Saturday, November 26, 2011

The New York Times still doesn't get it about High-Speed Rail in California

The New York Times; arguably the best newspaper in the country. Now on the NYT web-page, this will appear in the Sunday print edition.  The Times editorial position continues to waffle about it's opinion regarding the HSR project in California which, if not stopped, will be the single most expensive non-military infrastructure project in the history of the US. 

I don't know about you, but I find this article singularly depressing. Not only because of the NYT ambivalence ("fair and balanced") view, but because of the persistent recalcitrance of the State Legislature in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence and facts.

It is a clear demonstration that the State Legislature and the Governor don't understand anything other than what the train building community wants them to believe, beginning with the politician-bureaucrats who populate the CHSRA Board.

The first major flaw of failed leadership is not listening to what you don't want to hear, but should. This is a doomed project.

It can't and won't be paid for.  It can't and won't be built.  Nonetheless, the Democratic majority in Sacramento understands only that to continue assures that California will receive $3.5 billion in free money from Washington.  And, presumably, nothing else matters.  That is a disastrous mistake in judgement.

There are more comments interspersed in the article.

Bullet Train Project Faces Cries of Boondoggle, but California Pushes Ahead

Published: November 26, 2011

SACRAMENTO — Across the country, the era of ambitious public works projects seems to be over. Governments are shelving or rejecting plans for highways, railroads and big buildings under the weight of collapsing revenues and voters' resistance. 

But not California.

With a brashness and ambition that evoke a California of a generation ago, state leaders — starting with Gov. Jerry Brown — have rallied around a plan to build a 520-mile high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, cutting the trip from a six-hour drive to a train ride of two hours and 38 minutes. And they are doing it in the face of what might seem like insurmountable political and fiscal obstacles. [It will no longer be a two and a half hour ride, according to the CHSRA.  It will be more like four or more hours.]

The pro-train constituency has not been derailed by a state report this month that found the cost of the bullet train tripling to $98 billion for a project that would not be finished until 2033, by news that Republicans in Congress are close to eliminating federal high-speed rail financing this year, by opposition from California farmers and landowners upset about tracks tearing through their communities or by questions about how much the state or private businesses will be able to contribute.  [In other words, we don't really know what the cost will be, but it's already way beyond anything we hope to pay for; there are no funding sources available, there will be no private investments if it's not profitable, it won't be profitable, and it will do irreparable harm to residences, businesses and farms up and down California. Yet, the Democratic majority wants to spend the HSR money they can control anyhow. This is irrational and perverse.]

The project has been mocked by editorial boards across the country — “Somebody please stop this train,” The Washington Post wrote — while Republicans here have denounced it as a waste. In an unfortunate turn of timing, state officials announced this month that revenues this year were so far behind projections that California was likely to have to impose $2 billion in cuts in January.

“This will go down in history as one of the great white elephants in California history,” said Bob Dutton, the Republican leader of the State Senate. “It’s a boondoggle. The state cannot afford it.”

But for many Californians, struggling through a bleak era that has led some people to wonder if the state’s golden days are behind it, this project goes to the heart of the state’s pioneering spirit, recalling grand public investments in universities, water systems, roads and parks that once defined California as the leading edge of the nation. That was a time symbolized, in part, by another governor named Brown, Mr. Brown’s father, Pat.  [In short, it's an expressed wish for the good old days. We've given up on achieving incremental growth and recovery, and now believe that we must engage in an all-or-nothing, pie-in-the-sky project, damn the consequences. Sheer Madness!] 

“It’s not putting someone on the moon, but it’s a state version of making a giant leap forward,” said Bob Blumenfield, a Democrat in the State Assembly. “We in California pioneered the public project. It’s not a luxury; it’s a critical piece of infrastructure.” [How does Bob Blumenfield know this is "a critical piece of infrastructure?  Where's his independent analysis that defines this project as "critical?" Contrary to Bob's opinion, this project is the very definition of a luxury, based on cost to build, cost to operate and ticket costs.]

The governor has enthusiastically embraced the plan, no matter that at 73, he seems unlikely to be around for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that is projected to be more than 20 years away. “California’s high-speed rail project will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, linking California’s population centers and avoiding the huge problems of massive airport and highway expansion,” Mr. Brown said. [We've discussed and dismissed this tired war-horse of an argument.  If we don't buy this train, we'll have to buy more highways.  That's ridiculous.  The train won't do anything for those highways already hugely overcrowded.  Same with airways. Those will need to be fixed and upgraded, regardless of any other modality development.]

The California High-Speed Rail Authority projected that the bullet train would create 100,000 jobs and argued that one way or another, California would have to spend money to develop its transportation system to accommodate a population increase of an estimated 25 million over the next 20 years. [We have a major declining birth rate.  Where will those 25 million come from and how much money will they make to ride the most expensive train tickets available? All those jobs?  Are those people or "man-years"? Will those working on this railroad be able to afford to ride on this railroad that they are building? And, those numbers are the result of out-of-date mathematical models. This is not 19th century railroad construction by tens of thousands of Chinese coolies.  This is highly technical and automated 21st century railroad construction with far more machinery and far fewer people.]

“Look, it’s really difficult when you talk about something of this scale,” said John A. Pérez, the speaker of the State Assembly. “There never is a right time to do it. The reality is the longer you wait, the more it costs you.”

“California has always been an ambitious investor in infrastructure,” Mr. Pérez said. “Twenty years down the line, people will look back at it and say, ‘What took them so long?’ ”  [What took them so long to fix the existing broken infrastructure that is critical to the state's functioning? Why didn't they do that first, before playing with expensive HSR toys?  Those are the questions you should be predicting, Mr. Perez.]

The authority, at the prodding of appointees by Mr. Brown, issued what was, by all accounts, a report on the railroad that was more realistic than previous ones had been, including the higher cost and lower ridership projections. It proposed that the project be built in phases, and that no phase be started until all the financing was in place. [But, starting without all the financing in place is exactly what they intend to do and the Governor is OK with that, despite its illegality.]

The first phase would be a 130-mile stretch from Bakersfield to just south of Chowchilla in central California, at a cost of just over $6 billion; of that, $2.6 billion would come from a $9 billion high-speed rail bond passed by California voters in 2008, and $3.5 billion from federal stimulus money. [This is not the first phase. This is what they are calling the Initial Construction Section (ICS).  It will not be suitable for high-speed rail. And, note its costs, even as it will only serve infrequent Diesel Amtrak passenger trains. They now project several hundred million dollars per mile.  Are they going to use Platinum tracks?]

“This business plan takes us a step forward,” said Alan Lowenthal, the chairman of the State Senate Select Committee on High-Speed Rail. “We are more cautiously optimistic. But these are staggering amounts of money.” [So, Senator Lowenthal, what about those staggering amounts of money, which neither the state nor the federal government have, or will have? What's your point? And, what are you going to do about it?]

Emily Rusch, the director of the California Public Interest Research Group, said: “I actually walked away from the new business plan cautiously optimistic about the project’s future. There’s no question that California needs to invest in more and better transportation.” [What do mean, Emily, "there's no question?" I have questions.  There are many questions about California's transportation and transit. No one appears to either have asked or answered them. Shouldn't that come first?  Do you spend all your money first and then plan a long term budget, Emily? The motto of your organization CALPIRG, is "standing up to powerful interests."  Here's your chance to do that, Emily.]

Yet serious objections remain. [And that's why this blog exists!]

The authority said it chose the relatively remote section in the Central Valley as the first leg to be built, even though few people there are looking to use a railroad, so that construction could begin next year and meet deadlines for using federal money. But critics suggest that the real motivation was to get the spur in place, calculating that future legislatures would not be able to abandon the project before it reached major population centers.

“What they are hoping is that this will be to high-speed rail what Vietnam was to foreign policy: that once you’re in there, you have to get in deeper,” said Richard White, a professor of history at Stanford University. “The most logical outcome to me is we are going to have a white elephant in the San Joaquin Valley.”  [That's an excellent analogy.  We went into Vietnam with good intentions, having no clue to what to do when we got there. (We destroyed villages to save them!) Also we were deeply misled by the existing regime and probably backed the wrong end of Vietnam. We replaced one colonial power, the French, with our own. We are now pursuing analogous mistakes with this train project.  Thank you, Prof. White for that valuable insight.]

There is no plan on how to finance the project once the bond and federal money is exhausted, beyond a hope of private investment and public money during flusher times. Dan Richard, one of two people appointed by Mr. Brown to the rail authority, said that under the plan, each leg would be built only after the financing source was identified and would produce enough revenue to cover the costs of its operation. Therefore, he said, “I’m not as concerned about not knowing immediately where the money is coming from.”  ["Each leg would produce enough revenue to cover the costs of its operation" says Dan Richard.  That is called whistling in the dark. There is way too much demonstrable evidence that this train will be a subsidized, deficit operation, if it ever gets that far, even with the first operating leg.  And, even that's highly ambiguous, since they are unclear about when they would start HSR operations. In short, we are being scammed.]

Beyond that, several experts suggested that the train would never attract the promised ridership, in no small part because unlike, say, the Amtrak Northeast Corridor, the bullet train would go into cities that do not have particularly extensive public transit networks, forcing people to rent cars once they arrived. Low ridership would undercut the economic and environmental benefits that are part of the argument for the project.

“The whole thing doesn’t make sense unless you have the riders,” said Richard Geddes, an associate professor at Cornell University. “Based on historical experience, I tend to be skeptical of the rider projections that I see.”  [It should be apparent that the state Legislature and Governor are highly selective about the people they listen to. White, Geddes, and the Republicans are not among them.]

The Legislature is required to vote to release the bond money in order for the project to go forward. Mr. Lowenthal said that while staggered by the cost, he was looking for a way to make the project work.

“We don’t want to give this up,” he said. “We’re a state that wants to build it. We want the responsibility. We just want to make sure that what we do is successful.”  [To be successful, it would have to be a totally different project, and that's obviously not going to happen.  So, now what?]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gov. Brown should not just be making the case for train: He should make the case for a comprehensive upgrade of the infrastructure, train being a part of it.
Every Californian have different mobility needs, some will be happy with a train line, others will still need to drive. Over the course of 33 years, cities configuration will change, with more densified alternatives around city centers.
Construction for multi-residents units is booming (+50% versus last year).
There will be high-speed train customers.
Others will live in bigger houses and commute by car.
All will have access to good infrastructure - road, air, trains.
What's wrong with that?