Thursday, February 17, 2011

The impact of the Florida HSR withdrawal (or lack thereof)

If this map from the US Department of Transportation is any indication, the Department has a rather distorted notion of what is going on within any one of the intended HSR corridors. The HSR route proposed for California has segments that are not on the planning books for this project as far as we know, including the extended LOSSAN route from San Diego to San Louis Obisbo.  In the Bay Area, the map suggests that HSR will have it both ways, using both the Altamont and Pacheco Pass routes.  And there are several other additional red lines here and there in the Bay Area and up to Sacramento.  These are confusing and misleading.

As if it mattered!

The map of all the corridors in the US  is highly revealing insofar as it suggests where rail expansion would be most appropriate, and where it is irrelevant.  The East coast is highly promising, particularly for it's very high density population.  The West coast is more of a "Wouldn't it be nice to have a fancy train," rather than any urgency or necessity for vast federal dollars to be poured into the California (or Northwest Coast) projects based on actual need. 

While there might be a justification for re-linking the various disparate sections of rail corridor throughout the East Coast into the midwest and south -- though by no means does it all have to be high-speed --  there is no justification for such a rail network on the West coast. Comparing this map with one illustrating the rail corridors throughout Europe immediately explains why they have HSR, and why we shouldn't.

One problem we have is that we worship speed.  Therefore, trains must go 200 mph and faster. It's an open-ended race where there can never be any winners. Let's face it; we're too far behind, and will never get ahead.  Top speed is the wrong metric; it's average travel times that matter. And making regular trains go faster meets the goal of reducing average travel times.  These incredible top speeds are the marketing icing on the cake of an effective and highly distributed rail system as we see in Europe. We need to get off that speed race kick.  
Mike Rosenberg's article today, below, speculates about the consequences of Florida turning down federal stimulus dollars for HSR and whether those funds will or should be re-directed to California.

Once again we see that this is about the money, not the trains.  There's nowhere near enough money to actually build an operational high-speed train.  So, to support Obama's HSR vision, funds are being directed and re-directed on the fly, and as quickly as possible, before the Republicans cut this entire project off at the roots. The scramble is on.  Every state, on a financial starvation diet, is eager for this CARE package of funding from Washington.  They don't really care what it's for, trains, schmains, just so they can rake in those millions or billions. 

To the Californians who will benefit from this rail project (and you know who you are!!)  it's an unexpected cornucopia that Florida has foolishly turned down. To the Republicans in California and elsewhere in the nation, it's a reinforcement of the fact that this HSR vision is a very foolish and bankrupt idea.

One might argue, after viewing the maps, that at least the Eastern part of the US lends itself to an improved rail network which, coupled with regional and urban transit, will serve a larger portion of the population than what is available now.

But the California project is a state-only effort, from San Francisco to Los Angeles for the foreseeable future.  And, given the distances, a national high-speed rail network makes no sense whatsoever.  No, this is not like another National Interstate Highway System, regardless of what the HSR promoters will try to tell you. 

The bottom line is that California does not need and certainly can't afford to build out this HSR fantasy that the promoters have been trying to sell like carnival hawkers for a long time.  The Florida funds won't change that equation one bit.  All the available funds put together are still a drop in the bucket of the needed $100 billion to create an operational HSR train system in California.

Oh, one more thing. Rosenberg quotes Diridon when he says, "I think the technique that the critics used in Florida could very well be used now in California, and that's too bad. . . " Mr. Diridon, those same critics are being used in California.  They have been our teachers about this project.  Expect to hear more from them in the very near future.

California high-speed rail could feel ripple from Florida
By Mike Rosenberg
Posted: 02/17/2011 06:21:07 AM PST
Updated: 02/17/2011 07:20:25 AM PST

California is now the nation's only state close to building a high-speed railway after Florida killed its project Wednesday, casting further doubt on whether there is enough national support to fund the Golden State's train line.

In the short term, Republican Gov. Rick Scott's decision to quash construction of Florida's costly high-speed train between Tampa and Orlando could inject up to $2 billion into California's forthcoming $43 billion bullet-train line. Gov. Jerry Brown announced Wednesday that he'd welcome the money and reiterated his support for the project.

But over the long term, the loss of a key ally could prove far more damaging as the state turns to Washington, D.C., for about $15 billion needed to extend the project beyond two small Central Valley towns and into the Bay Area and down to Anaheim. California, and its Democratic establishment, may find itself in the cross hairs of a hostile Republican Party that's looking to pare federal spending.

Last summer, California High-Speed Rail Authority leaders said they were confident the federal government would fund high-speed rail largely because their "friends in Florida" and other places would help lobby leaders in Washington. "We're not going it alone in D.C.," Deputy Director Jeff Barker said at the time.

But President Barack Obama, already dealing with Republican deficit hawks in the House, could have a more difficult time now selling his plan to give states $53 billion for high-speed rail. With Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa having rejected their projects out of fear they would lose money, the list of U.S. high-speed train corridors has dwindled from 13 to nine.

And the routes outside California are either several years away from construction or only souped-up commuter trains -- including proposed Seattle-to-Portland and Chicago-to-Detroit lines -- that won't approach the 200 mph speeds used in bullet trains around the world.
'The only taker'

Critics say California is foolish to continue planning its project even as other states kill theirs.

"California seems to be the only taker right now," said state Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, who has proposed deep-sixing California's project. "But that doesn't mean we're on the cutting edge -- it could mean we're the first state to go off the cliff financially if we don't call a halt to the high-speed spending."

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, a member of the Senate's high-speed rail committee, said the state needs to take this opportunity to slow down or else it risks building a project that, based on its current plan, could lose money. "It's great to be first, but it's more important to get it right," Simitian said.

But supporters say recent developments simply highlight the need for California to push harder and prove it's the only state innovative enough to succeed with bullet trains.

"California has a reputation as a state of visionaries -- for good reason," Art Pulaski, executive-secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, said in a statement. "When we see a challenge, we rise to the occasion. We stand ready to become the first state in the nation to fully realize high-speed rail's promise."

By contrast, Florida has laid out a blueprint for killing high-speed rail. Critics there used studies showing the project's cost will grow and that it will lose money once up and running, making it foolish to accept federal grants for a project that will ultimately cost the state billions of dollars.

"I think the technique that the critics used in Florida could very well be used now in California, and that's too bad," said former California rail authority board member Rod Diridon, of the South Bay, a leading bullet-train proponent.
Plan has many critics

In California, studies critical of the project are plentiful -- including some from universities and nonpartisan government analysts -- and have been gaining recognition among lawmakers. But state and federal proposals to kill California's project based on the studies have mostly been dismissed by Democrats who are eager to create jobs.

Supporters around the state touted Florida's loss as California's gain. Florida will send back $2.4 billion in federal grants, which the Obama administration said would be distributed to other states.

"The $2 billion that Florida rejected are more than welcome here," Brown said in a statement. Brown joined Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein in urging Obama to give Florida's unwanted grants to California.

Rail authority spokeswoman Rachel Wall said Wednesday that if the state gets some of Florida's grants it would likely use it to extend the initial leg of construction. 

The authority plans to spend $5.5 billion to start building its tracks in the Central Valley next year and could use some more money to ensure the initial segment reaches Bakersfield.

California has already scored more than $600 million from other states that gave up on high-speed rail. In all, the federal government has given California's project $3.6 billion, and the state has $9 billion in bonds to issue.

Officials insist they can secure the remaining 70 percent of funds in time to run bullet trains between San Francisco and Anaheim, including along the Caltrain line in the Bay Area, by 2020.
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 650-348-4324.