Monday, June 27, 2011

Watch and learn what happens with HSR in Illinois

The current mayor of Chicago, that's in Illinois the state under discussion here, was Chief of Staff for Obama:  Rahm Emanuel, former congressman from Illinois. That's President Obama, former senator from Illinois.  And, there's Ray LaHood, Sept. of the Dept. of Transportation, former congressman from Illinois. And, Joe Szabo, head of the FRA, from Illinois. The White House has many senior staff from Illinois.  See a pattern here?

In brief, the HSR program has several foundation stones that, even though we can kick them, we can't make them go away. One such stone is pork.   Earmarked dollars to be distributed to key states and congressional districts either as "rewards" or as political tools to help in election campaigns.  HSR is merely the charade for making these funding transfers. 

Another such stone is that it's part of Obama's re-election strategy. "Look, we are doing something about the future; we're catching up to it."  "We're in a competitive race with other countries, so we have to Win the Future."  

What I understand from this strategy is that when we buy the off-the-shelf parts and rolling stock for HSR from other countries, we'll get ahead of them.  OK, I don't really understand this. In fact, I don't understand how going faster on passenger trains will make much of a difference to anyone in the US who isn't a frequent inter-city train rider, and there aren't that many of those. 

Yet a third stone is an extension of the recent stimulus agenda, and indeed, the first $8 billion that Emanuel managed to stuff into the ARRA Stimulus Fund package for HSR was exactly that.  Which is to say, it's not really about building trains, it's about creating public works programs that put unemployed construction worker in line for jobs, even if they are temporary.  In short, it's the Administration trying to look like they are doing something about unemployment. 

So, along with California, Illinois has been the recipient of lots of federal largesse. What most of us in California don't yet understand is that like for heroin addicts, the first shot was free, but the costs become unbearable once we're addicted.  We are seeing it already with the initial $3 billion to the CHSRA.

All these "free" dollars will cost this state (and therefore us) serious money for a seriously long time.  Since the advocating politicians won't be around for that long time, it appears that they are performing miracles to get these billions.  We don't see, perhaps because we don't want to, the strings that are attached to those free dollars.

We will. 

Stop this train
Obama funding doesn't eliminate the high cost of high-speed rail
(Abel Uribe, Chicago Tribune)
June 15, 2011

The Obama administration has showered Illinois with about $1.6 billion for high-speed rail and other upgraded service, part of its vision for a nation in which trains zip around at 220 mph. Gov. Pat Quinn has gleefully accepted the cash.

Hey, it's free money from the feds, right?

Fed money, yes. Free money, no.

The governors of Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin have said no to this largesse. What do those skeptical governors know that we don't?

They know that their taxpayers will be on the hook for a lot of money, now and later.

Though the first batch of federal funds didn't require a state matching contribution, Illinois and other states do have to provide about a 20 percent match for subsequent grants. Illinois has committed to about $140 million in matching funds.

Not that that means you're done opening your wallet after $140 million. If high-speed rail lines fail to meet operating expenses, the state will have to plug that hole. That's virtually a given.

Nationwide, Amtrak projects an operating loss of $616 million for the next fiscal year, up from a projected loss of $506 million this year.

Illinois covered about $27 million in Amtrak losses this year. The Illinois Department of Transportation says that subsidy could nearly triple, in part because of service expansion and upgrades kick-started by these federal grants.

Joseph Shacter, IDOT's director of public and intermodal transportation, told us the state will likely need a new revenue stream to cover a growing rail subsidy. Maybe even a gasoline tax.

The concern over subsidies is one reason the California legislature's fiscal watchdog urged state leaders to revise or abandon its high-speed rail plans.

The Congressional Research Service says only two high-speed rail lines in the world break even, one in Japan and one in France. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood insists that the U.S. lines will be profitable. "If we build it, they will come," he recently told the Tribune editorial board. That sounded a lot more like wishful thinking than an elaborate economic analysis.

This doesn't mean Illinois should completely turn up its nose to rail improvements. The first money allocated to the state will help Illinois eliminate bottlenecks near major cities that slow passenger and freight traffic. When the upgrades are completed, the average speed for the St. Louis-Chicago run on Amtrak will jump to 80 mph from about 60 mph, shaving about an hour off a 5 1/2 hour trip. The trains should have a better on-time arrival record. Improvements in moving rail freight through Chicago are essential to the region's economy.

Other projects are head-scratchers though. In October, the state committed $60 million to link Chicago, Rockford and Dubuque, Iowa. There hasn't exactly been roaring public demand for that.

Most of what's being dubbed as "high-speed rail" will in fact be, oh, medium speed rail
To get trains to top 200 mph, the government will have to build entirely new track because existing track is inadequate. That means acquiring a lot of land and rights of way — at big cost.

While Illinois has grand visions for rail, it struggles to maintain the essential rail service it has now. How do you tell a student who puts up with long, slow CTA service from the Loop to Rogers Park that we're going to throw millions into faster service from the Loop to Detroit? Yet money diverted from Florida to Illinois is pegged for that. Illinois has tremendous need for suburb-to-suburb Metra service that would link workers to the job centers cropping up in the suburbs.

The Obama administration's push for high speed rail has devolved from smart transportation into another stimulus program.
And Illinois is lapping it up. Quinn recently announced that the state would fund a study of yet another route, for 220 mph service between Chicago and Champaign, with possible spurs to St. Louis and Indianapolis.

Quinn suggested that "naysayers" simply lack imagination. "We're Americans. We can do anything," he said. "We can't be piddly-diddly. We have to think big."

Yes, we're thinking big. The federal government — which is $14 trillion in debt — is spending money to lure Illinois — which is nearly $200 billion in debt — to spend money.

That's a high-speed trip off a cliff.

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