Friday, February 18, 2011

Here's what error prone CNN/Money have to say about the funding situation for HSR in Washington.

There are a large number of errors in this article and it's worthwhile correcting them.  There is also a map in the article (key on the URL) that comes from the Federal Railroad Administration and shows two red lines indicating the HSR route in California.

We've seen this many times before.  Why there are two lines needs to be explained by the FRA.  Is one north bound and the other southbound?  Is one the secret route to be used if the well known one gets rejected?  (Just kidding here.) It's obviously an uncorrected mistake.

I'll put the fixes and my snarky gratuitous comments in blue brackets in the article [ ].

One of the issues is the amount of money that the Administration is offering to initiate what will, upon full build-out, cost trillions. It's called 'seed-money,' or the 'foundation,' or 'pump-priming.'  What it isn't is critical mass.  What's the Administration's game here?   Do they or don't they know what's at stake financially?  The assumption that California can build a $100 billion rail system with a state bond measure of $9 billion and added federal funds of $3 billion is absurd. Where does Obama/LaHood think the rest is going to come from?

Is it the height of cyncism to talk about a high-speed rail program, when all the Administration intends to do is pump limited amounts of funding, selectively, into states and districts to temporarily relieve unemployment.  That's both under-handed and high-handed at the same time.  It's no way to treat the voters and tax-payers. 

Indeed, unless the federal government is willing to provide the addition $90 billion or more,  there is no way this California project will ever come close to completion. So, does LaHood care or doesn't he? Certainly the near-bankruptcy of California is not a promising source of further funding.  Private investors aren't interested in putting equity into a money loser.  

As Lowenthal said of the CHSRA shenanigans, it doesn't pass the smell test.  Well, neither does this HSR program at the federal level.

Who got high speed rail money

The federal government has already spent $4.5 billion funding projects in California, Florida and Illinois. [No they haven't.Will this be wasted if more money doesn't come through? [It's wasted already.]

By Steve Hargreaves, senior writer
February 17, 2011: 1:42 PM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The federal government already has more than $10 billion in stimulus and other money set aside for high speed rail projects. To date, it has made commitments to spend $4.5 billion of that.  [My understanding is that there was an $8 billion ARRA fund program for HSR and that it had been awarded to various states, California and Florida with the largest amounts, and now Florida rejecting it.]

President Obama has made infrastructure a centerpiece of his presidency, calling for $53 billion in additional funds for high speed rail in his budget proposal this week. [That's a six year appropriation program, with about $8 billion per year.]

Republicans seem unlikely to fund that request, and a political fight is brewing. [It's already started.]But if the money is rejected, the $4.5 billion the government has spent so far won't likely be wasted. [Only some of the money has been rejected, by three states. And, if it isn't rejected, but spent, then it's wasted!]

Here are some of the major projects to date:
California: The state has captured the lion's share of these funds, winning $3 billion to construct a 220-mph train from San Diego to San Francisco.  [Lion's share means all of it, not a part of it. See:Aesop.]

The money is to be combined with $9 billion California voters have already approved, plus private funds and additional government cash, to build what is ultimately expected to be a $40-$50 billion dollar project.  [The $3 billion of federal dollars are promised by the CHSRA to be matched with the bond funds, and therefore no more than $3 billion of the bond funds are available now, not the whole $9 billion.  And, there are no private funds.]

Work on the actual line has yet to begin and most of this money has not been spent -- the state is still designing the train, working out the route and getting the necessary permits. The first section of track is expected to run from Bakersfield to Fresno. [Actually, the train will run from south of Merced to outside Bakersfield if it gets to go that far. And actually, the start and stopping points haven't been decided yet. ]

If all goes well -- and that's a big if, because plenty of people oppose the project -- construction will start in 2012 and end in 2020. [And that might not happen if a lawsuit includes a court-ordered injunction for violations of the AB3034 requirements, and it succeeds in court.]

California seems intent on building this train with or without help from the federal government, although federal money is a big part of their plan. [That's nonsense. No one has any illusions that this can even begin without massive federal funding, the only source other than the state bond measure.]
Chicago-St. Louis: This route, which passes through Springfield and Bloomington, Ill., received $1.1 billion to make the existing Amtrak service faster.  [Note what's actually high-speed, above 150 mph, and what isn't. Most of the intended upgrades will not be high-speed requiring electrification.  They will continue to use Diesel locomotives. ]

To do this, improvements are being made that include laying new track, updating signals, building new stations, and buying new railcars and locomotives.[If these locomotives are Diesel, what's happened to the justification for this program on environmental grounds?]
Union Pacific railroad builds U.S. economy

The improvements are expected to boost average speeds from 53 to 63 miles per hour, shaving nearly an hour off what is now a 5-hour and 20-minute trip, according to Ken Orski, publisher of the infrastructure industry publication Innovation NewsBriefs and a former transportation official in the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Those improvements will benefit both the passenger and freight trains that use the line, regardless of whether more high speed rail money is approved by Congress. [Union Pacific does not allow HSR on its rail corridors.  The reason is that the freight and HSR systems are mutually exclusive. HSR construction will not benefit freight; to the contrary. Indeed, HSR won't help regular Amtrak passenger rail either. HSR requires dedicated, exclusive tracks.  Although called HSR, that's not what's going on with these federal stimulus funds.  Only California and Florida can claim actual HSR intentions.]
Orlando-Tampa: This controversial, 84-mile proposal has received $66 million for preliminary engineering projects on a high-speed train running from the Orlando airport to downtown Tampa. 

This money does appear to have been wasted. [Any funding on HSR is wasted!]  On Wednesday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott declined the other $2.4 billion being offered by the feds.

For Scott, it wasn't clear just who would want to go from the Orlando airport to Tampa, or why they just wouldn't drive the short distance instead. The fear is that the state will be stuck covering huge operating losses if ticket sales don't pan out as projected.

"This project would be far too costly to taxpayers and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits", Scott said in a statement. [See Wendell Cox's explanation in this blog, earlier entry.]

This same thinking led the governors of Ohio and Wisconsin to rescind federal high speed rail money late last year.

The fear of being stuck with expensive yearly operating costs is also part of the reason why the federal government has only been able to spend roughly half the $10 billion it has for high-speed rail, said Orski.

The other reason money remains unspent is that negotiations are proving difficult with freight train operators, who own much of the track and aren't keen on ceding space to passenger trains. [Remember, it's the freight operators that turned their passenger service over to Congress, to fold into Amtrak.]
Vermont: The state was one of the first to win federal money, and is using $50 million for improvements to existing track. [But not HSR.]
Maine: The state won a $35 million grant to extend service on a recently reopened passenger line that runs from Portland to Boston -- the only Amtrak service in the state.

The extension would run the line about 30 miles north of Portland to Brunswick, an artsy college town along the coast. [Not HSR.]
The rest of the money: The remaining funds obligated so far have mostly gone to incremental track improvements or been doled out in $250,000 grants to study the feasibility of high-speed rail service. In all, 32 states have received funding. [Also not HSR.  I understand that about half of the ARRA funds have already been actually spent.  The rest is now threatened with Republican plans for rescission, or "claw-back."]
Obama's plan is to create pockets of high-speed rail in cities in the Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, Texas and on the West Coast. The idea is to reduce airport and road traffic, cut greenhouse gases, and improve travel time.  [I expect those unsubstantiated plans to shrink dramatically in the next few months.]

The network would take decades to build and likely cost hundreds of billions of dollars. [Nationally? More by several orders of magnitude.] Supporters say the $10 billion set aside so far, plus Obama's request for an additional $53 billion, are just the foundation for this project.

But the issue of high-speed rail as a political hot potato seems unlikely to go away, said Emil Frankel, a former transportation expert in the administration of George W. Bush and now director of transportation policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

President Obama has made infrastructure a centerpiece of his presidency. This year was the first time transportation has been mentioned in the State of the Union address in recent memory.  [Infrastructure is one thing.  HSR is another.  They should not be confounded.]

But House Republicans seem disinclined to approve this $53 billion in additional funds, even though it would be spread out over 6 years or more.

There's even been talk of taking back the nearly $6 billion in unspent stimulus money and either using it for deficit reduction or focusing it on the busy Washington-Boston rail corridor, where some analysts say it would make more economic sense.

And every time the president emphasizes infrastructure, it only acts as a lightning rod for Republican criticism.

"I've never seen so much rhetoric get loaded onto a program that is really just a small part of the federal budget," said Frankel.