Monday, April 25, 2011

The Anti-HSR Point of View of Policy Analyst Marc Scribner

The Obamas enjoy a first-class train ride in a fast luxury train, like the high-speed rail system promises.  Who wouldn't want to travel this way if they can afford it?

The two or three sources here, OneNewsNow, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute among them, are blatantly conservative in the political ideologies.  However, that does not make them wrong about their regard (or disregard) for high-speed rail.  They are highly critical. And, I agree with them about that. The following three articles exemplify this position of high-speed rail opposition, with reasons for that position. 

As many of you must have noted, I am happy to present other peoples' published works.  Indeed, the more of these writings I can find, the better my case is being made to all of you. That is, these are not my solitary opinions.  I am constantly learning from others.  I hope that you are as well. 

Marc Scribner, a Washington policy analyst, is appropriately cautious about the Republican's willingness to terminate HSR funding.  He points out that, 1.) existing programs that have already received funding will probably not be shut down, and 2.) there could be future funding.  He cites the re-authorization of the Highway Bill as a possible source.  We know that the draft FY2012 Transportation Budget still contains HSR funding, but there is no closure on this legislation yet.  It could go either way, including reduced funding but not total elimination. 

One of his central themes is that what Obama's plan includes is, mostly, not high-speed rail at all.  Only California and Florida propose true HSR; that is, over 120 mph. (EU standards) We know what's happened to Florida.  All the others, as we have been pointing out in these blogs, are Amtrak upgrades to speeds that do not even match the speeds of passenger trains from the'50s.  

The US, with its marketing obsessions, likes to label all passenger rail improvements as "high-speed" because that sells to the uninformed public, like new and improved toothpaste.  (Have you seen the new ab-developers on late-night TV? Just five minutes each week and you can model your six-pack on television! Watch for high-speed rail commercials, next.)

Scribner also makes a point, which we have reiterated, that high-speed rail is a luxury ride; not for regular working stiffs.  And, that's already true world-wide.  It will certainly not be any different here in the United States. 

Let me add that if the current economic trend continues to separate the well to do -- the top 5% of the rich -- from the rest of us, that economic separation will only become more pronounced in the future.  And, in the context of our concerns here, will distinguish the haves from the have-nots on any high-speed rail built in the US.

Referring to Marc Scribner,  "the transportation policy analyst warns that cost is not the biggest problem."  I respectfully disagree; cost is the biggest problem! It's the biggest problem in California and it's the biggest problem in the United States.  The average per mile costs for true high-speed rail are breathtakingly higher than any other railway construction costs.  The numbers vary from $50 to $100 million per mile.  I'm guessing that, taking full-cost accounting under consideration, they will be far higher.  

In California we are not talking about existing corridor upgrades in most cases; we are looking at brand-new land-acquisition from the ground up.  There are mountains to penetrate, valleys to cross and cities to plow through.  Even gently rolling hills, a California specialty, require straightening and leveling for 200 plus mph trains. 

Neither the local, state or federal government have, or anticipate having or spending that much funding to cover the real and total costs.  No one is yet imagining how these vast funds can be obtained realistically.  Instead, all we see is fantasy spinning, like private investments in a money losing operation. As if that was going to happen!! 

There is an epidemic of dollar-denial.  The most generous offer came from President Obama's initial budget recommendation of $53 billion for all eleven high-speed rail corridors in the US, to be spent over six years.  That budget suggestion has long since disappeared.  Even if it had survived, it would not have scratched the surface of what will be necessary.  It would have been no more than an "amuse bouche," as they say in the restaurant business. 

Hard and painful truths are challenging, and it's high time we were all challenged with these brutal realities and stopped pretending that we can either afford it or really need it.  Terminate high-speed rail projects now, before a few get very rich and the rest of us get. . . .bupkes.

Victory over rail funding may be short-lived
Chris Woodward - OneNewsNow - 4/25/2011 3:45:00 AM

Opponents of President Barack Obama's high-speed rail projects have won a battle for this fiscal year -- but a Washington, DC-based analyst says the war is not over.

The budget resolution that was recently approved by Congress did not include high-speed rail funding for the remainder of the fiscal year, which runs through September. Marc Scribner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute applauds the decision, but says it is just one fight out of many.

"Money has already been spent," he points out. "So this doesn't necessarily mean that the projects are going to be shut down completely. What it does mean is that they're going to have to find an additional source of financing."

Scribner expects there to be some form of transportation legislation in the future that could involve funding, including the reauthorization of the highway bill, which expired in 2009.

In an interview with OneNewsNow in February, Scribner pointed out that these high-speed rail projects involve "very limited corridors, and quite a few...are not actually high-speed rail" -- not to mention, those who would benefit most are wealthier people living in urban areas, due to a lack of hubs in suburban areas.

Funding high-speed rail projects 'a shameful act'
Chris Woodward - OneNewsNow - 2/15/2011 3:45:00 AM

A conservative transportation analyst is criticizing the Obama administration's plans to invest more money in high-speed rail projects.

The Obama White House recently proposed putting another $53 billion toward high-speed rail projects, a handful of which have received a substantial amount of the $10.5 billion already allotted.

Marc Scribner, land-use and transportation policy analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), has been following these projects from the beginning. He notes that they are "very limited corridors, and quite a few of these are not, like I've pointed out again and again, are not actually high-speed rail."

So Scribner contends the new funds are ultimately "really a drop in the bucket" of the 17,000-mile national high-speed rail network the administration is actually working toward. But though the estimated cost for that project is at $1 trillion, the transportation policy analyst warns that cost is not the biggest problem.

"This isn't going to improve mobility. The people who will benefit most from this are wealthier and they tend to live in urban areas," he points out. "People who live in the suburbs aren't going to be seeing the returns from this."

So he decides it is "a shameful act" to make federal transportation policy even more inefficient and less accountable to taxpayers. However, Vice President Joe Biden claims such "investments" are necessary to keep up with nations like China.

"They're always bringing up China. China is having some severe problems with their recent investment in high-speed rail," Scribner reports. "The communist government's own in-house think-tank basically called the current high-speed rail plan unsustainable."

He further adds that China's existing passenger rail is too expensive for the bulk of the population and is mainly used by white-collar workers.


Obama Pumps More Money into “High-Speed Rail” Boondoggles

The Department of Transportation announced today that another $2.4 billion is being doled out to high-speed rail projects around the country. This is on top of the $8 billion these projects received from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, aka “the stimulus package”). These are the first dollars being spent on the proposed $600 billion 17,000-mile high-speed rail network (yes, that works out to $35.3 million per mile of track).

In addition to the wasteful spending, another galling aspect of these projects is that most do not even meet the requirements of the common definitions of “high-speed rail.” The European Union, for example, defines high-speed rail on upgraded track to be those lines where vehicles can travel in excess of 120 miles per hour, with a 160-mile-per-hour minimum for vehicles traveling on new track. Of the nine regions/corridors receiving funding, only two meet these criteria. (The DOT’s own definition is 110 mph, which most of the proposed projects conveniently claim as their eventual maximum speed.)

See the table below (compiled from DOT’s HSIPR Program project summaries):
Project Region/Corridor Funding True HSR?

California Corridors $901,574,000 Yes
Tampa-Orlando-Miami $808,000,000 Yes
Omaha-Iowa City-Chicago $230,000,000 No
Northeast Region         $198,000,000 No
Pontiac-Detroit-Chicago $161,000,000 No
Washington, D.C.        $68,000,000 No
Minneapolis/St. Paul-Madison-
Milwaukee-Chicago        $43,700,000 No
Eugene-Portland-Seattle-Vancouve $38,719,000 No
Kansas City-St. Louis-Chicago $4,000,000 No

The takeaway message here is that more than 30 percent of funds were allocated to “high-speed” rail projects that in reality are not even considered “high-speed” by international standards. (USA! USA!)

Earlier this month, Cato’s Randal “The Antiplanner” O’Toole wrote an article published in USA Today that threw cold water on some of the bigger, more obnoxious lies and half-truths being peddled by high-speed rail backers:

At an inflation-adjusted cost of about $450 billion paid out of highway user fees, the Interstate Highway System, to which high-speed rail is sometimes compared, provides more than 4,000 miles of passenger travel for every American, miles that Americans were not traveling before the system was built. By comparison, a $600 billion expenditure on high-speed rail will provide, at best, around 300 miles of travel per person.
More to the point, most of that travel will not be new travel, but merely a substitute for driving, flying, or other existing forms of travel. The California High-Speed Rail Authority predicts that 98% of its customers will shift from driving or flying. Florida predicts that 96% of the people using its high-speed train will switch from driving.
Almost no new travel means almost no transformative effect. Few people will use high-speed rail or urban rail transit to access new markets, resources, or jobs. Merely substituting rail for other modes will be extremely expensive.
Amtrak brags that its high-speed Acela between Boston and Washington covers its operating costs, though not its capital costs. It does so, however, only by collecting fares of about 75 cents per passenger mile. By comparison, airline fares average only 13 cents a passenger mile, and intercity buses (which, Amtrak doesn’t want you to know, carry about three times as many passengers between Boston and Washington as the Acela) are even less expensive.

Furthermore, given that only 8 percent of American workers are employed in central city downtowns, the likely beneficiaries will be wealthy, white-collar workers.


Stop pretending that it's high-speed rail
By Marc Scribner
November 17, 2010
Originally published in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
On Nov. 2, voters across Wisconsin made their voices clear on government-run passenger rail: Don't build it. Voters in Dane, Kenosha and Racine counties soundly rejected proposed commuter rail lines. 

Wisconsinites also elected Republican Scott Walker to the governor's office. Walker made stopping the Obama administration's proposed high-speed rail corridor a key campaign issue, a position shared by a majority of Wisconsin residents.

Despite pre-election shenanigans by outgoing Gov. Jim Doyle -- and intense pressure from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood -- it appears likely that Walker will make good on his promise once he takes office. But it is important to understand what Walker is actually proposing to do. Contrary to what the Obama administration, Doyle and their allies claim, Walker will most certainly not be killing a high-speed rail project. 

This is because the proposed Twin Cities-Chicago high-speed rail corridor is not considered "high speed" by the standards of industrialized nations.

In Western Europe, for instance, high-speed rail lines must reach a minimum of 125 mph on upgraded track and 160 mph for new dedicated track. China currently has trains that can reach speeds in excess of 260 mph for limited stretches. When one examines the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) Program investment summaries maintained by the Federal Railroad Administration, an interesting pattern emerges: Almost none of the proposed so-called high-speed corridors will allow trains to travel at speeds exceeding 110 mph, which is the U.S. Department of Transportation's conveniently low minimum required maximum speed to grant a "high-speed rail" designation.

This holds for the proposed Twin Cities-Chicago corridor, which the FHA tells us "eventually" will allow passenger trains to reach a maximum speed of 110 mph for short periods. Embarrassingly, passenger trains in the 1940s regularly met or exceeded these speeds.

Conservative critics of the Obama administration have accused it of trying to turn America into a Western European-style social democracy. A more apt comparison in this case would be the former Soviet bloc, where the "high-speed" bar is set at a paltry 100 mph.

Ohio's incoming governor, John Kasich, recognizes this fatal flaw. Like Walker, he plans to scuttle "high-speed" rail in his state. Also like Walker, he has been attacked by ideological rail cheerleaders. But he is making a wise move: stopping expensive money sinkholes before they have a chance to be perpetually in the red.

Moreover, an American high-speed rail network, if it ever moves beyond the planning stage, is almost guaranteed to be a money-loser. Rail backers like to tout the supposed success of Amtrak's Boston-Washington Acela Express. It turns a profit, they say. But while the fares collected on Acela cover the operating costs, they fail to cover capital costs. And this is on the densest rail corridor that serves a cluster of some of America's largest metropolitan areas.

Acela isn't cheap. A one-way Acela ticket from New York City to Washington, D.C., costs around $130, and the trip takes nearly three hours when the train is running on schedule. Compare this to private intercity bus carriers, which typically charge around $20 for a one-way fare and make the New York to D.C. trip in about 4 1/2 hours. Unsurprisingly, private buses alone carry about four times as many passengers as all Amtrak services combined on this route. And cars on the I-95 corridor still carry the vast majority of intercity passengers.

Or compare Acela to airline shuttle service. A one-way ticket from New York to Washington typically costs $150, and the trip can take as little as 45 minutes. Acela is hardly a bargain, which is why most of the travelers are white-collar workers in downtown urban areas.

Even then, the project Walker likely will cancel is nothing like the Acela Express. The transportation demand between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul is nothing like the demand along the Northeast corridor. Nor is the proposed rail line considered "high speed" by domestic or international standards. "Medium-speed rail" would be more accurate. Returning the federal grants Wisconsin received for this project is a small price to pay to avoid this massive boondoggle.