Friday, March 18, 2011

Many more people getting much smarter about high-speed rail

Nice job, Amy Ridenour.  Amy makes some great points in her article, below. There should be no doubt in anyone's mind that high-speed rail has been, first and foremost, a public relations effort.  

There has been no major national strategic planning that tells us we better build lots of high-speed trains, or transportation in the US will come to an absolute halt. That is to say, despite all the PR hype about high-speed rail, it seems not be have been integrated into something larger, like the fundamental movement of people and goods.  That movement, or "Transportation," comes in a variety of modalities on highways, airways, waterways and railways, above, on or below the ground. How much more and what kind do we need?  How do we know?  Where do we, or don't we need it? We don't know.

Where does high-speed rail fit into that complex equation?  What about freight rail, in which the US is the world leader in volume?  How does that fit into the picture?  We aren't told.  All we are told is that we must have major funding commitments to luxury high-speed trains. Details come later.  Details like actual costs, for example.

Now, it's not like there aren't any examples around. We are shown endless pictures from Europe and Asia.  There is almost no article about HSR that doesn't have a phallic photo of a HSR locomotive on it.  Many of us have ourselves been on these high-speed luxury trains.  What's not to like?  But, here again, we are told nothing about the context of these trains in other nations.  Nothing about their costs, subsidies (Oh, there aren't any!), ticket prices, the adverse impact, and role in the transportation market-place and economies of those countries. 

Amy doesn't know that the magic $43 billion total cost for 'California Dreamin'' has just gone up to $66 billion. But, that's OK, because that number, $66 billion, is only a stopping-off point for even larger numbers.  Please be assured that once the shovels go in the ground, there will be daily discoveries of unanticipated and highly surprising cost escalations. 

And Amy Ridenour makes another telling point in her article.  The most critical argument from the Democrats justifying this HSR program and project in California is jobs.  There is a major unemployment Recession that is somewhat hidden from view in the news with stock market gains and a "recovering economy."  Jobs are a critical factor.  But, I assume that the ARRA Stimulus Funds, earmarked for various HSR development sites (California being the most prominent) are for jobs -- right now -- not a year a half from now.  And, I assume that those dollars are going to be spent in the USA.  My assumptions may be incorrect.

In California, some of the dollars are already going to Parsons Brinckerhoff, the lead contractor that is based in the UK.  Whole armies of salesmen and marketeers are moving all over the United States (maybe the HSR is intended for their business travel needs) from various major overseas construction companies eager for contracts with HSR project managers.  HSR conferences and trade shows are flooded with sharply dressed English speakers with German, French, Italian, Spanish, British, Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean and Chinese accents.  

As we know, the US has little genuine high-speed rail expertise, the exception being the Amtrak Acela train which is really not a high-speed train, certainly nothing like the trains we admire so much in those many other countries.  We will really need the manufactured goods, their professional experience and know-how, and their technical competence to build trains that can go over 200 mph from those other countries. 

What's the bottom line here?  Our stimulus dollars will flow through our HSR organizations, public and private, to reach the overseas market-place.  When the going gets tough, the tough US goes shopping overseas.

One of the greatest claims by the rail promoters is the boosting of the US economy by building and operating high-speed trains.  It only takes a step back to look at this premise with some perspective to realize it makes no sense whatsoever. HSR will be a massive burden on the economy.  It will be a boondoggle that keeps on taking. 

One of Amy's best insights is captured in this thought:  Unfortunately, Biden, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and other Obama higher-ups still view rail travel through a 1950 lens of nostalgia, when one could enjoy the overnight luxury of the 20th Century Limited leaving Grand Central Station in the evening and disembarking the next morning in downtown Chicago.

And that's what I call the Romance of Rail.  Ah, the good old days of cigar smoke in the club car; the clinking of ice cubes in glasses, deep leather seats filled with guys in suits.  Cute little compartments for sleeping overnight, with excellent meals on white linen and wonderful heavy silver service in the dining car.  

High-Speed Rail is the upgraded 20th century version of those good old days.  Who will be buying those top dollar tickets?  Who's taxes should be paying for the construction and the forever subsidies for this luxury train ride? You know.

This isn't right.  It shouldn't happen. 
Friday, March 18, 2011

Story last updated at 3/18/2011 - 1:34 am
Can high-speed rail boost the US economy?
Rail boondoggle should be permanently side-tracked
By Amy Ridenour | AP

An astute journalist in the 20th century once defined public relations as “organized lying.” Keep that in mind as a barrage of news features and commentaries extolling the benefits of President Obama’s high-speed rail initiatives appear in coming days.

Indeed, some of Washington’s largest and most ruthless public relations firms are spearheading the effort to revive rail, and no wonder.

Billions of taxpayer dollars are on the table and likely to be picked up by foreign companies like Canada’s Bombardier and Germany’s Siemens. Unfortunately, the money they’ll pocket will come from American taxpayers at a time of record federal deficits and depressingly high unemployment.

Tea party members who consider Obama to be the ultimate spender had that view reinforced when he pledged in his State of the Union address that 80 percent of Americans will have access to bullet trains in a mere 25 years.

A few weeks later, Vice President Joe Biden, one of the few politicians who regularly rides Amtrak, proposed spending $53 billion to get high-speed rail on track.

The Obama administration already has set aside more than $10 billion for super fast rail projects, but many of its partners in state governments are dubious.

Newly elected Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker rejected $810 million for a line between Madison and Milwaukee, noting that motorists already can drive the 79-mile route on state freeways in just over an hour. Walker vigorously campaigned against the project last fall.

Walker’s GOP counterpart in Ohio, former U.S. House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich, also campaigned against a $400-million federal grant that would have created a high-speed passenger service between Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, his state’s three largest cities, wryly observing that its top speed of 79 miles per hour was far too slow to attract many passengers.

Another Republican newcomer, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, is highly skeptical of the federal government’s proposed 84-mile high-speed route from the Orlando airport to downtown Tampa even though the U.S. Department of Transportation has promised to pony up $2.4 billion of $2.7 billion projected price tag.

Even California, where free-spending politicians have long dreamed of an 800-mile super-line from San Francisco to San Diego, is having second thoughts. Sober-minded legislators in Sacramento are beginning to ask how a state staring at a $28 billion deficit by the fall of 2012 can afford to shell out $43 billion for a train where a one-way ticket would cost more than $200 or nearly four times the ticket for an air flight.

Complicating matters, the California fast line ironically has attracted the wrath of normally green San Francisco Bay area residents, who are worried about property values, and Central Valley farmers, who are concerned about crop damage.

The only area in the United States with enough population to make high-speed rail feasible is the Northeast Corridor spanning Washington to Boston, where Amtrak’s Acela Express now achieves top speeds of 150 miles, but averages a slow-motion 70 miles per hour because it must share track with other trains.

Acquiring enough land through eminent domain actions and constructing the high-tech rails needed for a Northeast high-speed rail line likely would be prohibitively expensive. Amtrak’s current estimate which many experts consider a decidedly low-ball one says it would take 25 years and cost $117 billion.

Unfortunately, Biden, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and other Obama higher-ups still view rail travel through a 1950 lens of nostalgia, when one could enjoy the overnight luxury of the 20th Century Limited leaving Grand Central Station in the evening and disembarking the next morning in downtown Chicago.

Those days like Alfred Hitchcock, who had Cary Grant and Eva-Marie Saint do just that in his 1959 thriller “North by Northwest” are long gone.

• Amy Ridenour is president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank in Washington. Readers may write to her at: NCPPR, 501 Capitol Court NE, Washington, D.C. 20002.