Saturday, March 26, 2011

Another Perspective on High-Speed Rail Viewed from "The Hill."

Here's a useful web-site I recently discovered; I put it on my menu-bar.  It's primarily about "The Hill;" that is, Capitol Hill, or Congress.  Regarding high-speed rail, the Republicans are against it and are fighting the Democrats in Congress and the Administration that has been promoting this high-speed rail vision in order to "Win the Future."

Keith Laing is on to something in his article, below. He's drawing the conclusion that high-speed rail has become Obama's cross to bear on the road to the next election.  That's a plausible reading of the situation, pointing out the basic point that HSR is merely symbolic; it's a highly visible surrogate for control of earmark funds. Not in the standard earmark sort of way of course, but in a way that gives the Administration the opportunity, by way of the FRA, to ship millions and billions of dollars to politically targeted congressional districts and states in the name of jobs, the economy and the future. Is this important for them?  Doing it in the name of high-speed rail is merely the lipstick.  The elections in 2012 are rapidly approaching.

Even if you really want high-speed rail, you'd have to admit that the government couldn't have done a worse job of promoting it.  First, the feds. deploy "seed-money," sometimes in sizable awards, to states that hope to get that funding in the name of developing high-speed rail.  That's whether they actually intend to build the whole project to completion or not. The federal government assumes that once the seed money has started the project, the rest of the funds, huge amounts of it, will come from somewhere else and it will become the States' responsibility.    Apparently the feds. don't much care from where, just so it isn't from the federal government, which doesn't have it. 

Big mistake. Have you noticed that most of the States are broke? Because of this self-defeating strategy, three states have already refused the money, and several others, including New York State and North Carolina, are talking seriously about refusing it as well.  Those states, and lots of people in all the other designated states are worried about this so-called "free money."  That is, they are worried that this seed-money will put those states that accept it further into very deep and permanent debt.  In order to understand that, you have to first acknowledge that as a technology, HSR is a gaping money hole into which you can never pour enough.  And it will continue to suck funds from its host government forever. 

When he says, "ObamaRail," Keith Laing is right, describing this as the new battleground of the Republic; or better, the battleground between Republicans and Democrats.  Although that's where much of the conversation is, it's really not about the train at all; it's about the money from the government.  The Democrats want to spend it on the States, the Republicans don't.  High-Speed Rail is merely the container it comes in.

When Mica says, "You've got to put it where it makes sense," the Congressman has to explain what he means by "make sense."  He states that it makes sense in the northeast corridor.  If that's the case, why did both Republican and Democratic Administrations not make the most populous NEC one of the rail corridors, indeed the first and most important corridor? Regardless of voter interest, why is California being lavished with billions of dollars, given that it's population density assures low ridership despite extremely high construction costs?  California screams lousy investment!

But, just wait as they get into doing the calculations for an entirely new and improved rail corridor through the most densely urbanized region of the US. Now Amtrak is predicting $117 billion. That will be eaten up only for land acquisition.

In supporting HSR, there are many unsubstantiated assertions, such as the economic multiplier effect when the train starts operating, or the tens of thousands of "permanent" jobs that will be created. These assertions strain credulity. Just about every claim made in defense of and justification for HSR has been discredited.

Infrastructure projects, large and small, either are productive or they're not. 

-Energy projects, even hugely overpriced nuclear plants, are productive for the largest numbers of us; we all need energy; we can't function without it.
-Urban and regional public mass transit is a productive service since it enables the largest numbers of us to get to and from work in the most cost-effective way. That's where the gridlock is and that's where it can get solved.
-The highway network connects ALL Americans, regardless of their place of work or home. Fixing it and improving it is productive since it benefits each and every one of us.  

But a high-speed rail? It's not the same as regular rail and we have, over the past fifty years, used regular rail ever less and less, and for substantive reasons.  High-speed rail, on the other hand, is intended not for all of us, but actually only for a very small number of us; those of us who can and will afford it.  The government has no business using our taxes to create this subsidized luxury available only to the top of the economic ladder.  If I may overstate it, it's like the government selling food stamps to rich people for prices the poor can't afford.

Whether that's a good or bad idea is not the debate between Republicans and Democrats.  Their debate is about sticking HSR into Obama's eye.  Like it or not, that's what we must follow in the news because that's where the decisive action is.

On the heels of 'ObamaCare' conservatives target 'ObamaRail'
By Keith Laing - 03/26/11 04:32 PM ET

“ObamaRail” is fast becoming the new “ObamaCare” for many Republicans.

Conservative activists are deriding the high-speed rail proposals set out by President Obama in his State of the Union address and 2012 budget as wasteful spending that imposes new mandates on cash-strapped state governments.

“Look, you look at the studies of these things, when they get built, [they] cost way more than they think,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in a Fox News interview shortly after he rejected $2.4 billion for a railway connecting Tampa and Orlando.

The Republican governor also said states get stuck with the costs of operating the new railways once they are built. “Who is going to take responsibility for that,” he asks.

The fight over high-speed rail loudly echoes the battle over healthcare, with Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio also making big shows of rejecting federal money.

The vehemence of Republican critics has surprised even some Republicans, who say transportation issues used to find more bipartisan support.

“This is the most significant headwind we’ve had in 50 years,” said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Cardenas, a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, was criticized after being elected ACU chairman for supporting the Florida rail project so many staunch conservatives there hated. 

He said advocates for rail transportation spending have been caught off guard by the backlash.

“It’s a headwind that caught (rail) smack in the face. It’s being looked at from a standpoint of ‘hey, if we don’t need to build it today, let’s not do it,’” said Cardenas, who has registered to lobby on behalf of high-speed rail, putting him at odds with the Florida Republican Party he led under former Gov. Jeb Bush.

In the past, it was possible to build a consensus between Washington and state governments on infrastructure spending, Cardenas said. “It was a matter of dollar separation, not where you [are] doing something or not.”

Transportation budget negotiations between the House and Senate “were the easiest conferences to attend,” he added.

Not anymore.

One of the first budget proposals to emerge from the new House Republican majority was to cut $1 billion in high-speed rail spending this year.  Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has taken to Capitol Hill to defend the projects, but has faced hostile congressional committees.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said the increased partisanship of rail politics is Obama’s fault.

He said the White House screwed up by pushing for more high-speed rail investments in places where rail transportation is less popular. As a result, the administration is being stung by criticism that the proposed funding is wasteful spending.

“I don’t see it as a partisan at all,” Mica said of the rail fight. “I see it as the administration flubbed its job. I’m a Republican and I’m one of the strongest supporters of high speed rail.”

In an interview, Mica said the administration should have concentrated its rail efforts on the densely-populated northeast corridor. He added many of the projects proposed by the Obama administration are not truly high-speed.

Instead, Mica said, they barely increase the speed of existing Amtrak trains, which are already heavily subsidized.

“The problem is that there were 78 awards and Amtrak hijacked 76 of them for their Soviet-style train operation,” he said. “They made very unwise choices and set the high-speed rail effort back in the United States. It’s sad.”

Mica pointed out that only this month the Department of Transportation designated the Northeast as a federal rail corridor. Prior to that, the DoT had argued the Northeast did not need the designation because it had already developed railways.

The decision means the Northeast will more easily be able to compete for the $2.4 billion in high-speed rail funds that were rejected by Scott. Lawmakers from the region had long pressed the Obama administration to make the change.

“So many people along the northeast corridor are wondering what in heaven’s name is the administration thinking giving away limited money on marginal projects,” Mica said. “Congress and the administration threw huge amounts of money in the name of high-speed rail for snail-speed service.

“Even the most learned observer could smell a rat,” Mica continued.  “You’ve got to do it where it makes sense, then it’s bipartisan.”  [Edit. Doesn't he mean "least learned observer" in this sentence?]

Some rail supporters are unconvinced.

Americans for Public Transportation President William Millar said Obama would likely have been criticized no matter which rail projects he proposed.

“It’s fashionable today to take every issue and rip it apart in a partisan way,” he said. 

“It’s a very difficult time to be a leader trying to lay out a great future for the country. I’m not trying to sound like a defender of the president, but just as an observer of politics, opponents of the president are going to use whatever they can.

“The era we live in, nothing is off limits,” Millar concluded.

Millar noted that the federal push for high-speed rail began when President George W. Bush signed the Passenger Rail Investment Act, not when President Obama talked it up in his first State of the Union address.

“Republicans have a long history of supporting infrastructure projects,” he said. “I hope that doesn’t change.”