Friday, November 4, 2011

What's wrong with this High-Speed Rail picture?

"We believe this project is going to create an economic boom in California,"  

These are the words of CEO of the California High-Speed Rail project, Roelof Van Ark, justifying the vastly increased cost projections, the reduced ridership numbers, and the reduced ticket costs.  At the same time, his business plan persists in stating that the train, unlike almost every other high-speed train on the planet, will be "profitable"; that is, make more money than it spends.

The business plan also describes the construction process as one that would continue into 2033, almost 25 years into the future. Is that when we can expect this promised "economic boom"? And, unlike freight rail which is so directly linked to the state's economy, I fail to understand how a luxury high-speed train for the affluent will generate such an economic renaissance in a state that continues to lose manufacturing and other business capacity and productivity.

It is becoming really tiresome to hear and read the endless promises of mega-level solutions that this 400 mile long passenger rail panacea will produce.  This business plan, like any other marketing plan, is filled with such vaporous promises.  It would take a lengthy monograph to list all of the rail authority's promises of solutions to the world's, the nation's and the state's problems.

One must say that all such over-promising raises suspicions that they are trying far too hard to convince us of what isn't actually true.  The train will not create all those jobs, will not turn the sinking economy around, will not remove those thousands of vehicles off the roads and end grid-lock, will not reduce our dependence on foreign oil, will not clear the atmosphere and the environment, will not eliminate the need for expansion of our airway systems and highway systems, will not sustain itself with surplus revenues, and certainly will not prevent the rail authority from coming back to the state taxpayers for more money.

Why make all those promises?  Because the costs are already mind-blowingly staggering and hugely discouraging even for the most ardent HSR supporter.  They are on a Defense Department order of magnitude.  

And, we read this business plan's cost forecast a year before construction can begin. What if the construction contract bids come in even higher than now expected?  What about all those unanticipated construction problems that inevitably arise after work is well under way?  Oh, and have we mentioned that this new $98.5 billion construction cost figure excludes the segments to Sacramento and to San Diego?  Those will cost lots more. 

"We ain't seen nothin' yet!!"

California rail agency requests billions to start construction
At a meeting of the high-speed rail authority in Sacramento, dozens of people attack the $98-billion project's cost and say it will harm their homes and livelihoods.

By Ralph Vartabedian and Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
November 4, 2011

California's bullet train agency on Thursday formally requested a multibillion-dollar appropriation to start construction next year, after dozens of people from across the state attacked the $98-billion project's cost, rationale and effects on communities.

The California High Speed Rail Authority board adopted a funding plan, which seeks to tap $3.3 billion in federal grants and $2.7 billion in state bonds to begin building an initial 140-mile segment of track through the Central Valley. That non-operational segment would run mostly through farmland from Chowchilla to Bakersfield.

The request now goes to Gov. Jerry Brown's administration and then the Legislature, where it will face tough scrutiny by lawmakers concerned about where they will find more than $90 billion to finish the system — described as the largest infrastructure project in the nation.

In a new business plan announced Tuesday, the authority said it hopes to get billions in private investments, additional federal funding and proceeds from a new U.S. bond program that will require congressional approval. Critics note that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has vowed to stop all federal funding for the project.

The authority board sat silently Tuesday in a Sacramento hearing room as one speaker after another said the train's construction would ruin their homes, walnut groves, dairy farms, businesses and potentially their families' futures.

Glen Parsons of Hanford said his family stood to lose five homes and a farm. Other mostly negative comments continued for close to two hours and came from Democrats, Republicans, tea party activists, county officials, school board members and others.

Voters approved the project in 2008, but critics say the ranks of opponents are growing, particularly with cost estimates for the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco leg of the system now three times original estimates.

The authority's chairman, Tom Umberg, said he would carefully consider the public's concerns but gave speakers just 90 seconds and then cut the limit to 60 seconds, irking some audience members who came long distances. Many demanded that the project be halted immediately, arguing that the state could not afford the rail system when it is laying off teachers and setting criminals free from prison to save money.

Given the growing cost, state Sen. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale) has said he would introduce legislation to give voters a chance to withdraw previously approved funding. 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.

Roelof van Ark, the chief executive, said he understood the concerns about cuts to the education budget, noting that his daughter is a teacher. "We believe this project is going to create an economic boom in California," he said. A few officials from Palmdale and the Central Valley praised the project.

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.

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