I want to devote this particular blog entry to Ken Orski's latest discussion of what is being talked about in Washington about President Obama's comments about 80% of all Americans having high-speed rail access within 25 years.
These dramatic promises have their roots in President Kennedy's historical (1961) requirement that we get a man on the moon in ten years. That promise was made during the height of the cold war and the Soviet's launching of Sputnik. As the rest of Obama's speech indicated, when he said this was our "Sputnik moment," high-speed rail was intended to be this Administration's space race. We won it before and we will win it again.
Let's just agree here that the space race was based on competition with the only other super-power on the planet in possession of launch-capable nuclear weapons. Global peace was at stake with that race.
Getting to the moon itself was merely a demonstration of capability, a form of saber-rattling, and everyone knew it.
With Obama's constant references to economic competitiveness, the President was telling us that we are behind all the other high-speed rail operating nations and that we must get in front. How that can be a worthy ambition, by buying high-speed trains from China or Europe, is a mystery. And why we must have more toys than they do is also, frankly, silly posturing. The illogic is obvious; if we want to be more like them (with high-speed trains), how can we be any better than they are? Where's that "innovation" dimension that the President called for?
Anyhow, Orski's Innovation NewsBrief summary of the annual Transportation Research Board meeting and discussion of high-speed rail promises bears close reading.
One point I want to raise here. The rail advocates have one, presumably unimpeachable weapon in their armory; the California voters supported Proposition 1A, and therefore the State must have this project. That central point of theirs needs to be examined much more closely.
What was the language of Prop. 1A? What was promised? What were the costs? What were the benefits ? And, now, we should look at all the realities and what the rail authority has been saying about their project subsequent to the 2008 election. What's now in the pipeline is not what the voters voted for. They were scammed.
Vol. 22, No. 4
January 29, 2011
Notes from the TRB Annual Meeting
The Annual Meetings of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) have been a reliable barometer of the transportation community's interests, concerns and preoccupations of the day, and this year‚s meeting was no exception. Coinciding as it did with the President's State of the Union address and significant policy developments on Capitol Hill, attention of the participants was focused more than usual on the political theater playing out in the nation's capital. Judging by the standing- room-only conference sessions and crowded committee meetings, three issues stood out as the focus of interest : the future of transportation funding, the outlook for the federal transportation program and the prospects for high-speed rail. In order to do justice to each of these topics, we will cover the Conference and related developments in two installments. The first one (enclosed) deals with the High-Speed Rail program. The second Brief will cover discussions on Transportation Funding and the outlook for the Federal Surface Transportation program.
The President's Unserious Proposal
"Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail." With this ringing statement in his State of the Union address, President Obama injected new hope into the flagging spirits of high speed rail advocates. Predictably, spokesmen for industry associations, progressive advocacy groups and other stakeholder interests praised the President‚s goal as a symbol of his renewed commitment to support investment in infrastructure. But hardly any one we spoke to at the TRB meeting took the President‚s ambitious goal seriously.
"After listening to President Obama‚s remarks on high-speed rail, I am left with more questions than answers," observed Rep. Bill Shuster, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Railroads of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who addressed the TRB Committee on Intercity Passenger Rail. "These promises mean little and the White House knows it," observed a railroad industry consultant attending the meeting, "it's not within Obama's power to commit future Administrations and Congresses to this pipe dream." "The President is out of touch with reality; where does he think the money will come from?" was a succinct reaction of a former senior U.S. DOT official.
Lack of a Financial Plan
There is good reason for these expressions of skepticism. Although some likened President Obama's expansive vision to President Eisenhower's historic call for a 42,000-mile Interstate Highway network, there is a vast difference between the two initiatives. The Interstate Highway proposal was backed by a reliable and steady revenue stream in the form of a federal gas tax. The high speed rail goal lacks a financial plan. It is not supported by a dedicated source of revenue that could maintain the program on a self-sustaining basis over a period of years. Nor can the Administration count on borrowed money or annual appropriations out of general revenue in the current political environment in which deficit reduction rather than new spending is the top congressional priority. Calling expenditures on high-speed rail "investment" does not obscure the reality that we would be spending money that we do not have. As if to underscore this point, the Congressional Budget Office announced on January 25 that this year's federal budget deficit of $1.5 trillion will be the biggest one in history and the largest as a share of the economy since World War II. "Obama's proposal is likely to land with a dead thud on Capitol Hill," opined National Journal's transportation editor Fawn Johnson.
A second reason for skepticism is the ambivalent attitude of the states toward high speed rail. As Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo, speaking at the TRB meeting, correctly pointed out, the high-speed rail initiative is a state-driven program. Hence, support of governors and state legislatures will be essential if the Obama vision is to succeed. But, as we have seen, several fiscally-strapped states (Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa) have declined to participate in the Administration's HSR program while Florida's Governor Scott still has to be heard from.
Other governors and state legislatures may well follow their example should they conclude that high-speed rail projects will burden their constituents with massive annual operating subsidies and possibly open-ended risk of construction overruns. The protracted and still inconclusive track-sharing negotiations with the Class 1 railroads [the major freight carriers] suggest that more than one state is having second thoughts about the wisdom of proceeding with these projects (at least on terms demanded by the Administration). About one-half of the dedicated HSR funds still remain unobligated according to the latest Federal Railroad Administration report.
Fred W. Frailey, a respected writer and commentator on the railroad industry and author of Twilight of the Great Trains thinks that enthusiasm for high-speed trains has peaked and is on the wane.
Writing in the current (March) issue of TRAINS, Frailey says the collapse of support is not merely a partisan event. Election results suggest that the public was never really won over. Nor will the Association of American Railroads or its member railroads fight for HSR. "So anyway you cut it, the high-speed show is over," Frailey concludes.
A Fresh Congressional Posture
This does not mean that fast trains will have no role to play in America's future. There is a need to diversify travel alternatives in crowded travel corridors to accommodate future population increases. But, as a congressional hearing in New York City on January 27 made clear, federal efforts should be refocused on places where passenger rail investment is economically justified and where there exists a potential of sufficient ridership to attract private capital. As Congressmen Mica and Shuster correctly concluded, this means concentrating on the densely populated and heavily traveled Northeast Corridor with its serious air traffic congestion and well-developed urban transit distribution networks in major metropolitan areas.
A majority of the witnesses testifying at the hearing seemed to agree with the two congressmen. They included such influential advocacy groups as Building America‚s Future (Gov. Ed Rendell and Mayor Michael Bloomberg), America 2050 (Petra Todorovich) and U.S. High Speed Rail Association (Thomas Hart).
Thus, the need to involve the private sector and to focus on the Northeast Corridor as a matter of first priority could well emerge as the core elements of a new congressional posture on high-speed rail. Instead of lavishing money on projects in numerous states in an unrealistic and fruitless attempt to make high-speed rail accessible to 80 percent of Americans, Congress would use targeted financial incentives to attract private investment and encourage private sector involvement in a few corridors where high-speed rail service makes economic and transportation sense. The inducements could include long-term operating concession agreements, loan guarantees, tax credits, availability payments and other creative financing arrangements. Whether additional federal funds to bolster such a policy will be forthcoming in the deficit-conscious 112th Congress, remains to be seen.
Note: the NewsBriefs can also be accessed at <http://www.infrastructureUSA.org>
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