Monday, May 30, 2011

What we can learn about HSR from Flint, Michigan, and why it should be taken seriously

Here's a letter from a guy in Flint, Michigan.  His perception, while local, is clearly highly generalizable across the entire US, with the possible exception of the Northeast Corridor.   I don't have to repeat all the issues he raises, he states them clearly enough and we certainly concur with all his points.

What I do want to say is that this has become the viewpoint of thoughtful people who don't have some personal stake in HSR.

It is possible for even Democrats like me to oppose this totally ill-conceived boondoggle.  All the advocacy arguments come from a definable number of constituents.

1. All those contractors, consultants and manufacturers  who stand to make money from HSR construction or operation. Also land-speculators.

2.All those elected officials -- Democrats -- who see HSR in four ways:
a. Income redistribution as stimulus for mitigating the unemployment problem.  The  government buying itself out of an economic and unemployment hole with borrowed dollars.
     b. Subscribing to all the advocacy rhetoric, environment, congestion, fuel consumption, traffic reduction, etc. etc. even though, upon close analysis, it's not at all what they promise.
       c. The general idea that herding all of us on public mass transit is inherent in the public good.
        d. Bringing federal dollars into their state and or district as a basis for getting re-elected. 

3. All those government bureaucrats whose salary depends upon their support for HSR.

4. All those nerds and geeks who are in love with railroading and love to tell you how much factual trivia they know on blogs.

5. All those who still live in a world of the past: "The Romance of Railroads."  Also, rich people who can afford the tickets.

6. All those who've been on foreign HSR trains and, without giving it much thought, say, we can afford this here. Let's have it. 

7. Uninformed idiots. 

If you are not one of those people described above, and if you are thoughful and well informed, there should be no question or hesitancy about condemning this HSR program and project for what it really is.

Letter: High-speed rail isn't cost-effective or practical
Published: Monday, May 30, 2011, 4:22 PM
 By Community Voice | Flint Journal Letters 
Voice: Dave Nelson, Flint Township

“Michigan must climb aboard movement to ride the rails,” claim the editors of The Flint Journal, (Sunday, May 1). You made several declarative statements saying this was a good thing, and that we need to do this, but I saw very little in the way of hard facts that would lead me to agree, at least when it comes building additional tracks to move people. I think trains are very efficient for moving freight, but not so cost-effective or practical for most people in the United States.

Your first argument for train travel was speaking of a time “when families from the Tri-Cities could take a train to Grayling for a day of sledding or skiing and return that same night, with nary a care about falling asleep at the wheel on the way back.” While I don’t disagree that many people would find this enjoyable, I don’t think this is a compelling argument for spending billions of dollars that we don’t have.

You also brush away the concerns about hefty government subsidies needed for rail by bringing up the subsidies needed to “keep highways paved and bridges from falling into the rivers they cross.” For me, this is just a reminder that our current infrastructure is crumbling and in need of billions of dollars for repair, and those dollars are in short supply. 
No amount of passenger rails is going to make that bill go away.

I lean toward the views expressed in an opinion piece by Randal O’Toole, published last fall in USA Today. He writes, “The history of transportation shows that we adopt new technologies when they are faster, more convenient, and less expensive than the technologies they replace. High-speed rail is slower than flying, less convenient than driving, and far more expensive than either one. As a result, it will never serve more than a few marginal travelers.” I think “marginal travelers” is the key term here. 

I think the demand for high-speed rail is small, and the benefits few. If for no other reason, it’s a bad idea because our country is broke, and we can’t afford to spend enormous sums of money on a project with such questionable returns.