Monday, April 25, 2011

When it Comes to High-Speed Rail in America, "The Times, they are a-Changin' !"

First, the op-ed pages of the Sunday New York Times. Today, the op-ed pages of the LA Times.  I can recall, not that long ago, when the LA Times wouldn't touch an anti-high-speed rail letter or article.  

"The Times, they are a-Changing."

Moore makes all the points in this LA Times article that need to be said.  There's really nothing with which I would disagree entirely.

In his discussion about the pitching of automobiles and air travel against high-speed rail, and favoring the latter over the former, I'm more disposed to arguing for' the right tool for the right job' in a multi-modal world.  I don't want to be in the position of saying that high-speed rail should not exist.  I wouldn't dismiss any transit capacity out of hand.  Rather I prefer to look at the overall transit needs today and those that are rationally anticipated, and conceive of the most cost-effective ways of achieving the desired results.

That kind of analysis, which has been undertaken a number of times (Cox, Vranich, Grindley), strongly suggest that high-speed rail lacks the cost-benefits that should be our prime criterion for consideration.  The one possible exception, and I am far from certain about this, is investment in the Northeast Corridor.  Elsewhere, it's a bad idea.

The HSR promoters have been so aggressive in over-selling their product that empirically based factuality is totally absent in their sales pitch. They persistently 'cook the books.'  We can't believe anything they say.  The industries and politicians who stand to benefit have taken complete control of the discussion.  

Nonetheless, independent and academic institutions in the US should undertake serious study about the various transit modalities and present them in cost/benefit terms.  Furthermore, such research should be highly contextualized so that all the issues are brought to bear on such discussions, such as the impact of Information Technologies on travel; the future of business travel, demographic (social, economic) shifts and accurate/realistic population and population-density forecasts.  (See: "Demographia")

Moore has it right that the environmental issues, usually a feature of the HSR benefits in terms of GHG effects, fossil fuel consumption, and per passenger operating costs, are always fogged over with misleading generalizations based on rigged comparisons.  More straightforward comparisons are needed that take context into account, such as electric power generation and HSR power consumption; the differences between fully occupied and half empty trains expressed in passenger-miles, etc. 

Finally, Moore makes the compelling point that we have repeatedly presented.  Freight rail good; HSR not good.  There is a place for tracked transportation; freight foremost.  There is also a place for public rapid transit, especially in urban and regional contexts.  Compared to California and most of the United States (excluding the Northeast Corridor), Europe and Japan are one big city. Most of their trains are, more or less, urban/regional.  Their cities are closer together and there are more of them.  And that makes all the difference in the world.

There is a greater compelling reason than ever for R&D. In our pursuit of high-speed rail, we are inventing nothing; we are copying and buying off the shelves of other nations.  We are not builders; we are spenders and we are spending at retail prices.  That's not who we were as a Nation.  That's not, for example, how Silicon Valley economies emerged.  

When people move around, using any modality, nothing is created.  It's only when they get there that the productivity opportunity arises. If, as is claimed, that train time (fast or slow) can be used productively with laptops, then what is the great gain between 100 and 200 mph?  The cost increases for those 100 mph grow exponentially. Even if it sells well, it's a bad bargain. One major outcome is to further stratify the economic differences in our society; that is already taking place and HSR will only exacerbate that distinction.

Thank you James Moore for your intelligent analysis of a bad situation that should be stopped now, before matters get much worse and more valuable resources are flushed down the California toilet.
High-speed rail hopes are off the tracks
Federal funds are drying up for California's project, and that's a good thing.

By James E. Moore II
April 25, 2011

Congress' eleventh-hour compromise on the federal budget this month rescinds $400 million in funding for high-speed rail in fiscal year 2010, and eliminates federal funding for high-speed rail in fiscal year 2011. Yet California High-Speed Rail Authority officials remain committed to their vision of a high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The agency is beginning to tilt at windmills.

The congressional action means that California will not get the $19 billion in federal grant support the authority was counting on receiving by 2016, nor (almost certainly) the $2.4 billion in grants that Florida's governor declined. Technically, Congress' agreement did not rescind roughly $3.75 billion in federal grants to California, but this commitment is also at risk. About $715 million has not been obligated and could be easily rescinded. The remainder of these funds is obligated, and rescinding them would be more difficult but not impossible.

California taxpayers would benefit greatly from rescission, because every dollar Congress finds the courage to rescind from the California rail project is a dollar the state no longer has to match. In Sacramento, some lawmakers are beginning to connect the dots. Assembly Bill 76, introduced by Diane Harkey (R-Dana Point), would have defunded the California high-speed rail project, but it was rejected in a committee vote along party lines.

Still, California officials, lawmakers and citizens now have the opportunity to step back and reconsider the inflated promises that pervade the high-speed rail program. California Proposition 1A, passed in 2008, authorizes the issuance of general obligation bonds backed by property tax revenue to provide $9.95 billion, mostly for construction of a core high-speed rail segment linking San Francisco and Los Angeles. The project requires federal matching funds, but these combined resources are far from adequate to construct such a system. The state high-speed rail authorities estimate that the total cost of the system will be under $45 billion. In 2008, the Reason Foundation and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. issued a report estimating that the final cost could run as high as $81 billion.

Believe the higher estimate. In 2010, UC Berkeley engineering and economics professors examined the revenue and ridership forecasts the authority relied on to help make its case to the electorate and the federal government, and found the forecasts deeply flawed.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration's plans are worse. In his last State of the Union address, the president said he wanted to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail within 25 years, an objective he backed up with a budget proposal calling for $53 billion in federal funds over the next six years for high-speed rail projects.

This is only a tiny fraction of the resources that would be required to make high-speed rail a viable intercity transportation option. Even if we were prepared to further bankrupt ourselves doing so, we would accomplish nothing that cannot be accomplished much more cheaply by expanding airports, better maintaining and managing roads, and using conventional technology to burn gasoline and jet fuel even more cleanly.

The market for U.S air travel has been aggressively deregulated, and airfares are relatively low. As a result, U.S. airlines capture a large share of the market for short intercity trips. Even with recent increases in the price of oil, retail gasoline prices in the U.S. are about half the pump price in Europe, and the differential is even greater relative to places such as China and India. Consequently, a large share of the U.S. market for medium and long trips is accounted for by automobile travel. There is not enough room for high-speed rail to compete.

The only remotely meritorious argument for high-speed rail investments is the possible reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but even in this respect high-speed rail is uneconomic. The state rail program's own numbers show that a high-speed system's impact on net C02 emissions would be slight, and easily as much as 100 times higher in terms of cost per ton of C02 eliminated than the goal established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Railroads are a crucial component of the U.S. freight management and distribution system, but we do not need and cannot afford a high-speed rail system for passengers. Congress should rescind the high-speed rail funds granted to the states, starting with California; and the Legislature should defund the California high-speed rail project. We should cut our losses while we can still afford them.

James E. Moore II is a professor of industrial and systems engineering, of civil and environmental engineering, and of public policy and management at USC. He is currently on sabbatical from USC at the Rand Corp.
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