Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Politics of High-Speed Rail

Three states have refused the FRA Stimulus funds for HSR, Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida.  Virginia never even applied for funds.  Several other states are currently negotiating their HSR positions in the Legislature.  I strongly suspect that this issue at the state level falls along Party lines and it's far from being resolved.

The article below raises the question, "Has Politics Killed High-Speed Rail in the US?"  Well, first of all, HSR is far from dead, so the immediate answer is no. However, it is also the case that high-speed rail is not a transportation program, it's a political program, just as it is a political project in California.  

And, I agree that, realistically, high-speed rail will live or die as a political exercise, the debates for which are taking place, right now, in the halls of Congress, just as they are in the streets and the media in California.

The fact is that high-speed rail should die of its own merits, or, in this case, the lack thereof.  The data, the facts, the critical analyses of this project have exposed, over and over, why it is not feasible.  

Nonetheless, we must rely on political decision-making and its many ulterior intentions to resolve this conundrum and terminate HSR as a project and program that if built, will generate the opposite of what its promoters constantly promise.

The article's suggestion of bi-partisanship on both sides of this build-it-or-not conflict are over-drawn.  Schwarzenegger was strongly opposed to HSR in California, and even sought to close it down.  However, he was persuaded, at the last minute, to support the legislation that put the rail project bond measure on the ballot.  

The general expectation from most politicians on both sides of the aisle was that it would fail in the elections.  

The assumption was going to be, "Well, Californians, we tried to get you a high-speed train, but the voters rejected it."  As we now know, to our regret, the voters didn't reject it.  But by only a 4% margin.  "Hey, what's not to like about a high-speed train?  It won't cost us anything since bond money will build it for us."  117 million annual riders.  Total cost of $40 billion, mostly from other sources. Tickets costing $55.  Whizzing through the empty rural landscape where nobody is living.  Now, too late, we know better.

California voters were bamboozled by the distorted promotional rhetoric that the Legislature stuffed into the ballot language.  All those promises and projections turned out -- almost immediately after the elections -- to not be true.  Indeed, a California appellate court found the use of such promotional language in the Proposition1A high-speed rail ballot to be illegal, but refrained from invalidating it (as it should have). 

All of which is to say, HSR, certainly in California, has been a political scam from the beginning, based on the acquisition of as much funding as possible (It's about the money!!!) without any notion or plan about how to actually build and finance this overstuffed pork-barrel. 

Politics has kept HSR alive. That's doubtlessly the case in Washington.  Hopefully, politics will terminate this disastrous boondoggle before it becomes a reality.
Has Politics Killed High-Speed Rail in the U.S.?

Frank Maccioli – Fri Jun 17, 5:56 pm ET

COMMENTARY | Imagine a trip by train between Boston and Washington in three hours. Or a faster one from San Francisco to Los Angeles, in which you're meeting with colleagues instead of sitting in a cramped airplane seat, spilling coffee on your laptop?

That's the vision of high-speed rail proponents, who see it as the future of mass transportation and one solution to unemployment and environmental problems.

Several new HSR systems have been proposed across the United States and are in various stages of development. For example, there is the Northeast Corridor project, serving major East Coast cities; and the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative, linking St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit.

But bipartisan political bickering seems to be throwing new roadblocks at HSR. Because of the concerns and uncertainties being raised by both those supporting and opposing HSR, it may be questionable whether sufficient funding for all systems can be secured.

Severe economic troubles confront the nation and as a result, HSR projects that had already been approved have either been canceled or face severe funding challenges. Florida's Republican Gov. Rick Scott refused to accept federal funds for his state's proposal, essentially killing the project.

 Republican Scott Walker of Wisconsin also refused federal funds but then changed his mind and tried to get the funds that Florida rejected. Virginia's Gov. Robert McDonnell refused to even apply for federal funds.

Although there was a rush from others to secure the money given up by those states, even projects that have strong local support face political opposition that may prevent those visions from being realized. As an example, take California's proposed 800-mile HSR project, in which electric powered trains will whisk passengers at speeds of up to 220 mph across the state.

Originally approved by California's voters in 2008, the project was seen as a way to address future transportation needs, reduce air emissions, and to provide hundreds of thousands of new jobs. The latter is very important to the hard hit Central Valley, where unemployment has hovered around 15 percent for the last three years.

The project enjoyed bipartisan support not only from Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, but also from powerful Republicans like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and current House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, who represents a District (Bakersfield) desperate for economic good news.

But McCarthy has changed his mind about HSR and voiced his opposition numerous times. He has joined with others (H.R. 6403) to try to rescind federal funding for the project and to divert already approved funds to highway projects.

The opposition appears bipartisan as well, not merely the typical posturing between Republicans and Democrats. State Senator Alan Lowenthal, D- Long Beach, who lists himself as an HSR supporter, has raised several objections, most notably the decision to begin rail construction between Fresno and Bakersfield instead of, say, Long Beach, where ridership would presumably be impacted much sooner.

A scathing report released by California's Legislative Analyst's Office not only questioned the initial construction site, but also blasted the California High-Speed Rail Authority as being incompetent and mismanaging the project. The LAO called for the entire project to be transferred to the state Department of Transportation and that federal funding contracts be renegotiated to allow for further study, despite rapidly approaching construction deadlines in those contracts.

The CHSRA and other supporters have fought back, particularly targeting the LAO report as inaccurate. However, all of this political noise and uncertainty leads one to wonder if the project will ever get built. Will potential private sector investors back away from the project, fearful that the political will to complete it no longer exists? Will a disgruntled populace, angered at its tax money being wasted by politicians in other areas, give up its initial support for HSR?

Only time will tell, but as federal construction deadlines get closer and closer, does sufficient "time" exist for HSR to succeed?

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