Monday, April 11, 2011

Ken Orski's NewsBriefs on High-Speed Rail: "A Requiem for "High-Speed Rail"

Here is the latest Ken Orski NewsBrief about high-speed rail.  He cites two sources, one by Matt Dellinger and the other by Ron Utt.  We already represented the Utt article on this blog previously, so I'm leaving it off here. 

Ken's analysis speaks for itself. My two cents are not necessary here except to comment on one point he raises. Federal planning for this high-speed rail program has been a disgrace.  That is true at the federal level and certainly true at the state level in California.

The planning failures tell us what the promoters really had in mind, and it certainly wasn't the creation of a major upgrade to American rail passenger transportation.  It was the callous seizing of a sexy promotional icon and running with it, weaving improvised justifications around it on the fly.

Nothing had been thought through.  Only the marketing mattered.  It is still the only thing that matters.  Therefore, converting a HSR fantasy, concept or notion into reality has been a dismal failure.

To recklessly and mindlessly persist in the pursuit of this hollow mockery is outrageous, potentially as massive a fraud or greater than the 1922 Teapot Dome Scandal.  Unless the HSR project is stopped, it will be only a matter of time when this anti-HSR blog will be obliged to say "We told you so!"

While the rail promoters constantly point to the Interstate Highway System as the paradigmatic project they seek to emulate, they should be pointing to the Wyoming Teapot Dome oil-lease events under President Warren Harding as the more likely and inevitable paragon.

Vol. 22, No. 12

 April 11, 2012

A Requiem for "High-Speed Rail"
An Editorial Point of View

In the interest of maintaining some balance and perspective on what the Administration proudly calls "President Obama's bold vision for a national high-speed rail network" we have tried to offer our readers a range of different points of view. It is in this spirit that we present below two commentaries. 
The first contribution is by Matt Dellinger, author of the highly praised book, "Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway" and a frequent contributor on transportation topics to the progressive website, Transportation Nation. The second contribution is by Ron Utt, Senior Research Fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, whose analyses of transportation policy have been a longstanding feature of that Foundation's work.
Along with our two commentators, we do not question the merits of intercity rail transportation--- an integral and essential part of this nation's economy, culture and history over the past century and a half. Readers of Steven Ambrose's history of the transcontinental railroad, Nothing Like it in the World, can only marvel at the indomitable spirit and entrepreneurial energy that drove the creation of the continental rail network. Rail transportation has been intimately woven into the social and economic fabric of this nation ever since. Nor do we forget the huge contribution that private railroad companies have made, and continue to make, to maintaining and growing the nation's rail network. 
By investing billions of private dollars, they have made the US freight rail system the envy of the world. Lastly, we believe that intercity passenger rail service is essential in densely populated heavily traveled corridors, in particular the Northeast Corridor, where road and air traffic congestion will soon be reaching levels that will threaten its continued growth and productivity. In sum, we are not mindless opponents of rail transportation.
Rather, along with Messrs. Dellinger and Utt, and many other responsible observers inside and outside the railroad community (including notably, Michael Ward, Chief Executive Officer of CSX, the nation's third largest freight railroad), we take issue with the Obama Administration's lofty but misleading rhetoric of "high-speed rail." Instead of representing its initiative for what it really is ---a program of incremental improvements to the existing rail infrastructure--- the Administration has tried to create the impression that it has embarked on a bold and revolutionary program of building a continent-wide high-speed rail network--- a legacy reminiscent of President Eisenhower's Interstate Highway Program.
As Dillinger and Utt point out, the recently announced spate of awards funded out of the $2.4 billion rejected by Florida's Gov. Rick Scott will hardly lead to bullet trains speeding from coast-to-coast at 250 mph. These grants, along with most of the earlier awards, will support engineering and planning studies, incremental upgrades in the facilities of freight railroads and modest improvements in existing passenger rail service. For example, the latest list includes a study to replace Amtrak's Baltimore Tunnel; development of Missouri's and West Virginia's state rail plans; final design of the New Jersey Portal Bridge; and modest corridor improvements in Amtrak service in Connecticut, New York and Washington State.
The above-mentioned $300 million worth of awards was announced on April 8, just a few hours before agreement was reached on a short-term continuing resolution that would cut $1.5 billion in unobligated HSR money. It also preceded by three days the release of a GAO report criticizing the lack of transparency in the Administration's HSR grant selection process (GAO-11-283). Citing the GAO findings, Rep. John Mica, Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee blasted the Administration in a strongly worded press release. "In the name of high-speed rail, the Administration has squandered limited resources on dozens of slow-speed rail projects across the country," Mica said. "I cannot imagine a worse beginning to a U.S. high-speed rail effort. ...It is critical that there be transparency for why these projects were selected in the first place and why any future projects will be selected."
Had the objective and the selection criteria of the $10 billion program been stated candidly from the outset as an effort to modestly upgrade existing intercity passenger rail services, the White House would have spared itself this criticism and the attendant ridicule of "ObamaRail" and "the Railroad to Nowhere." As it is, the Administration dug itself into an even deeper hole with a quixotic and hardly credible pledge of "making high-speed rail accessible to 80 percent of Americans in 25 years." A promise that was made without any hint as to how this ambitious plan would be paid for and against a background of the House Republicans' announced intention to totally eliminate federal support for high-speed rail beginning next year. Without further congressional appropriations, the President's dogged pursuit of the $53 billion high-speed rail initiative will simply collapse.
As Matt Dellinger pointedly concluded, "If High-Speed Rail ever happens, future Americans might not remember the President who circulated the maps and funded the studies. They'll remember the President who figured out how to pay for it all."
Kenneth Orski

How Much High Speed Rail Will $2.4 Billion Buy?
by Matt Dellinger (reprinted from Transportation Nation, April 7, 2011)

It should be more fun to give away billions of dollars for rail. One of the happiest things a politician gets to do, after all, is fork over cash for transportation projects. All those gold shovels, ribbon cuttings, and bridge-naming ceremonies! And, one could argue, President Barack Obama and SecretaryRay LaHood should feel triply blessed. With today's politics being what they are, they get to dole out money more than once!

But there's something of a deflated mood around the bids that came in this week for the $2.4 billion in High Speed Rail funds that Florida rejected in February. The money seems a little tainted, perhaps, and politically heavy. It's unseemly to celebrate over such federal largess when Washington is on the verge of a shutdown and budget negotiators are contemplating cutting vital programs. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Florida Governor Rick Scott, elected as budget hawks, decided the safe bet was to show restraint and send back big fat slices of the transportation pie. By doing so, they left more for everyone else---but they also made the indulgence more fraught. These are hungry times, though, and money won't sit around long. By Monday, twenty four states, plus Washington D.C. and Amtrak, had bid for pieces of Florida's pie.

What the Administration and rail boosters lost in the Florida debacle---a truly high-speed segment with right-of-way secured and private investors in line, that could have been built in the visible future (the next Presidential term, for instance)---will not be gained back by anything proposed Monday. 

Among the list of projects there is no item that will similarly turn a rail-less corridor into a futuristic proof-of-concept. The speeds mentioned are all easily imaginable by anyone with a decent car. Without a confidence in messaging that has so far eluded the Administration when it comes to transportation, it will be hard to sell this reapportionment as anything earth-shattering, or even (literally) ground-breaking.

So what can this money do? If you read about the bids (such as Michigan's, Pennsylvania's, and Illinois'), you know that most of the bidders have in mind a set of very worthy incremental upgrades---a renovated bridge here, a bypass there, upgraded switches here---and studies to advance future megaprojects such as the Gateway Tunnel under the Hudson. Skeptics will point out, as the venerable publisher of Innovation Briefs, Ken Orski, has done, that this kind of birdshot smattering of small projects is hardly lunar-landing stuff.

But this serves as criticism only because the Administration's rhetoric has routinely exceeded the nation's grasp. It's not the time for rail, they argue, it's the time for real. On the other hand, the administration argues, if you don't dream, dreams will never be real. Everyone understands that President Eisenhower built the Interstates. But the system was drawn up in 1944, twelve whole years before the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. It was FDR who made the plans for a system of "Interregional Highways" and who, during the Depression, first wrestled with the question of how to build them. Eisenhower blew the dust off those plans and signed a bill that created a mechanism for funding them. If High Speed Rail ever happens, future Americans might not remember the President who circulated the maps and funded the studies. They'll remember the President who figured out how to pay for it all.
Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway

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