Thursday, March 24, 2011

Don't build HSR in upstate New York; and, watch out for "Regulatory Capture."

Corning, New York is the home of Corning Glass.  (I grew up in upstate New York.)  It's not the center of the Universe.  

Nonetheless, some elected officials seeing the scrambling for high-speed rail dollars to start a HSR route crossing upstate New York find that quite unacceptable there due to, among other reasons, the economy. Priorities. The objections they cite are not a lot different than what you've been reading in this blog for some time.

But, this article, below, gives me the opportunity to raise another interesting issue. (We learn something new every day.)  Today's lesson is about "Regulatory Capture." Perhaps you know this already, but it's a new idea for me.  Regulatory Capture means that the industrial/corporate interests have, figuratively, taken over the government agency that controls their actions.  

The best recent example was the Federal Minerals Management Agency charged with oversight of the oil industries.  Remember the Gulf oil spill?   Some of those government officials were caught in bed with oil corporate employees, literally!  That's "capture" all right!  There were other conflict of interest behaviors that are illegal as well. 

I bring this up not to accuse anyone of hanky-panky, but to point out that the oil industry isn't the only one engaged in corrupting, sorry, persuading government agencies.  As you may have noticed, High-Speed Rail has become an industry of note in the US recently.

Once the Obama Administration let some ARRA Stimulus funds out of the bag, so to speak, for high-speed rail, the wolves quickly got the scent and have been pursuing these dangled billions relentlessly.  Parsons-Brinckerhoff has spent untold millions on lobbying, as have many other organizations intent on becoming rich off these tax dollars. 

In this case, the relationship between the DOT/FRA and the rail industry; that is, the passenger rail industry, is highly symbiotic.  Each side, public and private, is promoting the other. The FRA now has money to give away (that's bureaucratic power) and the industry is at the receiving end. The consequence of this too intimate relationship is that the taxpayer gets the short end of the stick.

It's important to understand this.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)  is the regulatory agency of aviation in the US.  But, they are also aviation industry advocates, such as for the air carriers like United or American Airlines. That's an internal conflict of interest.  Well, the same is true of the FRA, the Federal Railroad Administration.  They have been freight rail advocates for decades. But now, with their high-speed rail advocacy, things have gotten messy.

The aggressive promotion of high-speed rail is the centerpiece of LaHood's agenda (because the White House told him so). LaHood is promoting HSR.  But HSR passenger and freights are inherently in conflict, especially if HSR interrupts, in any way, freight rail service.  (Union Pacific has explicitly denied HSR access to any of their corridors in California.) Remember, the freights own most of America's rail corridors. 

Yes, I know it's complicated.  But high-speed rail advocates, promoters and potential industry beneficiaries -- and that includes overseas corporations like Siemens -- have "captured" the FRA, whose bureaucrats don't listen to any concerns about the possible shortcomings of HSR.  

That's not good news.  And, it behooves the Congress to set that right; to detach the FRA from HSR promotion and advocacy and stick to making railroading safe in the United States.  As of right now, there are no regulations governing high-speed rail.

There are no US guidelines, manuals, legal requirements, etc. for building and operating high-speed rail, particularly the over 200 mph variety.  The lack of those has not stopped the CHSRA from going ahead, pretending that they know what they are doing.  

Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

Reed opposes high-speed rail in New York

Corning, NY
By The Leader Staff
Corning Leader
Posted Mar 24, 2011 @ 10:56 AM

Washington —
U.S. Rep. Tom Reed today urged Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to abandon plans for a high speed rail line for New York State.

“In times of national financial crisis, we simply cannot support this expenditure of precious tax dollars on a project that will not be financially viable in the long-term,” Reed wrote in a letter to LaHood that was co-signed by U.S. Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle.
“Constructing a high speed rail line across Western and Upstate New York is not practical,” Reed wrote. “A true high speed rail line across this region would require its own dedicated track.  Fulfilling this requirement would cost tens of billions of dollars.  At a time when our roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure are deteriorating, our tax dollars would be better spent elsewhere. We simply must make the tough choices necessary to prioritize our limited resources on projects that are essential and have the potential for long-term self-sufficiency”

Reed claimed that neither the federal government, nor the state can afford the long-term subsidies the high speed rail project would demand.

“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,” Reed wrote, adding that he has not seen any study which concludes that high speed rail would be self-sufficient.

“Funds should be dedicated to rail improvements in Upstate and Western New York only after the Tier 1 EIS study has determined where our tax dollars will make the biggest impact,” Reed wrote.  

“Establishing a high speed rail line in Upstate New York would be disruptive to existing rail freight traffic and is simply not practical or feasible at this time.”
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