Thursday, February 10, 2011

Biden wants it; Mica objects to it; it is high-speed rail in America!

This is good news insofar as there had not been a lot of clashing going on until recently.  Mostly we few complainers have been ignored, while the Democratically dominated state legislature in California responded only rhetorically, not substantively.  

Public opinion was led by a one-sided point of view, just like the bond issue on the ballot in 2008.  And the Democratic Congress went along with the Administration's "vision" of high-speed rail as the panacea for the present and the 'deus ex machina' for the future. We were being sold "A Bright New Future Through High-Speed Rail!"

Now, finally, when we get down to reality, there's trouble in River City.  The newly elected Republicans see through all the marketing hype and -- ideologically driven -- they are determined to terminate this vision.  They see it as deficit expanding and debt increasing, which it is.  But, we see it as an existential mistake that should not happen.  Whatever the motives, the outcome must be no more of this high-speed rail nonsense.

For over a year after the November elections of 2008, when California's Prop. 1A passed as a ballot measure providing $9.95 billion in bond funds for the CHSRA, the papers, if they had any interest at all, would parrot the rail authority press releases.  There was actually very little information for a concept that was projected to cost around $40 billion.  And, you could count the number of opposers in the state on two hands.  

Now, the project costs, not yet revealed by the rail authority, but by the CARRD group, is pegged at $65 billion.  It will turn out that even this number is grossly underestimated.  Let's say $100 billion, although that may end up not being enough, as time passes and the funding fails to materialize in a prompt manner.

So, yes, things are different now.  Every paper in the US, large and small, has something to say about HSR. And it's not all good. And it's about time.

Since this past November, we also have a different Congress.  The Obama Administration is pushing to get $53 billion into the Transportation Budget, to be spent on HSR over six years.  Meanwhile, the new Republicans are already indicating that they wish to cut $1 billion from the budget for this current fiscal period, a budget that is seven months into the year. They also want to remove $240 million from Amtrak and not provide Amtrak funding at all for the six year Transportation Budget authorization.

One of the key features of the Administration's efforts is being called the "Sputnik effect."  Obama, seeking to emulate JFK who responded to the Soviet Sputnik with a NASA ten year plan to get a man on the moon, was successful because it was really a thinly disguised military race with the Russians.  We threw unlimited resources at the problem, because it was saber rattling between two super-powers.

The Sputnik analogy fails in our time since the most we can say about the Administration's efforts to launch a HSR effort is that we believe that we are in an economic race with the Chinese.  What a misconception!  Is this based on the notion that whoever ends up with the most high-speed rail tracks wins the race?  Are we seeking to prove our economic worth by out-spending the Europeans or the Asians on HSR?  And, of course the irony of that erroneous position is that we are going to spend it on those same Europeans and Asians as we buy our HSR hardware from them. 

Is it not yet clear that we will not be building these trains?  They will be bought from overseas.  Problems have already emerged.  The US has no FRA high-speed rail standards or guidelines.  Nonetheless, the FRA is advising the French about what will be acceptable for US use.  That includes the kind of crash-worthiness that none of the other nations incorporate in their HSR design.  They all rely on not having crashes in the first place through adequate signalling and PTC systems.

Does that mean that US versions of HSR rolling stock must be built to stronger, more crash-proof and therefore more heavy specifications? And, what will that do for the endlessly vaunted 220 mph high speeds?

The devil is in the details.  I believe that most of us have no idea how complex and demanding this project will be.  For example, we know that the rail authority intends to build a number of elevated viaducts for its train in the Central Valley.

These will need to be built to HSR specifications and will therefore not be usable by heavier Amtrak rolling stock. And, since there will be no electrification or signalling systems in place, including no PTC, that track section will be useless not only for high-speed rail, but for any passenger or freight use. 

The rail authority promises that this is OK since it's only the beginning of a long drawn-out, step-wise construction process.  They will not, in this first effort, build a usable segment, only a section of a segment.  At which time, they will run out of money.  Is that going to be a problem? I hope so. And, more important, is it legal? I don't think so.

It shouldn't happen in the first place, but if it does, it should be a red flag for California and for the rest of the US about what a vastly more expensive effort this will be than we have anticipated. The rail authority is leading us down the primrose path, to use the cliche, and we should be much smarter than to be suckered into this disaster.

Joe Biden and John Mica Clash Over Federal Funding of High-Speed Rail

Obama administration wants $53 billion for next six years; GOP Congress says not so fast


Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday unveiled the Obama administration’s plan to spend $53 billion in the next six years, which the administration argues will help set the stage for the promise the president made in his State of the Union address to have 80 percent of Americans connected by high-speed rail in the next 25 years.

But a key Republican congressman from Florida let the administration know its plans are in for a bumpy ride.

Joined by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in Philadelphia, Biden noted the Obama team will include $8 billion in expanding high-speed rail in the forthcoming budget.

“As President Obama said in his State of the Union, there are key places where we cannot afford to sacrifice as a nation – one of which is infrastructure,” said Biden. “As a longtime Amtrak rider and advocate, I understand the need to invest in a modern rail system that will help connect communities, reduce congestion and create quality, skilled manufacturing jobs that cannot be outsourced.

"This plan will help us to do that, while also increasing access to convenient high-speed rail for more Americans,” he said.

The administration’s plan calls for dividing rail lines in three categories of corridors: core express, which they argue “will form the backbone of the national high-speed rail system” where trains will reach speeds of between 125-250 mph; regional corridors, with trains going between 90-125 mph; and emerging corridors, with trains going below 90 mph.

"In America, we pride ourselves on dreaming big and building big," said LaHood.

But Republicans, now in charge of the U.S. House of Representatives, expressed skepticism over the administration’s plans.

Florida Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica, chairman of the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, took aim at the administration and its call for more spending.

“This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio,” Mica said.

Mica pointed to more than $10 billion already spent by the administration on rail. The Florida congressman argued that the Federal Railroad Administration should not be involved in rail grants and that high-speed rail projects backed by the Obama administration were not living up to expectations. Mica hammered Amtrak as well, as an obstacle for progress.

“Amtrak hijacked 76 of the 78 projects, most of them costly and some already rejected by state agencies,” said Mica. “Amtrak’s Soviet-style train system is not the way to provide modern and efficient passenger rail service.

“Rather than focusing on the Northeast corridor, the most congested corridor in the nation and the only corridor owned by the federal government, the administration continues to squander limited taxpayer dollars on marginal projects,” added Mica, who was joined by  U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the Railroads subcommittee, in attacking the administration.

“The administration continues to fail in attracting private investment, capital, and the experience to properly develop and cost-effectively operate true high-speed rail. They have also ignored my provision in law that calls for competition on money-losing Amtrak routes,” said Shuster.

“The committee plans to investigate how previous funding decisions were made,” added Shuster. “I have no problem with sound investments in alternative transportation projects, but selecting routes behind closed doors runs counter to the administration’s pledges of transparency. I am concerned that without appropriate controls to ensure the most worthy projects are the ones that receive funding, high-speed rail funding could become another political grab bag for the president.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result, and that is exactly what Vice President Biden offered today,” said Shuster. “If the Obama administration is serious about high-speed rail, they should stop throwing money at projects in the same failed manner.”

Shuster called for the administration to consider free-market solutions as they pondered the future of passenger rail transport in the United States.

“Rail projects that are not economically sound will not ‘win the future.’ It just prolongs the inevitable by subsidizing a failed Amtrak monopoly that has never made a profit or even broken even,” insisted Shuster. “Government won’t develop American high-speed rail. Private investment and a competitive market will.”

Reach Kevin Derby at or at (850) 727-0859.