's pork, the dollars will get spread around as political rewards and inducements. Priming a dry well is nothing more than a waste of water.

Then, if the project is intended, as the promoters keep saying, to boost the economy and create jobs, then that should be a mission which needs far more extensive investigating, and perhaps may not involve rail whatsoever. Such a project, with those goals, might, for example, address the repair of current disintegrating infrastructure. (That's not so glamorous, however.) As it is, they cooked up the HSR project -- a solution -- and then searched for problems it could solve.

For decades, as the project was pursued by Kopp, Diridon, Morshed among others, the economy or employment was not a problem. Now that it's a problem, voila, the train will solve it. In other words, my crap detector tells me not to believe either story; i.e. that we need this train, and that it will create all those jobs and boost the economy.

What I do believe is that; 1.) we do not need this train, 2.) the funding will not create a consequential number of jobs, and 3.) it will do very little for the economy. What it will do, however is line a lot of pockets.

One final point here. The ARRA stimulus funds are intended to stimulate employment for Americans; all those Americans whose jobs disappeared when US manufacturing capacity was shifted overseas where the labor market was much cheaper. So, who's going to build this rail system and who's going to make the train-sets that run on the tracks? Overseas companies of course. So how much stimulation can we expect in California or in the US? Not that much.

One one point, Kastenbaum has it right. We have all come to realize the high price, the ridiculously high price that we don't even know yet. Cost estimates climb daily. The California guys are talking $43.1 billion. Think three or four times that much. And, at the national level, think trillions, not billions. That's irrational and outrageous. Why? Because, this project is not about the trains; it's about the money.

Next time, Kastenbaum ought to dig down into the realities behind this scam.


High price derails some U.S. bullet trains

By Steve Kastenbaum, CNN Radio National Correspondent


Wisconsin, Ohio lose $1.2 billion in high-speed rail funds

Officials question whether it's still possible to build big

4,700 jobs would be created, outgoing governor said

"The estimates, I think, are woefully optimistic," says governor-elect

(CNN) -- An Obama administration initiative that aims to create jobs and economic growth has been derailed in some states while it speeds along in others.

The loss of a total of $1.2 billion in high-speed rail funds in Wisconsin and Ohio means the promise of thousands of new jobs in those states will not be realized, according to proponents of the fast passenger trains.

The Obama administration wants to use large-scale infrastructure projects like high-speed rail to boost the economy much in the way that public works projects put people back to work during the Great Depression.

Mayor Ron Krueger was hoping a high-speed line that was planned to go through Watertown, Wisconsin, would spur development of retail and apartments in his town of about 23,000.

But some newly elected officials have put the brakes on those plans, raising questions about whether it's still possible to build big in the United States.

Citing two incoming governors' opposition to high-speed rail projects in the Midwest, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood redirected $810 million away from Wisconsin and $400 million from Ohio to other states. California is getting the lion's share, $624 million for its link between Los Angeles and San Francisco. $342 million is going to Florida with the remainder divided among Washington and 10 other states.

Is the U.S. turning a corner on high-speed rail?

Along with the money comes jobs. In Wisconsin, the outgoing governor Jim Doyle claimed over 4,700 jobs directly related to the high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison would have been realized at the height of construction.

Proponents claimed thousands of indirect jobs would have been created as a result of the projected economic growth along the line.

"Rail creates value," said Petra Todorovich at the Regional Plan Association, a transportation and public policy think tank in New York. She's the director of America 2050, a national initiative to meet the needs of the country over the next 40 years based on a projected population growth of 100 million. "It's a permanent investment both residential and commercial investors can look at. There are the construction jobs in working on the railroad," Todorovich said.

People in the area are also put to work building the locomotives and rail cars.

There are also indirect benefits that come with a new rail line, according to Todorovich. "There are jobs related through real estate and commercial investment. These are long-term jobs."

But Wisconsin's Republican Governor-elect Scott Walker said he has serious doubts about the projected job benefits related to the project. "The estimates, I think, are woefully optimistic."

Scott Walker campaigned on a promise to kill high-speed rail in Wisconsin, saying that it would leave the state with an annual operating cost of anywhere between $7.5 million and $15 million. "There are plenty of examples of federal Interstate Highway projects in the state of Wisconsin that have terrible, terrible needs right now that are being unmet that to me would be a much better use of transportation dollars," Walker said.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation said that up to 90% of the operating costs could have been covered by federal grants.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood tried unsuccessfully to change Governor-elect Walker's mind before the funds were pulled. "There is no shortage of enthusiasm and energy in almost all 50 states in America for some form of high-speed inter-city rail," LaHood said.

Some of that enthusiasm was found in Florida which put out a request for proposals for a high-speed rail line to link Tampa with several locations in and around Orlando. Even though Florida received an additional $342 million from the Department of Transportation for the project, Governor-elect Rick Scott, a Republican, hasn't made up his mind on whether he'll allow it to proceed.

Scott has said he is concerned that the price tag for the line would exceed estimates. He is also concerned about operating costs, he said.

Florida's Department of Transportation claims close to 10,000 people would be employed in jobs directly related to the high-speed rail line during the height of construction and thousands more would be employed in indirect jobs.

Meanwhile, work is beginning on a section of a high-speed rail line in California that planners hope will one day link Los Angeles with San Francisco.

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