Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What would you rather have, an educated kid, or a high-speed train?

What would you rather have, an educated kid, or a high-speed train? Yes, those are the choices.  No, we obviously can't do both. And no, I'm not kidding. 

The whole article from today's New York Times won't appear here, only the salient part about California, which apparently can afford to build a $100 billion high-speed train, and Hawaii, which you would not think is in desperate need of a high-speed train.  We'll also discuss Hawaii, below.  They appear to be just as crazy there as we are here in California. Must be something in the Pacific.

Consider yourself reminded that what we are seeing are the actions of our elected officials.  They are determined for us to build something that we absolutely cannot afford to build much less operate, and at the same time are willing to slash spending on what should almost be viewed as sacred; the education of our young.  Do you know how much difference education levels make when job hunting in today's  deplorable job market?

Let me put it to you this way, would you rather have California build a high-speed luxury train which you may not be able to afford a ride on, or have your grown-up kid still living with you, watching TV in his bedroom because he can't get a job?  (I'm only half-joking.)  

This point has been made before here.  Our most critical natural resource in California are our educated people. They are more important than all the oil, all the agricultural products, and all the manufacturing, shipping, construction, infrastructure, etc. that we lay claim to.  The reason is that they are the ones who either will manage all those industries and others productively, or not.  They are the key to California's economic recovery, not a train, and its status as the 8th largest economy in the world.

This state should be sacrificing all other expenditures for the sake of developing and maintaining the best educational system in the US, from kindergarten through college.  Nothing, nothing, is more important for the well-being and future of California.

Instead, schooling has been deteriorating for several decades and ranks among the nation's lowest performing.  And now we learn that the standard American 180 school "year" has been cut to 168, especially since so many school districts have had revenue short-falls and have been obliged to lay off teachers.  So, our classroom become more crowded, our school days are fewer. What do you imagine the outcome of that will be?  

It's like, in the California political mind, schooling is an expendable expense.  But, building a luxury train for the rich, isn't.

That's a definition of insanity.

Oregon sets minimum annual instructional hours — 990 hours for ninth grade, for example. Most states set minimum days, and several that do — including Arizona, California and Nevada — have lowered the bar amid belt tightening. Nevada’s new law, signed in June, allows as few as 175 days, down from 180.
California made the same cut in 2009, but last week dropped the minimum to 168 for any district where revenues fall short of projections during the 2011-12 school year. 

Then, there's Hawaii. Their politicians are happy to build an elevated "heavy" rail system costing over $7 billion. Knowing what we know, you can be absolutely sure it will cost more than that.  Much more. There's a whole paragraph in the following article devoted to HSR cost-overruns, and, oddly enough Parsons Brinckerhoff seems to be at the root of many of them.  They are California's contractor of choice several times over.

But, you should read what this state is slashing from its budget.  Here's one good example, taken from the same article, above, from the New York Times: Hawaii, mired in red ink, shortened its 180-day school year to 163 days in 2009, shuttering schools on many Fridays. But lawsuits and widespread protests last year persuaded lawmakers to restore the school year to 178 days.

Amazing. The rest of the budget slashing you can read for yourself, below. Hawaii's story is so much like ours, it bears paying attention to.  They are also getting a train shoved down their throats by politicians, especially with the support of Ray LaHood and his Department of Transportation.  To them, there is no problem in the US that can't be solved by an over-priced railroad solution.  To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Here's another fun paragraph: "The 2010 final EIS revealed that congestion in 2030 with rail will be far worse that it is now. The project is not green, given that 96% of Honolulu’s electricity comes from oil and coal. The present marketing push has switched to jobs and development opportunities. But six billion dollars would produce many more jobs and benefits if spent on almost any other infrastructure endeavor."

The parallels abound. They used to sell the train on the basis of improving the environment.  Now, because it's the crisis de jour, they are selling jobs with this project.  Just like here in California. Another political scam.

Honolulu: Mega Rail Project in a Micro City
by Panos D. Prevedouros 07/05/2011

An exorbitantly costly rapid transit heavy rail project has been proposed for the small Hawaiian island of Oahu, where the leading metropolis, Honolulu, ranks 53rd in population among U.S. cities, with less than 500,000 people. If the project moves forward it will be the world's only elevated heavy rail in a metro area with a population of under four million.

Nothing about this 20-mile long rail project makes sense, except for its politics and its cronyism. It is projected to cost $5.3 billion according to the financial analysis of the city, or $7.2 billion, according to the state. For comparison, the Blue Line between Los Angeles and Long Beach that opened in 1990 has the same length and would cost roughly $1.5 billion to build now.

Cities worldwide and in the U.S. have shown a clear preference for light rail. The only rapid transit (heavy rail) system built in the US since 1990 is the one in Los Angeles in 1993; another was constructed in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2004. In the same period, 19 light rail systems were installed.

Honolulu lost a case against the EPA concerning its sewage in 2008; the current bill for fixing its sewage treatment stands at between four and five billion. Note that project costs in Hawaii have a wide range. That’s part of being a remote island state with high transportation and inventory costs, and of crony politics that generate multiple change orders and inefficiencies which result in large cost overruns.

Hawaii's liabilities add up: a total of the sewer consent decree, the proposed rail, the necessary airports and harbors modernization, repairs to some of the worst road pavements in the nation, and one of the nation’s highest — and underfunded — public employee pension and medical benefit systems comes to $40 billion over the next 20 years, for a state of 1,360,000 people. That's about $120,000 per family of four, of which 17% is for the proposed rail, which is the only discretionary project in the mix.

The 2008 recession sensitized the previous governor, Linda Lingle, to the mounting liabilities. She ordered a financial analysis of the rail project by one of the nation’s leading financial assessment firms. They opined that it will cost $7.2 Billion. Current Governor Neil Abercrombie and the pro-rail mayor dismissed the report as an “anti-rail tirade.”

The city’s advocacy forecasts for the rail project are seriously suspect. Bent Flybjerg, Chair and Professor of Major Program Management at Oxford University's Saïd Business School, has revealed that forecast manipulation is the norm in rail proposals, internationally. For example, the Blue Line in Los Angeles was forecast to carry 35,000 trips in the opening year. It carried only 21,000. 

A more suitable comparison for Honolulu is Tren Urbano in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which opened in 2006. The similarities are eerie. Both are unique island cities with heavy rail projects under Federal Transit Administration (FTA) oversight, and have the same project planner, Parsons Brinckerhoff, who estimated 80,000 trips in the opening year for Tren Urbano, and a construction cost of $1.25 billion. FTA approved both. Tren got 25,000 trips, and was ultimately built for $2.25 billion, a nearly 100% cost overrun.

After the first year of operation, bus fares were doubled to push people to use the Tren. It didn't work. A new sales tax of 5.5% was eventually enacted, and San Juan added 1.5% on top of that. Tren Urbano was a catalyst for financial hardship.

Another recent example are the Edinburgh trams, originally scheduled to open in July 2011 but rescheduled to 2014. The original cost was projected at $640 million, but estimates now are over one billion dollars. As of spring 2011, 72% of the construction work remains to be done, but only 38% of the budget is left.

Past experience and hard evidence have never fazed politicians in Hawaii. In 2008, Honolulu’s mayor Hannemann used several million dollars of taxpayer and political contribution funds to convince voters that his fully elevated (heavy) rail is actually a light rail system that would cost under $4.5 billion, and would solve Honolulu’s congestion problems.

Hannemann gave then-Minnesota Congressman and Transportation Committee Chair Jim Oberstar a helicopter ride along the route. He failed to indicate that three of the train route's 20 miles would be on prime agricultural land, and that 12 of the 20 miles would be in low-density suburbia. Oberstar declared it a good project, and offered promises of federal funding.

Then the city released the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), just two days before elections which included a referendum or rail. The EIS was several thousand pages long. Many cried foul, but Senator Inouye advised the people to read the abstract. It was devoid of any quantitative information. The plan for passage barely worked: 50.6% of the voters voted in favor of rail.

The 2010 final EIS revealed that congestion in 2030 with rail will be far worse that it is now. The project is not green, given that 96% of Honolulu’s electricity comes from oil and coal. The present marketing push has switched to jobs and development opportunities. But six billion dollars would produce many more jobs and benefits if spent on almost any other infrastructure endeavor.

In late March, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff, Senator Inouye and Hawaii Congresswoman Mazie Hirono descended on Honolulu to stage a pro-rail rally with the mayor, the unions and the cronies. However, anti rail sentiment is growing, and, following an earlier lawsuit, a second one was filed in May 2011.

Honolulu is still completing the paperwork for its heavy rail, but preparatory construction has already started. This irrational project needs to be stopped. Stopping it will save the federal government $1.8 billion, save overtaxed Hawaii residents well over $5 billion, and save visitors to Hawaii about $700 million. It will save prime agricultural land, preserve island beauty and, importantly, save Honolulu from decades of added taxation, debilitating construction, and lack of funds for essential infrastructure projects.

Panos D. Prevedouros, PhD, is a Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.

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