Monday, November 7, 2011

High-Speed Rail: a luxury train for the rich

Well, this is a sharp turn around.  The San Jose Merc. (the newspaper of Silicon Valley) has been an avid high-speed rail supporter from the early days of back-room politics in Sacramento when they cooked up this toxic stew. Now, with the release of the business plan, they, along with most other newspapers around California and the US, have come out with an editorial rejecting this plan and project, and asking for the voters to have another crack at it.

And, I certainly agree with them, up to a point. (Why didn't they accept my critical stuff three years ago, before the 2008 elections?) When they now say that they believe high-speed rail is a great idea, what do they mean?  "It would be wonderful to have high-speed rail around America some day. Where? What for? If it can't be afforded now, it certainly can't be afforded "some day" in the future.  It's a childish thing to say.  In the "future," HSR will be considered an obsolete technology, a vestige of the great age of passenger rail.

The editorial calls HSR "visionary."  It's visionary the way Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon comic strips were visionary during my childhood.  Fortunately this Merc. editorial comes back to reality regarding this California 'vision,' and, like many dreams, vaporizes upon awakening.

It needs to be said that the media in general, as they pursued their relentless support of this project before, during and after the 2008 elections, didn't do any of their obligatory homework.  Instead, they used the CHSRA press releases and marketing brochures to parrot them in their articles. They even failed to study the program-level EIS/EIR which would have told them what a brutish imposition the CHSRA's rail and alignment intentions were throughout California.  Nor did they look at the pre-2008 version of the business plan (as Senator Lowenthal did do and he wrote a report about it) to see how fraudulent all the numbers were.  117 million annual riders, indeed!

No, Mercury News editors, HSR is not a "great idea."  It's a luxury train wherever it's in operation. Unlike the Interstate Highway System to which it's constantly compared, HSR is un-American, or anti-Democratic, and would contribute to the ever increasing rift between the high-end well-to-do and the rest of us who's incomes have been frozen at current levels for a very long time.  

Why don't people get that?  High-Speed Rail is not transportation for all of us; it's not like our local commuter service, trolley, subway or commuter train.  It's a very high-end, premium, top-of-the-line, first-class-only train with the most expensive train tickets you can buy. (Forget their ridiculous claims of an $81 dollar ticket; think more like $200. and more. And, it will won't be until 2033 that you can buy one, if you're still around by then.) 

Why must California have such a train?  Are we so loaded with rich people in our population that our highways are crammed with new Mercedes cars and our airways filled with privately owned Gulfstreams?  Do the rich need to have the choice of fancy trains to go to LA as well? And, if so, why must all the taxpayers provide this train? Why don't the affluent buy it themselves; they can afford it.

Mercury News editorial: High speed rail is a great idea we simply cannot afford now
Mercury News Editorial
Posted: 11/05/2011 08:00:00 PM PDT

High-speed rail is a visionary idea that California today simply cannot afford.

This is a painful conclusion. We supported the $9.95 billion bond measure that voters approved for the project in 2008. We remained hopeful despite the High Speed Rail Authority's arrogance in dealing with communities and its lack of a credible business plan.

The plan announced last week is by far the most realistic, breaking the project into segments and taking advantage of existing commuter lines like Caltrain.

But the cost is now $98.5 billion -- more than double the $45 billion estimate in the 2008 ballot pamphlet. It no longer includes connections to Sacramento and San Diego, leaving just the line from Los Angeles to San Francisco -- and it pushes completion of that line out to 2034 instead of 2020.

All of this assumes huge private investment and tens of billions in federal dollars that are unlikely to survive deficit reduction plans even if Barack Obama is re-elected next year. The first 130-mile, $5.5 billion segment now planned in the Central Valley could be the only one built.

At a minimum, the Legislature should send this plan back to voters.

Its shrinking scope and exploding cost bear too little resemblance to the 2008 measure now used to justify it. But scrutiny in the Legislature early next year could make the ballot unnecessary; if the plan proves too dubious, lawmakers can refuse to authorize bond sales for the first segment.

It's not just numbers that have changed since 2008. It's the world.

America has yet to recover from the 2007 recession.

As tax revenue at all levels of government has shrunk and fails to rebound, the interest to be paid on bonds for high-speed rail becomes a significant chunk of the state's general fund.

The $2.7 billion bond sale requested for the Central Valley segment could mean interest payments of as much as $300 million a year -- more than three times the state parks budget.

Yes, it's an investment in infrastructure. But there are plenty of needed and clearly doable road, transit and other building projects the state could be selling bonds to finance and put construction crews to work. Besides, we're worried about another kind of infrastructure: education.

With budget cuts to schools and universities, California risks losing a whole generation of the educated workers that companies need to do business here.

High-speed rail is very different from the BART to Silicon Valley project.

BART also is taking more money and time than expected. But the plan is fundamentally the same, and -- this is key -- voters have twice agreed to actually raise taxes to pay for it.

The money is not coming out of other projects. General obligation bonds like high-speed rail's seem like free money, but the interest comes out of the general fund.

It would be wonderful to have high-speed rail around America some day. But given the uncertainty of these times, it is the wrong way to invest the limited resources California has at hand.

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