Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Instead of wasting our resources on High-Speed Rail, what should we be doing ?

Building HSR vs. Fixing Infrastructure

Let's begin by making a clear distinction.  One the one hand, we are determined to develop high-speed rail systems which require the building of many hundreds of miles of brand new rail corridors, and entail extensive purchases from overseas.  

On the other hand, we have the problem of the Nation's vast infrastructure which we are told is in terrible shape and decaying rapidly.  That includes rail transit systems, both inner- and inter-city. It also means multi-modal transit, urban, suburban, and regional, including highways and byways, airways and airports, sea ports and waterways, bridges and tunnels.

In addition, there are major problems of deterioration of non-transportation infrastructure needs, including dams, power grids, water supply management and power generation capacity.  The inventory list of problem infrastructure in the US, after generations of neglect, is of course far longer than this. 

All have urgent needs to be repaired or replaced.   The reason we began with this distinction is to deny the glib opportunity to fold the high-speed rail development discussion into the salvaging of the Nation's infrastructure needs.

The Distinction between HSR and Infrastructure Rehabilitation 

The two issues are separate and distinct.  High-Speed Rail is not one of the Nation's infrastructure needs; it is a political whim, like jewelry only the rich can afford even while our basic clothing is in gross disrepair. 

We are frequently told that transportation should be about more than "transportation."  That ambiguous statement is meant to convey the idea that the funding dedicated to HSR is not merely about building a new and faster inter-city transit system, but creating jobs and boosting the economy.  Let us, for the sake of this discussion, accept that premise.

These dual options -- HSR vs. Infrastructure -- strike at the heart of the American inclination to throw used things away and buy new ones. Even if it were acceptable behavior at the individual level (which it isn't), it's certainly not a good policy at the state or National level.  

Being the richest Nation in the world does not mean we can afford to be the most wasteful. We have invested trillions in our national infrastructure and have been grossly negligent in its care. We can't afford such wastefulness. It's profoundly short-sighted and has already led to a National economic decline.

Now we need to put whatever resources we can conjure up at both the state and nation levels to the service of fixing what's broken.  Without doing that, all the high-speed trains in the world will do us no good and, indeed, will cost us needlessly and dearly.

The Politics Of Making These Choices  

So why aren't our HSR-advocating Democratic friends in Washington taking this more seriously?  Because of politics.  By that I mean that high-speed rail has become the celebrity TV star, all glitz and glamour that provides endless photo ops, like posing in front of a shiny, new Ferrari. It creates an impression of being prosperous. It's a false impression.  We believe that nothing breeds success like the look of success.  

At the same time, upgrading, repairing and replacing failing infrastructure is considered pedestrian, uninteresting and certainly not fashionable.  It doesn't attract voters or campaign contributions.  Yet, it is what responsible adults do and that's exactly what this Nation needs, and now, not in some vague and distant future.

The HSR supporters want us to believe that it is not important to maintain or improve our current highway network because we all will be riding around on HSR and abandoning our cars.  That's foolish and erroneous.  

Furthermore, infrastructure maintenance and upgrades generate more jobs, jobs spread more widely throughout the United States that unemployed construction workers -- pay attention, trade unions -- can do, and do now, since they are shovel ready, unlike the high-speed rail fantasy. Even President Obama has recently acknowledged that HSR is far from "shovel ready."

Also, the HSR supporters want us to believe that our failure to build a HSR system will oblige us to spend twice as much on expanded highways and runways.  That's a false comparison.  All existing transit modalities require repair, restoration, neglected maintenance and upgrades. Even if built, HSR can be no substitute modality for the others. There are no trade-offs here. Failure to fix what's broken, as the article points out, is costing each individual taxpayer a fortune.

Case In Point

We can't pay for everything.  Choices must be made.  It is quite conceivable that by fixing and upgrading, we will have to invest far less to obtain the same transit capacity results than by building -- and affording -- HSR.  

Example.  We are told that our airline service capacity is "maxxed" out.  The "friendly skies" have become crowded skies.  Yet, the FAA, which currently can't get Congressional funding for its critical work, has had "NextGen" on its drawing boards for some time.  This is an air space management process whereby all the air carriers can operate at far greater capacity and more safely in the air and at terminals on the ground. 

There are no funds being made available for NextGen, yet it would expand, at a fraction of the cost, the inter-city transit capacity multi-fold, thereby reducing the often claimed need for HSR. It also provides the capacity for significant fuel consumption and therefore cost reductions for all the air carriers.

So, the bottom line is that the high-speed rail story has two components.  For reasons we've been explaining for a long time, we shouldn't be developing luxury high-speed rail, and instead we should be supporting what this article asks for, the salvaging and improvement of our vast decaying infrastructure.  That is, to build HSR and ignore our existing infrastructure is not one, but two mistakes being made simultaneously.  

Decaying infrastructure costing U.S. billions each year, report says

By Ashley Halsey III, Wednesday, July 27, 9:05 AM

As Congress debates how to meet the nation’s long-term transportation needs, decaying roads, bridges and rail and transit systems are costing the United States $129 billion a year, according to a report issued Wednesday by a professional group whose members are responsible for designing and building such infrastructure.

The complex calculations by the American Society of Civil Engineers show that infrastructure deficiencies add $97 billion to the cost of operating vehicles and result in travel delays valued at $32 billion.

“If investments in surface transportation infrastructure are not made soon, these costs are expected to grow exponentially,” the ASCE said. “Within 10 years, U.S. businesses would pay an added $430 billion in transportation costs, household incomes would fall by more than $7,000, and U.S. exports will fall by $28 billion.”

Deterioration of the the U.S. transportation system has been likened to an iceberg, with just the tip of an enormous obstacle to economic growth showing above the water’s surface. The ASCE report seeks to show that infrastructure failure already is dramatically affecting travel and commerce.

It is the latest of several reports to predict dire consequences if the need to rebuild 60-year-old highway systems and rail lines often far older than that is not swiftly addressed. In May a report by the Urban Land Institute warned that the United States is falling behind three emerging economic competitors: Brazil, China and India.

The report put in global perspective an issue addressed last year by 80 experts led by former transportation secretaries Norman Y. Mineta and Samuel K. Skinner. That group concluded that as much as $262 billion a year must be spent on U.S. highways, rail networks and air transportation systems.

The infrastructure crisis is not lost on Congress, but House Republicans and Senate Democrats share no common vision on how to address it
Unable to come to agreement on long-term aviation funding, Congress last week proved itself incapable of agreeing on a simple extension of current funding levels, something it has done 20 times since funding for the Federal Aviation Administration expired in 2007. The agency has been operating in a partial shutdown since midnight Friday, losing an estimated $30 million a day in airline ticket tax revenue.

There is an equally deep divide between the two houses on a long-term plan for funding surface transportation.

House Republicans favor a six-year plan that provides about $35 billion a year, an amount that Transportation Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.) says can be leveraged into about $75 billion through a variety of means, including public-private partnerships.

Mica calls a two-year, $109 billion funding proposal that has won bipartisan support in the Senate “a recipe for bankruptcy” of the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which bankrolls surface transportation.

Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), ranking member of Mica’s committee, said the ASCE report underscored the folly of efforts to “do more with less.”

“Today’s report provides the cold hard truth that America’s economic recovery and long-term competitiveness will suffer if we continue to under-invest in our future,” Rahall said. “Slashing investments by one-third, as Republicans have proposed to do, will make the economic impact on America’s middle class even worse than the grim predictions by the economists in this report.”

The ASCE report predicted that without infrastructure investment, 870,000 jobs would be lost and economic growth would be stifled to the tune of $3.1 trillion by 2020. To avert that, the report estimates the need for about $1.7 trillion in investment by 2020. It estimated the gap between what is being spent and what needs to be spent at $94 billion per year.

“The link between a nation’s infrastructure and its economic competitiveness has always been understood,” said Kathy J. Caldwell, president of ASCE. “But today, for the first time, we have data showing how much failing to invest in our surface transportation system can negatively impact job growth and family budgets.”

Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the necessary spending was “not just transportation for transportation’s sake.”

“Without more robust economic growth, the U.S. will not create the 20 million jobs needed in the next decade to replace those lost during the recession and to keep up with a growing workforce,“ he said.

Ultimately, Americans will get paid less. The economy would lose jobs, and those who are able to find work will find their paychecks cut by nearly 30 percent.

The added expense of a crumbling transportation system was described by Steve Landau of Boston’s Economic Development Research Group, which conducted the research for ASCE.

“Business will have to divert increasing portions of earned income to pay for transportation delays and vehicle repairs, draining money that would otherwise be invested in innovation and expansion,” Landau said.

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