Monday, January 31, 2011

HSR: It all depends on how you spin it

Having suggested, over and over, that the Republicans have made their hostility to high-speed rail clear, here is an article that has a different perspective on the same facts. We know that Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania has made affirmative statements about developing the Northeast corridor.  We also know that Rep. John Mica also approves of HSR in that corridor.  So, there's nothing new there.  

Indeed, I wonder if Michael O'Brien is making too much of this, regarding the Republicans.  Remember, there is a party strategy at work here, deficit reduction being a major component.  We also know that two Republican governors have rejected HSR funding for their state, realizing that it's really not "free" money.  It comes with too many strings attached. Gov. Scott of Florida is weighing his options also. 

Additionally, when the Republicans who ostensibly support HSR also say that they want private investments in these projects, and that they Administration ought to be more focused on where the too few funds are expended as pump primers, we have a rather different picture.  

There is a huge question hovering over the issue of private investment, and that is the availability of government guaranteed investment deals.  Not allowed in California.  Why has there been no pro-active investment movement from the financial quarter toward HSR so far?

And, because it has been the Democrats who have made the where-to-fund decisions, it is obvious that these have been political decisions.  Wouldn't the Republicans want to change that?

The point of investment opportunity is, of course, that HSR will generate surplus revenues or profits.  That, based on the rest of the world's experience with HSR, is extremely unlikely.  Two rail systems in the world are supposed to be breaking even.  I even doubt that, since all rail systems are under the caring wings of their host governments which make their operation possible.  There are various ways to subsidize an operation by governments, some more visible and on the books, than others.

Finally, the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, has made it clear that the goal of the Republicans over the next two years is to prevent President Obama from having a second term.  Republicans (except for the minority but noisy Tea Party) are well disciplined. Given that, why would Republicans on the Transportation Committee be willing to make Obama look good by supporting the White House's major initiatives and grand strategy for HSR?  That would appear implausible. Wouldn't you think that their purpose is to have this initiative fail?  And, why would they continue to support the expenditure of billions of tax dollars rather than work to decrease the deficit, that being their mantra?

Mr. O'Brien, your opening sentence in this article might lead us astray unless we stop and think for a moment about the entire political picture. So, thanks for that opportunity.


Republicans embrace Obama rail initiative

By Michael O'Brien - 01/29/11 02:00 PM ET

Key Republicans are embracing a major spending initiative outlined in President Obama's State of the Union address. 

Two top members of the House Transportation Committee said they will push the president's initiative seeking to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail over te course of the next 25 years. 

"I believe it's good for America to develop a high-speed rail corridor in the Northeast corridor," Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the chairman of the railroad subcommittee, said according to the Connecticut Post. "It's a place we have to start, we have to accomplish it, because then I believe all of America, in the various corridors around the country, will want high-speed rail if they see success here."

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the chairman of the whole committee, also said Friday he was "pleased that President Obama has helped to launch a system for improved passenger rail service for our nation."

The pair warned Obama to seek more private investments in the project, and encouraged the administration to be more focused in where it will deploy high-speed rail service. 

Still, the pair's support could enable cooperation between the Republican House and the Obama administration on one of the president's major initiatives. 

"Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail," Obama said in his address. "This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car."

Making the right choices about what to buy and not to buy

Here are the comments from a high-speed rail advocate.  He says: "If done right, it can be one of the most effective economic development tools available. I don't agree with Mr. Harkness because I have no idea what he means by "done right," but never mind.

Elsewhere, he says that, "Mica and others argue that the best way to spend limited resources now would be to first invest in improving dense corridors -- like in the Northeast, where Amtrak’s Acela service already exceeds the airlines in passenger volume between Washington, D.C., and New York City, even though track conditions prevent the trains from maintaining high speeds. The Los Angeles-to-San Francisco corridor also might qualify."  I certainly don't agree with that last sentence either, but again, never mind.

Having gotten our objections out of the way, the rest of this article is quite a powerful statement with which, in general, we do agree. Harkness points out that the train is too expensive, that we don't have the appropriate geography  for it unlike other countries, and that we have a superb freight rail system.  That means much of that freight rail network will not benefit from expansion to accommodate high-speed rail.  To the contrary. 

In Europe, for example, the basic rail network is for passenger service, with freight having access to those rights of way, but at the discretion of the passenger operators.  In this country, it's the other way around.  

Perhaps the point that is lost in most of these discussions is that high-speed rail cannot and should not be shared with either freight or even regular passenger service.  With speeds of 175 mph or better, track precision becomes critical. Heavy rail, either freight or passenger, are harmful to tracks generally, but mostly without dire negative consequences.  

High-speed rail rolling stock is different. It requires dedicated tracks for higher speeds.  The train itself is designed much more like a commercial airline fuselage, built with lighter materials, smaller in profile and with fewer 'bogies' or 'trucks,' whereby two cars share one bogie (which has four wheels and suspension).  The point here is that in the US, we cannot simply add on HSR by upgrading our existing rail system.  Real HSR requires its own, fresh start.  And, that's a far bigger and more expensive challenge.

Harkness concludes his article by quoting the LA Times, "“This is sort of like turning down a free car because you don’t want to have to pay for gasoline and insurance.” regarding Ohio and Wisconsin, which turned down the federal funds for HSR.  

This comment by the LA Times misses the point and is wrong. To rectify this analogy, let's make the car a taxi-cab necessary for making a living. Turning down such a car because you can't afford the gasoline, insurance, garage, depreciation,maintenance, parts replacement and repairs is not so stupid; it's sensible and needs to be taken seriously, especially if you have too few cab fares.   

As a counter-analogy, how about as they say about yachts, it's not getting it that's so costly, it's keeping it.  In this economy, even rich people are unloading their yachts left and right because they can no longer afford the upkeep. You might say that they had no business getting one in the first place.  If you see what I am suggesting. 

The Nation's Outlook on Trains
Bullet trains may be sidetracked, but not commuter rail.

Peter Harkness, founder and publisher emeritus of GOVERNING, now serves as a co-writer of the Potomac Chronicle column. He launched GOVERNING in 1987 after serving as editor and deputy publisher of the Congressional Quarterly news service.

Why does this country have such a problem with trains that carry people?

It isn’t just the intercity rail system, which is something of a joke everywhere but the Northeast Corridor -- and even there it’s a poor performer by international standards. But it’s also the aging “heavy” rail mass transit systems in cities like Atlanta, Chicago and Washington, D.C., which are facing huge bills for deferred maintenance, forcing service cutbacks and fare increases -- even as ridership has risen to levels not seen in more than 50 years. Light commuter rail has caught on in numerous cities, but there are problems in securing rights of way and controlling costs. Oddly, the bright spot is freight. The nation’s railways don’t handle passengers well, but they do a bang-up job hauling stuff -- much better than most other countries. Most passenger trains must travel on lines owned by thriving railroads, contributing to the congestion many commuter rail systems are experiencing.

The Obama administration is more sympathetic to rail transit than its predecessors. It proposed a historic expansion of the rail passenger system, including building a national high-speed network of bullet trains with an initial $8 billion down payment in stimulus money (with more promised) to a few states for some modest projects to get things going.

The problem is that the newly elected Republican governors of states where much of the money was supposed to go -- like Ohio and Wisconsin, and maybe Florida -- don’t want it, at least not for high-speed rail. They’ll gladly take it for auto infrastructure like roads, bridges and highways. But U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Peoria, Ill., won’t agree to that: It’s accept rail or hit the trail, and the money will go to states that want it.

Recently the greater New York area was stunned by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to pull his state out of a long-planned project -- described as the largest public transit program in the country -- to build a second rail tunnel beneath the Hudson River to ease the commute by 45 minutes for Jersey residents who work in New York City. With substantial overruns, it was estimated to cost as much as $13 billion. Christie’s state was on the hook for $2.7 billion, plus the added costs for its share of the project, which already is under construction. Much is at stake, including 6,000 construction jobs.

Making significant improvements in rail service in this country seems like a no-brainer. Ridership is increasing. The highways and airways are overburdened. It’s far more energy efficient and cleaner, and compared to cars, it’s safer. If done right, it can be one of the most effective economic development tools available. But it’s also very expensive and requires a sustained commitment over many decades. And right now, governments are deep in debt.

Critics of Obama’s high-speed rail plan make several points. The project will cost far too much in initial outlays and subsidies to justify the benefits, siphoning off the funding of worthier programs, including commuter mass transit. The United States has become a suburbanized society, sprawling over a large land mass, with only a few places having sufficient population density to warrant intercity rail service. To be successful in any area except the Northeast Corridor, high-speed trains would have to make too many stops, and therefore would be too slow to compete.

Given the political changes in the new Congress and in many states, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll see many bullet trains whizzing through our future. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that all is lost for rail advocates. The incoming chairman of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Florida Republican John Mica, is outspoken in his opposition to the administration’s plan, which he claims is likely to lead to many “slow-speed trains to nowhere.” But he does support what he calls “a better directed high-speed rail program.”

What’s that likely to mean? The first demonstration grant of $1.25 billion linking Tampa to Orlando may go through, despite the concerns of high-speed rail advocates. They believe that it could set back their cause because there are five stops along its 84-mile route, so it will only cut 30 minutes off the trip by car.

Mica and others argue that the best way to spend limited resources now would be to first invest in improving dense corridors -- like in the Northeast, where Amtrak’s Acela service already exceeds the airlines in passenger volume between Washington, D.C., and New York City, even though track conditions prevent the trains from maintaining high speeds. The Los Angeles-to-San Francisco corridor also might qualify.

Beyond that, most advocates and critics can agree on the need to make strategic improvements where there now are serious bottlenecks in the system that delay both freight and commuter trains, like around Chicago or New York.

Meanwhile, the political jockeying over passenger rail money continues. California and other states will receive more federal funds because Ohio and Wisconsin are turning them down, prompting the Los Angeles Times to chortle, “This is sort of like turning down a free car because you don’t want to have to pay for gasoline and insurance.”

Where the game is being changed: Washington

This is the kind of news we have been following:  What is happening in Washington regarding high-speed rail?  

The mood in Washington, especially among key players such as John Mica, seems to be that if any high-speed rail is to be built anywhere in the US, it ought to be in the Northeast corridor, between Boston and Washington.  Oddly enough, we have been saying this at least since 2008. Well, better late than never.

The reasons for this position are well described in the article, below. One of the points made here is never discussed by the HSR promoters.  That what is likely to be built here in the US (if they ever get enough funding, which does not seem likely) is already obsolete in terms of cutting edge rail technology.  Japan and other countries, especially China, are working on trains far faster than the 220 mph technology we covet.  So, to put it into terms that are so popular among politicians, in the world of high-speed trains, the US can never be more than #2, second best.  Can we, with our hyperinflated egos,  live with that?

The message has become, if the trains are only fast enough, bring back the trains.  Never mind the costs. Regardless of the costs, we must have our high-speed trains or appear weak to other nations.
Note that within the rage for high-speed rail, only in California or Florida is real high-speed even an issue. The other states are happy to put those few dollars into their regular Amtrak passenger upgrades so that they go faster than they do now.

About the Northeast corridor.  Spending well over $100 billion dollars -- perhaps twice that much or more -- buys us a HSR travel time saving of 2 hours and fifteen minutes. In reality, it won't be anything close to that time saving.  It never is.  And, those who actually require that time benefit can and do fly.  For the rest of us, it's obviously a high-priced luxury we really don't need, especially at those capital costs and premium ticket prices. 

Said another way, there's something whimsical and self-indulgent about these HSR trains; somewhat like cosmetic surgery.  It's nice to have that nose or boob job; but do we really need it?  And, if we want it so much, should all us taxpayers be obliged to buy it?  I don't think so. 

Other issues.  Public/private partnerships.  Even if the government does build the trains, that rail system will be money losers requiring a permanent heart/lung machine support from each and every state with a HSR corridor.  They play; we pay.  So, why would any private investor put his or her money into a money loser? 

So, to ask that question again, who will be willing to invest in a project such as this? Nobody, unless there are government secured guarantees of an investment return.  Boy, is that a bad deal for us!  And, it's illegal in California.  Read AB3034.  That legislation prohibits any subsequent state revenues beyond the bond measure itself.  That means, no state guarantees. And, that in turn means no private investments.

As we read various legislator comments, the realities of low-ball cost projections and predictable cost overruns are finally getting a lot more attention, and it's about time.

Whatever cost estimates are being put forward, either for our California disaster-in-the-making, or the projected and now popular Northeast Coast corridor, we can already safely predict three and maybe four times as much.  Where will that much money come from?  Borrowing.  Who pays for the costs of such borrowing?  Why, we do, of course.  Unless the government finally says no.

Keep your eye on Washington.  


House Transportation Committee Knocks High-Speed Rail Funding Plan

by Lauren Darson

January 28, 2011  -  Members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Thursday criticized high-speed rail funding plans by suggesting that the $8 billion set aside from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for projects around the country instead should be pumped almost exclusively into the Northeast Corridor--where only $109 million was allocated. Committee members argued that high-speed rail development between Boston, New York and Washington would ease chronic airport delays in the region.

"This is our nation's most congested corridor, on land and in the air," said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairing the committee's first hearing of the 112th Congress. "Seventy percent of our chronically delayed flights begin in New York airspace. [Amtrak] Acela is moving at a snail's pace. Instead of providing a visionary transportation link in America, we continue to support an antiquated unproductive corridor that struggles to meet the needs of its many users."

Also including such cities as Baltimore and Philadelphia, the Northeast Corridor accounts for nearly a fifth of the U.S. population and is the only region in which Amtrak is profitable.

Amtrak's Northeast Corridor Infrastructure Master Plan, issued in June 2010, called for a $52 billion capital investment over 20 years. Committee members chastised this plan, claiming that the development outlined in it would actually require at least $117 billion and not be completed until 2040. Members pointed out that the plan would not go far enough in achieving President Barack Obama's goal of providing "within 25 years" high-speed rail access to "80 percent of Americans," according to his Jan. 25 State of the Union address.

At the current pace, "Amtrak will never be capable of developing the corridor to its true high-speed potential," Mica said. "The task is too complex and too large-scale and can only be addressed with the help of private-sector expertise. They will never get the funding for it with the plan that they currently proposed."

Said Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Penn.), who serves as chairman of the subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials: "Unfortunately, the United States is far behind the curve on high-speed rail. Europe [has] been at work for decades on an impressive high-speed rail network. Japan is working on a new high-speed train that will carry passengers at up to 310 miles per hour between Osaka and Tokyo, augmenting their existing bullet trains. And China is spending nearly $300 billion to develop 8,000 miles of new high-speed track by 2020."

According to testimony from former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, "We are spending money to go from 83 miles an hour to 110 miles an hour. If we are going to compete with those countries, it's too slow. We've got to get real."

Currently, Amtrak Acela between New York and Washington reaches a top speed of 83 miles per hour. Between New York and Boston, it tops out at 72 miles per hour.

Presented during the hearing, a University of Pennsylvania study on high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor estimated that $98 billion would be needed to build two dedicated high-speed rail tracks between Boston to Washington. If built, those tracks could cut total trip time by 45 minutes between New York and Boston, and by 90 minutes between New York and Washington.

Although the National Business Travel Association did not submit testimony for the hearing, director of public policy Shane Downey previously indicated that NBTA supports high-speed rail funding, but only if there is a better plan.

Footing The Bill

Committee members and those testifying agreed that $8 billion for high-speed rail scratches the surface of the total funding needed.

According to Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), "For eight years under the Bush Administration, zero funds went to Amtrak. This is the first time we have made a major investment in high-speed rail. This is beginning."

Some Republican representatives advocated that tracks be leased to the private sector but representatives from Goldman Sachs & Co. and Morgan Stanley questioned how quickly a return on investment would be realized.

"Certainly public funds can be leveraged through private investment; however, it is a delicate balancing act," said Goldman Sachs managing director John Ma. "What risk will the public retain and what would be moved to the private?"

Separately, the Republican caucus this month in a set of recommendations on cutting government spending suggested that annual Amtrak funding be slashed by $1.5 billion annually. The committee's Republicans said Amtrak funds have been "mismanaged." They seek "stronger accountability and reform of rail service."

Source: Business Travel News

Edited by Jay Campbell, David Jonas and Mary Ann McNulty     © 2011 by Northstar Travel Media, LLC

Throwing away our old toys in order to buy new ones

We've been advocating the termination of the California High-Speed Rail project for many reasons, primarily that it's unnecessary and it costs far too much.

In that case, what should we be 'investing' (Obama's term) in? Well, here's an article that says that the infrastructure in our state, in this case around Sacramento, is a mess, and getting worse to the point of dangerous.  And, the article does not talk about the levees surrounding the state capital, which are also on the edge of failure.

This article -- a well argued and documented paper, actually -- outlines what work needs to be done on the infrastructure, the bridges and highways, in and around Sacramento, the capital of California.  To remind you, this is the state that is eager to spend hundreds of billions on a high-speed train which, if you like irony, will run along several of the highways that are in such dreadful shape.

Why this is such an issue is that we are embedded in a zero-sum game.  There isn't enough funding for everything.  Indeed, there isn't enough funding for almost anything.  Draconian choices must be made.  Well, those choices are being made and being made very badly.

What this article illustrates is very scary. I'm not persuaded by the reassurances offered by CALTRANS personnel who, being bureaucrats, are obliged to first and foremost cover their own behinds, who tell us not to worry; everything is under their control.  I not relieved to hear that, are you?  

We have heard a great deal about how high-speed rail must be built because if it isn't, we will have to build many more lanes of highway and many more airport runways instead.  That is such malicious BS.  We will need highway expansion and airport capacity regardless of what other transit capabilities are on the drawing board.

But, this no-win Hobson's choice that the CHSRA loves to throw at us ignores the fact that we are ignoring the fact that our current infrastructure, upon which we depend, is in deplorable state and neglect.

Same argument, over and over. Should we be spending our far too limited state resources on a zippy new luxury train AT THE EXPENSE of not fixing what we have and must use? How dumb is that?

And, this article is about the area surrounding Sacramento.  What about the rest of California?  Apparently, we can't afford to fix anything and thus watch it crumble and fall down.  At the same time, we can lavish millions and billions on a shiny new toy for the well to do.  What sense does that make?

Wake up, California, and smell the roses!

A Towering Challenge
by Isaac Gonzalez
January 30, 2011 at 8:33AM
Bridge maintenance difficulties abundant in Sacramento

It’s no secret to the daily drivers in the Sacramento region that our local roads, freeways and even bridges have some less-than-perfect driving conditions. Any observant motorist can attest to this fact with their own experiences of avoiding potholes, deciphering sometimes illegible road markings, and bracing for strong bumps when crossing gaps between roadway segments.

What may surprise you, however, is the staggering amount of data freely available to the public which, when drawn together, paints a dire portrait for the future of Sacramento roads. In a nutshell: There are many existing problems we know about, not enough money to properly contain these problems in a timely fashion, and not nearly enough funding dedicated for proactive maintenance projects or to build the new infrastructure needed to replace functionally obsolete roads and bridges.


There is a fable which says if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The same metaphor could ring true for the public’s inability to react to significant changes that occur slowly over time.(1) It could even be said that the I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse of 2007 is a terrific example of this idiom.

The warning signs were visible to those in charge of bridge maintenance and safety in Minnesota. In 1990 the federal government gave the I-35W bridge a rating of “structurally deficient,” mainly because of the significant amount of corrosion in its bearings. In 2001 the University of Minnesota’s civil engineering department released a study highlighting the cracking in cross girders near the ends of the approach spans. Finally, in 2005 the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Bridge Inventory database found signs of fatigue and brought up the possibility of the need to replace the bridge entirely.

Despite all of these warnings, on Aug. 1, 2007, the I-35W bridge fell into the Mississippi River during the evening rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145. Officials were either unaware of or grossly unable to fully understand the fragility of the bridge. Despite its impending doom, at the time of the collapse there were over half a million pounds of construction supplies and equipment on the bridge for crews to replace lighting, concrete and guard rails.(2)


While the roads and bridges in the Sacramento region do not copy the “Truss Arch” design that proved faulty in Minnesota, they do share other commonalities. These include their age, heavy truck use and the same federal rating of being “structurally deficient” in many cases. Perhaps one of the most glaring examples of road fatigue that observers were able to witness with their own eyes until recently was the off-ramp for the Eastbound “W X” Highway 50 to Highway 99 South.

For several years, large makeshift steel braces held up one section of roadway that was separating from the other. Drivers above the bracing could feel a large jolt as they drove over the crumbling “hinge.” This shift in the bridge span also produced a visible change in road elevation between sections. Last summer a construction bid was awarded to a private firm and work began to build a new concrete pylon to provide support to the off-ramp. Finally, near the end of 2010, work was completed and the temporary bracing was removed.(3)

The bump on the roadway still remains and, according to CalTrans, will be smoothed out sometime in the spring when warm weather conditions are more conductive to concrete work. But what of the dozen or so other local bridges that appear to share the same visible road-elevation changes between sections of roadway?


Most of the major elevated freeways built in the Downtown Sacramento area were built in the 1960s.(4) They are a mix of bridges and ramps that span over earth, rivers and, in some cases, over other roads. Most have flexible divisions which are designed to allow the road to give and take depending on mitigating factors such as heat, cold and rising tides. These divisions sometimes connect elevated sections back to sections of road that are on improvised mounds of earth. It is at these sections that the careful observer can see astonishing changes in roadway elevation.

The Highway 99 South bump was between two sections that were suspended in the air. In the sections highlighted in this article’s photographs, most of these elevation changes occur between sections that join bridge to earth. But just like the Highway 99 South off-ramp, these sections share the same alarming visible fatigue, and one can be easily left wondering how seriously and with what amount of urgency these problems are being given attention. To eliminate what would otherwise be axle-breaking bumps between road sections, maintenance crews have added more and more asphalt to the road to mitigate the change in road elevation. While this method treats the symptoms, it does little to cure the cause.

Seeking another opinion, I spoke with Sacramento native August Smarkel, a UC Berkeley civil engineering graduate with a master’s degree in geotechnical engineering. He emphasized the importance of following the planned scheduled maintenance as laid out by the original designers of our local roadways, as well as ongoing evaluation of existing condition of the roadway. He noted the difficulties in doing so while working with different gubernatorial administrations beholden to the real-world conditions of their day and complicated annual budgets.

Smarkel also pointed out the significance of proper oversight when dealing with private contractors. One scenario foreseen was a contractor concluding that if one project finished over budget, an incentive would be created to bring the next project under budget to compensate for lost profits. A less-than-ideal contractor may use substandard materials or a lower level of acceptable finish quality to cover previous job losses. The need for independent quality control and responsible project management with open lines of dialogue between designers and construction crews becomes paramount to ensure efficient roadway preservation.

While these may just be the opinions of local observers who lack the thorough knowledge of the day-to-day operations of the responsible governmental entities, it is still an inarguable fact that these bridges are only getting older every day. It is also safe to say that they will require extreme amounts of money and construction work over the next 10 years if they are to continue to be the main arteries that move people and commerce in the capital city.(5)


In the evening hours of Jan. 19, multiple lanes of Highway 99 South between 12th Avenue and Fruitridge Road were closed so that previously unscheduled roadwork could be done to resurface a bump on the freeway which extended across several bridge decks. According to CalTrans public relations officer Carol Herman, the work was only a temporary fix until more substantial repairs can be done during warmer weather in the upcoming months.

This construction work caused major congestion during the Jan. 20 morning commute, which I can attest to personally. I commute daily from 65th Street and Folsom Boulevard to Norwood via I-80, and pass under Highway 99 South at Highway 50. Normally at 6:45 a.m., the time at which I pass this interchange daily, traffic is fluid. On the morning of the 20th, as per the warnings I heard via multiple traffic reports, I witnessed for myself the parking lot that formed on the adjacent off-ramps. Traffic was unusually congested, until one passed the Highway 99 on-ramps. Within the scope of possibilities outlined in this article, it’s effortless to imagine a future where such inconveniences become a more common occurrence.


Being surrounded on two sides by rivers, Sacramento is hugely dependent on our roads and bridges for normal daily life to continue. If one or more of these bridges were ever forced to close entirely for major repair or due to their failure, business in the Sacramento region could slow to a crawl. Another troubling fact is the sheer amount of bridges in the Sacramento region: 472. Many of these bridges are in the rural areas and are important transportation routes critical for the production of agriculture. Every day, on average, over 22 million vehicles travel on them, and, of that, 1.8 million of them are heavy trucks. 

These heavy trucks are one of the most critical factors in pavement deterioration, as one fully loaded 80,000-pound truck causes as much wear as 10,000 automobiles. Compound that with the fact that heavy truck travel has grown at a 50 percent higher rate than autos in the last 20 years, and you have the recipe for the poor pavement conditions we’re dealing with presently.

The Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) said as much in its report on road maintenance through 2035. They warn that gasoline taxes have failed to cover less than 20 percent of what the region needs for road maintenance and rehabilitation. Tax revenues have not kept pace with inflation, due in part to corporate fleet reductions and the improved fuel economy of newer vehicles. While the region currently spends over $250 million a year on road maintenance, SACOG estimates that figure will grow to over $1.2 billion a year in just 15 years. Rather than focusing on preventative maintenance, which in the long run is more cost effective and lengthens the life of the of the roadwork, most of the region’s transportation agencies elect to do “quick-and-dirty” deferred maintenance. This only applies “band-aids” to the symptoms of larger problems. In the long run, agencies spend more money and get less favorable results by going this route. In this current climate of reduced tax revenues and our national recession, budget conditions allow for little else but these “patch jobs.”(6)

According to the 2009 National Bridge Inventory, many of the bridges spanning our local waterways are either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete.”(7) Even so, Sacramento County typically only budgets for one bridge repair project annually, and these projects average under $100,000.(8) The lack of proper maintenance eventually gets passed down to the motorist in the form of wear and tear on their vehicles. The average Sacramento motorist will pay an additional $609 annually in added vehicle operating costs due to poor roads. That is a number which is almost twice the average of the rest of the country, and the sixth highest average of regions with populations over 1 million nationwide.


For the past 84 years, the California State Department of Transportation, CalTrans, has been responsible for over 12,000 bridges. In that time, none of their bridges have collapsed due to neglect. Despite the fact that many bridges are well beyond their design service life, State Bridge Maintenance Engineer Dolores Valls is certain that CalTrans’ aggressive inspection and maintenance program is working in a manner that will allow the bridges to continue to serve the public reliably.

“As the transportation system ages, it will require increased attention, much like a patient reaching middle age needs more frequent visits to the doctor than a teenager to remain healthy,” Valls said via e-mail. “Making sure those structures, including the more than 400 state highway bridges in the greater Sacramento area, continue to provide safe and reliable service requires the ongoing support of the public and the full-time attention of a special unit of 200 trained engineering professionals.”

Even though Director Cindy McKim says that “the state of California’s economic difficulties only make our work more challenging,” CalTrans is confident in the safety and dependably of state bridges. She acknowledges that the current network of bridges is crucial to our economic prosperity, as billions of dollars of commerce depend on their existence. But recently when over $1 billion in funding appropriations were announced, less than $900,000 was allocated to the repair of an existing bridge.(9) A majority of funding is set to be used for the addition of more lanes on existing freeways, the purchasing of buses and light rail trains for local governments, and building traffic control systems to reduce congestion times. $65 million will be spent on parts of the Sacramento River Bridge, but only to add HOV, median and auxiliary lanes on the existing roadway. Hopefully some of that monies goes to ensuring that the “W X” can handle the added weight.


The items covered in this article are not the beginning or the end of the challenges facing the roads and bridges in the greater Sacramento area. The damaging effects of seismic activity, flooding, major accidents with chemical spills, and even the corrosive nature of some bird droppings also deserve a thorough investigation.(10) The continuing commitment of state and federal resources to maintain the ongoing use of our vital passages for commerce and transportation could prove to be the logistical nightmare of the next few decades. Combine the general public’s perceived lack of awareness to the existence of these problems and the current uncertain economic climate in the ongoing global recession, and one is left guessing how much of a priority this can be to those who responsibility it is to ensure proper funding for road safety and operations.

It is important to stress at this point that this information is not meant to sway the reader into blindly adopting one opinion about the current state of local bridges over another. The genesis of this article was simply daily observations by the author. These observations resulted in further research of publicly searchable databases and scrutiny of similar historical events.
It is the only hope of the author that upon the conclusion of reading this article the reader is motivated to do their own research and observation and to come to their own conclusions. If after proper scrutiny the consensus is that our bridges are in good working order and are being managed responsibly, then there is nothing to be concerned about and the motorists of Sacramento can draw comfort from the fact that their roads and bridges are safe.

But if the contrary is true, and it turns out our bridges deserve an immediate increase of funding and attention to fix or replace anything that may be an eminent danger to the public, one can only hope that this compilation of information begins the debate that prevents any incident which otherwise could cause economic and bodily harm.

(4) Images of America, Sacramento’s Midtown. Arcadia Publishing 2006
(7) Search results from
(*) Google Map Images used following Fair Use under the Permission Guidelines for Google Maps and Google Earth. Permission Guidelines for Google Maps and Google Earth Fair Use Policy:
Representatives from CalTrans were forthcoming with information when asked and very helpful in the framing of this article. I invite them to continue the discussion in the comments section below.

From Wendell Cox: High-Speed Rail; Budget Buster

High-speed rail promoters hate him.  For good reason.  Wendell Cox brings clarity and rationality to a situation about which most of us learn only from the press release rhetoric of the HSR advocates.  What Cox does, in a rigorous and almost academic way, is to say that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes.  

What emperor wants to hear that?  And, you'll have to admit there's something very imperial about the imposition of the high-speed rail on the backs of all Californians, even those who thought they wanted it in 2008.

Cox's point is that if HSR funding is not included in Washington's deficit reduction plans, we can be assured that there really are no genuine intentions to reduce the deficit.  Please note, in the budget cutting furor in Sacramento at the hand of the new Governor, Jerry Brown, what is being slashed and what appears to be immune to budget cutting? Higher Education, for example, is getting a huge hit.  Is that a problem?

Higher education produces the seed corn for the State's economy; that is, educated individuals who will contribute the advanced skills necessary to restore the innovation and manufacturing productivity of the next generation of everything, sort of like the computer revolution.

Which do you think will contribute more to California's economic future, a high-speed luxury train, or a highly educated work-force?  You know, of course, that unemployment impacts the least educated the hardest.  Those with four years or more of college experience only a 5% unemployment rate rather than the 15% unemployment of those with only a high-school degree.  So, you might ask, do we have to make a choice here?  The answer is, a choice is being made, whether we like it or not, and it's the wrong choice.

Jerry Brown is also cutting support for all those social benefits that define this state as a civilized, caring society.  He's belt tightening.  But, you should ask whose belt is being tightened, and whose isn't?  Who in the government's agencies is going to be laid off, and who isn't?  Is the rail authority being asked to downsize, as so many other state government agencies are?

In short, Brown is not -- not yet at least -- touching the high costs to the state that is the high-speed rail project.  As I've explained many times, it's not the bonds that pay for the work on the train, it's the California taxpayers who have to cover the interest and principal of those bonds.  He had said several times, everything is on the table.  He obviously doesn't mean it, since HSR has been one of his pet projects for decades.

Although the rail authority in California has already spent an amount approaching one billion dollars, the real cash flow hasn't started yet.  But, unless it's stopped, it will.    

Reminds me of an old joke.  Man comes home and says to his wife, "I saved $500. today." "How did you do that?" she asks.  He says, "You know the sign on the subway that says '$500. fine for spitting?'. . . . Well, I didn't spit."   My point?  We can save billions in this state and nation if we don't spit; that is, build this wasteful, unnecessary train.  


JANUARY 31, 2011 4:00 A.M.
High-Speed Rail, Budget Buster 

Virtually everywhere it has been constructed, taxpayers have lost out.

If the nation is going to reduce its out-of-control spending, the first step is to stop spending money on things we do not need. Despite President Obama’s call in his State of the Union speech for linking 80 percent of the nation by high-speed rail, it is hard to imagine a more unnecessary program.

For example, people who travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco — along the route planned for one of the nation’s first high-speed-rail projects — already have choices. They can fly, drive, take the bus, or travel by train. True, some would prefer to tax their fellow citizens so that they can have another choice, high-speed rail. But indulging this desire would be as legitimate as funding government grocery stores for people who prefer not to shop at their local grocery chains.

Among intercity transport modes, only Amtrak is materially subsidized. User fees pay virtually all the costs of airlines and airports, which (together with connecting ground transportation) link any two points in the nation within a day. The intercity highway system goes everywhere, and nearly all of it was built with user fees paid by drivers, truckers, and bus companies.

High-speed rail is a budget buster. Japan, with the world’s leading system, illustrates the financial devastation that high-speed rail can produce. For 25 years, Japan borrowed to build a system serving the ideal rail corridor, nestled along a single coast with a population of more than 75 million people. Ridership was artificially increased by high gasoline prices and one of the highest highway tolls in the world. Yet this modest system, only twice as long as proposed California system, played a major role in driving up a gargantuan rail debt that was transferred to Japanese taxpayers. The rail debt added more than 10 percent to the national debt. This is akin to adding $1.4 trillion to the U.S. national debt.

Virtually everywhere high-speed rail has been constructed, financial liability has fallen to the taxpayers. In Taiwan and the United Kingdom, taxpayers assumed billions of dollars in private debts for much more modest high-speed-rail systems than Japan’s.

All of this could have been avoided. Through the years, high-speed-rail cost overruns have been well documented. Most recently, research by Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University, Nils Bruzelius of Stockholm University, and Werner Rothengatter of the University of Karlsruhe (a former president of the influential World Conference on Transportation Research) found that passenger-rail cost overruns above 40 percent were common and that overruns above 80 percent were not uncommon. Overruns can go even higher: On Korea’s high-speed-rail project, they were between 200 and 300 percent, the president of the country’s rail system said.

High-speed-rail cost escalation has reached these shores. Even before the first shovel has been turned, California’s high-speed-rail costs have risen at least 50 percent, inflation adjusted. The cost estimates for the first approved section of the Los Angeles–to–San Francisco line, a “train to nowhere” from Corcoran to Borden, indicate escalation beyond $45 billion.

In Florida, boosters tell taxpayers that their liability for the Tampa to Orlando high-speed-rail line would be only $280 million, and that, somehow, a private bidder will shower additional billions upon them to pay any cost overruns.

Boosters also claim that high-speed rail will provide substantial environmental benefits, reduce highway-traffic congestion, and ease air-traffic congestion. Yet, as Joseph Vranich and I showed in the Reason Foundation’s “Due Diligence” report on California’s high-speed-rail proposal, the cost per ton of greenhouse gas removed would be from $1,900 to $10,000. This is 40 to 250 times what the International Panel on Climate Change research indicates greenhouse-gas removal should cost ($50 per ton). Our estimate does not account for the revised (much lower) ridership projection. Even the rosy reports produced by boosters show that high-speed rail would remove only a small percentage of cars from the roads. The hope of reducing air congestion is just as elusive because travel origins and destinations are so dispersed in the United States and because the number of people forsaking air travel for high-speed rail will be small.

Voters gave the new Republican House of Representatives a mandate to cut spending. Zeroing high-speed rail out of the federal budget may be the litmus test. If Congress fails to stop this costly and unnecessary program, it would call into question the commitment to spending reduction.
— Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public-policy consultancy in St. Louis.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Listen to Florida and learn about California HSR

Here's an article by Bruce Seaman from the Marion County Democrats Examiner. That's in Florida, and he writes about high-speed rail in Florida and why it's, shall we say, premature.  Their governor has not yet agreed to go ahead, to accept the federal stimulus dollars and have their project get under way.

What's most important about Bruce Seaman's comments is in his last three paragraphs.  The essence is, build urban and regional mass transit that actually works before you venture out on far more costly inter-city high-speed rail.  The way he puts it in the last two sentences is:  " If you wanted to learn good math skills, you wouldn’t start with calculus. If you wanted to develop effective mass transit in Florida, you shouldn’t start with high speed rail."  

He's talking about Florida but that's just as true of California.  Indeed, Seaman has an inflated and overly optimistic view of California.  No, we don't have a "sense of need for public transit."  We have endless political agendas keeping all our transit operators in both major population regions fighting with one another over insufficient scraps of funding.  

This is my whole point in bringing Seaman's observation to the table.  All this noise and effort to build a single, inter-city train from San Francisco to Los Angeles is the last thing, not the first thing that this state needs.  What we need first is a commuter transit system that works.  We need it in the Bay Area and we need it in the Los Angeles Basin.  We need urban and regional connectivity; networked.

I find it a stunning irony and note an obvious case of naked political expediency that we are starting HSR construction where it is least needed, in the Central Valley.  Where, if anywhere, it should begin is between Los Angeles and San Diego, the second busiest transit corridor in the US.  But, that makes too much sense and doesn't have political leverage where the action is. 

To use Seaman's expression, to learn math, you don't start with calculus.  That's a lesson Europe learned inasmuch as they added high-speed to regular speed and express speed in their rail network which was already highly efficient and highly integrated into their lives and culture.  The difference between Europe or Asia and us?  Day and night. 

So, back to California. Let's give my fellow Democrats the benefit of the doubt.  They want to do the right thing for California; provide jobs, benefit the economy.  To them I say, HSR is the worst possible way to do it. Costs too much, provides too little.  Providing for jobs two years from now flies in the face of the intent of the stimulus dollars.  And, here I don't even want to get into the insane mismanagement of this project. 

On the other hand, how about supporting the expansion of the urban/regional public mass transit systems already in place and struggling to keep their heads above water? How about employing workers to fix and to build, to upgrade and repair, to connect and expand?  Why not put the money where the people already are and need to get around and suffer from traffic gridlock BECAUSE the urban/regional public mass transit systems suck?

This is not rocket surgery.  This is plain, American common sense.  What the hell is happening to us?

High Speed Rail Needs More Than Money and Speed to Succeed

January 30th, 2011 5:00 pm ET
I grew up a stone’s throw from train tracks and have always delighted at the thunderous roar of any train barreling past. I love trains and think that we’ve missed opportunities to promote rail travel in our transportation systems. But I’m a doubter about Florida’s high speed rail plans.

The project has tens of billions in federal funds lined up. Yet, along with California, Florida is on the fence about accepting the funds they had sought. Wisconsin and Ohio refused their funding already.

Yes, thousands of good construction jobs will be generated in two states with about 12% unemployment. The economic ripple effect of such funding alone could be enormous.

Both California and Florida have major cities in their long geographies linked only by hundreds of miles of highways burdened with belching, crawling vehicles. These states beg for high speed rail connections; San Diego-Los Angeles-San Francisco-Sacramento, Jacksonville-Orlando-Tampa/St. Pete-Miami/Dade.

While there may be opinion that Florida is the best positioned for starting up high speed rail, it is really in no position to sell the case to leery anti-government politicians, a skeptical public, or anyone else besides the feds who seem desperate for someone to take this money.

What Florida lacks (and what California has in far greater measure) is first and foremost, a sense of need for public transit

This is still an issue in California but in the last 20 years or so, successful integrated rapid transit systems have grown in all the cities mentioned – yes, even Sacramento has a fledgling light rail system. In California, they (the politicians and the public) are more likely to “get it” than in Florida where the motto of our major road contractor in Marion County applies statewide: “Pave it!” Californians have invested in transit systems and those systems have (eventually) worked well enough to get the go-ahead for further development. You can’t point to any such successes in Florida.

The second thing Florida lacks is the sense to integrate transit systems. In all the talk about high speed rail between Tampa and Orlando – the first leg proposed – the blindingly simple idea of connecting the two downtown areas was lost as Orlando’s link stops at the airport. Granted, Orlando is far more sprawling than Tampa-St. Pete and lacks a well-defined downtown, but isn’t the system designed for residents as well as theme park tourists? Um, maybe.

Further, neither Tampa nor Orlando has a light rail system. I mean they have nothing, nada, nichts. The bus networks suck lemons in both metro areas. They have plans in Hillsborough (HART) and Tampa Bay (TBARTA), and there’s Sunrail, but only plans.  Today they are no more prepared for high speed rail than they are for visitors from Mars. Okay, maybe they are better prepared for visitors from Mars – there’s Disney, right? If a high speed rail user arrived at either destination, they would need to get “beamed” a la Star Trek wherever they needed to go because they would largely be stranded at the mercy of a hapless schedule of aimless buses or a nice expensive cab. Here’s one tourist’s tale of woe:
When they took the public bus from Tampa to the Salvador Dali Museum in nearby St. Petersburg, a major draw in the region, they found themselves on a journey that lasted more than two and half hours to go less than 20 miles.
Finally, local and state politicians have no idea how a mass transit system is supposed to work or how high speed rail functions as a component within it. They seem convinced that strangers will use this alien mode of transit, but not them and not their constituents. Thus, it’s no surprise that ridership estimates for this high speed system indicate few people would in fact use it.

Billions of dollars in federal transportation funds look really good, and Florida could certainly benefit from the investment in transit systems, not to mention the thousands of jobs. However, before building high speed rail, preliminary developments need funding (desperately) even more.
Funding for light rail is a must for the burgeoning Florida cities mentioned, together with vastly upgraded and integrated bus transit, and the formulation of comprehensive strategic transportation plans. These plans must envision sustainable development that’s backed up with strict zoning controls on developers, curbing the infatuation with tracts of sprawl and instead generating hubs for transit, commerce, tourism, health, education, and entertainment.
It will be many years before such changes in thought and practice occur in Florida. All Florida could do now is squander billions. If you wanted to learn good math skills, you wouldn’t start with calculus. If you wanted to develop effective mass transit in Florida, you shouldn’t start with high speed rail.

Waking the Sleeping Giant in the Central Valley and Other Matters

As you all know, the California high-speed rail project is slated to start construction in the Central Valley in 2012.  The current thinking (I wouldn't call it a plan) is to connect the tracks from north of Fresno (Merced?)  to somewhere near, but not in Bakersfield.

This letter to the editor, below, is from a Bakersfield based blog or newspaper (?).  Since unemployment is quite severe in the rural Central Valley, as high as 15% among construction workers, the assumption is that the HSR project will bring tons of dollars and jobs into the region.  Nonetheless, many people have been doing some homework and have come to realize that there are downsides to this project.  The word is getting around.  Here are some of the issues raised by this letter writer:

• The freight carriers, which dominate the rail corridors in the Central Valley, are less than enthusiastic about HSR for a number of reasons, not the least of which is corridor incompatibility and liability. This problem exists at the national level as well.  Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) has made it clear to the CHSRA that they reject any access to their own owned rail corridors and even wish HSR to be at some distance from their rights of way. 

• People in the Central Valley are beginning to realize the true costs of HSR.  It's not free.  It will be built with borrowed money and with tax dollars.  Their (and our) tax dollars.  Furthermore, they are coming to understand that the blather about this train being profitable/producing a revenue surplus, is just that, nonsense.  It will cost the state to operate this train tax dollars subsidies from all of us, including all of us who will never ride this train.

• It will use electricity and that's not free either.  All that talk about renewable energy is hugely exaggerated at this time and may not become an economic reality for at least one or more generations.  Power costs are rising.  Much of the power is carbon-fuel based.  The California power grid is pretty much maxxed out. One estimate suggests that the HSR will consume as much as 1% of total state electricity consumption.

• Stimulus dollars are borrowed dollars.  Those need to be repaid and there is an interest burden on those dollars. The bond dollars are borrowed dollars.  Each dollar borrowed will cost the state $2 dollars.  Those will be repaid with tax dollars.  In short, the train will increase our state and national debt.  The question then becomes, is that cost/effective?  Is this train the investment with huge returns that Obama and the CHSRA are promising, such as in reducing unemployment and boosting the economy, or are all those promises not much more than promotional hyperbole?  Well, you know the answer to which side we stand on this question.

The Central Valley poses an unacknowledged (by the rail authority) illegality in the current plan intentions.  It doesn't meet a number of the conditions required in the authorizing language of AB3034.  We're watching closely to see how that plays out. 

And on a different, less related matter.  One of the smartest bloggers out there is Clem Tillier.  His blog  pertains to the Bay Area Peninsula Caltrain corridor, which now runs the commuter train and anticipates the high-speed train.  His newest blog posting is about "The Future of Caltrain, Without HSR."

Many of us on the Peninsula don't want the high-speed train on the Caltrain corridor, but do very much wish to preserve a commuter train from San Jose to San Francisco.  But maybe not the one that is currently not well managed by the Caltrain/Joint Powers Board organization, and that is also in charge of managing the deficit that is one step away from bankruptcy.  All of which is to say, that although I disagree with Clem's HSR advocacy, I respect the depth of his thinking and knowledge about all these issues pertaining to the Caltrain corridor.  In my mind, it's the only pro-HSR blog worth reading.
Paging the high-speed rail fairy
The Bakersfield Californian
Saturday, Jan 29 2011 11:03 PM

Regarding Barack Obama's State of the Union address and The Californian's Jan. 26 editorial on that event, "'New' energy, high-speed rail stars of speech," I have several observations.
* The Amtrak passenger rail system already requires massive subsidies year after year.
* Rail-freight companies, with existing right of way and vast know-how, refuse to consider high-speed (passenger) rail.
* I have serious doubts that wind and solar can get below 25 cents per kilowatt-hour without continuing major subsidy.
* I am curious to see what will happen when "1 million (subsidized) electric cars by 2015" get home on a hot, summer afternoon, plug the cars into the subsidized charger and turn on the house's air conditioner.
* I have serious doubts that the "$110 billion that remains from the $814 billion stimulus appropriation of 2009" is really on-hand, cash money, as opposed to more debt.
Speaking of all that, what is The Californian's take on the existence of the tooth fairy?