Friday, February 18, 2011

David Levinson's HSR article from eight years ago: Still true

Just stumbled across this in a Google search for something else. 

Prof. David Levinson was on the faculty of the Institute for Transportation Studies at Berkeley until he re-located to U.Minnesota.  He, or actually his publications, were my first High-Speed Rail "teacher."  This was in 2003.  So, what you're reading is at least 8 years old.  With his Berkeley colleagues, he's written extensively about HSR costs and comparative cross-modality cost/effectiveness. (Google David Levinson Berkeley)

Had more people read this stuff before November 2008, we in California would not be in the fix we're in.  Note the difference between the projected costs then ($20 to $30 billion) and the most recent CARRD estimate of $65 billion.  

To sum this up, the more we learn, the worse it gets.


California's High Speed Rail: Some Facts
David Levinson, University of Minnesota

The proposed California High Speed Rail line would be more expensive than every other active HSR proposal in the country put together. While subsidized by everyone who pays the regressive sales tax, its users would have a higher than average income, so it is a subsidy from the poor to the rich. It would cost about $600-$1000 person or $2000-$3000 per California household before a single trip is made. This money could support about 20,000 teachers or police perpetually. For every $1 spent by the passenger, it would entail $4 in public subsidy, twice the annual expenditure of the State Transportation Improvement Program.
While it is too soon to know for this system, cost estimates have already doubled. Forecasts of demand for transit are typically 25-50% too high. Estimates of costs for major infrastructure are significantly off, for instance the cost of the Denver Airport tripled from beginning to end.(See: Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition by Flyvbjerg, Bruzelius, and Rothengatter or Mega-projects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment by Altshuler and Luberoff)
Conventional High Speed Rail is basically 19th century technology spruced up; there is no reason to expect that it won't work technologically. [However, by the time it's built, it will be obsolete compared to HSR developments of other nations. Buying their off the shelf hardware is no way to be a cutting edge railroad.]
HSR is slower than air travel in the main Bay Area to Los Angeles market. While proponents claim fewer delays at train stations than airports, that assumes lessened security precautions. Rail systems are at least as vulnerable to terrorism as air systems (See Madrid 3/11.)
The HSR system will take less than one lane of traffic off the major North-South highways. Airports will soon have extra capacity as they increase operations in bad weather with instrumented flight controls.  [Real congestion is within urban/metropolitan regions, not between them. HSR will take negligible traffic off the roads.]
A study of BART (Lave 1976) estimated that more energy was used to build the system than will ever be saved by it. [HSR is energy intensive.  Speed requires exponential power increases and therefore increased energy demands. HSR is not energy-free.  To the contrary. ]
Other modes are steadily getting cleaner, for instance fuel cell powered vehicles will emit only water and carbon dioxide. Any benefits from HSR depend on unproven forecasts. The energy for HSR must come from somewhere, if electric than probably coal or nuclear, both of which have some problems.
Planning and Urban Design
BART has not been particularly successful at attracting development outside of downtown San Francisco, why would HSR? It is likely that HSR will promote sprawl into the Central Valley.Advocates of rail (traditionally urban subways and light rail) claim that new rail will result in the redevelopment of "good neighborhoods" around the stations. This is true to a limited extent (e.g. in San Francisco and selected other stations, such as Rockridge), but not universally. Rail tends to promote dispersion ... park and ride lots promote what those advocates would consider "bad neighborhoods", i.e. auto oriented suburban neighborhoods, enabling people to live very far from the central city (Dublin, Pittsburg etc) and still work downtown. We can hypothesize that HSR will promote even more "bad neighborhoods", particularly in the central valley, as people choose to live 100 miles from the city and use HSR to commute into San Francisco and Silicon Valley.Downtowns as a share of regional jobs have been declining steadily for 50 years. Hence any system focused on downtown is serving yesterday's travel demand pattern rather than tomorrow's (unless it can reverse the trend, which is rather like tilting at windmills). There is little evidence that new rail starts do much to reverse the trend.
What is the best use of $20 billion to $30 billion ? For that amount of money it would be very easy to provide improvements to air travel into the central valley, along with many other things. HSR is the least cost effective way to provide transportation services between the Valley and the coastal cities.
Who's Behind It
There has been significant lobbying for HSR by Engineering Consultants, Construction Companies, Rail Car Manufacturers, and Local Developers. Many of the companies involved are foreign owned and controlled, including those that built the money-losing systems in France and Japan. The commission has visited these systems on foreign junkets. There is also some nostalgia on the part of train buffs and those yearning for a simpler time.

•Lave, Charles. 1976. The Negative Energy Impact of Modern Rail-Transit Systems Science, February 11, 1977. Vol. 195, pp. 595-596..
•Pickrell, Don. 1992. A Desire Named Streetcar: Fantasy and Fact in Rail Transit Planning: Journal of the American Planning Association 58:2 158-76
•Levinson, David. 1995. Rail Reinvented: A Brief History of High Speed Ground Transportation (Article)
•Levinson, David. 1996. The Full Cost of Intercity Transportation. Access Magazine #9: 21-25. (Article
•Levinson, David, Adib Kanafani, and David Gillen. 1999. Air, High Speed Rail or Highway: A Cost Comparison in the California Corridor. Transportation Quarterly 53: 1 123-132   (Article
•Gillen, David, and David Levinson. The Full Cost of Air Travel in the California Corridor. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board 1662: 1-9. (Article
•Levinson, David, and David Gillen. The Full Cost of Intercity Highway Transportation. 1997. Transportation Research 3D:4 207-223. (Article
•Levinson, David, Adib Kanafani, and David Gillen. A Comparison of the Social Costs of Air and Highway. 1998. Transport Reviews 18:3 215-240. (Article
•Levinson, David, Jean-Michel Mathieu, Adib Kanafani, and David Gillen. 1997. The Full Cost of High-Speed Rail: An Engineering Approach. Annals of Regional Science 31:2 189-215 (Article
•Levinson, David, Jean-Michel Mathieu, Adib Kanafani, and David Gillen. 1996. The Full Cost of Intercity Transportation: A Comparison of Air, Highway, and High Speed Rail. research report UCB-ITS-RR-96-3 prepared for California High Speed Rail (Full Report
•King, Norman. An Expensive Train to A Slower Ride (Article)

Note: To read the articles, you will need a standard reader for Portable Document Format (PDF) such as Acrobat which is available free from Adobe.