Thursday, March 31, 2011

The High Stakes, High-Speed Rail Game in the Central Valley of California. Are you in or out?

High-speed rail. The Democrats want it; the Republicans don't. As decision time approaches, this difference between them will become even more pronounced.

The lobbying for the funding among the Democrats has approached high stakes bluffing. The Republicans have dug their heels in.  

It's quite unfortunate that our California Republican caucus on the one hand oppose HSR for many reasons, among them the wasteful spending, but at the same time seeks those same funds to build additional highway lanes.  This may not be the best time to be so ambiguous about deficit reduction.  

If severe budget cutting is called for, then let's at it.  That also goes for the other Refusenik Republican Governor states that first turned down the federal HSR funding, but are now coming back to get those refused dollars for other purposes.  If nothing else, it raises doubts and eyebrows about what at first appeared to be a principled position. 

One more example of it not being about the train, but about the money.  In the Central Valley, the Republicans have a larger foothold than elsewhere in the state, but not enough.  California is very blue and the Republicans are a small minority. However, in Washington, the Republicans gained the House and increased their Senate membership. That gives them a seat at the table.

Washington is where the action will be.  Apparently, the California Republicans and Democrats from the Central Valley have taken their fight to the floor of the House of Representatives.

You can be sure that the decision over the $2.43 billion that Florida rejected will be made totally on political grounds and all that "merit" and which rail project deserves what is mere charade.  Although the rail authority, playing the Washington poker game, bid for the entire amount, they know that they won't get it.  They are hopeful for a piece of the action. But, there are other players in this game now; the entire northeast corridor Democratic Senate delegation. That's around a dozen Senators.

Put on your green eyeshade and sleeve garters and watch closely as the cards are shuffled.

Valley Republicans spurn effort to obtain high-speed rail funds

Posted at 04:28 PM on Thursday, Mar. 31, 2011
By Michael Doyle / Bee Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- San Joaquin Valley lawmakers are more split than ever over a proposed high-speed rail line whose initial route is now envisioned connecting Bakersfield to Merced.

This week, the Valley's Democrats formally urged the Transportation Department to provide California more money for the expanded high-speed rail project. Valley Republicans, though, did not join the effort.

The partisan divide reopened when Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, approached Reps. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, and Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, on the House floor Tuesday. He wanted to know whether they would join in a letter asking for an additional share of the federal high-speed rail money.

"I went to them all," Cardoza said Thursday. "They declined." The political disunity, Cardoza added, could undermine California's bid for more money.

"If you have a unified delegation, then you have a lobbying team ... and that encourages the president to invest in those communities," Cardoza said.

The refusal of Republicans to sign the letter was not a surprise. Although Nunes and McCarthy joined other House members in voicing support for California's high-speed rail program in 2007, more recently they have questioned the wisdom and cost-effectiveness of the state's high-speed rail plan.

On Thursday, Nunes called the state's high-speed rail program "a boondoggle. The more time we spend on this fairy tale, the longer people will be out of work." Nunes said that while high-speed rail makes sense "conceptually," he would rather see limited transportation dollars spent on upgrading Highway 99.

Denham considers it "irresponsible to continue to throw money at a project that does not have a concrete, disciplined plan that explains how the system will run and be paid for," Denham's spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger said in an e-mail.

California's plans call for an initial 123-mile route connecting Fresno to Bakersfield. With additional money, this initial route would extend to Merced, and perhaps beyond.

Six Democrats ended up signing this week's two-page letter to the heads of the Transportation Department and Federal Railroad Administration. It urges the Obama administration officials to "give full and fair consideration" to California's request for additional high-speed rail funding.

"We believe it is essential that the Merced-Fresno section be included in the initial construction phase of the system," the House Democrats wrote.

The disagreement over the letter is not the first time the Valley lawmakers have revealed their high-speed rail differences. It does, however, come at a politically sensitive time.

Last month, Florida's Republican governor rejected the Obama administration's offer of $2.43 billion in high-speed rail funds. The Transportation Department has now given other states and regions until April 4 to apply for the money Florida didn't want.

On Wednesday, the California High-Speed Rail Authority unanimously voted to apply for the entire $2.43 billion. Although it appears unlikely any one state will receive all of the money, California has received big shares in the past.


Illinois and their modest HSR efforts, or "Delusion."

One man's opinion. In a blog.  Like this blog. Yet, what is pointed out in this blog entry, describing the high-speed rail situation in Illinois, is almost a cloned version of what we will experience here in California. 

Well, not entire a clone; there are some differences.  In Illinois, the distances are shorter and the train is slower.  But, the game's the same.  Same rules, same winners and losers.  There, like here, it's not about the train; it's about the money.

Please understand, if they build what is described in this article, it will be a bargain compared to what we are in for in this state. Basically, they are upgrading their Amtrak system with faster (110 mph) trains.  I assume they won't be building dedicated HSR tracks.  Also, what we can gather from the article is that the rail corridor will not be totally grade separated and that there can be various speed limits.  That's why it's such a bargain; it will cost only $20.5 million per mile.  Such a deal!

In California, with dedicated, grade separated tracks and closed corridor, it will be more like $70 to $100 million per mile, with mountains and valleys for our train to cut through and go over.  In our population regions, there will be hugely expensive land acquisitions and complicated alignments adding to the costs.

And here is why this project falls along a political divide between the two Parties.  Freight rail is cost/effective and profitable. The freight carriers maintain their own track corridors.  They have investors, like Warren Buffett.  

But, that's not the case for HSR, or other passenger rail.  It's either a major money loser and drag on the economy and public funds, or the tickets will cost far too much and almost no one will ride it.  The passenger rail system is between a rock and a hard place.  That's where it's been and HSR will be no different.  With no investors unless the government promises interest payments for the investors, and those will have to be paid for by taxpayers.

You don't have to be a Republican to oppose a bad deal such as this. 

This blogger, in his last thought, below, attacks "liberal elites" for all these problems.  Please note that, as a liberal "elite," I don't quite agree with that.  Actually, I don't know what it means.  I acknowledge 'liberal' but there's nothing 'elite' about me.  But, never mind.  Our otherwise insightful author merely betrays his political/ideological inclinations.  And, Mr. Boese is right, Obama is my President, just as he is the duly elected President of all of us, including this author.  That could change in 2012. 

Free Republic

High Speed Delusion 
American Thinker ^ | March 28, 2011 | Al Boese 

Posted on March 28, 2011 8:56:46 AM PDT by jazusamo

Last Tuesday, March 22nd, saw two Obama high speed rail shills, hapless Illinois Governor Quinn and the loyal, ebullient, camera centric Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, shamelessly announcing with pride, the next phase of the so called Chicago to St Louis High Speed Rail project. The new $1.2 billion phase is to run from Bloomington, IL to Dwight IL, a distance of 58.5 miles of what could only be described as the "Billion Dollar Train to Nowhere." Folks, that amounts to a mere $20,618,556 per mile, with an estimated heart stopping speed of 110 mph. Google Map estimates driving between these destinations to be 1 hour 10 minutes. This breakthrough rail line will take only 32 minutes, assuming your actual destination in either Bloomington or Dwight is the train station itself.

A guess: a remote train stop would not be your final travel objective. Consequently one must add some time to travel to the train station at both ends of the journey to calculate total elapsed time. If you are lucky, that could add 10 or more minutes at each end, so let's say a total of 25 minutes just getting to and from the stations.

Oh yes, to avoid missing the train, careful planning requires some contingency time be built into your travel plan to account for traffic slowdowns or even a freight train. That is another 5 to10 minutes. This adds up to about 1 hr 7 minutes, really close to the Google Map estimate. Furthermore, how often is this high speed train going to run and will it actually stop at Dwight?

Driving offers infinite departure and arrival times, a significant option of convenience, not to be overlooked. As to cost, driving that distance at a full up cost of $0.58 per mile will be a total of $33.93. The California High Speed Rail operating cost estimate is $2.30 per passenger mile, which could be used in our analysis. Therefore our theoretical trip between Dwight and Bloomington will cost $134.55, about $100.00 more than a drive.

Finally, the last flaw in the project is the rail congestion from Chicago to Joliet, some 40 miles, where delays and limited speeds are the norm. Without a completely separate and dedicated track system, any passenger service is low speed between these points, irrespective of the condition of the track or the rated speed of the locomotion equipment. In other words, this project is a sham and deceitful.

There is one other and troubling aspect of this mystical and politically correct new transportation system: it costs billions of dollars neither the federal government nor the State of Illinois has to spend. All known and available funds are committed to spending for current and future needs and obligations. Since no private investment is even a remote possibility without government guarantees, this becomes yet another state and federal supported obligation on top of the already unsustainable commitments we are facing. It is time to recognize the futility of it all and cease the insanity of universal High Speed Passenger Rail.

High speed passenger rail, and I mean high speed at 150 + mph is desirable and in substantial use in such dense geography as the northeast corridor between Boston, Connecticut New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC. With all due respect to St Louis, is there that much demand to go there, or anywhere in between? The same can be said for Detroit or Minneapolis, more Obama targets for high speed rail, in addition to the Orlando-Tampa FL route and the favorite, LA to the SF Bay Area.

Make no mistake, rail is ideally suited, and the mode of choice, for moving freight long distances. The Association of American Railroads states that the average freight train can move one ton of cargo 480 miles on one gallon of fuel, and one train can carry the freight of 280 trucks. As to fuel consumption, pollution, highway congestion, safety, cost and road damage, there is no comparison, rail wins on all accounts, including delivery time. Additionally, railroads are private, taxpaying ventures, requiring no subsidies. If high speed passenger rail were so compelling, why are there no initiatives by private sector railroads to fill a demand? The simple answer: there is no economic case, therefore, no demand for high speed passenger rail in America, period.

The mystery remains; why is the current administration so obsessed with the delusion of high speed rail for America, and at staggering costs? No reasonable economic case has found the facts to support the idea. It is an inexplicable, irrational, yet passionate desire of the political left to impose high speed rail on this country. Is it Europe or Japan envy, or is the concept of freedom of choice and flexibility that the automobile and our highways offer, just too much to bear for the elite liberals and their President?

Ken Orski's overview of our current HSR situation

Often, Ken Orski provides us with detailed insights into Washington D.C. goings on.  Here he offers an overview of the growing resistance to the high-speed rail program in Washington, and the possible consequences in the various states, including California.

We've discussed numerous times the development of high-speed rail in the UK, and the emerging consensus that it is a very bad idea.  Here, Ken draws a comparison with the situation in the US as it now stands.  We all await decisions from Washington regarding the 2012 federal budget and the Transportation Department's budget authorization for the next six years.

There are also discussions taking place regarding the expenditures, awards, appropriations and obligations of funds from the current fiscal year to high-speed rail, including extensive ARRA stimulus funds not yet obligated or spent.  While it would be a welcome miracle to have these funds excised and returned to the Treasury or earmarked for more immediate needs, like urban/regional public mass transit, I wouldn't hold my breath about that.

Ken suggests that the initiation of the California project in the Central Valley was the CHSRA's intention.  Not actually.  It was a decision made by the FRA and required of the CHSRA to implement. When Ken suggests that the rail authority made this venue change decision by crediting the obstructive attitude of residents on the Peninsula, he flatters us.  The rail authority, as we've pointed out many times, doesn't give a damn what any of us think, want or need. The decision was closely coupled to the re-election needs of Democrat Jim Costa, congressman from the Central Valley. With the help of the FRA, he won.

While Ken doesn't go into the details, we are all now close watchers of development in the Central Valley.  What we are seeing is the possibility of major violations of the authorizing legislation, like AB3034 and Proposition 1A for the bond issue.  In their determination to get shovels in the ground, the CEO Roelof Van Ark and the rail authority are recklessly ignoring the constraints imposed by the legislation, and you can be dead certain that lawsuits are already in the works, not only from those of us concerned on the Peninsula, but by the farmer organizations in the Central Valley.

Here's another fundamental point for your consideration.  

There's a principle that states that small changes to large systems are far more effective than large changes to small systems.  This is what we are looking at now.  Introducing a dramatically different inter-city passenger rail system into the context of passenger transit is a very large change imposed on a not very large system, since passenger rail, pretty much dominated by Amtrak, carries a very small portion of the nation's travelling public.  It's one of the reasons that everyone is so critical of the inflated ridership numbers projections offered by HSR projects. There's simply no basis for them.   A small change to the entire multi-modal transit system could obtain much larger, positive impacts in a much more cost effective way.

Passenger rail is being upgraded, even with the use of Federal funds. That's not a bad thing. (Sorry, Ken.) I need to make the point that high-speed rail is not about high-speed rail; it's about public mass inter-city transit and it's comparison with and relationship to, in cost-effciency terms with, other modalities. Small, incremental changes to the entire rail network are far more promising as a national enterprise than imposing a super-fast luxury train on top of a highly inadequate and underperforming rail system.

Technology developments in the private sector are driving promising changes in automotive design and locomotive engineering (new, far more efficient engines, etc.).  Ditto in the air system.  Look at the promise of NextGen to appreciate the dramatic air travel changes waiting in the wings (so to speak).  These are all incremental changes to the much larger passenger transit system and they will affect not only inter-city rail travel, as HSR intends, but all transit, urban, suburban, regional, and appropriate to demand, inter-city.

A final point about "fiscal reality," as Ken puts it.  We hear numbers bandied about, $43 billion, $66 billion, $100 billion, for the total cost of the California HSR system.  Those numbers are only the tip of the total-cost iceberg.  Actual number will be far, far greater. We will offer more information about that in future blogs.

Vol. 22, No. 10


March 31,  2012

In the United Kingdom, as in the United States, high-speed rail has become a subject of a heated debate and controversy. At issue is a proposed £32 billion high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham, eventually to be extended north to Manchester and Leeds. Perhaps struck by its similarities with the U.S. debate, the editors of a respected British journal, Infrastructure Investor, invited us to share our views on the state of the U.S. high-speed rail program. Our guest article, with a few minor updates, is reproduced  below.

The End of the Line
A highly ambitious high-speed rail programme in the US has hit the buffer of fiscal reality

A  well-intentioned but quixotic presidential vision, to make high-speed rail service available to 80 percent of Americans in 25 years, is being buffeted by a string of reversals. And, like its British counterpart, the London-to-Birmingham high speed rail line (HS2), it is the subject of an impassioned debate. Called by congressional leaders "an absolute disaster," and a "poor investment,", the President‚s ambitious initiative is unraveling at the hands of a deficit-conscious Congress, fiscally-strapped states, reluctant private railroad companies and a skeptical public.

The $53 billion initiative was seeded with an $8 billion "stimulus" grant and followed by an additional $2.1 billion appropriation out of the regular federal budget. But instead of focusing the money on improving rail service where it would have made the most sense˜ in the dense, heavily traveled Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington˜ the Obama Administration sprinkled the money on 54 projects in 23 states.

Some of the awards are engineering and construction grants but many more are simply planning funds intended to plant the seeds of future passenger rail service across the country. Only two of the projects could be called truly "high-speed rail" because they would involve construction of dedicated rail lines in their own rights-of-way where trains could attain speeds of 120 mph and higher. The remaining construction money will be used to upgrade existing freight rail facilities owned by private railroad companies (the so-called Class One railroads) to allow "higher speed" passenger trains to run on track shared with freight carriers.

Many of the proposed improvements will result in only small increases in average speed and in marginal reductions in travel time. For example, a $1.1 billion program of track improvements on Union Pacific track between Chicago and St. Louis is expected to increase average speeds only by 10 miles per hour (from 53 to 63 mph) and to cut the present four-and-a-half hour trip time by 48 minutes. A $460 million program of improvements in North Carolina will cut travel time between Raleigh, NC and Charlotte, NC by only 13 minutes according to critics in the state legislature.

Shared-track operation has raised many questions in the minds of the intended host freight railroad companies. Railroad executives are concerned about safety and operational difficulties of running higher speed passenger trains on a common track with slower freight trains and they are determined to protect track capacity for future expansion of freight operations. Their first obligation, they assert, is to protect the interests of their customers and stockholders. 

This has led to protracted negotiations with state rail authorities in which the private railroads are fighting Administration demands for financial penalties in case passenger train operations fail to achieve pre-determined on-time performance standards. In some cases, negotiations have hit an impasse causing the Administration's implementation timetable to fall behind. In other cases, freight railroad companies have reluctantly given in, not wishing to alienate the  White House or fearing its retaliation. 

A serious blow to the presidential initiative was delivered by a group of three determined, fiscally conservative governors who rejected billions of dollars in grant awards because they were concerned that the proposed passenger rail services could require large public subsidies to keep the passenger trains operating. In the U.S. federal system, the governors and state legislatures have the final say concerning construction and operation of public transportation services within state boundaries. The refusal of the governors of Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida to participate in the White House HSR program thus took much wind out of the sails of the Administration initiative.

Perhaps the most serious blow was delivered by Governor Rick Scott whose state of Florida was supposed to host one of the Administration's showcase projects: an 86-mile true high-speed rail line, built in its own right-of-way in the median of an interstate highway between the cities of Tampa and Orlando. A score of international rail industry giants converged on Florida in the expectation of participating in a rich bonanza of contract awards and a chance to bid on a future rail extension from Orlando to Miami.

But they came to be disappointed. A study conducted by the libertarian think tank, the Reason Foundation, convinced Governor Scott that the project could involve serious cost overruns and the risk of continuing operating subsidies. This caused the Governor to decline the federal grant, thus putting an effective end to the project. A last-minute effort by rail supporters to challenge the Governor's decision was stopped in its tracks when the state supreme court upheld unanimously his right to veto the project.

This left the Administration with just one true high-speed rail project˜ California's proposed 520-mile high-speed rail line connecting Los Angeles with Northern California's San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento. The origin of this venture dates back to 2008 when voters approved a $9.95 billion bond measure as a down payment on the $43 billion system. 

Since then the project became mired in multiple controversies. One relates to a lack of a clear financial plan, another to what critics, including the state's official "peer review" panel, claim to have been overly optimistic forecasts of construction costs, ridership and revenues. Then came a report raising questions about the escalating price tag for the project which now is estimated at $66 billion. This, in a state that is staggering beneath a $26 billion deficit.

In the face of fierce opposition that developed in the wealthy Bay Area communities lying in the proposed path of the rail line, the sponsoring agency, the California High-Speed Rail Authority, decided to start construction in the sparsely populated and economically depressed Central Valley, where land is relatively cheap, unemployment is high and community opposition was expected to be minimal. The decision was spurred by demands from the Obama Administration that its $3.6 billion grant result in a rail segment that has "operational independence." 

The first 123-mile stretch, to be built between Fresno (pop. 909,000) and Bakersfield (pop. 339,000), was quickly derided by critics as a "railroad to nowhere." Even in the low-density Central Valley, the expected disruption caused by the project to communities, farms and irrigation systems has stirred political opposition. Its future˜ as indeed the fate of the entire $43-66 billion (take your pick) venture, is shrouded at this point in uncertainty.

The same can be said of President Obama's high-speed rail initiative as a whole. Just as the proposed £32 billion high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham has been called an "expensive white elephant" and a "vanity project," so the White House high-speed rail initiative is being criticized as a "boondoggle" and derided as a monument to President Obama's ambition to leave behind a lasting legacy à la President Eisenhower‚s Interstate Highway System. Editorial opinion of major national newspapers has turned critical as have many influential columnists and other opinion leaders. 

A number of senior congressional leaders ˆ including the third-ranking Republican in the House, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, and the chairman of the influential House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, John Mica, have likewise openly criticized the initiative as wasteful and poorly executed. Even elected representatives from states that would potentially benefit from the government's largesse have been skeptical about plans for high-speed rail in their states. "Blindly committing huge sums of money to this project will not make it worthwhile, and to do so at this time would be premature and fiscally irresponsible," wrote one member of the congressional delegation from the state of New York. 

Members of the North Carolina legislature have introduced a bill to bar the state department of transportation from accepting $460 million in federal high-speed rail funds, pointing to the meager trip time savings resulting from the proposed rail projects and the potential need for operating subsidies.

As this is written, Capitol Hill observers give the high-speed rail program only a small chance of obtaining additional congressional appropriations in Fiscal Year 2012 and beyond. A March 15 report in which the congressional House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure discusses its views of the forthcoming Fiscal Year 2012 transportation budget, the Obama Administration's proposed $53 billion high-speed rail program is not even mentioned. Turning off the spigot of federal dollars next year would effectively starve out the Administration's rail initiative.

The President's proposal came at a most inopportune time, when the nation is recovering from a serious recession and desperately trying to reduce the federal budget deficit and a mountain of debt. In time, however, the recession will end, the economy will start growing again, and the deficit will hopefully come under control. At that distant moment in time, perhaps toward the end of this decade, the nation might be able to resume its tradition of "bold endeavors" ˜ launching ambitious programs of public infrastructure renewal.

That could be an appropriate time to revive the idea of a high-speed rail network, at least in the densely populated Northeast Corridor where road and air traffic congestion will soon be reaching levels that threaten its continued growth and productivity. For now, however, prudence, good sense and the common welfare dictate that we, as a nation, learn to live within our means.


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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

In the stock-market of America, high-speed rail is up; education is down.

President Obama is eager to be competitive with the rest of the world. That's why he is promoting high-speed rail so aggressively. 

You may be amazed to hear that far-Left Intellectual Noam Chomsky makes the same comparison with other countries and advocates HSR assertively. The US is way behind other countries, who are way ahead with high-speed trains, we are told.  That, apparently is enough reason for the US to sink at least a trillion dollars into catching up.  

Too bad Professor Chomsky didn't talk to some of his transportation colleagues at MIT about all this and find out the realities behind the rhetoric. Isn't his specialty linguistics? Doesn't he recognize when he's being lied to?

My point is that the race with the rest of the industrial world seems to be about building luxury trains that go fast.  The country with the most toys wins.  That this is totally transparently absurd seems to occur to almost no one. Well, just to a few cranky curmudgeons here and there.

You may ask, if you think that high-speed rail is not what the race to win the future is all about, as President Obama proposes, what is the race all about?

Read just the two excerpts of a book review below from a recent copy of the New Yorker.  The article, by Elizabeth Kolbert, is about an issue that has raised a great deal of contention regarding child rearing and education in the US.  

I won't get into the issue here, but want to present a summary of some harsh facts cited in the article. Please understand, I do not endorse the premises of the book in question; nor does Elizabeth Kolbert.  It's American education deprivation that concerns me.

The first issue is that American industrial might has been declining for a long time.  I lived in a Pittsburgh, PA that was famous for having been the center of steel production in the US and in the world.  Now, those industries have simply disappeared; gone overseas.  Same with Gary, Indiana, another former steel center of the world.  I say former.  

Detroit is now almost a skeleton of a city that was once the capital of automotive production in the world.  The US has been, one way or another, shipping manufacturing capacity overseas for decades.  And, of course, we will never, ever, be the employer we once were.  That's really hard to get one's head around. 

Here is what Kolbert says:

It’s just about impossible to pick up a newspaper these days—though who actually picks up a newspaper anymore?—without finding a story about the rise of the East. The headlines are variations on a theme: “SOLAR PANEL MAKER MOVES WORK TO CHINA”; “CHINA DRAWING HIGH-TECH RESEARCH FROM U.S.”; “IBM CUTTING 5,000 SERVICE JOBS; MOVING WORK TO INDIA.” What began as an outflow of manufacturing jobs has spread way beyond car parts and electronics to include information technology, legal advice, even journalism. 

Now, about education.  Even as a product of American public education, I can't say that it too was the greatest in the world. But, we can certainly read daily how much it has deteriorated over recent years into a third rate, third world system, especially K-12.  Our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan comments about it quite bluntly in another excerpt, below. 

So, there are now fewer than ever jobs, and fewer than ever people prepared to do what jobs there are, since they are being turned out of our failing education system unprepared and unequipped for the labor market. 

Nonetheless, our great State of California, at the edge of bankruptcy, is slashing education budgets to the bone.  I remind you that money is the necessary if not sufficient condition for an adequate, not to say superior, education system.

The facts speak for themselves. Blame whoever you wish, unions, teachers, administrators, politicians, even parents. But, without an adequately funded school system, nothing else can be fixed with the schools.("To a hungry man, God can appear only in the form of bread.")

We have argued often that the most significant, most important, most critical natural resource a nation or state can have is its educated population.  Without that, we are doomed to mediocrity.  It's the critical difference between first and third world nations.  

Yet, we appear to be working to cut funding for those living at or below the poverty level, and I'm talking about children.  (Not your or my children of course, but millions of other children nonetheless.)  In California, once the leader in American education school system competence and productivity, we are slashing those budgets as well.  You know that poor children do less well in school than those of the well to do and middle classes.  

If the US lacks a well educated labor force, it really doesn't matter if there are jobs or not.  We won't have any one to fill those jobs.  Silicon Valley is back to massive hiring, with all sorts of seductive inducements.  Who are they hiring?  Where are these people from? Where did they receive their education?

What I'm getting at here is that the Administration in Sacramento is ruthlessly willing to slash education and other child oriented funding in the name of budget balancing, but stand by to let high-speed rail drain this state of billions of dollars, not only now, but forever. Why? To build a luxury train with our tax dollars for the well to do who don't really need it.

This is a form of cultural insanity!

What’s behind the“Tiger Mother” craze?
by Elizabeth Kolbert
JANUARY 31, 2011

 Last month, the results of the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, tests were announced. It was the first time that Chinese students had participated, and children from Shanghai ranked first in every single area. Students from the United States, meanwhile, came in seventeenth in reading, twenty-third in science, and an especially demoralizing thirty-first in math. This last ranking put American kids not just behind the Chinese, the Koreans, and the Singaporeans but also after the French, the Austrians, the Hungarians, the Slovenians, the Estonians, and the Poles.

“I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable,” Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, told the Times. “The United States came in twenty-third or twenty-fourth in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

The more we learn about Caltrain, the worse it looks

If the article below, by Mike Rosenberg, doesn't make your blood boil, nothing will.  But, before we get into this Caltrain issue yet again, you should read a little back-ground, above, so I don't have to keep repeating it.

Is there a connection with high-speed rail?  Of course there is, because Caltrain and high-speed rail have an agreement for high-speed rail to use the Caltrain corridor.  

Caltrain is an outrageous disaster.  They've declared "fiscal emergencies" for a number of years, including this year. They are top-heavy with fat salaries. They have been scamming us with all kinds of bed-time stories and now they've been threatening us with bankruptcy.  And, it's working.  Our local Peninsula politicians are all in a tizzy about losing our precious Caltrain.  I promise you, that won't happen.

So, let's clear the air here.

1. You don't have to support, defend or subsidize Caltrain in order to keep a commuter train functioning on the Caltrain Corridor.

2. It is in OUR interests to shut down Caltrain -- for many reasons -- mismanagement among them -- IN ORDER to SAVE commuter trains on the Caltrain corridor.  I know that sounds counter-intuitive until you get the facts straight.

3.  There is -- I want to say idiocy  -- a political agenda on the Peninsula that seeks to "Save Caltrain" and be a "Friends of Caltrain" by pursuing additional taxation of some kind to subsidize the gaping deficit that Caltrain claims it has.

4. Nothing could be a more foolish idea.  So, what to do about this?  It can either be dealt with without examination, but with politically self-serving promotional agendas -- as it is now -- or the problems can actually be solved. Which is it, residents and citizens of the Peninsula?

Here are some suggestions:

A. Dissolve the Caltrain executive organization including the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board that Mike Rosenberg's investigative piece describes in such detail.   All those people ought to be discharged from all their other jobs as well for their failure to perform their duties as they passively watched Caltrain's financial demise. 

B. Scanlon et al, need to be dismissed for gross negligence and incompetence. This approach to bankruptcy has happened on his watch and he's had a number of years to deal with it.  He has failed.

C. The multi-layered organizations of Caltrain/JPB, SamTrans, and the SMC Transit Authority need to be dissolved. There is far too much overlap to save any of them.  Appropriate reconstitution of independent organizations can be called for after the removal of Caltrain/JPB from this confusion.

D. The Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Board organization, a state run transit agency, also has BART under it's wing.  It can add what used to be Caltrain.

E. Caltrain does not have to change it's basic rail technology and adopt the too-expensive BART version. All that is necessary is to establish two major train stations, one at each end of Caltrain (perhaps upgrading Milbrae) to connect with BART.  The current Caltrain rolling stock changes color and logo to match BART.  The key here is commuter convenience.

F. At the two key stations, a single organization integrates the schedules of both BART and the former Caltrain so that connections are seamless.

G. Financing becomes a state managed issue, no longer a mis-managed local one.  

H. The Bay Area is now ringed with a single-managed commuter transit operation. That's a major step forward into a totally integrated and comprehensive Bay Area multi-modal transit network.

I. The former JPB can be re-constituted with a larger group of elected officials, specifically elected by popular vote, one representative each from every town on the (former) Caltrain corridor that represent the commuter needs of the Peninsula. Already elected officials are ineligible. If they are not actively doing their job in their representation of each town, they can easily be recalled.

Finally, because this is a high-speed rail blog, I need to reiterate that Caltrain, by being terminated, also terminates the MOU between Caltrain and the CHSRA, which thereupon no longer has any access rights to the Caltrain corridor.  These rights are protected by Union Pacific, which continues to exercise it's rights under the trackage agreement which does carry over to the new Capital Corridor organization.

Isn't this what so many of us on the Peninsula want?  A far more effective commuter service that makes all the necessary stops at every train station, and the permanent absence of any additional inter-city rail service on the rail corridor.

Let me also add that 'electrification' is a code word for high-speed rail on the Caltrain corridor.  The local commuter service does not require it.  There are other more cost/effective rolling stock technologies that will do a far better job than the current heavy-rail Diesels and cars  (see: DEMUs in Wikipedia).  Electrification is definitively counter-indicated.

Caltrain board unanimously approves everything, despite historic crisis
By Mike Rosenberg © Copyright 2011, Bay Area News Group
Posted: 03/29/2011 11:35:45 PM PDT
Updated: 03/30/2011 06:34:53 AM PDT

The group of local politicians in charge of Caltrain unanimously approves every item that comes before it, seldom debating or asking questions even as the rail line faces a historic financial crisis that soon could lead those same leaders to shutter half its stations.

For an astonishing three years, the Caltrain board has nodded along in unity to approve 200 straight items, including key decisions to cut service, raise fares, increase salaries and change policy, according to a Mercury News review of meeting records. Board members typically were silent before most of the votes, which all were based on recommendations from SamTrans executives who manage the rail line's day-to-day operations.

Their final vote count since the last disagreement: 1,591 yes, 0 no.

Nine politicians -- supervisors, mayors and others from San Francisco to San Jose -- are by law charged with setting policy for the 77-mile rail line and approving all spending for the $100 million-a-year public agency during their monthly meetings.

"It's not a complex organization, it's getting the train from point A to point B," said longtime board member Ken Yeager, a Santa Clara County supervisor. "It isn't like there's a lot of moving parts and complex issues that need to be debated."

However, the agency's 40,000 daily riders between San Francisco and Gilroy might disagree: They face the loss of half their stations and service by July so the agency can wipe out a record $30 million budget deficit. Critics, like Doug Heller, wonder whether the board is simply there to "add more ink to the rubber stamp."

"There's something wrong when you have total agreement for three years, only to wind up in a financial disaster," Heller, executive director of Los Angeles-based Consumer Watchdog, said after being informed of the votes. "It indicates that no one's really paying attention."
Glossed over decisions?

The newspaper's review of meeting records since 2008 found:

In 62 hours of meeting time, the board never voted on an item generated by a board member; rather, SamTrans staff members who spend part of their time managing Caltrain devised all the plans.

The board cut service in October 2008 and increased fares in July 2009 -- each time without asking a question or making a single comment directly before voting, even though thousands of riders had written with concerns.

Board members passed more than half the 200 items without publicly questioning or commenting on them before voting, and only about a half-dozen times did a vote directly follow a lively discussion.

The board approved three annual budgets totaling $288 million in tax and rider revenues. On average each year, just one-third of the members in attendance asked a question or commented on the spending plans before approving them.

Since 2007, board member Nat Ford, also chief of San Francisco Muni, has missed nearly half the meetings.

Only once did each board member speak before a vote: In December 2009, when they showered an outgoing board member with compliments before approving a plaque for him.

Objection in 2008

Perhaps most telling was the February 2009 meeting, when the board had to decide whether to give a one-year contract extension to Amtrak -- which provides the agency's engineers, conductors and other rank-and-file employees -- or find another operator. It was a crucial decision, since the contract makes up 60 percent of the Caltrain budget. But the meeting was running late, into lunchtime.

"Unless there's a question I'd like to move that we adopt the resolution," board member Jim Hartnett said at the time, interrupting a staff member who was preparing to explain the contract. After laughs from fellow board members, the contract was approved -- 30 seconds after it was introduced.

Ultimately the contract would fall in the middle of a three-year period in which Caltrain would pay Amtrak an additional $6 million because of wage hikes Amtrak gave its employees. The prior year, the board members approved the Amtrak contract after two minutes, also without asking whether there was a better deal out there.

"I would hope that an oversight board like that would ask some tougher questions of Caltrain," said John Murphy, 43, who rides Caltrain from his home in San Francisco to Sunnyvale for work and has attended several board meetings. "It seems in many cases that a lot of the members are pretty disassociated with what's going on. Sometimes it feels like they're asleep at the meetings."

It's unclear how far back the streak of supporting staff plans goes. The last objection came in February 2008, when board member Jose Cisneros, the San Francisco treasurer, cast a sole vote opposing the staff's plan to pull some of Caltrain's investments from the San Mateo County treasurer.

The big question: Could the Caltrain disaster have been averted with the type of oversight seen at transit agencies that aren't suffering as badly, such as BART and the Valley Transportation Authority, where board members commonly propose initiatives and stage raucous debates?

All the ideas to save Caltrain have come from the VTA and Metropolitan Transportation Commission, an effort that could bail out the rail line and save service until 2012. Even riders recently came up with an idea that could save weekend service: faster weekend trains that have increased ridership and, thus, revenue.
Defending their roles

In interviews, board members deflected criticism that they were not taking their roles seriously enough. They said the focus should not be on them but instead on rounding up public support for a new tax or other source of steady funding -- the lack of which, they say, is the biggest reason the agency is struggling. Yet despite years of problems, they haven't moved to put a tax measure on the ballot.

The board members, whom Caltrain pays $100 per meeting, also said the SamTrans staff has been so thorough that when items come before the board, there simply is not much left for them to do.

"I do in a lot of ways respect the staff work that is done and the presentations we receive," said Ford, who sometimes shows the Caltrain staff work to his own San Francisco Muni employees as a sort of training. "I know what's going on with Caltrain just as much as I know what's going on with my own agency."

The board members and staff executives appear to have a congenial relationship, sometimes joking during meetings and rarely, if ever, grilling one another publicly. What's more, Caltrain CEO Mike Scanlon donated $900 to Jerry Hill's 2008 campaign for state Assembly while he was on the board, a few years after Scanlon had contributed $1,500 to former board member Mike Nevin -- who hired Scanlon -- for Nevin's failed run for state Senate.
Hidden agenda?

The board members hinted that they do more work behind the scenes. Ford said he has held teleconferences with other board members a few times, for instance.

"I think there is a lot of discussion that happens offline," Yeager said. "By the time there's a vote before the board, a lot of these things have just been resolved."

But the state has passed laws designed specifically to ensure that all government business is conducted in public and not in secrecy.

"The process of governing is happening out of sight and out of mind," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition. "Obviously something's wrong."

Board members insisted they have not violated any aspects of the state's public meeting laws.

Still, they acknowledged they need to interject themselves more in a time of crisis and vowed to stay active in helping Caltrain through its struggles.

As new board members, San Mateo County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier said she will be grilling Caltrain officials at every turn, while Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss said she hopes to emulate VTA board meetings, where she and other board members "go at it" all the time.

"I wouldn't have gone on the (Caltrain) board if I hadn't thought I could make some kind of changes," Kniss said. Had she been on the board earlier, "at some point I would have been alarmed at several fiscal emergencies."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Boondoggle Syndrome. It's not just for High-Speed Rail anymore!

Think of this parking garage experience next to Yankee Stadium as a "proof-of-concept."  The New York Daily News article talks about a construction project that cost in the hundreds of millions.  California high-speed rail will be in the hundreds of BILLIONS!  But, there are numerous, informative parallels.

To be sure, it's not a complete and perfect match between this parking garage and the rail project, but you can see what we are in for here in California.  This development and its consequences are what the conservative Republican governors in three states have been trying to avoid.  And, the President has chastised the most recent Governor who rejected the federal seed money offer for not playing along with the 'Vision' political game that is the foundation for the high-speed rail program in the US.

It is important to see the HSR project in California, and elsewhere, not in isolation as a unique situation, but as an example of infrastructure development that appears to follow a corrosive pattern.  That consists of both seduction and coercion.  Voters are lied to about low costs and high 'productivity.'  Costs, once a commitment is made, suddenly climb precipitously.  User and revenue numbers generated are grossly overstated in order to get approval in the first place. 

And then, the shock of recognition, only now it's too late.  Those few of us who are able to say "I told you so" receive no comfort from this; only crushing disappointment. 

Well, it's not too late to stop this monstrous, oversized, overpriced boondoggle in California.  There's no shortage of information about what the dire consequences will be if construction begins in the Central Valley and the Democlean sword will continue to hand over the heads of every Californian forever. The Rail Authority will continue to survive on the State IV drip and continue to lobby for federal dribs and drabs of funding. They won't go away, unless they are made to go away.

In a future blog, we will present more documentation about the impossible financial structure of this project based on the work of William Grindley and his colleagues and their highly detailed analysis of all the numbers.

And, for those who still want to "do it right," here is an example of a parking garage, "done right." 

Yankee Stadium parking garages in financial hot water as spots sit empty even on game days
Friday, March 25th 2011, 4:00 AM
Less than a week before Opening Day, angry bondholders have forced the nearly bankrupt operator of the Yankee Stadium garages to give up some control - and maybe even level some garages.

Parking revenues are so dismal for Bronx Parking Development Company the firm has had to dip into its debt reserves for the second time in a year just to pay the interest on the $237 million it owes in tax-exempt bonds.

On top of that, the firm - a nonprofit the Bloomberg administration selected and the state subsidized to operate the stadium garages - owes the city $17 million in back rent and taxes for the 21 acres of public land it uses.

Ever since it opened under BPDC management two years ago, the 9,000-space parking system has operated at barely 60% capacity, even on game days. Meanwhile, its operating expenses have run twice what was expected.

"The public will never see a dime of rent and taxes from this project as it now exists," said one official close to the garage company.

Company directors agreed in a meeting Monday night to a set of demands from the bondholders in exchange for a one-year "waiver" from a complete default and takeover, a board source said.
They agreed to give the bondholders a seat on the board, to pay the fees of bondholder lawyers and to fire the company's existing parking consultant, Desman Associates.

The board also agreed to furnish weekly financial reports and to refrain from spending any additional money unless approved by the bondholders' designee.

City representatives on the board from the Parks Department and from the Economic Development Corporation voted for the changes.

"The agreement will give BPDC and the bondholders time to evaluate potential remedies to the current shortfall," EDC director Seth Pinsky said.

"Over the next year we will be in discussions with all parties involved to evaluate potential alternatives, and should those parties agree, all options will be considered."

One option that Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has been advocating is to tear down one of the big garages at 153rd St. and build a new hotel.

"That would at least bring in real jobs and development to the Bronx, not just a bunch of garages that sit empty most of the year," an official close to Diaz said.

Bronx Parking has raised the price for stadium parking this year - to $48 for valet parking and $35 for self-parking. The Yankees open the season at The Stadium Thursday against Detroit.

That will obviously lead more Yankees fans to abandon its lots - especially since Gateway Mall Shopping Center a few blocks from the stadium will be charging $23 on game days for parking.

No one should forget that this boondoggle came about because the Yankees - who have no involvement in the garages - put a gun to the city's head. They demanded a 9,000-space parking system from the city and the state as part of agreeing to build a new stadium.

Now, those garages have become a financial swamp for taxpayers.

And right next door, Yankee Stadium raked in $396 million in its first year of operation in 2009 - just from the sale of tickets and luxury suites.

That's more than double the old stadium's revenues in 2007. And it's $140 million more than the Yankees projected.

Yankees Win! City Loses! Again.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Greater resistance to the British "HS2" high-speed rail project on business grounds.

I would swear that the article, below, from the Telegraph in the UK, was about California's high-speed rail project.  But, I'd be wrong since it's about the HSR between Birmingham and London.  Except for the geography and the politics, the two projects -- California and the UK -- are fraternal twins.

In order to read the article, and to stem the confusion, it is essential to have an introductory lesson in British Politics 101.  I hope I get this right: 

The Tories evolved into Conservatives.  The Conservatives are now the dominant centre-right political party, with David Cameron as Prime Minister. The Conservatives are like the Republicans in the US, and they are affiliated with the Liberal Party, which, in the UK is more like Libertarianism rather than the Leftist Progressive Liberalism in the US (which is where I am).  

Margaret Thatcher, former PM and head of the Conservative Party, was a good friend of Ronald Reagan. To confuse things even more, the Social Democrats have absorbed the Liberals to become the Liberal Democrats, a third Party. By US meaning, the Liberal Democrats are neither liberal or democratic. To the contrary.

The Democratic side, as we understand it, is represented by the Labour Party in the UK.   The Labour Party is the centre-left political Party, with leanings toward Socialism.  It is more like the Liberal wing of the Democratic Party in the US. The distinction and separation between Labour and "management" represented by the Conservatives, is even greater in the UK than in the US. 

So, as you can see, the situation politically is reversed, with Conservatives promoting this rail project in the UK, and the Labour Party opposing it.  But not entirely.  Actually it's really more confused than the United States's clearly distinct Democratic support for and Republican opposition to high-speed rail.  

Nonetheless, there is very aggressive promotion of this project by the British Government, which, although imposing enormously stringent austerity in the present economic struggles, is prepared to spend billions of Pounds (at $1.60 per Pound) on this project. That's the familiar part. 

Also, for an additional bit of confusion, unlike in the US, some of their Chambers of Commerce and other business interests oppose the HS2 project as well. So, maybe we are not so much alike. However, we share with our British cousins an emerging voice in opposition for high-speed rail. Remember, the British invented the railroads as we know them. Unlike us, they are a railroad culture.

Perhaps the most important take-away from this article and discussion is that HSR is being challenged, not only in the US, but in countries that already have had HSR for some time. Furthermore, it's being challenged by both sides of the political fence.  And, the opposition has become more aware than ever of the economic shortcomings that can create far more problems than the train can possibly solve. 

Doubts raised over business case for £17bn high-speed rail link
Serious doubts have been cast on the "business case" for the proposed £17bn high-speed rail link between London and Birmingham.

By David Harrison 

9:00PM GMT 26 Mar 2011
Public bodies including a leading county council have warned they do not believe that the financial predictions made by the Government for the new line stand up to scrutiny.

And senior MPs conducting an inquiry into the Government's flagship scheme have warned that they are prepared to recommend against it going ahead.

In another blow, business leaders in the West Midlands - the region touted to benefit most from the rail link - have criticised the project and said the money allocated to it should be used it to improve existing roads and railways.

David Cameron has declared that the High Speed 2 line, with planned extensions to Manchester and Leeds, and eventually Scotland, can help to close the north-south divide and promote regeneration.

Until now, opposition has been led by campaigners and politicians along the line of the proposed route, which slices through some of England's finest countryside in Tory heartlands.

But Staffordshire County Council has now declared itself against the 250mph trains - and the first to object primarily on economic grounds.

But now Staffordshire council has voted to oppose the plan because it has concluded that the business case is "flawed".

Far from benefiting businesses, HS2 would "actually damage" the economy by making direct links to London slower and less frequent, forcing people to travel to Birmingham to change.

Cllr Philip Atkins, leader of the Conservative-run council, said: "There are serious concerns about the potential harm to our economy.

"Many people don't realise that existing mainline train services from our county would suffer."

The proposed route is now being investigated by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee.

Members last night said they were sceptical of the finances behind the scheme. The cost of building it will be funded by the Treasury and once built, operators will pay to use it, meaning that a return on its cost needs heavy passenger usage.

It is also supposed to act as a boost to the economy, particularly in the West Midlands, generating new jobs and economic growth.

Steve Baker, the Conservative MP for Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, said: "The Government has honourable intentions for regeneration but I think this is the wrong project.

"I am certain that the business case will be found to be lacking but I will approach the inquiry with an open mind."

Iain Stewart, the Conservative MP for Milton Keynes South, said: "I am an advocate of a modern rail network but we have to get this one right. If the business case doesn't stack up then I will not support the project."

Tom Harris, a Labour committee member and former transport minister, said: "We will be as objective as possible. If the numbers don't add up we will say so.

"You can only win the argument for high-speed rail if you can convince the wider public that there is a valid business case.

"As a minister, I was dubious about some of the arguments put forward. My argument was based mainly on improving capacity. But we have got to look at the business case with fresh eyes."

The MPs' intervention came as businesses in the West Midlands expressed concern about the finances of the scheme.

Senior figures in one of the West Midlands' leading business organisations, the Black Country Chamber of Commerce (BCCC), said that a majority of its 1,600 business members in Wolverhampton, Dudley, Walsall and Sandwell were "negative" about HS2.

Paul Coxhead, a member of the BCCC board and chief executive of Dudley-based training firm TTP, said: "It's obscene to spend £17 billion at a time of austerity, when cuts are being made to basic services, just to save half an hour on the journey to London."

John Murray, chairman of Performance Through People, a training provider - and a patron of BCCC - said: "Most members of our Chamber are negative about the high-speed rail project.

"The key is that we haven't seen a proper business plan that shows what it will mean for this area."

Some firms said the rail link would not increase their trade because most of their goods were transported by road.

They called for money to be invested in roads, including an orbital "Birmingham M25" to improve traffic flows and road links to ports.

They also expressed concern that non-stop high-speed trains from Birmingham to London - which would take 49 minutes for a journey which currently lasts 1 hour 22 minutes - would mean intercity services on the existing West Coast mainline would suffer, meaning businesses in the wider West Midlands would actually lose out.

Andy Hawkyard, the managing director of Aire Truck Bodies, a maker of bodies for commercial lorries, in Tipton, West Midlands which has 110 employees and a turnover £8m, said: "HS2 is a white elephant.

"My business benefits when there are new construction projects but I can't see what this will add to our country. Most business people I know think it is a bad idea."

Alan Jones, operations director of Apton Partitioning at Coseley, West Midlands, which makes office partitions and exports them all over the world and employs 25 people, said: "I don't think it will help businesses around here.

"There is a shortage of capacity on our trains now but that can be solved by improving what we have for a lot less money."

And Michael Worley, chairman and managing director of William King, a West Bromwich steel company with 200 UK employees said: "I am not anti-high-speed rail but I am ambivalent about this project. My main concern is the impact it will have on investment in other transport infrastructure projects. We need to improve the existing rail system and our airports. My big fear is that if we put nearly £20billion or so into a single rail project there will be no money for other important transport projects."