Saturday, November 5, 2011

High-Speed Rail Troubles? Blame It On Somebody Else.

Interesting article from a HSR supporter.  While the argument has merit in the macro-level sense, it's application to the high-speed rail project is, I would say, irrelevant.

Let me immediately state that what is wrong with HSR is not that the US is slow with infrastructure projects.  If the HSR project wasn't the centerpiece of this discussion, I might even agree with several of the premises.  However, the problem with HSR is certainly not rooted in what is identified here.  

To make my point, let me exaggerate with another example.  What if the government in this state wanted to build a north/south canal for rich people's power-yachts, and fill the canal with bottled water?  A worthless project costing zillions. However, it's uselessness can stand on its own feet and doesn't require a larger explanation like tardiness in funding acquisition driving costs up, or people demanding bridges to cross over it.  

The HSR project was bad initially and isn't worse because there are now demands for changes in the design.  Those design changes, if they are the result of stakeholder demands, may raise the cost, but that's only because those concerns result from indifference to these problems in the first place.  And fixing this stuff or doing it faster doesn't make the project more legitimate.

And, I should add, all these design changes are specific to this project which has been poorly thought out initially, has failed to secure reliable funding, and is being improvised on the fly by organizations like Parsons Brinckerhoff strongly driven by the profit motive.  I would also add political indifference to the outcomes.

The project isn't worse because it costs more than we were told.  The rail authority was aware of much higher costs long before they acknowledged them.  The increased need for and costs of tunnels (no one wants viaducts!), comes from arrogance by the rail authority's ignoring community concerns as they ride rough-shod across California, city and farm.

And Mr. Yglesias blaming community opposition is downright fascist. (Blame the victim!) Furthermore, accepting cost over-runs as the normal cost of doing business in the infrastructure world is unacceptable. That doesn't make it OK for the HSR project in California. "They all do it" is not an excuse or rationale.

In short, all of the HSR problems in California are not the fault of the CHSRA, we are told.  They are culturally systemic and the fault of both the United States and the communities through which this train is going to run.

Well, it's certainly a relief to know that.  And that, therefore, makes this project highly desirable. Thanks. 

America’s Infrastructure Cost Disaster
By Matthew Yglesias on Nov 4, 2011 at 2:31 pm

The growing cost estimates for California High-Speed Rail seem designed to embarrass those of us who were enthusiastic about the project. Something to note, based on Alon Levy’s breakdown, is that this isn’t really a case of the initial estimates being wrong. Instead, the two biggest drivers of higher costs are changes to the plan. One set of changes is that because it’s taking the state time to get the money together, the duration of the project is being extended which is pushing costs up. In essence, the project is so expensive that California wants to do it more slowly which is making it even more expensive. Another set of changes is that a lot of post-hoc modifications are being made at the request of local communities who want more segments to be tunnelized or viaducted.

Both of these, I hope people will understand, represent systematic pathologies in the American infrastructure planning process and not something unique about passenger rail. The former, in particular, is maddening. We spend too little on infrastructure in a way that winds up driving up the per-project cost, which winds up driving down the per-dollar utility of infrastructure spending which winds up eating away at public support for infrastructure spending. And the set of cost drivers forced by community opposition would imperil any large scale transportation project. In either case simply shifting the California HSR pot of money into some other project wouldn’t resolve the problem (see Brad Plumer for a full discussion). If you cast your eyes east to the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge, you’ll see that large-scale automobile infrastructure projects on the east coast are every bit as subject to these overruns as large-scale train infrastructure projects on the west coast.

At some point if America wants to improve its lagging infrastructure, we need to do something about the fact that our building costs are systematically higher than what you find abroad. I think very few people appreciate the extent to which that’s the case, but some of the numbers are mind-boggling. And we’re not just talking about China being able to get things done cheaper — all over Europe and Japan you can find examples of much better-managed infrastructure construction.

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