Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Former Sect. of the Interior, Democrat Bruce Babbitt's opinions about the Obama High-Speed Rail Program

The most important information to come from this article, besides the fact that former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt is a Democrat, is the conception of megaregions with the greatest population densities being the most appropriate places for high-speed rail.  Let's for the moment, accept that argument.  Does this mean that if the population doesn't support the development of high-speed rail, it makes no sense to promote it? Because that is exactly what HSR opponents have been saying for a very long time.

The graph, below identifies world megaregions by population density, with Japan leading the rest of the industrial world.  California is identified by Southern California, presumably the Los Angeles/San Diego megatropolis, and Northern California, presumably from the Bay Area up to Sacramento.  Connecting those two "megaregions" is not on the charts; nor does it make any sense.  Of course, the NorthEast corridor is second highest, after Japan, on the rankings.

If anything, the chart makes a compelling reason for integrating urban and regional public mass transit in Northern California and that means integrating the Peninsula Commuter Rail into a comprehensive Bay Area regional transit system.

Before we discuss this megaregion justification for HSR, it is worth pausing a moment to acknowledge that Bruce Babbitt, a Democratic supporter of high-speed rail, does recognize the failures of the Obama Administration in the development -- shall we say hasty and reckless development -- of this program.  

Babbitt also mentions California's project but without full knowledge or understanding of the particular circumstances that render the state's HSR effort doomed from the start, regardless of the misconceived and dishonest bond issue election which the voters supported by a narrow margin. 

Philip Langdon's article makes some clear distinctions between the ideological approaches from both sides of the political spectrum. He doesn't explain why these polarized position about the train exist, however.  We have been doing that for some time on this blog.  

It certainly is the case that the intellectual leadership for high-speed rail opposition comes from the Libertarian leaning Cato, Reason and Heritage Foundations.  (No one is more surprised than a Democrat like myself to discover so many knowledgeable, reasonable and thoughtful colleagues among these organizations.)

Although Bruce Babbitt's reservations are striking, despite his HSR advocacy, the arguments put forth by Petra Todorovich, a promoter for a national infrastructure vision, are the typical, unfounded and unjustifiable claims made by most HSR promoters. Given her singular position of prominence, her claims warrant some comment.  

While she is on the right track by stating that the highest density megaregions warrant first consideration for expanded rail service, she does make the error of citing China as a role model.  That ship has sailed. China has become the poster-boy of what the direst consequences of high-speed rail hubris looks like.  Instead of "greasing the wheels for its national economy," untold damage is being done to that economy. And please note that China is the leading social engineering nation that freely moves entire populations hither and yon at their discretion.

She says:

“China is greasing the wheels for its national economy” by building an extensive high-speed rail system, she said. The US should pursue better rail service for three reasons, she argued:

• “It boosts the productivity of service and knowledge-sector workers.”

• “It deepens labor markets for businesses, and broadens the employment pool for workers (more worker housing options)."

• “It fosters economic synergies among specialized industries (agglomeration economies)” such as health care, database management, pharmaceuticals, and research and development/biotech.

How a fast luxury train can boost service productivity of knowledge-sector workers is a puzzle, since it is exactly this population that doesn't even need to visit the "office" on a daily basis any longer.  Physical transit for this cohort is declining and thereby productivity is increasing, while at the same time travel costs, once very high, are diminshing to the benefit of the bottom line.

I should add, parenthetically, the great tradition of the travelling sales-person, (service sector workers) who drove from customer to customer in his/her car, will continue to rely on that transit modality since trains, regardless of speed, don't solve the first and last mile problem; cars do.

Moving workers around to where the jobs are is part of the American landscape, but most workers won't travel by the most expensive rail tickets out there.

And her final claim about economic synergies among specialized industries, suggests the equivalent of the now defunct "vertical integration" that was once so popular.  What she suggests here will not be the product of riding on fast trains, on very limited corridors, highly distributed around the US.

It is our job to confront all the pretensions, exaggerations, and pumped-up claims about the endless benefits of high-speed rail which, in most cases, are based on a misunderstanding of what high-speed rail actually is.  It's an extremely limited service that will never carry large populations since it is too expensive for most Americans.  Why, in God's name, the federal government would promote such a luxury mode of travel as their 'cure' for all of the problems in America is, upon contemplation, startling and highly misconceived.

How to salvage Obama’s high-speed rail ‘disaster’
Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt calls the rail plan — target of a coordinated attack by the Right — “a complete catastrophe,” and tells where the nation should focus.
Author:  Philip Langdon
New Urban Network

The time has come to candidly examine why President Obama’s high-speed rail proposal is in such terrible shape — and to figure out how passenger rail service could be expanded despite the serious recent setbacks. One leader well worth listening to is Bruce Babbitt — a thoughtful politician who was President Clinton’s Interior Secretary and, before that, governor of Arizona for nine years.

Babbitt let loose his frustrations last week, identifying himself as “an advocate of high-speed rail” who views what’s happened over the past year as “a complete catastrophe.”

“Ugh,” the 72-year-old Democrat groaned during an urban forum for journalists at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Said Babbitt: “It has, to put it mildly, been a total disaster.” Three libertarian or conservative organizations — the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the Reason Foundation — have mounted what Petra Todorovich of the Regional Plan Association calls “a concerted attack on high-speed rail.” 

With segments of the rail plan now cancelled in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and with some federal funding revoked by Congressional Republicans this month, Babbitt thinks we must approach rail planning much more strategically than the Obama administration did.

Of the president’s stated aim — provision of high-speed rail service to 80 percent of the American population in 25 years — Babbitt declared, “It’s fantasy.”

In his view, the Obama plan suffers from these critical flaws:

• Routes were  poorly chosen. The Orlando-to-Tampa line — 84 miles mostly in an Interstate highway corridor — would have run from one city that’s “not a model of transit” to another city with the same transit deficiency. Said Babbitt: “Frankly, it’s not surprising that the governor of Florida [when offered 90 percent of the funds to construct the line] turned it down.”

• Goals were defined vaguely. They were not hammered out through extensive discussion and political brokering — activities essential, in Babbitt’s judgment, to the program’s success.

• “The president didn’t help his visionary statement by holding up the transcontinental railroad as a model.” One-hundred-forty million acres were distributed to railroads through that post-Civil War enterprise, which led to the Crédit Mobilier scandal — “one of the largest government-sponsored fraudulent ventures of all time.”
A better way

Rail proponents should emulate not the transcontinental railroad but rather the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, Babbitt believes. Like today’s high-speed rail initiative, the interstate highway proposal initially received a hostile reception in influential quarters. “The governors were largely opposed,” Babbitt said. Most came out against a raise in the gasoline tax or in excise taxes.

Ultimately, the highway act owed its passage to “a lot of discussion, brokering, setting goals,” according to Babbitt. Negotiation over where the highways would be built “took place ahead of the act.” The same should hold true for any far-reaching rail program, he thinks.

“Let’s start with something realistic, where the payoffs will be most real,” Babbitt urged. The nation’s biggest megaregion, the dense corridor from Boston to Washington, already “carries one-third of Amtrak’s traffic,” making it, in his view, a logical place to demonstrate that high-speed rail can work.

The biggest difficulty, he indicated, is that high-speed rail requires a dedicated form of financing. 

Would the country as a whole be willing to pay for a system serving seven or so states? That’s highly unlikely, said Babbitt. “There are 43 states that will say no to an earmarked tax.”

The way to overcome that obstacle is by establishing a gasoline tax that would be paid by residents of the Northeast corridor states, he argued. “That’s the lesson of the Interstate Highway Act. We need to get back to dedicated user fees. It should be focused on regional users.”

Jerold Kayden, a Harvard professor of urban planning and design, asked why the governors of those states couldn’t get together and work out a deal themselves. “I was a governor,” Babbitt reminded Kayden. “This  rail corridor is not going to work with seven governors [actually, probably eight or nine, plus the District of Columbia] going their own way.” 

In the case of interstate highways, “Babbitt maintained, the only way we got clarity was through federal legislation,” and that’s the only way to nail down a high-speed program for the Eastern seaboard.

“It’s not going to happen this year,” he acknowledged, but it can be done, he thinks, if there is “a clear purpose,” if the leaders “strip the discretion out” of the legislation, and if they “do it through the political process.”

(California has one advantage on high-speed rail, he noted. Its line would be within a single state, and thus not in need of federal legislation. However, he added, California “should link its program with a revenue source.”)
Megaregions would benefit

Babbitt spoke on Friday in the two-day forum sponsored by the Lincoln Institute, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, and the Harvard Graduate School of Urban Design. The next day, Petra Todorovich, director of America 2050, the New York-based Regional Plan Association’s initiative to develop a national infrastructure and growth strategy, argued that high-speed rail does in fact make sense in America’s largest megaregion.

“We do approach European densities in megaregions” such as the Boston-to-Washington corridor, said Todorovich. Megaregions — there are about 10 of them around the country, including the Great Lakes, the Texas Triangle (Houston-Dallas-Austin-San Antonio), the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, and Cascadia (Portland-Tacoma-Seattle) — contain 75 percent of the nation’s population and are key to America’s economic growth, she emphasized.

“China is greasing the wheels for its national economy” by building an extensive high-speed rail system, she said. The US should pursue better rail service for three reasons, she argued:

• “It boosts the productivity of service and knowledge-sector workers.”

• “It deepens labor markets for businesses, and broadens the employment pool for workers (more worker housing options)."

• “It fosters economic synergies among specialized industries (agglomeration economies)” such as health care, database management, pharmaceuticals, and research and development/biotech.

Like Babbitt and like Rep. John Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Todorovich thinks “we ought to invest first in the places with the greatest ridership ... the greatest chance of success.”

That strategy favors the Northeast Corridor, which has been the subject of three recent studies — a Northeast Corridor Infrastructure Master Plan prepared in May 2010 by representatives of 12 states, Amtrak, and other entities; a separate Amtrak design report; and a University of Pennsylvania study that was presented to no less than Vice President Joseph Biden.

The Northeast, Todorovich thinks, needs to come to a consensus on whether it wants a dedicated high-speed route and where it should be. New rights-of-way will probably have to be acquired. There isn’t enough room for high-speed rail in parts of the existing Amtrak corridor.

The existing corridor has a backlog of $8.8 billion in needed repairs. By 2030, investment to meet growing demand should total $52 billion — and that’s just in the existing corridor, without any dedicated high-speed tracks, Todorovich said.

She suggested three potential revenue sources for high-speed rail — a penny on the gasoline tax, a passenger rail surcharge of $1, and a 1 percent foreign oil import tax — which together could generate approximately $5.4 billion a year across the country. The revenue would be lower if those charges were imposed only in the Northeast. 

On the bright side, she noted that Rep. Mica has been bringing members of his committee — some of whom represent rural areas — to urban locales to improve their understanding of passenger rail networks and the places they serve.  Babbitt’s proposal for a Northeast-focused federal rail act is “a great idea,” she said, adding that it “would have to be matched by federal funding.” 
Where the stations go

There are now one to two trains an hour between New York and Washington. That could rise to 8 to 10 per hour, Todorovich said. Some cities could gain tremendously from faster access to major centers. “Hartford would suddenly be 45 minutes to New York City,” she said.

Certain stations would have to move or be supplemented by additional locations. Baltimore’s main service would move from Penn Station, well north of downtown, to the Charles Center, she suggested. Philadelphia would add service at Market East, which is closer to Center City destinations than is the existing 30th Street Station. 

To obtain the maximum benefits from better rail service, “there needs to be a concerted strategy around stations,” Todorovich said. “It works best in center cities.”
Resistance from the Right

Ambitious rail plans have been subjected to a fierce campaign of disparagement in recent months. The Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the Reason Foundation have worked particularly hard to defeat the Obama rail plan, Todorovich told the gathering of about 30 journalists from around the country.

For companies that profit from the highway system and automobile-reliant means of transportation, the libertarian or conservative foundations have proven to be useful torch-bearers. SourceWatch, part of the Center for Media and Democracy, reports that Ford Motor, General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell Oil, and the Western States Petroleum Association have been among the donors to the Reason Foundation. David H. Koch of Koch Industries,  once described by the Center for Public Integrity as "the biggest oil company you have never heard of," is a Reason trustee.

SourceWatch says Chevron, ExxonMobil, and the auto-maker Honda have been among Heritage’s contributors, though corporate donations to Heritage are small when compared than those made by individuals and foundations. Over the years, Heritages backers in the foundation world have included the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and three Scaife foundations.

Cato, founded by Edward H. Crane and Charles Koch, has over the years received donations from corporate supporters including the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, General Motors, Honda North America, Toyota, Volkswagen of America, and Wal-Mart Stores, according to SourceWatch.

Nonetheless, Todorovich thinks rail projects can gain considerable support from the populace and some of it from Republicans who hold elective office.  After the new governor of Florida, Rick Scott, rejected $2.4 billion in federal funds for the Orlando-Tampa rail route, 24 states, including 11 with Republican governors, applied for portions of the money that Florida gave up.

[The rest of this article refers to and quotes a report, also found on the CNN web-site, about a questioning of a number of people about the pros and cons of high-speed rail by CNN.  In my mind, these questions were rigged and the respondents stacked in favor of HSR. You can read the rest of this by clicking on the URL for this article.]