Wednesday, October 19, 2011

High-speed rail in trouble. But not enough yet.

By and large, the Wall Street Journal's editorial position is in opposition to high-speed rail.  Josh Mitchell's article doesn't take that position however, although, given his concerns, it should.  There are also errors and misunderstandings in the article which warrant being pointed out.

The question we now raise is why this project is not being terminated, since all the factors impinging on it indicate that the project has no future. The primary one is that there will be no further or adequate funding; that is, even if there were additional funds from Washington, they would not be enough.  Mitchell uses the old cost forecast of $45 billion.  However, it was predicted, well before the November 2008 elections which kicked off this project, that the costs would exceed $100 billion, and that now looks more likely than ever. That fact alone should be a game-changer, but it isn't so far.

One more point. The press, nationwide, has become more critical of high-speed rail nationally, and California in particular. There are a lot of unanswered questions that are raising many doubts.  Yet, the Democrats are hanging on to this project for numerous reasons, one being that it is currently one of very few sources of political pork which the DOT is distributing to Amtrak upgrades around the country.  They also claim it to be a form of jobs stimulus. 

Nonetheless, even the California rail authority is obliged to suggest that this project is far from a done deal.  Those of us who oppose this project must not let our guard down.  We still have much work to do, particularly in a Democratic majority state that is desperate for federal earmark dollars such as the $3.5 billion ARRA funds from the DOT. 

Remember, this project is not about the trains; it's about the money.  The train supporters aren't about to give up, despite all the bad news.

Consider this a clarion call for all of us, each reader of this blog, to teach relatives, friends and neighbors about the realities underlying all the hype:

1. It costs much, much more than promised.
2. It will have far, far fewer riders than promised. 
3. The train will serve only the affluent who can afford the most expensive train tickets.
4. The construction will do irreparable harm to each and every community through which it passes.
5. The train will require massive government subsidies forever, unable to generate sufficient operating revenue.
6.  The train will not deliver on its promises like environmental benefits, reduced fuel consumption, etc.
7. It will be a drain on the economy; not a benefit.  It will not create all the promised jobs.

We'll add further comments into the article text.

Plan for High-Speed Rail Just Inching Along
California Project Could Be Scaled Back as Funding Dries Up, Delaying Ambitions for a Viable Alternative to Cars, Planes


The Obama administration's push for high-speed trains is foundering, as Congress moves to clamp down on funding and a showcase California project encounters new hurdles.

California is set to update its plans for a San Francisco-to-Los Angeles high-speed line by Nov. 1. Officials say the state is looking at shortening the initial route and relying more heavily on existing lines.  [This refers to the business plan, which was due October 1st, but, as usual, got postponed.  There are early indicators from the rail authority about what the business plan will contain, and it's not good news for anyone.  For example, they acknowledge that private investments are well over the horizon.  We would suggest never.]

The project is the principal hope for the Obama administration to fulfill its promise of bringing to the U.S. true high-speed rail service—loosely defined as trains traveling 150 miles per hour or faster—after Florida canceled a planned Tampa-to-Orlando route in February. [Actually, the FRA considers 110 mph the baseline speed for any railroad to be called high-speed rail, and they are calling almost all their funding for Amtrak upgrades as 'high-speed rail.'  That term, 'high-speed rail,' has more political meaning than railroad significance for the DOT.]

The California troubles reflect the difficulty of shifting a country that mainly relies on the automobile and airplane. The federal government and states have for decades built and maintained roads using a dedicated revenue stream, the federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon. There is no such source of cash for high-speed rail, putting rail proponents at the mercy of political winds.  [The gasoline taxes have been the source of revenue for the Highway Trust Fund, created as the basis for the Interstate Highway System's development and upkeep.  The transit/rail advocates keep wanting to tap into those funds for rail, including high-speed rail.  In addition, the Democrats want to add more dollars to the Transportation budget than provided by the declining gas taxes (declining due to declining consumption), but the Republicans are resisting this budget increase.]

A Democratic-controlled Congress approved $10.5 billion for high-speed rail, most of it in the 2009 stimulus package. But earlier this year, with Republicans controlling the House, Congress rescinded $400 million. [That's not clear enough.  The President's (and Senate) transportation budget contained $4 billion for HSR but the House (Republican) version zeroed this out.  The last Senate version had $100 million stuck back in.  The two draft bills have to be reconciled.]

The money has been allocated, but virtually no additional funding is likely in the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. Senate Democrats have proposed $100 million for high-speed rail, while House Republicans suggest zero.

"Obviously there is going to need to be additional federal funding, and it won't happen this year," said Thomas Hart of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, which lobbies for funding on behalf of companies tied to rail construction.

California envisioned a $45 billion high-speed system extending from San Francisco to Southern California, with trains running by 2020. The state's original business model assumed it would get one-third of its funding from the federal government, although it received no such commitment. So far, the project has received roughly $3 billion from the U.S. government, with little more likely to come.  [As we said above, it's not $45 any longer -- it actually never was -- it's now well over $100 billion for which there is no source.]

Including state matching funds, the California project has $6 billion, and plans are set to use that to start laying track next year—140 miles in the rural Central Valley. Even that part is running into higher costs, project managers say, and the updated business plan from the California High-Speed Rail Authority is likely to include a higher price tag and a stretched-out construction timetable.  [The fact is that California voters have been janked around since before the '08 elections. The rail authority has never told the truth about anything, including projected costs.  They aren't telling the truth right now.]

The bigger issue is how to link those lightly populated 140 miles—from a point just south of Merced to Bakersfield—with the state's two major urban areas. The state can provide as much as $6 billion of additional matching funds under a bond referendum approved by voters in 2008, but it would first need to secure other types of funding.

Roelof van Ark, chief executive of the California rail authority, said private investors, including rail operators and construction companies from Europe and Asia, have voiced interest in high-speed rail. The catch: Investors want to see a link to San Francisco or Los Angeles closer to completion before they put in billions, he said. It is precisely that link for which the state needs money.  [The most recent documents from the rail authority acknowledge that there will be no private investment "until the trains are operational and revenue producing."  The question that raises is, of course, where will the $100 billion come from to get to that point?  And if there isn't further funding, why even start?]

Mr. van Ark said the new business plan would include scaled-back options that would link the new track to existing commuter transit lines in the two cities and, as a last resort, perhaps Amtrak lines.  [What Van Ark means is that they intend to spend the money they have, although it isn't enough to complete even a single segment to become fully HSR operational.  That is to say, they're going to just spend money until it runs out and leave as much useless track running through farmlands as they can.]

Rather than operating a separate high-speed rail service, the state could let the new track be incorporated into Amtrak's existing service until more funding became available, he said. That would slow the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles travel time—which project planners have envisioned as less than three hours—and make rail less competitive with the 80-minute flight.  [Amtrak neither asked for nor needs this new track. Furthermore, using it for Amtrak violates the legislation which mandates high-speed rail operations. There are gathering storms of lawsuits because of all these shenanigans.]

Some conservatives in Congress and in the California Legislature, as well as landowners affected by track construction, argue that the state should scrap the high-speed-rail project and use the money already in hand to upgrade existing lines. State Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, a Republican, called the project a "pipe dream" and added: "It can't be paid for the way people were promised. Federal funding is not materializing." She also objected to the project "cutting large swaths through huge parcels of productive farmland."

Supporters, mainly Democrats in California's Legislature and on Capitol Hill, in addition to the Obama administration, say the project can be built in phases. They say rail is needed to handle the state's rising population and absorb demand from choked highways.  [The rising population claim has very little validity. Immigration is declining. The US birth rate is declining. Business attracting immigration into California is declining.  Then, there's that "choked highways" argument; HSR will have zero impact on traffic congestion, which is urban/regional, not inter-city.]

Roy Kienitz, the U.S. Transportation Department's undersecretary of policy, said he remained confident California would get high-speed trains even if planned routes were shortened. He said similar uncertainties plagued the interstate-highway system in its early days.[Interstate Highway development had federally assured revenues. Kienitz's salary depends upon his HSR advocacy; that's his job. There doesn't have to be any truth-value in anything he says.]

"We know of no project ever of that magnitude that has had all the money in hand, like sitting in the bank account on day one, when you start initial construction," Mr. Kienitz said. "It's just not a realistic expectation. By its nature, you're going to have to sort of proceed in phases."  [Yes, the Interstate Highways were built in phases, but each phase had federal funding assurance which was based on the Highway Trust Fund with revenue derived from gasoline taxes.  Kienitz is just blowing HSR smoke.]

Write to Josh Mitchell at

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