Friday, March 18, 2011

What does the budget battle over high-speed rail really mean?

The excerpt below is from an article by Ron Utt.

High-Speed Rail and Livability: Pie-in-the-Sky Transportation Policy

If you wish, you can read the entire Ron Utt article on the web-site.  I have extracted only the paragraphs pertaining to high-speed rail and to housing intentions.

Utt talks about the President's Transportation agenda and his commitment to funding HSR.  It turns out it's not that straightforward. Obama is not asking for $53 billion for HSR. He includes a number of other projects and programs in that sum.

Over the six year period in this intended authorization, $15 billion is earmarked for Amtak, and $38 billion is for other stuff, as Utt describes it, taking the language from the budget draft. That's the $53 billion total rail package.  So, where is HSR? It's tucked away in the following passage: "to advance the President's goal to provide Americans with convenient access to a passenger rail system featuring high-speed rail service."  Not to be critical, but for a budget proposal there is a lot of fuzziness and ambiguity in this wording.  Ron describes this strange language, picking up on words like "featuring" and "convenient access."


The other part of this legislation touches on the term that LaHood has been using since he assumed the role of Secretary of the Department of Transportation. "Livability."  LaHood seeks the function of transit to facilitate "livability." In other words, the Secretary of Transportation is promoting housing and urban development. That's not his business.  Our point here is that transit should support where people live and work; not move people arbitrarily to where transit exists or is intended to be built; especially for political reasons.

"Livability" is a promotional code term. Other code terms for that are "smart growth" and the promotion of "transit oriented development."  Also, look for "friendly, walkable neighborhoods."  What it means is the promotion of high-density, high-rise housing; moving people out of the suburbs and into cities, thereby obliging them to relinquish their cars and use public mass transit.

Ron Utt points out that funds for this agenda will come from from the budget for roads.  That's a clear message.  The message says that the Department of Transportation does not intend to maintain or  expand roads; driving therefore will become more challenging, and people will be expected to abandon their cars to use rail.  It's a kind of force or spoon feeding.  It's very bad use of public funds.

Is that a major Party platform for the Democrats?  Is that one of the reasons for their high-speed rail obsession?  So, it's not only about jobs -- mostly construction jobs and massive infrastructure housing development jobs -- but it's about intentionally changing the living patterns and habits of all Americans. 

Is this a mis-reading or exaggerating?  I really hope so.  Because that's top-down social engineering reminiscent of China and it's ability to oblige whole populations to move to or from cities depending upon the executive political committee's needs and agenda.  It is coercive.

What should be clear by now is that the battle between Republicans and Democrats is not merely over whether HSR should get further funding or not, but about an underlying social philosophy and ideology between the two parties. To overstate the case, Democrats are the party of tax and spend; Republicans are the party against both. To that end, many good programs will fall under the knife, and bad programs will survive. We can only hope that some bad programs will also be cut.

HSR has become Obama's legacy/vanity project.  He has invested a great deal of personal stock in this. He hopes it will carry him into and through the coming elections.  But, by the same token, the Republicans oppose this, not because it will pull dollars back into the treasury and reduce the deficit, but because they oppose the ideological pre-disposition of this President and the Democratic Party.

The intention of this blog is to oppose high-speed rail for California and the United States on empirical and rational grounds devoid of any larger ideological context. Whatever the sustaining underlying rationale, it is what it is; a luxury train for the well-to-do.  We don't need it.  It is not cost effective.  We need those vast and endless funds for far more pressing purposes and real problems.  

The War on Poverty of the '60s provided massive funding for a program intended to benefit the poor, to give them training and job skills, etc.  It was implemented by the Office of Economic Opportunity, OEO.  It failed because the funds went not to the poor or even benefited the poor through training and other support.  It went to the army of consultants, the companies that were formed to write proposals and receive grants, publish studies, conduct research, and in generate burn through those appropriated dollars until they were gone.  The War on Poverty helped mostly those who didn't need help.

That's what this high-speed rail program will achieve; a boondoggle that only helps all those in the business of building and directly benefiting from these rail systems. 

And, the people for whom the trains are intended are the well-to-do who don't need the government to create a premium-class rail service. And, the rest of America will be obliged to support this massive pork barrel effort with their tax dollars to build and operate a train most of us will never ride. 

"While the President promises high-speed rail (HSR) service (top speeds of at least 150 mph), most of his projects involve signal and track improvements on privately owned freight rail systems that would provide marginal improvements in the Amtrak service sharing those tracks.

Despite his State of the Union proclamation to spend $56 billion on HSR over five years, the  President's transportation budget offers no such plan. Of the $8 billion of "HSR" money for FY 2012, "$4 billion ($15 billion over six years) fully funds Amtrak's national network operating, capital, and debt service requirements," while the other $4 billion ($38 billion over six years) "funds competitive grants for development of core express, regional and feeder corridors, to advance the President's goal to provide Americans with convenient access to a passenger rail system featuring high-speed rail service."

The key word here is featuring. What does "convenient access" to something featuring HSR mean? As written, this program could subsidize Washington, D.C.'s deficit-ridden Metro system because it provides "convenient access" to Union Station, where Amtrak's so-called HSR Acela trains run. If so, spending on real HSR will account for (or feature) a relatively minor amount of the $38 billion that the President proposes.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been pressing for an expansive and costly "livability" effort and formally defines livability as "being able to take your kids to school, go to work, see a doctor, drop by the grocery or post office, go out to dinner and a movie, and play with your kids in a park, all without having to get in your car." In order to achieve the LaHood vision for America, government must nudge/force/coerce people into buses or trolleys and create tighter living arrangements.

The President proposes a total of $7.8 billion in livability spending for FY 2012 and $48.1 billion over the next six years. More than half of these funds would come from shifting money from roads.

Reflecting how little confidence the Congress has in the U.S. Department of Transportation, the House of Representatives cut a greater percentage from the remaining FY 2011 transportation budget than it cut from any other account. Nor are Republicans the only opponents: In the last Congress, the Democrat-controlled Senate and House Appropriations committees rejected the President's infrastructure bank proposal. Now he is asking for it again, and the price tag is $30 billion over six years.