Saturday, November 5, 2011

Do we need HSR? How do we know? Because the promoters and politicians say so?

Can't let this one get by without letting you all read it.  This article is by Ed Morrissey from a blog called HOTAIR.  He really lashes out at the rail authority and it's position regarding the construction of the California high-speed rail project. 

If you don't already know, please be advised that HOTAIR is very conservative and takes many positions I personally reject. Nonetheless, if and when that side of the aisle makes what I call correct assumptions and takes the appropriate position, I can only concur.

There should be no question that I agree with Morrissey's comments on HSR.  But, that's not enough for me.  It's the same problem that I have with State Senator Joe Simitian, as he keeps saying he wants this project "done right."  In other words, the problem here, we are told, is that the rail authority is doing this project wrong. And that implies that it can be "done right," which is what the Senator, and others, keep asking for. But, what if it can't be done right?  What if "done right" is an oxymoron?

Let's look at that another way.  Let's say that the rail authority has, miraculously, all the money it needs to build this train and that it has no complaints from anyone anywhere along and about the intended route as well as the intended alignments along that route.  Then, they can certainly build it, and it will, by definition, have been done right.  They have the money and they have the voters' permission to do what they want. There should be nothing to complain about.

That can't be what Senator Simitian would approve of, is it?  Isn't this exactly what the Administration in Washington want? So, what's wrong?  The train is wrong. It's not merely putting the cart before the horse, it's a cart without a horse that nobody needs. To pursue this metaphor one step further, perhaps what everyone needs are canoes because they are surrounded by water and other islands. 

There have been no rigorous, independent analyses about what this state needs for transit in the future.  So, to begin with we really don't know what we want, and and we don't know if there is even an appropriate place for high-speed rail in a state wide transportation policy and strategy. If you don't know where you're going, any direction is probably either right or wrong and we'll never know.

Perhaps, upon close analysis, we would find that we need a lot of things, but HSR isn't one of them.  As it happens, we now we realize that we haven't done such an analysis, and so we don't know that we don't need an inter-city HSR connecting San Francisco with Los Angeles.  

Instead, and what is wrong, is that we began with the idea of wanting a high-speed rail system (because Europe and Japan had them), and have been trying to squeeze it into this state for decades, as if we needed it.  But we still really don't know if we need it. Just because theHSR promoters tell us so doesn't make it so. Maybe they have their own, personal reasons for wanting the funding to build this train.

In the absence of systematic, independent and open-minded study, this small hand-full of local politicians concocted a marketing plan to "sell" the voters a product with apparent sex-appeal and glamour that would create a vision, like a Hollywood stage set, of success, accomplishment and economic prosperity in our collective futures. What it really will be is a Hollywood-style luxury train for the affluent, the well-to-do, and well-paid professionals who will be able to afford the very expensive tickets.

With the help of croneys and some well connected power brokers, the politicians finally got their concept on the ballot, and the state's voters bought it with promises of 117 million annual riders, a cost to the state limited to a $10 billion bond and no more after that. This train, the bond measure promised, would accomplish the trip in 2:40 from SF to LA. It would produce enough revenues from ticket sales -- these tickets costing no more than $55. -- and that with the surplus, they could pay for additional routes down to San Diego and up to Sacramento, and do so within a decade.

What this means is that we are about to build a $100 billion high-speed train system because a small number of politicians have aggressively pushed for this and created endless scenarios about how great it would be, what it would accomplish, what problems it would solve, etc.  And now the blogosphere is filled with after the fact rationalizations why we must have this train. 

We now know that this was all marketing hype, which I will bluntly call lies.  We now know not only that it will cost a great deal more to build than the $30 or $40 billion initially proposed, that it would carry far, far fewer people than they said, that the tickets would cost more than they said, and we all have learned how harmful this train will be for the entire length of the route whether through urban, suburban, farm or open countryside.  The more we learn, in other words, the more we understand that it cannot be done right.  And even if built, it won't be right.

The state has huge transit problems and needs. This unnecessary train will consume resources that could be deployed to mitigate all those real transit problems.  Our population centers are hurting, but this train cannot ease that pain. If anything, it will produce more pain for all of California. And, when built, we still will not have a clue to what the actual transit needs for California are and how to meet them.  

Building this train without a far better understanding of what California's transit and transportation future needs will be, is indeed one of the bigger mistakes in US history.

Great news: $98 billion estimate for California high-speed rail is lowball


Earlier this week, we updated our coverage of the largest proposed public-works project in American history to note that its estimated cost had almost tripled in three years, from $33 billion to $98.6 billion, as well as more than doubling in delivery time — and this before the project has even begun.  The state agency responsible for this boondoggle officially submitted their funding request to the California state legislature on Thursday, as the Los Angeles Times notes in an otherwise dull recapitulation of the news from earlier in the week.  In fact, you have to get to the bottom of the article to see where the LAT buried the lede (via Instapundit):

A bullet train business plan released Tuesday notes that the system cost of $98 billion could jump an additional $19 billion depending on the route and construction features.

Wait — what?  The California High Speed Rail Authority board has the responsibility to make the decisions on “routes and construction features.”  They can’t get any closer than 20% play in the numbers? What exactly did the CHSRA submit on Thursday … a letter to Santa Claus?

So what exactly are these variables that will add more than half as much cost as the project’s original price tag?  Shag carpeting, spoilers on the caboose, quadrophonic stereo … what?  The LAT doesn’t tell us; they just wait until the last paragraph to report that CHSRA warns that their projections require 20% play in the numbers.

Needless to say, the exploding cost has a few people pretty steamed.  If one reads the story in reverse paragraph order (which is apparently what the LAT intends), the third paragraph has one Republican state senator promising to push a bill that will allow taxpayers to reverse their earlier approval for bonding measures for the project, presumably through a referendum.  It also includes this very short-sighted criticism of the high-speed rail plan from an activist:

 Other critics asserted the project was no longer the $33-billion project presented to voters three years ago. “This is the biggest bait and switch in California history,” Charles Voltz, a member of the Community Coalition on High Speed Rail, told board members.

Oh, come now, Mr. Voltz.  You’re obviously not thinking big-picture here.   Demanding as much as $117 billion for a train track that runs along the San Andreas Fault, which will at first only connect Corcoran and Borden, and eventually provide heavily-subsidized transportation between California’s two largest metropolises in a longer time than at least a half-dozen airlines already deliver without taxpayer subsidies is not the biggest bait and switch in California history.  This is the biggest bait and switch in human history.

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