Wednesday, September 14, 2011

When Democrats Finally See High-Speed Rail For What It Really Is, And Other Matters

Finally.  Some Democrats who have in the past been high-speed rail lovers, like Joel Epstein, are beginning to see the error of their ways.

High-Speed Rail, if I may put it crudely, is a one-night stand. It's a financial transaction. It's not a permanent, meaningful and constructive relationship. 

Joel Epstein, a former California high-speed rail romantic,  has come around.  I wish I could say the same for our Governor, whose apparent obsession with those free $3.5 billion in federal funds makes him blind to the costly reality behind this gift that will give on taking. 

The math is clear and we've been presenting William Grindley's accounting about the numbers for a long time. Feel free to dig back into the blog site for a lot of solid, financial information.

Epstein has it right.  It's not that all rail is evil.  Indeed, it may not be evil even in its high-speed permutation. But that, as usual, depends on context.  In Europe, it has been making sense, even if it doesn't make money, although recent press reports reflect greater concerns for the flawed financial model the trains operate under in this period of fiscal constraints.  

In this country, and especially in California, it makes no sense at all. That is to say, we should be putting our money (What money?)  where our people live and work, not dropping an overpriced train for rich people down the middle of the state.  So, where do our people live and work?

It's in the major population regions, just as Joel suggests.  The Bay Area and the Los Angeles Basin.  That's where the people exist in high density and that's where public mass transit is welcome but scarcely available and highly inefficient.

To depart from Epstein's argument for a moment, we are at a very critical time, high-speed rail-wise.  

The project has become a purely political exercise, with almost no relationship to its function -- inter-city transit.  It is the political bone that two dogs are fighting over.  I'm not comfortable with the rationale behind either side's position, but it should be absolutely obvious and unambiguous that this project has no reason to come into existence; none. The endless palaver from the rail supporters about building the future, and the panacea powers of this project are specious.

The Governor of  California and his Democratic minions in the Legislature persist in pushing the project in the face of inarguable evidence that there will be no further funding for the time being.  The rail authority has enough  cash promised to it to dig up a little over 100 miles.  However, after that, they will be empty-handed without further federal bailouts.  Which are not forthcoming.

The Democratic agenda is to get the state's hands on that $3.5 billion from the DOT, and release several additional billion from the possible (but not necessarily(?) sale of HSR bonds. YES, even in the face of recognizing the lack of funding to continue the project, which, by the way, is now being calculated -- with "full-cost accounting" -- to be around $240 billion for all the promised 800 miles from Sacramento to San Diego.  I'm talking about the train that, before the 2008 elections was projected to cost $33 billion.

Where, in God's name, will the state of California find $240 billion dollars (minus the $9.95 billion from the state bonds, and the $3.5 billion from the feds.)?????  In which case, why, you should ask, is the state so persistently pushing this project regardless?

One more point:  This morning's New  York Times has a lead article about the sharp increase in poverty in the US.  The usual assumption is that this should be of great concern to us Democrats and we need to do something about this. 

However, "we"  Democrats persist in pursuing this mega-billion dollar luxury-train-for-the-rich nightmare instead of addressing the basic problems of putting Americans to work, which this train project will not do.  

Yes, rebuild the railroads; but also Yes on hundreds of thousands of jobs that are not railroad or construction related.   Which is to say that we won't 'transit,' build railroads, or construct ourselves out of this sea of unemployment and poverty. 

What a mindless waste!

Joel Epstein
Strategic communications and public affairs consultant, writer and urbanist

California's High-Speed Rail Mistake
Posted: 9/13/11 12:44 PM ET

This is the piece in which I out myself about California's high-speed rail mistake. Let's face it, now is not the time to be spending a decent size country's GDP on a fast train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Instead we should be spending that fortune completing much needed regional mass transit systems for Los Angeles, San Diego, Anaheim, Irvine, San Jose, the Bay Area, Bakersfield, Fresno and Sacramento. Given the astronomical estimated cost of the high-speed rail project I doubt I have overpromised California's major population centers on the regional transit construction.

I had this epiphany while riding the Bolt Bus between 911-memorial soaked New York and Philadelphia. True, the bus took two hours instead of the one it might have taken on Amtrak's Acela Express. But the $13 I paid left a much smaller hole in my pocket than the $105 the Acela would have cost. And like my Bolt over Acela decision the choice facing the dysfunctional California legislature is whether it wants to spend the California taxpayer's money on critical regional mass transit that we need every day vs. the shiny, fast business travelers' sometimes choice when heading to a trade show in San Francisco. Wanna accelerate the regional transit construction process? Pass a law like the special one the Legislature is writing for AEG, a private company, so it can build Farmer's Field, a transit-oriented football stadium in downtown LA.

Why this change of heart for someone who is on record in support of the concept of high-speed rail in California?

It's simple arithmetic that even this mediocre math student can understand. In an ideal world there would be enough money to build both the high-speed rail and all the regional mass transit California needs. But we don't live in that Emerald City.

I doubt my friends at the big infrastructure construction firms and AFL-CIO are going to swoon upon reading this but I hope they don't get me wrong. Because the plan I'm proposing involves as much if not more work for them and the union iron workers and sandhogs than the high-speed rail. But instead of having to fight for months for a lousy motel room in Shafter or Bakerfield, the first leg of the proposed high-speed rail, the engineers and laborers will be able to head home for dinner or to one of their favorite loncheras after work building the subway. Sure, Central Valley workers need jobs but far more are out of work in LA and the state's other big cities.

Our need for transit infrastructure construction hasn't gone away. It's just that we need to be smarter about it. As a public infrastructure investment high-speed rail just can't hold a candle to the Wilshire subway, a rail or bus rapid transit (BRT) option for the Sepulveda Pass and a dozen other overdue light rail and BRT projects along LA's existing transit rights of way and many broad, made for bus-only lane, boulevards. And that's just my recipe for LA. There are of course similar transportation planner dreams for California's other urban agglomerations.

Hard choices are the name of the game in this era of bickering over public infrastructure spending.

But as Measure R, the half cent LA County transportation sales tax demonstrated, local voters are willing to spend on themselves when it comes to public transportation. Let's put that logic to work by changing the construction plans and building the Metro, Muni and BART trains and buses we need everyday rather than the sometime convenience we long for when we think of inter city travel in France, China and Japan. That train too will come but not until we make regular regional transit riders of most Californians.

Yours in transit,

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