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.