Monday, August 8, 2011

HSR within the context of National Infrastructure deficiencies

The source of this summary of a major report is from InfrastructureUSA which is about promoting the building of infrastructure. They are an advocacy trade publication.  You would expect them to promote infrastructure development, including high-speed rail. They present a summary of a major report: 

Building America’s Future: Falling Apart and Falling Behind   

Here's the entire 46 page report, which comes from the Building America's Future Education Fund:

We include the summary here and comment on it. There are many things in it to agree with.  And, there are many things with which to disagree.  

There are some fundamental contradictions within the article worth taking a look at.  The report provides a graph illustrating that we pay far less for gasoline than any other country. That is to say, we tax our gasoline less than any other country.  And, we pay for most of our transportation infrastructure with gas taxes.  Get it?

Doesn't that go a long way in demonstrating why public mass-transit, including inter-city rail, is a low priority travel choice for most of us? We encourage the use of gasoline and therefore, driving.  After all, it was cars and planes that supplanted passenger rail.  And, it's naive to believe that high-speed rail will relieve anything (oil consumption, congestion, etc.) given anticipated and realistic high ticket costs for the most expensive train ride you can buy. More about that in a moment.

One of the weakest arguments favoring high-speed rail has been the competition issue wherein we compare ourselves to all the other countries and find that, in the words of the article, we are falling behind. This report reeks of not just high-speed rail envy, though it surely does that. It compares the US with all other nations' infrastructure development.  What they spend and we don't. What they have, and will build, and we don't.  Please note that the US GDP is 40% of the entire world output. Although the report makes the effort have us believe it, we are not the 98 lb. weakling at the beach getting sand thrown in our face! (Spain, with 2,000 miles of high-speed rail, has 20% unemployment and is on the verge of bankruptcy. Lucky them.) 

The logic goes like this:  "They" have it.  Yet, being American, we are better than they are. Whatever they have that we don't, we must get it and it better be a better one. Never mind what "it" is; in this case, it just happens to be high-speed rail.  

It's a sophomoric position. And, it's reactive, not pro-active.  We had no such thoughts when we made a leading global leap forward with information technologies beginning at mid-century. And, about that.  We were manufacturing leaders in infotech until we weren't. We were also world leaders in auto manufacturing, until we weren't.  We have downsized all our manufacturing by sending it off-shore to cheaper labor markets. We walked away from inter-city passenger rail because we made other, and presumably, better choices.

Nonetheless, we devote an enormous amount of ink comparing ourselves, ranking ourselves, graphing US superiority against the world. Mirror, mirror on the wall? As a people and a culture, are we that insecure?

We have let more than a half-century go by without devising a strategic plan on a national scale to update our freight and passenger transport systems.

About that, the author is correct when he cites the absence of a national strategic transportation plan, and that may be one of our greatest failures. Beginning with the conclusion; i.e., we need high-speed rail before we have even begun to identify the total transportation and transit context, is symptomatic of our reckless, if not mindless, leap at short-cuts.  We seem determined to begin reading the book at the end, by-passing necessary steps,all in our rush to overtake our global rivals in the Olympic high-speed rail events.

. . .and most federal funds are dispersed to projects without imposing accountability and performance measures

We can also cite a few recent accountability failures of government program implementation (Hurricane Katrina; the Gulf oil spill among them). We perceive a gross neglect of accountability. All the concerns about the California high-speed rail project's notorious mismanagement have been studiously ignored by the DOT and the FRA up to now.  They persist in wishing to throw money into this black hole of a project, regardless of the flagrant violations of federal and state laws.

It should also be pointed out here that former Governor Schwarzenegger, one of the three founders of this Fund that has produced this report, vetoed oversight and accountability from the high-speed rail appropriation in the budget during his last months in office.  I wonder if he's read this report. 

And that accountability by-passing suggests the underlying reality of political needs driving the funding; it's not about the train, as we like to say, it's about the money, in this case, political pork.  Thus, earmarked pork emanates from the White House, by way of the Department of Transportation, into a really ill-considered high-speed rail agenda.  The Department of Transportation has assiduously avoided conducting one single cost-benefit analysis of high-speed rail and its efficacy. That fact alone suggests the political purpose of delivering pork to worthy districts and states. That's not only an issue with high-speed rail, but infrastructure development everywhere in the US. 

While it is not surprising that extensive advocacy for HSR would be part of this infrastructure development advocacy paper, we might have hoped for greater following-through with such arguments based on what is being advocated here.

One more point about comparisons with other countries.  On the one hand, we have had the "lead" in various transportation modalities over those other industrial nations; more highways, better and more freight rail, and certainly more per-capita air service.  However, our passenger rail performance, even with the recent ridership increases, has been lagging significantly since after the 50s.

We've discussed the reasons for this in prior blogs.  Since the past 40 years or so, high-speed rail has surfaced in many of those "lesser" countries. (Shinkansen in Japan is 40 years old.)  The fact is, Europe has had a passenger railroad network for nearly two centuries and their countries' cultures are public mass-transit oriented. Asian culture encourages mass/group behaviors and public transit is for them a suitable transit mode, especially since auto use for the greater population is only very recent and still costly. 

Their automobile fuel (and their auto insurance, licensing, maintenance, etc.) are far more expensive than ours.  It's a historical cultural reality that Europeans, Japanese and others take the train. 'Poor' people take second-class and local trains; 'rich' people take first-class express.  And, now that they have added their high-speed rail layers, those countries have even faster options for the well-to-do.

We, on the other hand, propose to build our high-speed trains in a passenger rail near-vacuum, with only a deplorable Amtrak service as the vestige of earlier, more glorious passenger rail days. As we've said here, we want to build the icing without having a cake to put it on. The report fails to make clear that most Americans will not be able to afford high-speed rail, even if they wished to take the train.  HSR is not the train "for the rest of us." 

All these constitute compelling reasons for not throwing ourselves under the high-speed rail morass with it's boundless costs and promise of miniscule ridership.

The last part of this paper lists a series of recommendations for enabling the US to play "catch up."  Here too, we can agree with some of the suggestions, but not others.

The author advises a national infrastructure policy be put in place.  Good idea. Wouldn't that be the place to start, before we start counting our chickens (or even buying them)?  What do we actually need?  What can we afford? What's the priority list? And where's our national (and state) transportation strategy and policy?  Shouldn't that be on hand before we start throwing money we don't have at a solution -- high-speed rail -- for which there is no larger context?

The author advises the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, but on the grounds of the employment that infrastructure development will generate.  First, the promised employment numbers, as usual, are grossly exaggerated. This report is no exception. 

Furthermore, I would want to separate the construction process and its temporary employment, from the operations of such infrastructure once built.  We have no business building things for the sake of building things only in order to hire people. We'd be better off pursuing actual shovel-ready projects that are aimed at fixing our eroding infrastructure. Shouldn't that come first?

The advocacy in this paper is for a six-year Transportation budget re-authorization. We agree.  As we can see, this issue is highly politically charged.  The Democrats want only a two-year budget, hoping that they can raise all the dollar numbers after the first two years.  The budget-slashing Republicans want six years, although their proffered amounts are limited to the National Highway Trust Fund gas tax revenues.  That's a major budget slashing.  So, yes six years, but let's get real about what should be contained in this legislation.  

. . .the investment strategy will focus on projects that will yield results—NextGen aviation system; high-speed rail in key corridors; freight rail; public transit; and maintenance of our crumbling transportation network.

We agree on investing in NextGen, freight rail, public transit and certainly all the repair and maintenance that we've neglected.  Although a great deal more detail is warranted. Should the federal government be investing in privately owned and operated freight rail? I'm not so sure. And, it certainly merits a closer examination of greater speeds (Amtrak upgrades) on the Northeast corridor passenger rail system since it's the most heavily used in the US. That corridor has more plausibility for HSR than any other.  However, at the cost of repeating ourselves, a strategic examination and comprehensive policy should precede all these decisions.

At this moment, I'm not clear about the frequently recommended National Infrastructure Bank for many reasons, including skepticism about private participation and how profits would be generated for the investors. Then, there's the question raised in this report, oversight and accountability.

The recommendation for accountability and innovation is another theme of this anti-HSR blog and we certainly endorse it.  We complain constantly about the lack of accountability and oversight both at the local as well as the national level.  High-speed rail in California has been a runaway train headed for a major wreck because there has been no enforcement of the endless violations of all the legal requirements to which the rail authority should be held. The rail authority has not been held accountable since there has been no enforcement of the laws or sanctions to their hanky-panky. 

And, finally, the theme of innovation.  High-speed rail in California as currently planned is almost a laughable insult to a state that has led the world in information technology innovation and development.  Instead, our state intends to buy it's high-speed trains off the shelves of other countries.  Not train-wrecked China, I hope.

Building America’s Future: Falling Apart and Falling Behind
Posted by Content Coordinator on Monday, August 8th, 2011

Rebuilding America’s economic foundation is one of the most important missions we face in the 21st century. Our parents and grandparents built America into the world’s leading economic superpower. We have a responsibility to our own children and grandchildren to strengthen—not squander —that inheritance, and to pass on to them a country whose best days are still ahead.

Our citizens live in a turbulent, complicated, and competitive world. The worst recession in eighty years cost us trillions in wealth and drove millions of Americans out of their jobs and homes. Even more, it called into question their belief in our system and faith in the way forward.

Our infrastructure—and the good policy making that built it—is a key reason America became an economic superpower. But many of the great decisions which put us on that trajectory are now a half-century old. In the last decade, our global economic competitors have led the way in planning and building the transportation networks of the 21st century. Countries around the world have not only started spending more than the United States does today, but they made those financial commitments—of both public and private dollars—on the basis of 21st-century strategies that will equip them to make commanding strides in economic growth over the next 20-25 years.

Unless we make significant changes in our course and direction, the foreign competition will pass us by, and a real opportunity to restore America’s economic strength will be lost. The American people deserve better.

Falling Apart and Falling Behind lays out the economic challenges posed by our ailing infrastructure, provides a comparative look at the smart investments being made by our international competitors, and suggests a series of recommendations for crafting new innovative transportation policies in the U.S.

A Mounting Crisis

This report frames the state of our infrastructure in terms of the new economic realities of the 21st-century economy and presents the challenges we currently face. The surge in global trade has realigned America’s business transport needs, complicating supply chains and increasing the need for sophisticated intermodal transportation. Our economically vital gateways and corridors now operate over capacity, imposing costs of $200 billion a year. Our passenger transport system, especially in our major metropolitan regions, is also burdened with costly congestion as passenger travel increases. Largely run on gasoline, our transportation system is environmentally, politically, and economically unsustainable. We have the world’s worst air traffic congestion, in part because we are still using the radar-based air traffic control system developed in the 1950s.

The first section of the report, A Mounting Crisis, makes the case why U.S. infrastructure has fallen from first place in the World Economic Forum’s 2005 economic competitiveness ranking to number 15 today. We have let more than a half-century go by without devising a strategic plan on a national scale to update our freight and passenger transport systems. The size of our federal investment in transportation infrastructure as a share of GDP has been dwindling for decades, and most federal funds are dispersed to projects without imposing accountability and performance measures. This lack of vision, lack of funding, and lack of accountability has left every mode of transportation in the United States—highways and railroads, airports and sea ports—stuck in the last century and ill-equipped for the demands of a churning global economy.

Losing Ground to Our Global Competitors

The second section of the report, Losing Ground to Our Global Competitors, takes an international look at transportation infrastructure and highlights certain themes that unify our competitors’ plans while setting our transportation policies apart. Governments around the world—from the EU to China, Canada to Australia—are making unprecedented national investments in transportation infrastructure on the basis of new plans to promote economic growth through infrastructure.
Guided by principles of improving economic efficiency and sustainability, other countries are devoting most of their attention and resources to building the high-tech and low-carbon networks for the 21st century. In particular, they are investing in intermodal freight facilities and strategic corridors, and they are building high-speed rail. A comparative look at high-speed rail networks around the world offers lessons about how to successfully build high-speed rail in strategic corridors—namely between Boston and Washington, between LA and San Francisco, and in a hub-and-spoke around Chicago—that will ease air travel congestion around the country and unlock potential economic growth in those regions.

Recommendations for Reform

The third section of the report, Recommendations for Reform, contains a clear set of recommendations for moving our economy—and the case for strategic investment in infrastructure—forward. To stay competitive in a 21st-century economy, the federal government must:

A. Develop a national infrastructure strategy for the next decade that makes choices based on economics, not politics. The U.S. should adopt a 10-year national plan for making strategic investments in our nation’s infrastructure. The plan should focus on transportation, but include other infrastructure challenges such as water and the electric grid. To keep America economically competitive, this plan must be as significant in scale as the plans adopted by our competitor nations. 

B. To do so, we believe, it must spur an investment of a least $200 billion per year. This national infrastructure strategy will create nearly 5 million jobs for the next decade. Experts agree that $1 billion in infrastructure investment creates more than 25,000 jobs at construction sites and factories producing needed raw materials. This investment would create nearly half of the 12.5 million jobs that we need to revive the American economy and keep them in place for the next decade.

C. Pass a 6-year transportation bill updated to compete in the 21st-century global economy. Since the last transportation bill expired in 2009, Washington has abdicated its responsibility, with seven extensions of federal funding. The new bill must move from an essentially recycled version that thinly distributes funds based on archaic formulas and political expediency to a plan that sets clear priorities and makes hard choices based on increasing economic return and mobility while reducing congestion and pollution. As a result, the investment strategy will focus on projects that will yield results—Next Gen aviation system; high-speed rail in key corridors; freight rail; public transit; and maintenance of our crumbling transportation network.

D. Be both innovative and realistic about how to pay. America needs a National Infrastructure Bank that can leverage private dollars and invest in the best big projects, including those that span state boundaries or encompass multiple modes of transportation. Once the U.S. economy improves, we should consider raising the nearly 20-year old federal gas tax and indexing it to inflation. Washington also needs to look at all long-term revenue generating options such as congestion pricing, carbon auctions, fees based on miles traveled, or reserves built into capital budgets.

E. Promote accountability and innovation. Under current transportation policy, Washington impedes local innovation while failing to impose accountability for money distributed across the country. Washington should set clear criteria for all funding, encourage state and local innovation through competitive grants, streamline the project delivery process to ensure projects are started quickly, and carefully audit the results to ensure projects are completed on time, on budget, and yielding promised results.

The U.S. must embark on a new American adventure—one that requires leadership and vision from our elected leaders. To achieve this we will need a bipartisan alliance of American leaders who believe we can achieve anything, can build anything, and can do anything we put our minds to—and who will in turn, convince our citizens that this course is not an option but a necessity to preserve our future strength and success—to preserve American greatness—greatness that was created by Americans over the last 235 years by their willingness to take on new challenges with the belief that our country could achieve anything.

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