Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The 'Un-necessity' of the Obama High-Speed Rail Agenda

This article takes us back to last week when President Obama announced his $53 billion plan for high-speed rail in America.

Why it's called Vice-President Biden's plan in the article title is a mystery, except that we know that Biden is an avid Acela rider.  That's like being an education expert because you went to school.

The railroad sub-committee chairman, Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania, has it right when he said, "Rail projects that are not economically sound will not 'win the future' "  Shuster was paraphasing Obama's admonition that we must "win the future." His point is that this is not how it's done, since HSR is not economically sound.  And that case has been made convincingly by William Grindley and his colleagues in a number of papers that address the myriad financial problems raised by this project in California.  The best way to sum this up is to say, HSR is a lousy investment that will cost the investors dearly.  

Congressman Shuster does believe that the population-intensive region of the Northeast is the most promising cost/effective corridor for HSR, which he then suggests could go all the way to Montreal. He even indicates that it could be profitable.  Well, maybe, maybe not. He, and we, need to make a clear distinction between what would be nice to have, and what we really need.  

And Montreal reduces the Northeast corridor to the equivalent of connecting the massively populated LA Basin/San Diego with the more modest population of the Bay Area.  There too, it might be nice for some people who can afford it to ride this Disneyland Express, but it certainly doesn't figure into any California master transportation strategy that I know of. Let me say that another way; for California, high-speed rail isn't 'mission critical.'

Instead of the expenditure of untold billions of dollars, we should be seeking a Chevrolet, not a Rolls-Royce.  We should be repairing and upgrading our current rail lines that carry the largest volume of passengers right now, not creating "field of dreams" utopian trains that will carry very few of us and at staggering costs.  

We need to grow up.  Do we need to expand our rail system in the US?  Then let's talk about that. Do we need to perpetuate Amtrak as our passenger rail provider?  Also a topic of discussion.  But, why are we so fixated on high-speed rail?  Shouldn't 'rail' come before 'high-speed rail?'  Is this more than keeping up with the Joneses?  What if we can't keep up with the Joneses and their high-speed trains?  Then what? Will the US be doomed to third-world status?

There is an enormous amount of wishful thinking behind this push for HSR, along with enormous greed for free federal dollars.  Making comparisons with the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad, and even the more recent Eisenhower era Interstate highway system of the '60s is to miss a central and critical factor, context.  Times have changed.  What was needed then is not needed now.   What wasn't even understood then, may be needed now but we haven't figured that out yet.  Where are the debates about what America's transportation needs are prior to throwing photogenic train options into the answer box?

What we have been observing is the emergence of a concept that has great cosmetic attractiveness.  It's been selling itself as something very lavish and desirable.  High-speed rail is an impulse purchase.  It's not what a nation builds without extensive calculations about risk, costs, impact, effectiveness, and productivity.  What we have been exposed to is endless rationalization why this technology will solve so many problems for us.  

I note an example.  For decades, the US had very good employment numbers.  Until recently, HSR wasn't marketed on the basis of jobs creation.  But, now that we have massive unemployment, a very particular transportation solution has now become the government jobs program.  When our economy was roaring, HSR didn't need to be touted as the solution for California or the Nation's financial ills.  But, with this Recession, HSR is now the cure-all for that as well.

This is the time for skepticism.  This is the time for all of us to have a powerful and active crap detector.

The Christian Science Monitor -

GOP critic calls Joe Biden's $53 billion high-speed rail plan 'insanity'

Vice President Joe Biden proposes spending $53 billion on a national high-speed rail network, but important Republicans in the House are less than enthused.

By Daniel B. Wood, Staff writer
posted February 8, 2011 at 8:39 pm EST
Los Angeles —

Vice President Joe Biden Tuesday proposed that the US government infuse $53 billion into a national high-speed rail network. The announcement was met immediately by deep skepticism from two House Republicans that could be crucial to the plan's success, raising questions about whether it can clear Capitol Hill.

House Transportation Committee Chair Rep. John Mica (R) of Florida said previous administration grants to high-speed rail projects were a failure, producing "snail speed trains to nowhere." He called Amtrak a "Soviet-style train system" and said it "hijacked" nearly all the administration's rail projects.
Meanwhile, Railroads Subcommittee Chair Rep. Bill Shuster (R) of Pennsylvania said Mr. Biden's plan was "insanity," adding: "Rail projects that are not economically sound will not 'win the future' " – coopting the slogan President Obama coined in his State of the Union address.

With Republicans controlling the House and dedicating themselves to deep budget cuts, any new spending proposed by the White House will face stiff scrutiny. But Congressman Shuster offers some hope of compromise. On Jan. 28 in Hartford, Conn., he proclaimed his support for expanding high-speed rail in the Northeast, backing a network that could stretch from Montreal to Washington, D.C.

"This is the most congested region in the country. High-speed rail here could be profitable," he said.

Biden's plan

According to the plan laid out Tuesday by Biden, the first step of the six-year plan would be to invest $8 billion to develop or improve three types of interconnected corridors:

*Core express corridors would form the backbone of the national high-speed rail system, with electrified trains traveling on dedicated tracks at speeds of 125 to 250 m.p.h or higher.

*Regional corridors would lay the foundation for future high-speed service, with trains traveling between 90 to 125 m.p.h.

*Emerging corridors would provide travelers with access to the larger national high-speed network and travel at as much as 90 m.p.h.

To backers, the benefits of the plan are twofold. First, it would give a much-needed boost to America's spending on infrastructure. And second, it would provide jobs for the economic recovery.

“If you look at the last 100 years, it has been large public-works projects which have pulled our nation out of every recession,” says Barry LePatner, author of “Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward.”

Mr. LePatner notes that the building of the Erie Canal opened the Northeast in 1819, the transcontinental railroad connected the populated East to the developing West, and the interstate highway system built under Eisenhower “all opened up vast reservoirs of trade and economic investment.”

He suggests that studies show $1 billion spent on infrastructure remediation produces between 18,000 and 34,000 jobs. "Twenty-five to 35 percent of that then comes back in taxes, and the other multiplies in geometric ratios as spending on food, clothing, shelter, and other goods,” he adds.

Big projects, big delays

But building high-speed rail is no easy process, says Leslie McCarthy, a high-speed rail expert at Villanova University's College of Engineering. “Whether or not a bill would or should pass is the easiest part of all this,” she says. “The bigger part of the question is purchasing the land, getting right of ways, zoning issues, environmental impact assessments, laying dedicated tracks in a reasonable amount of time.”

She says the typical US highway project can be held up anywhere from three to five years at the low end to 12 to 20 years at the high end. “Legislators and the public aren’t aware of the number of federal, state, and local laws that agencies have to comply with that can’t be gotten around,” she adds.

In fact, the very thing that makes the Northeast so attractive for high-speed rail – its population density – could also make it the most difficult place to build. “There is so much population in the Northeast corridor that I don’t know if there is even enough room for the dedicated tracks needed for high-speed rail,” says Professor McCarthy. “And if the distances you are going are not sufficient to make efficient use of the high speeds, what’s the point?”

Wise investment or money pit?

Critics agree. Only two rail corridors in the world – France's Paris to Lyon line and Japan's Tokyo to Osaka line – cover their costs, says Ken Button, director of the Center for Transportation Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

“Both of these are the perfect distance for high-speed rail, connect cities over flat terrain with huge populations that have great public transportation to get riders to the railway,” he says, dismissing French claims that other lines make money. He says they calculate costs in ways which ignore capital costs.

To supporters of high-speed rail expansion, however, US transportation must move beyond its reliance on oil. High-speed rail is the only form of intercity transportation that has a 45-year record of moving people without oil, says Anthony Perl, professor of political science at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.

“That’s why 30 countries around the world have done this and the US and Canada are just laggards," he says. "If people want to get where they are going between cities they are going to need high-speed rail because flying and driving will only become more and more costly.”

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