Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Throwing good money after bad on high-speed rail

This article is being posted here because it's from the New York Times, not because you don't know most of the information already.

Let's look at this with fresh eyes. Until the high-speed rail program became an ARRA stimulus fund objective, there was little interest in the US about what is called high-speed rail in the rest of the world.  

Yes, there were exceptions to that, California being one of them, but generally, the US was not a hot-bed of demand for 200 mph trains.  Indeed, until the recent Recession, there was not a lot of interest in expanding rail service of any kind for passengers.  Monthly, Amtrak points out its record-breaking ridership, which is now in the 24 million annual passenger range. For a Nation with over 300 million people, that's a drop in the ocean. We once were, but are no longer a railroad nation.

Nonetheless, with the sudden availability of federal stimulus funding of $8 billion for the entire eleven corridors in the US, high-speed rail brought out all the struggling rail promoting constituencies who are now screaming that they don't understand how we could have gotten along for such a long period of time without high-speed rail, and we better pour as much money into this as possible, as quickly as possible, or the entire US will disappear into the ocean under the weight of all our automobiles. 

Nobody asked cost-benefit questions. Nobody wondered what the actual costs for this eleven corridor HSR fantasy would be. Nobody created a master-plan or strategy for passenger transit in the US to see if HSR was even necessary. It was simply assumed. Nobody asked what the real costs for creating this HSR program would be.  They said, we'll get it started with a few billion and see what happens.

Nobody considered that to bring back any passenger rail -- never mind the high-speed kind -- perhaps a good place to start is to improve the passenger rail service that we now have.  Nobody understood WHY the Europeans and Japanese had their high-speed rail programs; what the context was for their development. 

What has happened is that this is mostly what has been going on; that is, improving existing Amtrak rail service here and there.  And calling it "High-Speed Rail."  (Only California and Florida wanted to be ahead of everyone with faster trains than anyone.  The cost of the money cooled Florida's ambitions but has not stopped California's. . . .yet.)

All we heard was that the US, in its economic funk, had to be competitive and "win the future."  The President let us know that life was a race and we had to win.  And one way to win this economic race was to get high-speed passenger trains.  If you think about that just a little bit, it sounds like nonsense. It is nonsense.

Now, it's becoming clear that we will not have a national high-speed rail program for the time being and perhaps for a long time.  

(Attention America: We have to show the rest of the world that we are still macho and numero uno; so let's build something very expensive that is photogenic, like a fancy high-speed train.)

As many of us have been saying for a long time, we simply can't afford it.  We can't afford the billions and trillions this would cost to develop, and we can't afford to build and run luxury trains for the few that can afford the expensive tickets.  We would be building what the Brits call a "white elephant."  In the US, we prefer the term "boondoggle." 

So, you would think that even the advocate politicians, the Democrats, would say, OK, we'll stop for the time being, perhaps until our economy gets better.  We will acknowledge the sunk costs of what we've spent so far, but won't waste any more.

Apparently, none of them are smart enough for that kind of realistic thinking.  So, the California project, which has around $5 billion to blow on a useless track in the Central Valley, will go right on with its hundreds of contractors, going through these tax based dollars, until they are all gone.  And for what?  For nothing!

The point is, it's not about the train; it's about the money.

April 12, 2011

Budget Deal Deeply Cuts High-Speed Rail Program

President Obama’s fledgling high-speed rail program was dealt a serious setback by the budget deal that he struck with Republicans last week: new details released Tuesday showed that the agreement will not only eliminate financing for high-speed rail this year, but will also take back some of the money that Congress approved for it last year.

The cut is a major blow to one of Mr. Obama’s signature transportation goals, which he set just months ago in his State of the Union address when he called for giving 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years. And it casts serious doubt on his proposal for spending $53 billion on a high-speed rail program over the next six years.

The cuts will not bring the rail program to a halt, as there is still unspent rail money that can be used on new projects. But they leave the future of high-speed rail in the United States unclear, to say the least. Roughly $10 billion has been approved for high-speed rail so far, but that money has been spread to dozens of projects around the country. If Congress does not approve more money, it is possible that the net result of all that spending will be better regular train service in many areas, and a small down payment on one bullet train, in California.

This year, newly elected Republican governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin decided to reject billions of dollars in federal rail money that their predecessors had sought and won, arguing that the projects would be costly boondoggles. Florida spurned $2.4 billion that would have nearly paid for the nation’s first high-speed train, connecting Tampa and Orlando.

The depth of the cut in the budget deal came as something of a surprise. As late as Monday afternoon, an administration official had said that there would still be $1 billion available for high-speed rail this year — a cut from the $2.5 billion in last year’s budget, and the $8 billion in rail money in the stimulus bill that got the program started.

But when the budget bill was released overnight, that money was gone: “Notwithstanding Section 1101, the level for ‘Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration, Capital Assistance for High Speed Rail Corridors and Intercity Passenger Rail Service’ shall be $0.” Another section of the new budget bill called for taking back $400 million of the $2.5 billion that was approved last year.

The trims — coupled with cuts to transit spending — were denounced by transportation advocates. “With gas prices in many parts of the country topping $4 a gallon, now is not the time to choke off funding for high-speed rail and transit, which saves oil and provides travelers with a more efficient and convenient alternative to sitting in traffic on America’s increasingly crowded roadways,” said Dan Smith, who follows federal transportation issues for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

But the cuts were cheered by many Republicans, who have questioned the program all along. Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, a Republican with Tea Party support who canceled the Tampa-to-Orlando line, issued a news release on Monday celebrating premature reports that the high-speed rail program would be cut by $1.5 billion (it was ultimately cut by $2.9 billion).

Under the headline “Governor Rick Scott Helps Avoid Government Shutdown and Save Federal Taxpayers $1.5 Billion,” it began, “This weekend as Washington, D.C., insiders struggled to find billions to prevent a government shutdown, they found $1.5 billion worth of taxpayer money exactly where Governor Rick Scott left it: in the boondoggle high-speed rail proposal.”

But if some states have rejected the money, others are still clamoring for it: 24 states, the District of Columbia and Amtrak have applied for the money that Florida turned down.