Monday, February 14, 2011

Editorial from the Wall Street Journal on HSR

What this editorial in the Wall Street Journal says isn't new or particularly revealing.  Nonetheless, it's very important that the Wall Street Journal says it at all.  It's important that every paper in the country pulls the wool off our eyes.  

Many in Washington and in the State Capitols of California and elsewhere need to see what they refuse to see, and they need to see it from enough sources so that they can no longer deny the basic truth that high-speed rail at the national and at the state levels is a very bad idea that should be dispensed with at the earliest opportunity.

I'm sorry to say this but this high-speed rail concept is one of Obama's biggest mistakes, and for him and his minions to pursue it so relentlessly in the face of vast amounts of evidence to the contrary -- exposing the logical fallacies, misconceptions, distortions and outright untruth -- is reprehensible.

Having flaunted this HSR fantasy around for several years has brought all the sharks to thrash around this red meat offering of several billion dollars, with several more billion per year to come.  You have to ask who all the supporters are, and what's in it for them.  The quick answer is money or the hopes of managing and controlling money.  

Politicians, contractors, consultants and a whole array of industries, like public relations, rail organizations, and unions are flashing their teeth in eager anticipation of the red meat of federal largesse. They do so by parroting the mythology of energy savings, environmental relief, employment and economic salvation that is promised to result from this panacea, leading the way toward some imagined, global railroad leadership dazzling future.

The lack of realism and clear-headedness is stunning. From the Administration on down, people have come to swallow their own false bait, hook, line and sinker.  Either that, or we are watching a level of fakery and cynicism never before made so public.

FEBRUARY 14, 2011

Runaway Trains
Obama's high-speed rail plan is a fiscal pipedream.
We suppose every President is entitled to a pipedream, but President Obama's vow in his State of the Union address that 80% of Americans should have access to high-speed rail in 25 years is a doozy. Vice President Joe Biden has followed up by proposing $53 billion in high-speed rail funding over the next six years. Seriously?

On recent evidence, this train is running in reverse. Though the Obama Administration has allocated more than $10 billion for high-speed rail projects the past two years, the new Republican governors of Wisconsin and Ohio, Scott Walker and John Kasich, have rejected the federal money. They don't want to put their taxpayers on the hook for projects destined for Insolvency Junction. Florida Governor Rick Scott is also reconsidering his state's proposed Orlando-Tampa line.

Even California, that famous incubator of pipe-dreams, is having second thoughts. The state has proposed an 800-mile high-speed rail plan from San Diego to San Francisco. Bay area residents are now protesting that the line will damage property values, while Central Valley farmers complain the line will ruin their land. The greater wonder is how the state will pay for a $43 billion train even as it's facing a $28 billion budget gap over the next 18 months and $20 billion annual deficits four years after that.

Two years ago California taxpayers approved a $9.95 billion bond initiative to fund the train, buying the pitch that it would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and attract 94 million riders. The state's high-speed rail authority told voters a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Los Angeles would cost $55—about the price of a Southwest flight. They said private equity firms were dying to invest, and that the train would operate without a public subsidy.

Studies by economists and financial consultants Alain Enthoven, William Grindley and William Warren have since debunked the rail authority's claims. Based on the costs of high-speed rail lines in Europe and Japan, the price tag likely will fall between $62 billion and $213 billion. A one-way ticket from San Francisco to Los Angeles will cost about $190, which means more people will choose to fly.

Because of uncertainty over costs and ridership forecasts, private equity firms say they won't invest without a revenue guarantee, i.e., an operating subsidy. Even if the state somehow manages to attract $10 billion in private equity, its business plan calls for another $5 billion in local grants and $15 billion more in federal funds. The $15 billion that they want from the feds would be nearly a third of Mr. Biden's $53 billion figure. Maybe high-speed rail is a back-door bailout for California.

Messrs. Obama and Biden argue that the U.S. has to invest in high-speed rail to stay competitive with the world. Only if we're competing in the Debt Bowl. Two high-speed railways in the world have broken even, and those are in densely populated areas of France and Japan where people drive less because gas prices are twice as high as in the U.S., and many foreign inter-city highways levy tolls.

The only area of the United States where high-speed rail begins to make sense is along the high-traffic, high-population Northeast Corridor from Washington, D.C., to Boston. Amtrak's Acela peaks at 150 miles per hour but averages only about 70 miles per hour because it has to share tracks with other trains. A truly high-speed rail that runs on its own dedicated track could reach 220 mph and cut the travel time nearly in half.

While such a line might offer benefits for the region's commuters, Amtrak estimates the line would take 25 years to develop and cost $117 billion. According to a 2009 study by the Congressional Research Service, six to nine million riders would need to take the train each year to justify the costs of high-speed rail systems similar to those in other countries. The Acela carried 3.4 million people in 2008.

Until the proponents of high-speed rail solve the problem of runaway costs, we'll stick with the train in Disney's Fantasyland. Who knows, maybe 80% of the country has taken it for a ride by now.

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