Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A billion here, a billion there. . .the cornucopia of high-speed rail without a road-map

There's a new Government Accounting Office (GAO) report about the billions wasted across the many federal agencies.  I singled out the comments referring to the Department of Transportation. I want to repeat the requirement of the GAO report regarding what is called for within the DOT.  ". . .a fundamental re-examination and reform of the nation's surface transportation policies is needed."  

Exactly.  We have been saying this for a long time.  High-Speed Rail has recently emerged as a major infrastructure development effort, seemingly out of nowhere.  Most people, anywhere in the US, even if they were aware of its existence in other countries, could have cared less about its implementation in the US.  And, just as Athena sprang fully grown from the head of Zeus, so this idea of building really fast trains all around the US popped into view.  But one critical ingredient was -- and still is -- missing.

The key word is: Context.  What is the context in the US that high-speed rail is called for?  What is the overall strategy for the United States for the movement of people via the various modalities, air, highway and rail, and yes, even water?  What are the policies that govern planning for the movement of people and goods?  We can't answer those questions because we have no master plan or national policy.

Until there is a major needs assessment, and one conducted not by vested interests seeking federal or state largesse, but truly independent, can we know whether we need more or less rail, national, inter-city, regional or urban transit.  Just saying we must have HSR, over and over, doesn't make it so. This is a question so large that it can't be left to any one bureaucracy intent on empire building and grasping for budget and head-count. 

Transportation is an issue in the US that requires being part of the larger comprehensive economic picture.  It must not be considered in isolation from such concerns as cost-effectiveness, demand, and any impacts, expected and unexpected, that invariably accompany such mega-infrastructure development agendas.  

What about the existing transportation systems and networks?  What condition are they in?  Where should our highly constrained resources go, building new or fixing and upgrading existing?  How do we intend to expand our rail networks  and yet manage the invariable cost over-runs?  

Should we give freight a higher priority ranking that passenger travel?  By reducing the number of trucks on the nation's highways, will we protract the life of our highways and decrease highway congestion? Might the movement of goods be upgraded and at the same time produce all those promised results claimed by the HSR industries and politicians?

Without 1.) a major national dialogue on what the people in the United States want, 2.) without the heavy hand of marketing and other public relations persuasions set loose on all of us, and  3.) without the required extensive preparatory homework before thrusting high-speed rail into the picture, is indeed the grotesque bureaucratic waste of billions.  And, that's true at the national, regional, state and local levels.

We've been exposed to a shameless sales job for something plucked out of the air. The purpose, so far as we can tell, is to do just that, spend and waste billions.

Yes, indeed. And, just where is that "accountability?"

U.S. bureaucracy wastes billions, watchdog says
By Ben Rooney, staff reporter
March 1, 2011: 1:49 PM ET

The five agencies within the Department of Transportation administer over 100 separate programs for highways, transit, rail and safety functions. Those programs cost more than $58 billion annually, according to GAO.

To increase accountability and improve efficiency, the GAO says "a fundamental re-examination and reform of the nation's surface transportation policies is needed."