Friday, July 22, 2011

Is High-Speed Rail Dead or Isn't it?

First, below, an article by Aaron Renn, with one interesting and detailed comment.  Then a longer article from several days ago, also by Aaron.  As I've said before, Aaron is a high-speed rail acceptor, not complete rejector.  With that positiion, I don't agree, but entirely on financial grounds.  The per-seat costs of construction and operation are far too great. If any corrollary economic benefits, they are too indirect to be accurately ascertained.  I'm no longer convinced that it even makes sense where most people agree is the best place in the US to build it, the Northeast Corridor (NEC). I'll withhold judgement about this, however. I don't want to contaminate the California HSR issue and discussion with ambiguities.

What Aaron and his commenter haven't made clear is that the FRA, which is a part of the Department of Transportation, is in turn a political action opportunity for the White House.  It's a way of funneling federal funds to states and districts in the form of pork.  Sometimes that pork turns out to do some good, build something worthwhile, and does indeed constitute a worthy investment. For example, I think that the TVA and Boulder Dam constitute such examples.  Also the Golden Gate Bridge.  But, those were from a different era (long ago and far away!!).

Let's just say that this not the case with high-speed rail.  The FRA has not had a lot of passenger rail business to pay attention to in recent decades.  Their function has been primarily to regulate freight rail, which continues to be private and profitable.  The US has the best freight rail system in the world.  But, passenger rail is another story.  When the $8 billion in federal stimulus funds became available, the task to administer it fell upon the FRA and Joseph Szabo.  

Let me insert right here that no federal (or state) bureaucracy ever does anything wrong. It does everything extremely well and is extremely successful in every venture it enters.  Ask anybody (in those bureaucracies).

Anyhow, the FRA administered the funding program for those $8 billion, a process with which they had no experience or expertise.  In any case, that didn't matter since those funds were intended to be distributed according to White House political directions.  As the GAO has pointed out, there was never any cost-benefit analysis of the DOT high-speed rail program. Furthermore, there was never an overarching strategic transportation plan into which high-speed rail would or wouldn't be appropriate.

It's fair to say that the national effort to promote HSR has been a political mess. What they succeeded in doing is to bring out all the industrial and bureaucratic sharks who smelled the promise of gobs of money to promote this rail expansion, regardless of the costs or value. 

And you can see clearly, in California, what ambition, greed and mismanagement can accomplish.

Basically, Aaron Renn gets it right. I consider his article an intelligent and thoughtful discussion.  And, HSR isn't yet, but should be, dead.

Friday, July 22nd, 2011
Let’s Face It, High Speed Rail Is Dead
Aaron Renn

My latest blog post, and one sure to make some people unhappy, is up over at New Geography and is called “Let’s Face It, High Speed Rail Is Dead.” In it, I argue that a mix of a fiscal crisis, Republican takeovers in the US House and in state houses, a poorly executed HSR program at the federal level (such as frittering away the HSR stimulus and not addressing regulatory hurdles), and unseriousness by most advocates has basically doomed the HSR project. A serious rethink is required.

Some have pointed to a bit of already in the pipeline money such as that which is earmarked for a short Central Valley segment in California as proof that HSR isn’t dead. But as in flight funds drain out of the system, it doesn’t seem likely any significant amounts will be forthcoming. Hopefully at least the Northeast Corridor investments will proceed in some way.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t potential value in high speed rail. It’s clearly needed in the Northeast Corridor for example, and perhaps some other places. (A lot of the proposals are outright boondoggles, however). But I don’t see how any major national system like the one envisioned in the map above gets off the ground any time soon.


1.CityBeautiful21 says: 
July 22, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Aaron, having just read your NG piece, I agree with you that the HSR program is in rough water. However, I think the piece has a considerable weakness in that many of the critiques (explaining why HSR is in this position) you level could be equally targeted to any piece of publicly funded infrastructure and not merely HSR.

Let’s review:

1. Perception of stimulus failure, which was a successfully waged media campaign from one side of the aisle. The stimulus bill was what, $800-$900 billion dollars? $8 billion went for HSR. Regardless of how HSR turned out, the perception of success/failure of the stimulus was going to be determined largely by other components.

2. Putting $$$ towards the wrong projects. The CA and FL projects would have been true 150-mph plus operations, and after the money from WI and OH was redirected, almost half of the program was going into those projects. I agree that the others were overselling HSR the way other projects oversell BRT transit as equal to light rail. The OH project was ridiculous. But the Cascadia and NC/VA projects were decent investments, and given my next point, I don’t think the Midwest projects were bad investments, either. But why was this the outcome? The stimulus bill needed to get through a Congress with 60 votes in the Senate. This outcome is a fault of the state of how Congress works first and foremost, not HSR. Trace some of the highway spending in the stimulus to rural areas with negative job growth to see more on this subject.

3. Your FRA comments are unfounded. Please link to some commentary where HSR advocates are saying that the “FRA is not a critical part of the problem, let’s leave them be.” I’ve followed the HSR issue closely and seen nothing of the sort. Sure, Amtrak could be improved, but the lack of criticism on the pro-rail side for Amtrak is a mirror-image of the anti-rail folks who disingenuously suggest they want to “improve” Amtrak while putting forth legislation that they are 95% sure will terminate the agency.

There are really three core problems with bringing true TGV-style HSR in America to fruition. The first is the difficulty and expense of buying land for new lines in the places where HSR would work best. Our sprawling cities have fewer rural and semi-rural expenses surrounding them than do European cities where it is easy to get land for fast, straight lines.

The second is that the propulsion technology for true HSR (electricity) is not shared with the propulsion technology for the legacy system everywhere off the NEC, (petroleum products)which makes the incrementalization of HSR investment much more difficult here than it was in, say, France or Germany, who have run electric passenger lines for decades since WW2.

The third is that our present politics prevent us having from a mature conversation about infrastructure investment in the US. The incentives of Congress are about as unaligned with the needs of citizens and communities as I’ve seen them in my lifetime, and the decision framework of the median politician has become months/weeks rather than years/decades. Even if the other two issues were solved, I’m not sure it would matter because the third one has so powerfully hamstrung the USA.

So, is HSR dead? Maybe. But is highway expansion dead, too? Maybe as well. Mica’s bill has so little money in it there will be pressure to turn it into maintenance-only dollars if a bill that size moves forward. Would that be enough for the bridge deficiencies our engineering societies detail in annual reports? Probably not. How about port security enhancement? Maybe dead. Upgrading the electricity grid? Maybe dead. You get my drift.

To take this conversation in a more interesting direction, I’d encourage you to propose a framework in which the NEC and at least two other non-BOS-WASH true HSR projects get on the ground, with funding assumptions.



by Aaron M. Renn 07/13/2011

Advocates were ecstatic when President Obama had $8 billion for high speed rail put into the stimulus bill. His administration planned to make HSR one of the cornerstones of its infrastructure investment program. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood visited Europe to check out HSR there in person and came back proclaiming, “High speed rail is coming to America.” The $8 billion, we were told, was a down payment, and that in little more than two decades, America's largest cities would be linked by a web of high speed trains.

But as it turns out, a series of snafus and reversals has left Obama's HSR agenda on life support.
First is the public perception of the failure of the stimulus bill. Unemployment never came down to projected levels. Spending largely went to keep state and local government workers already employed, not towards infrastructure or new jobs. Obama has since admitted he was mistaken to believe there were such things as “shovel ready” projects for even roads, much less a complex undertaking like high speed rail. But more importantly, rather than put that $8 billion towards focused projects that would really advance the ball of high speed rail in America, it was peanut butter spread across a large number of projects around the country, ultimately not driving significant improvements. This feeds the perception of $8 billion that just went “poof.”

At the same time, the federal deficit ballooned to $1.5 trillion and the national debt to an astounding $14 trillion. Virtually all parties agree on the need to address our massive structural deficit. The Tea Party focused on a hodge podge of issues, but primarily on reducing government spending. The movement grew to prominence and fueled a Republican comeback in the 2010 elections. In this environment, getting anything done will be difficult, and especially funding items like HSR that are easy to characterize as frivolous and favoring just a few urban regions.

The biggest impact may have been at the state level, however, as a wave of new Republican governors ripped up HSR plans and sent stimulus funds back to Washington.  This includes Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich in Ohio, and Rick Scott in Florida, all of whom said “thanks, but no thanks” to federal rail funds.

But beyond those philosophically opposed to HSR, some  high speed rail advocates have done themselves no favors either. They've resolutely backed pretty much any and every rail project regardless of whether it is potentially useful or an outright boondoggle. They've engaged in false advertising by labeling 110 MPH peak speeds as “high speed rail” instead of what it really is:Amtrak on steroids. (One of the more serious HSR advocates is Richard Longworth, who labeled the Midwest 110 MPH rail plan the “Toonerville trolley”). Nevertheless, Illinois is pocketing well over $1 billion of the HSR stimulus funds for this “high speed” system that will offer end to end journey times that are at best only slightly better than what's already being provided today by Megabus – and that for only a handful of trains a day on a line still subject to freight interference.

Advocates have excoriated opponents to high speed rail, but have shown themselves largely utterly unserious about the enterprise as they have put no focus on overcoming major institutional barriers such as the steam road era thinking of the Federal Railroad Administration which is stuck in the 90s – the 1890s – or the mismanagement at Amtrak.  Getting to an HSR system that works is going to involve major reform (or replacement) of those agencies since all proven, international HSR systems are illegal in the US under current rules.  Witness here also the histrionics about a Republican proposal to privatize the Northeast Corridor rail operations rather than engage with it as a starting point.  Even in Europe and Japan, many HSR operations are private, so there’s no reason they can’t be in the US too.

To be clear, though I myself have been ambivalent about the high speed rail enterprise, I do not consider myself anti-rail in the slightest. I agree that HSR could bring potentially significant benefits, particularly in the Northeast, although it’s a somewhat more speculative enterprise in most parts of the country.  This is one on which reasonable people can disagree.  But however one feels, getting to the benefits will require a properly designed and operated true high speed system, something few of the current proposals would provide.

It's time to take a major gut check on high speed rail in America and rethink the direction. Clearly, with the budgetary and political situation, significant future HSR investments are unlikely. Even if some billions materialize, the experience of the stimulus suggests that they will be frittered away as salami slices sent hither and fro.

A better approach might be to take some time to think more clearly about what we want high speed rail to look like in America.  It starts with learning from best – and worst – practices abroad, while noting the important differences versus the US. We need to put a proper regulatory regime in place and reform the FRA; to set up a framework for a successful privatization of any system, probably with operations contracted to an international operator with high speed experience; and to jettison any thought of Amtrak as the ultimate HSR system operator.

We can then prove these concepts out in the one corridor where high speed rail is clearly a slam dunk in America: the Northeast Corridor from DC to Boston.  Despite what the Acela brand might imply, this is far from high speed service today, and there's clearly room for vast improvements. Studies can proceed in parallel in other regions, and one we've proven in the NEC that HSR can be for real in America, other regions might opt in.

In short, it’s time to stop pretending we are going to get a massive nationwide HSR rail network any time soon.  Advocates should instead focus on building a serious system in a demonstration corridor that can built credibility for American high speed rail, then built incrementally from there.  That's about the best hope for HSR left in America. Without a rethink of the current approach, high speed rail is well and truly dead.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs based in the Midwest. His writings appear at The Urbanophile.

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