Tuesday, September 27, 2011

High-Speed Rail "Shovel Ready" Isn't.

Here's yet one more reason to drop the California high-speed rail project.  As a now aggressively touted jobs project, the unemployed will have to hold their breath until at least 'same time next year'; that is, September 2012, when construction is scheduled to begin in the Central Valley.

For some time now, we have said that there are higher priorities than building a new luxury train from scratch; and that's repairing existing infrastructure that has fallen into disrepair.  Estimates of engineering-based consulting companies place the value of such restorations for highways, bridges and the like at well beyond a trillion dollars nationally, and this state's needs are extensive.  I would even add our rail network into this agenda insofar as it serves commuters in the large population centers.

There is a fundamental fallacy in the very concept of "shovel ready."  Without funding in hand and a completed set of engineering designs on the drawing board, including the fulfilled pursuit of all the legal approvals, nothing is "shovel ready." 

Furthermore, beyond the simplest kinds of construction -- and high-speed rail is nothing of the sort -- it should take a very long time, with tons of studies being conducted to validate the efficacy of such a mega-infrastructure project. We already know that there has been no national or state cost-benefit analysis. That's not neglect; that's evasion. 

High-speed rail has no business being "shovel ready" to suit the political purposes of artificial job creation.  Building a high-speed rail system is nothing like the Civilian Conservation Corps of the Great Depression Era of the '30s. The Obama Administration has no business equating them. 

Given the amounts of funding that are intended, even though not in hand, the transit purposes for building a railroad, not creating jobs, ought to have primacy in the priority rankings.  Think about it: building a railroad as the means to obtain the ends of creating government, temporary, construction jobs.  That's totally upside down. Just digging holes and filling them back up might serve the jobs agenda better than this disastrous train. 

Let hypothesize and say that one day, the train project will have been completed at twice what the cost projections are now, and that all those construction workers have been laid off, the work being completed.  All the money has been spent and we are stuck with a train that only the affluent can afford to ride; it runs nearly empty and only very few trains run each day.  Furthermore, it costs the state of California billions each year to keep it operating and making interest payments on the debt. And, finally, it solves none of the problems that were promised.

Will that have been a good decision? I don't think so.  Unfortunately, many of us know all this now.  We don't have to wait for the train's completion to demonstrate what a mistake this is.  But, who is listening?

'Shovel ready' jobs could take time
By: Kendra Marr
September 26, 2011 11:03 PM EDT

Here we go again.

President Barack Obama hasn’t yet used the term “shovel ready” in his latest jobs pitch, but he faces a familiar problem: Infrastructure experts doubt that billions in emergency spending will be the quick jobs fix the president is promising.

“Unfortunately, there aren’t many jobs ready to go at the snap of a finger,” said William Ibbs, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, who also consults on major construction projects.
Obama’s plan calls for $50 billion in immediate investments for improved highways, transit systems, railways and aviation — an idea he proposed a year ago that failed to gain traction. The goal is to put Americans back to work, upgrading 150,000 miles of road, 4,000 miles of train tracks, 150 miles of airport runways and the nation’s air traffic control system.

“There are out-of-work construction workers around the country who are ready to go to work on these projects, and we have the opportunity here — Congress does, if it passes the American Jobs Act — to put those Americans to work,” White House press secretary Jay Carney recently told reporters.

With the jobless rate hovering at 9 percent and an uneasy economic recovery, jobs are needed now — not in a few years.

But experts are skeptical that projects would come fast enough. A tremendous amount of money and time is needed to get a project through a detailed design process, permitting, environmental hurdles, public hearings and land acquisition.

“As a rule of thumb, you’re looking at three years for a project, really going from the time the federal government says we have the money and want to spend it,” Ibbs said. But that’s for the easiest, simplest projects, such as building a road through an uninhabited piece of land. “The politicians really don’t understand how cumbersome the process is these days,” Ibbs said. “Environmental permitting, especially on road projects can take years. You’re hiring attorneys, not really shoveling a lot of dirt.”

The reality is the quickest projects to jump-start are simply resurfacing existing roads with asphalt — not the best way of reining in the national infrastructure crisis — and the massive infrastructure improvements that promise generations of benefits can easily double and triple that time frame.

“Do we have many Hoover Dams that are shovel ready? I think not,” said Richard G. Little, director of the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at the University of Southern California. “It’s not a trivial activity to get to the point where you actually get to construct.”

On top of the time lag, state transportation departments don’t have many jobs just waiting on the shelf, said Andrew Herrmann, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ incoming president. Budget crunches have severely limited their long-term planning and Congress’s inaction on a new highway bill has caused even more headaches.

“Over the last couple of years, they haven’t had an opportunity to get ahead of the curve to get some of those projects ready,” Herrmann said. “It’s very hard to plan when the federal highway bill is on extensions.”

The concern is that projects meeting the requirements for the immediate investments would be those that have been shelved after being designed and engineered, yet have since become outdated or limited in scope.

Another worry is this patchwork approach, which has been in play for decades, won’t move the nation closer to a comprehensive plan to coordinate both short-term and long-term projects, experts said. 

Part of the reason Obama’s previous push for a $50 billion infrastructure program failed was that there was little evidence the program would promptly create jobs. 

The term “shovel ready” has become an inadvertent badge of government bureaucracy. Even the president has turned it on himself, joking, “Shovel-ready was not as, uh, shovel-ready as we expected.” 

An Associated Press report, analyzing the economy 10 months into Obama’s first economic stimulus plan, found that “a surge in spending on roads and bridges has had no effect on local unemployment and barely helped the beleaguered construction industry.” 

But advocates point out that the roughly $48 billion in the Recovery Act set aside for transportation projects repaired more than 40,000 miles of roads and 1,300 bridges. And stimulus package funding helped keep 325,000 workers employed in the second quarter of 2011, according to Recovery.gov. 

And a number of bulldozers and cranes are rumbling across the country. For instance, after years of delays because of funding shortages, Wisconsin is expanding I-94 with a $43 million Recovery Act award from the Transportation Department. An additional $20 million award is funding the replacement of an 81-year-old bridge over the Ohio River. In New Mexico, a $31 million grant is being used for making a rural road, connecting the Navajo Nation to vital services, safer. 

“The president’s plan is a welcome start,” Herrmann said. “We need to start working on infrastructure as fast as possible, but we have to look at long term too.” 

Regardless, the nation’s infrastructure needs financial help. 

U.S. infrastructure was once among the best in the world but has slipped to 23rd place in the World Economic Forum’s ranking. The ASCE gave the country a “D” on its recent infrastructure report card and estimated it would require an investment of $2.2 trillion over five years to get it back into shape. 

And a panel of 80 experts — chaired by former Transportation Secretaries Norm Mineta and Samuel Skinner — found that the federal government needs to be spending between $134 billion and $262 billion a year through 2035 to maintain and improve the roads, rail system and air transportation. 

Obama ran into this dilemma last week when he visited the outdated Brent Spence Bridge, which links Ohio and Kentucky, the home states of House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Republicans quickly latched on to a Cincinnati Enquirer report that even if Congress passes Obama’s American Jobs Plan, it’s unclear if the money would ever reach the bridge. Since the bridge is still in the preliminary engineering and environmental clear phase, in the best-case scenario, workers wouldn’t be hired until 2013 or 2015. 

A few days later, GOP presidential long shot Gary Johnson quipped, “My next-door neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration.” 

The one-liner echoed a zinger by conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh. And in this infrastructure debate, it probably won’t be the last time this shovel-ready joke will be reused.

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