Saturday, March 12, 2011

Saturday New York Times on High-Speed Rail: Politics in action

Blockbuster article in the New York Times, West Coast edition, this morning.

Headline:  How Flaws Undid Obama’s Hope for High-Speed Rail in Florida

Text below.  Key passages in bold.

There are two issues here, and high-speed trains themselves aren't one of them.  It's all about money and politics.  And, that is true for both Parties, Republicans and Democrats alike.

The Obama Administration sees their high-speed rail vision and program as PRESTIGE.  Or, as Obama himself said, it's a Sputnik moment.  Exactly.  The voters love races, ergo, we're in a race.

We look like we're falling behind other countries.  We don't look like we are the number one super-power any longer.  We have a horrific Recession on our hands.  How can we distract our voters?  Bread and Circuses would have been the answer in Ancient Rome.  Build higher cathedrals would have been the answer among the nobility in the France of the Middle Ages.

Today, it's build faster high-speed trains.  We see ourselves in a PRESTIGE race with other countries and we are losing.  We need to throw a huge amount of money at something so glitzy that it will take everyone's attention away from unemployment (it will look like it's a huge government employment project) and pump funding into the economies of our favorite states.  Never mind what it is, just so we look bold and visionary.  Something that looks futuristic.  And it sure isn't fixing potholes and bridges.

Indeed the political agenda behind the train became nakedly apparent when supplementary dollars, made available by their rejection in Ohio and Wisconsin, were earmarked directly to California for the congressional district of Democrat Jim Costa, an old high-speed rail advocate from Fresno.  It got him re-elected. They also threw some at Florida to build their train for them; an 84 mile long mistake with no purpose.

LaHood likes to say that the funding decisions are based on "merit." Yeah, right.  They are based on politics.  They are intended to 'stimulate' all right, but stimulate the voters to re-elect their Democrats who are obsessed with obtaining these funds for their states and districts. 

Money and politics.  The intention of the Democrats is to pump 'paper' money (that is, borrowed money) into state economies. Those states will surely re-elect their Democratic representatives as well as give the President a second term.

The Republicans are seeking to deny the Democrats that opportunity.  The $53 billion over six years is really trivial within the context of the federal budget, but it is highly visible, thanks to the Administration and the three Republican governors who have already rejected the ARRA Stimulus funds.  That makes high-speed rail a show-piece football that gets kicked from one side to the other. And it makes Republicans look more acceptable to their "Conservative base." For both parties, HSR is about gestures.

The advocates behind the politicians see themselves as the beneficiaries of these vast amounts of money. The development of a rail project promises huge head-count increases as well as vastly expanded budgets (and expense accounts) for every involved bureaucracy.  The big private contractors, like PB, T.Y. Lin, HNTB, etc. are about to rake in billions.  

The overseas manufacturers with high-speed rail experience are salivating and knocking on every politicians's door for contracts.  Want a fancy trip to Europe (or Japan), fly first-class, five-star hotels, wine and dine, ride all our high-speed trains for free, at our expense?  Let's talk business.  Get in on the ground floor; get preferred stock options. Pump those stocks. 

None of the promoters concern themselves whether building such a rail system is actually a good idea.  They know all the answers to that already. They trot out studies and polls, bought and paid for, that are intended to sell us that HSR is a miracle from God that will solve each and every problem we have.  

Object or show with empirical data that those promises are false, indeed lies, and those thereby threatened supporters will rail at those people about being NIMBYs, selfish, old fashioned, etc.  In short, it's all politics for getting and spending vast amounts of money. And right now, it's the Republicans and the objectors and complainers that are standing in the way.

I'm sorry that this article by Michael Cooper doesn't dig down into those realities.  The effects of those realities will be on the surface, but the source that needs to be understood will come from way underground.  Cooper fails to learn that the real costs for California's project are now $66 billion and rising, not last month's number of $43 billion. 

Cooper doesn't enter the financing discussion (see William Grindley's papers) and how the train will not carry enough riders, will not generate enough ticket revenue and will therefore be a "burden on the state" forever.  

He does not discuss the sweeping damage that will be done both in California's rural regions and certainly in it's urban ones; a devastation of the economically productive environment at least as important as the wild, natural one they are obliged to protect.  He doesn't analyze the pork-barrel aspects of HSR, and why it's a boondoggle and "white elephant." 

However, we will continue to do so.

March 11, 2011

How Flaws Undid Obama’s Hope for High-Speed Rail in Florida

The rest of the world calls them bullet trains because they go so fast. But in the United States, the nickname is apt for a different reason: They keep getting shot down.

The nation’s first true high-speed railroad was supposed to leave the station in 2015, a sleek Tomorrowland-worthy train that would have whisked riders between Orlando and Tampa at speeds of up to 168 miles an hour.

The federal government had agreed to pay $2.4 billion of its estimated $2.6 billion in construction costs, railroad companies were vying to build and operate it, and state transportation planners had even dummied up proposed timetables: Train 7092 would depart Tampa at 8:10 a.m. and arrive in Orlando at 9:04 a.m.

The fast train was sought, and won, by Florida’s former Republican governor, Charlie Crist. But it was killed last month by his successor, Rick Scott, who joined several other Republican governors in spurning federally financed train projects over fears that their states could be on the hook for future costs. The final nail in its coffin came last week when a Florida court ruled that the new governor could not be forced to accept the federal money and start building it.

The demise of the Florida line is different, though. It will delay the country’s first bullet train ride by years, if not longer, and deprive the Obama administration of what it had hoped would be a showpiece that would sell the rest of the nation on high-speed rail.

The administration said Friday that it would give Florida’s $2.4 billion to rail projects elsewhere and invited other states to apply for the money.

The story of the line’s rise and fall shows how it was ultimately undone by a tradeoff that was made when the route was first selected.

The Tampa-to-Orlando route had obvious drawbacks: It would have linked two cities that are virtually unnavigable without cars, and that are so close that the new train would have been little faster than driving. But the Obama administration chose it anyway because it was seen as the line that could be built first. Florida had already done much of the planning, gotten many of the necessary permits and owned most of the land that would be needed.

In the end, though, the state’s new governor decided not to build it at all, worried that those very drawbacks would ultimately make it a boondoggle.
White House Seeks a Legacy

When the Obama administration chose Florida to get a large chunk of stimulus money to build the nation’s first high-speed rail line, some Republicans in Washington worried privately that the project might prove too popular. It was, after all, a multi-billion-dollar federal project being lavished on Florida, an important swing state that President Obama had won in the last election, with the money focused squarely on the Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando, the home of one of the most crucial blocs of independent voters in the state.

Things did not work out that way.

President Obama announced the selection of Florida in 2010 in the most visible possible setting: his State of the Union address. “Tomorrow, I’ll visit Tampa, Fla., where workers will soon break ground on a new high-speed railroad,” he said, before flying to Florida the next day to promote the project in a town-hall-style meeting.

“There is no reason why other countries can build high-speed rail lines and we can’t,” Mr. Obama told a cheering crowd. “And that’s what’s about to happen right here in Tampa.”

In 2009, it had been the Obama administration that had pushed to bring high-speed rail to the United States. The vehicle was the $787 billion stimulus package, which, though it was originally sold as a public works program, devoted more money to tax cuts and aid to states than to infrastructure. With much of the construction money in the stimulus ending up paying for prosaic things like repaving roads, the administration decided to make sure that some of it would leave a lasting legacy: it devoted $8 billion to railroads and high-speed rail.

To the Obama administration, the benefits seemed obvious. The money offered a chance to put people to work designing and building railroads. High-speed trains would lure riders who would otherwise drive or fly, reducing congestion, pollution and the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. 
And simply building new futuristic trains zipping around at more than 150 miles an hour would be an accomplishment in itself, one that could lift the spirits of a recession-battered nation.
State Lobbies for a Bullet Train

It was Governor Crist — who had been considered a possible Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008, and who already had his eye on a run for the Unites States Senate — who had lobbied vigorously to win some of that stimulus money to build a high-speed train in a state reeling from the downturn. “Florida is the state that can turn imagination into reality for world-class high-speed rail in the United States faster than anywhere else in the nation,” he wrote to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in the fall of 2009.

His boast was probably true. Florida had long flirted with the idea of building high-speed rail: its voters had once passed a constitutional amendment requiring the state to build it, only to repeal it later over cost concerns. As a result, the state had already done much of the necessary planning work, gotten crucial environmental approvals and, perhaps most important, owned most of the land for the tracks, which would run along the median of Interstate 4.

The 21-mile leg between Orlando International Airport and Walt Disney World, which agreed to donate land for a stop, had the potential to attract lots of riders, and revenue — though such a short distance would be better served by a conventional train, or perhaps a monorail.
A Route Is Seen as Too Short

Florida’s route had some glaring imperfections, though.

Tampa and Orlando are only 84 miles apart, generally considered too close for high-speed rail to make sense. The train trip, with many stops along the way, would have shaved only around a half-hour off the drive. Since there are no commercial flights between the two cities, the new line would not have lured away fliers or freed up landing slots at the busy airports. And neither Tampa nor Orlando has many public transportation options. So the question arose: Could riders be persuaded to leave their cars behind and buy tickets to places where they would still probably need cars?

The state wanted to build the project so badly, though, that after Mr. LaHood hinted that Florida should do something about its lackluster commuter rail service if it wanted a shot at winning the federal rail money, Mr. Crist complied in December 2009 by calling a special session of the Legislature. The state agreed to build a new commuter train in central Florida, and to beef up its struggling line in south Florida.

It worked. When the high-speed rail grants were announced a month later, Florida was a big winner.
The Department of Transportation did not have that many options. Only two states, Florida and California, were deemed far enough along in their planning to receive money for building actual bullet trains — trains that can travel more than 150 miles an hour, on tracks of their own that are not shared with other trains.

The California line — linking Los Angeles and San Francisco with trains that would go up to 220 miles an hour — was expected to cost at least of $42 billion [edit. That's currently up to $66 billion and rising], and could not open before 2020 in the most optimistic projection. The Tampa-to-Orlando line, by contrast, was expected to cost around $2.6 billion and had a shot at opening by 2015.

Both states became big winners of the rail money, which grew to more than $10.5 billion after Congress devoted more money to railroads in the federal budget. The rest of the money was used to build or improve conventional train service: most of the states got at least some of it.
Florida stood out: it was on track to open the first bullet train on its own dedicated tracks in the United States. It would have been a demonstration project, visible to the millions of tourists who descend on the Orlando theme parks each year.

Still, it was probably not the line most people would have chosen if they were starting from scratch. When America 2050, a planning group, ranked potential routes in a report called “Where High-Speed Rail Works Best,” the Tampa-to-Orlando route was not even included because the cities are too close together.

Although the state’s plan called for eventually extending the line down to Miami, making the train an attractive alternative to short-hop flights or long drives, the extension would have required more time and planning and much more money to build. When the planning group considered a route linking Tampa, Orlando and Miami, it ranked it 100th among potential high-speed rail routes in the United States, far behind likelier choices like the Northeast Corridor. (The Acela trains running between Boston and Washington can reach speeds of up to 150 miles an hour, but average around half that because they share their curvy tracks with other trains.)
G.O.P. Opposition Mounts

Then things began to fall apart. As the 2010 midterm elections heated up, Republicans began running against the federal largess states have traditionally sought.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a Republican, killed a long-planned commuter train tunnel under the Hudson River. Scott Walker, the new Republican governor of Wisconsin, killed a new conventional passenger train line that was to be built between Milwaukee and Madison, and paid for with $810 million in federal stimulus money. The new governor of Ohio, John R. Kasich, killed a $400 million federally financed line that would have linked Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. 

When President Obama called for expanding the nation’s rail program in this year’s State of the Union address, Sarah Palin took to her Facebook page to denounce it as “a bullet train to bankruptcy.”

With Florida’s new governor, Mr. Scott, expressing reservations about the plan, the Obama administration moved quickly to award $342 million of the forfeited money from the Midwest to Florida. That brought the federal commitment to Florida to roughly $2.4 billion, almost enough to cover the projected $2.6 billion cost.

But the backlash was strong in Florida. In his race for the United States Senate last year, Mr. Crist found his success at winning stimulus money for Florida turned into a liability. Conservatives, and a newly powerful Tea Party movement, saw the federal spending as a problem, not as a solution to the state’s high unemployment rate. Mr. Crist ended up leaving the Republican Party and running, unsuccessfully, as an independent.

Last month, Mr. Scott decided to scuttle the project after reading a report by the Reason Foundation that questioned its ridership estimates. The foundation is a prominent libertarian policy research organization that employs several respected transportation analysts, but it gets some of its funding from donors with ties to the oil industry, including foundations related to Koch Industries, which owns oil refineries.

“The truth is that this project would be far too costly to taxpayers, and I believe the risk far outweighs the benefits,” Mr. Scott said.

But a state-sponsored ridership study, which was released this week, concluded that the proposed line would actually have been a money-maker from the start.
Other Prospects Remain

Obama administration officials are still pushing ahead with their goal of winning a $53 billion commitment to railroads over the next six years, and say that other states are clamoring for the money rejected by Florida.

Transportation advocates are continuing their push, too; this week the U.S. Public Interest Research Group released a video with two actors from “Mad Men,” in character, expressing their certainty that America would build bullet trains. (“I read a piece that said that in 40 years, gas is going to cost almost a dollar a gallon,” one says.) And Representative John L. Mica of Florida, the new Republican chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, supports high-speed rail, but would like to see efforts focused on the Northeast Corridor linking Boston, Washington and New York, the nation’s most successful rail route. But any effort to make that a true high-speed line is years — if not decades — away.

Now, with the collapse of the Florida route, it looks as if the nation’s first segment of true high-speed rail will be in an even unlikelier place — linking Fresno and Bakersfield, in California’s Central Valley, and scheduled to end construction in 2017.