Saturday, March 5, 2011

HSR Troubles in Tallahassee and what biases to pay attention to

Let's get away from that "you are biased" and therefore, presumably "I am not biased."  That's nonsense.  The NIMBY aspersions are nonsense.  These are non-substantive 'ad hominem' attacks rather than actual refutations of empirical data.  

Alain Enthoven looked at the numbers, as did over 70 other economists and successful business leaders, and determined that there is no way the California high-speed rail project can be built without subsequent permanent subsidies required.

To counter that argument by saying the the law (AB3034) doesn't permit subsidies is meaningless for an organization that finds the law merely a suggestion and option. The governing laws for HSR in California have been acknowledged very selectively and only when convenient.

The Bay Area Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) Chairman, Randy Rentschler, wants it both ways, of course.  He points out that it will neither make us energy independent nor will it solve environmental deterioration. But, he says, it's a step in the right direction.  I don't know what direction that would be.  Since the MTC is in the process of passing through funding from various sources, Rentschler must be cautious not to antagonize those funding sources since that's the bread-and-butter of his organization and his professional career. Let's call that a bias.

Sidebar point: Bring any medical problem to a surgeon, and he will recommend surgery. (Yes, that's an exaggeration, but you get my point.) And likewise, to all the Transportation organizations, public and private, HSR is a good thing, since that is what they are in the business to promote.  Is that a bias?  Are public relations companies, hired to sell a product, biased?  Is Mr. Barker, a spokesman for a marketing organization like the CHSRA, biased?

Because the media love disputation, disagreement, conflict and adversarial discussions, the HSR issue has recently flourished in the press, with on-the-one-hand, but on-the-other-hand articles proliferating.  it's too bad that they are not better researched.  

We now know that the $43 billion total cost figure is wrong and the projected costs, using the numbers from the CHSRA, are $65 billion and rising. We know, or we should know, that running a high-speed train between two population centers like the Bay Area and the LA Basin will not solve any of the traffic congestion within either of those urban regions. 

We know that all those promised jobs will not materialize, and the ones that do will be temporary government construction jobs, not permanent private sector jobs.  Mr. Rentschler himself expresses doubts about fuel and the environment, two ever popular red-herrings always raised by the HSR PR machine.

Oh, and that last sentence in the article?  Heather should have said billion, not million; and the amount should have been less than $3 billion, not more than $4 billion. Also, it's going to be more like 120 miles, not 45 miles.

One final example of who says what.  The CHSRA persistently bases it's need for HSR on the massive population explosion due in California over the next twenty years or so.  They never say who those people will be, where they will live, or what they will do.  The inference is that HSR will solve this population expansion crisis by moving people rapidly between northern and southern California.  The benefits for that movement, besides a few train operating engineers and conductors, is subject to much closer examination. And, the very population expansion assumptions themselves -- from 38 million to 50 million -- are also subject to challenge.

Attention journalists;  whether you quote the rail authority or its critics, please check your facts.
Attention CHSRA; false assumptions lead to false conclusions. I call those biased. So watch out who you're calling biased. 
Critics skeptical of high-speed rail's benefits
Friday, March 04, 2011
Heather Ishimaru 

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (KGO) -- Many people contend high-speed rail is a good green idea that will reduce traffic congestion and benefit the environment, while creating thousands of jobs. Others though, call it a prime example of wasteful government spending.

The current price tag on California's high-speed rail project is about $43 billion for an 800-mile, all-electric line between the Bay Area and Anaheim. The High-Speed Rail Authority wants the federal government to pay about half the cost. After that and the nearly $10 billion in voter-approved bonds, there's still almost a $15 billion gap.

"It's absolutely crazy. The world over high-speed rail is heavily subsidized. They don't pay for themselves and they don't make a profit," Stanford professor Alain Enthoven said.

Enthoven did an analysis of whether high speed rail is a good use of taxpayer's money. He, along with critics argues it will always need a government subsidy, that there is better use of the money in these times of deficit and debt. And he says it costs too much for what it offers.

"It's not the future, we don't need it. We have perfectly good highways and we have very good air transport which has a lot of advantages," he said.

"In about 20 year's time, we're going to have about 12 million more people in California. We need more roads, more airport runways to move people through-out the state so this is a matter of planning for our future," California High-Speed Rail Authority Deputy Director Jeffrey Barker said.

High-speed rail supporters have criticized Enthoven for being biased, since he lives along the Peninsula corridor where the train would pass.

"This doesn't depend at all on my feelings or opinions or where I live," Enthoven said.

The CHSRA says there's no way around initial government investment in an infrastructure project of this size, and the authority says the line cannot be legally subsidized once operational.

"What's occurring now with high-speed rail is that it's becoming highly politicized. High-Speed Rail is a euphemism for the Republicans beating up on a signature issue of the Obama administration and the Democrats," Randy Rentschler said.

The Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission says there are good arguments for and against.

"It's not going to make the country independent of oil, nor solve our climate issues. It's a step in the right direction," Rentschler said.

UC Berkeley's Institute of Transportation Studies Director Samir Madanat has analyzed current ridership projections. He says they are unreliable, possibly too high or too low, because the formula used is faulty. He won't offer an opinion whether California's high-speed rail project is an example of wasteful government spending, but he will say this.

"Some alternative is going to be needed. Either we're going to expand highways or we're going to expand airport capacity and increase the number of flights or some combination of these. Or build a new system such as California high-speed rail," Madanat said.

The Obama administration just gave the CHSRA more than $4 million, which will go toward building the first 45-mile segment in the Central Valley.

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