Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Low Road to High-Speed Rail in California

Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee here makes the argument that while we're futzing around with the High Speed Rail business plan, the California Transportation Commission issued a report letting us know how deplorable our transportation infrastructure is right now. The report points out that there is a $300 billion shortfall necessary to bring our various modalities, like highways and runways back up to speed. 

This didn't get that much attention, because nobody gets browny points for fixing bridges and pot-holes.

Here's the key thought about this:  "The CTC report says that even if we have a bullet train, we need to spend three times that much over the next 10 years on transportation but can count on less than half from current revenue and capital sources, leaving a net gap that approaches $300 billion."

This is critical because we keep being told that it will cost $170 billion to add to all that other stuff IF high-speed rail isn't build.  It's actually fallacious logic, and ignores the fact that we do need to FIX all that other stuff with or without high-speed rail. 

It's a thinly veiled threat.  If we don't give the rail authority $100 billion, we will have to spend $170 billion to build more runways and highways.  This sounds more like adversarial divorce negotiations than a rational argument for building a train.

The underlying point of the HSR promoters is that this rail modality will remove so much traffic use from the airways and highways WITH high-speed rail, that we wouldn't be obliged to expand it.  But, even if that were true, which it isn't, we would still have to fix all the deteriorating runways and highways, bridges, etc. nonetheless.  Transit is not a zero--sum game.  Every train ride does not mean some car or aircraft will no longer be used. 

With a fancy luxury HSR train in service in California, can you see the highways emptying out, and the friendly skies filled with half-filled aircraft?  Ridiculous, right?

And the number of inter-city riders on the trains will have no effect on local and regional transit use.  Finally, to pursue this discussion for one more point, both the airways and the highways are used for freight movement.  If their use requires expansion, that also would have nothing to do with whether we build HSR or not.

And, have I mentioned that highways go everywhere and connect to everything, unlike trains? And that highways carry anyone with a car or a bus ticket; that is, they're for all of us, not just a select few. 

The high-speed rail customer comes from a much smaller cohort of the population, primarily the professional, tourist and leisure class, not all the rest of us.

Dan Walters: California is ignoring its decaying roads

As the California High-Speed Rail Authority was staging a made-for-television event last week to ballyhoo its latest plan – or pipe dream – for a bullet train system, an equally dense document that paints a more ominous transportation picture was quietly circulating.

It's an update of the California Transportation Commission's periodic snapshot of transportation services and needs – state and local, public and private.

The CTC's bottom line: What we have is falling apart from heavy use and much-neglected maintenance, and as population and travel demand increase, we must add more capacity to handle both human and goods movement or face increasing gridlock and economic decay.

Bullet train cheerleaders claim that building it will negate the need to spend $170 billion on highway and airport expansion.

The CTC report says that even if we have a bullet train, we need to spend three times that much over the next 10 years on transportation but can count on less than half from current revenue and capital sources, leaving a net gap that approaches $300 billion.

"California must meet the challenge of its decaying infrastructure with a large increase in capital investments by all levels of government, as well as resources from the private sector," says the CTC's report to the governor and the Legislature.

"Failing to adequately invest in the restoration will lead to further decay and a deterioration of service from which it may take many years to recover. Allowing this to happen obviously would make California a less attractive destination. The future of the state's economy and our quality of life depend on a transportation system that is safe and reliable, and which moves people and goods efficiently."

This is serious stuff and should top the political agenda. And it isn't any secret, since state and local officials have been warning for years that the state's once-vaunted transportation infrastructure is deteriorating. We have the nation's most congested roadways and, according to the Federal Highway Administration, the nation's second worst pavement conditions.

Over the last three decades, the state's population has increased by slightly over 50 percent, but vehicular travel – much of it pavement-crushing trucks – has doubled.

The warnings have been largely ignored because maintenance and rehabilitation don't have the sex appeal of high-profile projects at which politicians can cut ribbons and pose for the cameras, and because fixing transportation would probably mean tax increases, such as a boost in the long-stagnant gas tax.

Before we spend billions on a 200-mph bullet train, however, we should ensure that the highways, streets and other facilities upon which we depend for basic transportation each day are adequately maintained and enhanced.

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Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters
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