Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Summary Reality Check of Why High-Speed Rail is a Bad Idea

Since it's the week-end without a lot of HSR news, we hereby provide a 16 point summary of why High-Speed Rail is a bad idea.

1.  It's not about the train; it's about the money. The funding to pay for this project does not exist.  There is a reason that a sound business plan does not yet exist. The intention is to obtain and spend as much funding as can be made available, regardless of the status of the rail project.  This project is a vehicle for the processing of federal and state dollars.

2. It costs too much.  The current price for California's HSR project is $43 billion if you ask the rail authority. It's $66 billion if you ask the CARRD group, and it's well over $100 billion if you ask the people whose opinions I read and respect. As they all say, "it doesn't pencil out." 

3. It is unnecessary.  It will carry far fewer people than promised.  There are around 9 million annual trips north and south between LA and SF by flying, according to many sources.  The rail authority acknowledges that they intend to take away passengers from the air carriers.  Yet, they claim around 40 million annual riders.  That makes no sense. There is no pent up demand for north-south inter-city travel in California.  We don't need this train.

4. It's an enormous waste of money.  The economy, state-wide and nationally, is a disaster. It will remain a protracted disaster for a very long time.  Mega-infrastructure projects such as this are lavish in their wastefulness. This is well-documented. The opportunities for waste, fraud and abuse are also documented and have begun to appear in government accounting audits. Corrupt practices (see China's HSR) are reliably predictable.  The words "scam", and "fraud" have been used to describe this project. 

5. We can't afford it.  We are budget slashing into 'muscle' in California and the Nation.  The 'fat' has long since been removed. We simply don't have the resources or capacity to construct something that is so questionable. And the consequence is that we are depriving really critical needs, like education, medical needs, and benefits for the infirm, old and handicapped.  Because of the persistence of this project  in such dire times, we are losing our civility, humanity and morality.  We are no longer making ethical decisions.

6. It will cost us taxpayers forever.  This means that the repayment of the capital development debt that will need to be borrowed, public or private, to build it, plus interest, requires annual repayments of $2B TO $5B per year for the next 30 years.  And that means more state taxes, or less for schools, public safety, etc. And, it will require operating subsidies so long as it is operational.  Even more cost to the taxpayers.

7. It serves only those who can afford it and don't need it.  Ticket prices for high-speed rail, as we keep saying, are the highest of all railroad tickets, world-wide.  Even in China.  High-speed rail is luxury, premium, first-class travel for the affluent only. The government has no business pouring the tax-dollars collected from those who can't afford to ride this train, to build it for those who can. . . .and subsidize each of those tickets as well. As they say in the UK, the poor shouldn't be building a luxury train for the rich. 

8. It promises to be a panacea but can't and won't deliver on any of those promises.  It won't reduce traffic grid-lock in our population centers. It won't reduce air pollution, only re-locate it to coal-fired power plants. Its construction will create air pollution we will "pay for" for generations.  Due to high speeds and high power consumption, it will consume fossil fuels in massive quantities elsewhere. It will be a very modest job creator and its benefits to the economy are highly questionable.

9. There is no risk analysis and cost-benefit analysis.  The federal government cannot and will not pay the tens of billions it costs to build it. They are only putting up down-payments for the states to complete payment. That won't happen.  The project construction will start and then run out of funding, long before it can be serviceable.  If honest documentation were to be provided, the case for project termination would be the result.

10. It will be enormously harmful to the urban and rural environment.  The train must pass through the population centers north and south in California.  Tunneling, which would spare the environment, is off the table due to high costs.  Elevated viaduct structures are preferred by the rail authority due to their low costs and engineering design problem solving.  Business centers, residential areas, schools, parks, farmlands and industrial sites will all be adversely affected not only aesthetically, but economically with severe negative impact on property values.  The construction impact on the environment will be devastating.

11. It is a political pork exercise, not a transportation solution to identified problems.  Clearly there are insufficient funds to actually build this train in California, or build out all the rail corridors identified in the US.  The available funds have been dispersed for political purposes; that is, earmarked pork.  There are no discernible underlying intentions to solve any transit problems, most of which exist in urban population regions, not inter-city. The intended California route detours through selected political districts.

12. It is culturally counter-indicated. While we continue to envy other countries that operate high-speed rail, we reject most everything else about those countries.  We don't want to be like them (they are too Socialist, their taxes too high, too centralized, etc.) but we do want their HSR.  That makes no sense.  The US has a totally different culture than the Asian or European countries.  Let's put it this way: Cinderella's tiny glass slippers don't fit our big feet.

13. The HSR promoters are "social engineers."  High-Speed Rail is being promoted as a "fix" to our problems.  That fix includes the promotion of higher density cities ('smart growth'), and obligatory rejection of automobiles.  There are too many oughts and shoulds here. "We should give up driving."  "We should all ride public mass transit"  "We should live in fewer square feet of housing."  "We should move out of the 'burbs' into the cities."  One could call this government-managed life-style change "Counter-Cultural." It goes against the American grain.

14. It's not invented here. "Buy America?"  Not really. We have no HSR construction or manufacturing capacity; we will need to import it all.  We will be obliged to buy everything off the shelves of other countries.  That's no way to stimulate our moribund job market or our economy. It's a flagrant example of the US being the credit card and Asia/Europe our shopping mall. Why are we not creating a new "Silicon Valley" for all future-generation transportation modalities?

15. At the National level, high-speed rail is an iconic, symbolic political gesture without substance.  There has been no national transportation strategy conceived of which high-speed rail may or may not be a part. HSR is part of the Obama Administration's marketing vision of "winning the future."  HSR is photogenic and glamorous. It's an expression of national lavishness and spending power.  What it isn't is a part of a master plan for transportation for the US for the next 100 years.

16. A serious prioritized list of problem-issues in which we should invest, does not include high-speed rail.  Energy; the power grid; water; education; medical/health care; urban and regional public mass transit; the nation's decaying infrastructure; R&D; restoring our manufacturing capacity; preserving our surviving wilderness before it is lost forever.

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