Friday, March 18, 2011

Political, Partisanship Pressure Prevents Progress with the High-Speed Rail Program

It's easy to sell ideas.  All you have to do is lie about them. Who's going to tell you that you are wrong?  After all, it's only an idea. Or as the CHSRA calls it, a "concept."  These ideas have no substance, no down side, and their costs are made up in the heads of the salesmen pushing these ideas. "Tell 'em what they want to hear!"

A good way to push these concepts is with an expensive computer-generated video.  The Rail Authority  has one on their web-site and it presents an "air-brushed" version of a simulated reality.  Talking about that fake video simulation paints a verbal version of a universal panacea that, when converted into reality, will cure all our ills. Got a problem? This fantasy will be the solution.

So, give us the money, shut up and get out of the way.  

Since politicians are involved,  it's a political process.  In this article below, politician Jim Costa from the California Central Valley was helped in his congressional re-election bid last November when the FRA sent some funding for high-speed rail to the Rail Authority, and obliged the Rail Authority to spend it in Costa's district.  That sure looks political to me.

When Costa says in the article, below, "It's become political, that's what it tells me," "It's been bipartisan before,"  he's kidding nobody but himself. That is to say, HSR has always been political and partisan. It has never been bipartisan. Costa is talking about a recently re-formed political caucus of Democrats created to promote funding for high-speed rail.  We've talked about this caucus in this blog previously.

The HSR project idea has been kicked around "smoke-filled rooms" by back-room politicians for decades. For a while, these politicians in Sacramento loved the concept of Maglev. But, somehow that idea went away.  Meanwhile, all these guys all took junkets in France and Japan.  They fell in love with  high-speed trains.  They said to each other, we can build this here and make tons of money!  For several decades, deals were made and broken and re-made, all over nothing more than this idea; the idea of a sleek, science fiction looking high-speed train whizzing up and down California.

I want to say here, parenthetically, that all this fantasy HSR business had nothing to do with a rational transportation planning or strategy setting for the state of California. Such a plan doesn't exist. There never was a context for high-speed rail; that is,  a legitimate justification that this luxury rail system was a part of a transportation plan defining critical needs for the state within the context of all its multi-modal transportation capacity and critical needs. It was invented out of whole cloth. Essentially, HSR was just dumped in our laps.  "Here, California, you didn't know it, but you need this."

Of course, now comes the hard part, converting this idea into reality.  And that's where all the trouble lies.  The biggest of those troubles is funding.

The seekers of this project have been fooling us right along with made up numbers about the costs. They are still doing it.  They started long before anybody outside of Sacramento even knew about it.  At that time, the costs were going to be around $25 billion.  

By the time of the 2008 election with Proposition 1A, the cost had climbed to $33 billion. The bond issue would pay slightly less than 1/3 of that, and federal and private investment would cover the rest.  Still sounds good, right?  But then, after the voters said OK, build it, the costs started climbing even more, most recently to $43 billion.  Right now, though, it's $66 billion, and that $9 billion bond issue doesn't look so adequate anymore. 

And here comes the really hard part.  Despite all the hype about it, there are no private investments.  We know why.  There will be no surplus revenue when the train is operational. Therefore there won't be any returns for the investors.  It's somewhat like buying stock knowing it will go down.  Who's going to be doing that? 

That leaves the burden on the federal government to build California its much desired train.  Like an electric train for Christmas.  A gift.  Well, that doesn't seem likely.  Reason?  The Obama Administration has to spread too few dollars around to too many states and congressional districts where there are intense desires for the train; or at least desire for the money for the train. Why would all the other states be happy to watch all of the too few dollars go only to California?

There is a lot of other wand-waving from the rail authority that we don't need to spend much time on.  Ridership number projections are critical.  How many people will be taking this train if it's built?  If there are lots of people and cheap tickets, it will become a money-making winner.  Knowing that, the first number the rail authority offered to us before those 2008 elections, was 117 million annual riders and $55 dollar tickets.  WOW!  117 million is about one third the population of the entire United States. 

Remember, to sell an idea you have to exaggerate your promises of success as much as you can. Lie if you have to.  As we now know, those ridership numbers have become a big problem for the rail authority.  They are defending their most recent claims of 39 million annual riders to the death.  Yet, 39 millions  is also a grossly inflated effort to convince people that the train will make money.  39 million has been challenged by several research authorities.  Liar, liar pants on fire. 

So, it all comes down to the money.  And the reality (and research) tells us that it will cost far, far too much and do far, far too little.  It makes no sense and ought to be terminated before it does real harm to California and to the Nation.

Central Valley
Friday, Mar. 18, 2011
California's high-speed rail plan getting buried in partisanship

House members revive caucus, but only Democrats signing on.
Sun-Star Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- California's high-speed rail plan is fast turning into a partisan affair on Capitol Hill, further complicating its prospects.

The accelerating partisanship came into view again Thursday, when 19 House lawmakers revived a high-speed rail caucus. Tellingly, every caucus member is a Democrat.

"It's become political, that's what it tells me," acknowledged caucus co-founder Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno. "It's been bipartisan before."

Formally called the Congressional Caucus on California High-Speed Rail, the House group is designed to demonstrate clout and concentrate legislative energies. It's one of three rail-oriented congressional causes this year, but the only one specifically targeting California.

Another rail caucus initiated this week, co-led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, will cover high-speed and general passenger rail issues.

Dozens of other caucuses likewise have rallied at the start of the 112th Congress around topics ranging from arthritis and cystic fibrosis to bikes and winemaking. Many pride themselves on being explicitly bipartisan.

Last year's version of the California high-speed rail caucus, for instance, included Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray of Solana Beach as an officer. This year, Bilbray opted out. He didn't return a call seeking comment Thursday.

In California, Costa noted, high-speed rail continues to command support from some Republican elected officials, including Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin.

Still, other Republicans have been jumping off the expensive public works project widely seen as an Obama administration priority. Republicans unanimously opposed the $787 billion economic stimulus bill passed in 2009, which has funded most of the federal rail grants.

Republicans control the House, empowering positions that include a recent bid to slash Obama's high-speed rail funding. Even Republicans who previously have been sympathetic, including House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica of Florida, must be attuned to concerns of Tea Party conservatives.

"It makes it more difficult, certainly," said Costa, who is again serving as high-speed rail caucus co-chairman this year.

Some Sacramento-area lawmakers have joined, including Rep. John Garamendi, D-Elk Grove. But one freshman San Joaquin Valley lawmaker approached about joining the caucus, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, turned down the invitation.

Others have modified their overall position on the project, or suggested it's the Democrats who've turned high-speed rail into high-impact politics.

Last year, for instance, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, denounced the Obama administration for using rail funding to "provide last-minute re-election assistance to struggling Democrats" including Costa. The administration announced the funding, including nearly $1 billion for California, eight days before the election.

In a 2007 letter, Nunes and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, joined other House members in voicing support for California's high-speed rail program.

Now, McCarthy and Nunes are among the most vocal skeptics.

The two GOP colleagues back long-shot legislation that would steer California's share of federal high-speed rail funding toward improvements along Highway 99. Both question the cost and viability of the rail plan's initial route through the Central Valley.

"In today's world, is that the best place to put the money? The answer is no," McCarthy told reporters recently. "I don't think it's a smart investment."

The Republican distancing from high-speed rail isn't just happening in California, as three GOP governors have rejected the Obama administration's offer of federal rail funds.

States and regions including the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, the Northeast and California have until April 4 to compete for a share of the $2.4 billion rejected by Florida.