Friday, December 23, 2011

Learning from our mistakes about high-speed rail

Ken Alpern's good insights into the transit infrastructure situation in California and the suggests have much merit.  They will, of course be ignored, starting with the Governor Jerry Brown, whose single-minded pursuit of $3.3 billion federal dollars puts him in blinders whereby he can't see or have any interest in intelligent development of transit. 

The first of Ken Alpern's points was specifically for a Los Angeles Basin project that had less general application to our concerns than the other three points he makes.

Whether we approve or not, automobiles aren't going away.  There is a vast industrial and government fabric that supports auto travel and there are far too many vested interests in sustaining it.  And, auto travel is deeply woven into the fabric of our culture.

Criticizing the motor car's shortcomings, such as its fossil fuel use or the problem of traffic congestion, will not propel us into a different mind-set, especially the highly constrained uses of HSR.  It's totally fallacious to believe that we can reverse our transit predilections by coercing them.

His point that our HSR project was completely misconceptualized is more and more apparent.  Costs too much, has to go too fast, won't carry all those riders, have to charge too much for tickets, won't have consequential impact on energy, or the environment. . . . . all those realities are now well known. Whether our political and government leadership has learned any lessons about this is another matter, of course.

Finally, the whole approach to the grandiose is like the behavior of all those Roman Emperors before the Empire's Fall.  Build it big and spectacular to appease the restless masses, the plebians like us. Big mistake.

There are tons of projects that demand funding and attention due to neglect.  We could and should be fixing what's broken.   
Transportation: The Four Irrefutable Lessons of 2011

12.22.2011 KEN ALPERN

GETTING THERE FROM HERE - Locally, statewide and at the federal level, in 2011 there were both advances and retreats in our efforts to create the mobility needed to improve our personal and collective economy, environment and quality of life.  

Whether “lessons learned” from these advances and retreats will actually occur in 2012 and beyond is, unfortunately, anyone’s guess … but overall 2011 was a pretty good year. 


TWO: Light rail and other passenger rail are great, but automobile traffic will still be a transportation centerpiece for the indefinite future.

There’s nothing like a good disaster to remind everyone how much we need our freeways and roads.  Take the recent fiery tanker explosion that destroyed the Paramount Blvd Bridge over the 60 freeway and shut it down for a few days. (link) 

Now THAT was a true “Carmageddon”, and--unlike the previous I-405 freeway closure--there was no warning.  It will likely cost $5 million to fix this bridge and the adjacent freeway.  Regardless of the potential mechanical and/or human error involved in this disaster, this rapid repair is needed for funding and reconstruction of the 60 freeway ... and it reminds us all both how needed our freeways are as well as the priority of our tax dollars to pay for disasters such as this one.

On a similar but equally-relevant note, the reopening of the historic 1st Street Bridge in East L.A. after being closed as part of the Gold Line Extension and road widening efforts (link) also highlights our need for roads…and arguably promotes the best light rails as being road/freeway adjacent to supplement and not compete with our roads.

THREE: We blew it when we insisted that the California High Speed Rail Project connect LA to San Francisco in 2:40 hours in order to compete with airplane travel, and should focus now on competing with automobile travel.

The debate is now really on whether the 2:40 hour time requirement was stuck in the fine print or a goal that naïve Californians throughout the state sought for and arguably should now reconsider. (Link)  

The fact remains that the big transportation hurdle between Northern and Southern California is the long and boring I-5 car commute, and that a great deal of commuters will just take the airplane in the same way that they’ll take a plane to Las Vegas while others will endure the boring and jammed I-15 car commute.

And now that we know the costs of a 2? goal ($100 billion), the question of how to bring the costs down to the originally-promoted $40 billion is the right one.  Lots of commuters will take a “higher-speed” train of over 100 miles per hour for smaller distances or even the entire distance if service is frequent and reliable, so it’s reasonable to ask whether a 3? hour commute is worth considering if it saves lots of money and electricity on a train that appears neither cost-effective nor environmentally-friendly.

FOUR: State and federal transportation and infrastructure initiatives should be focused on getting projects built quickly and inexpensively, and not as a Trojan horse for job creation, pork barrel initiatives or throwing money at special interests that really have nothing to do with transportation/infrastructure.

Voters throughout the state and country were and still are in favor of spending tax money on building roads, rail, electricity and water infrastructure and similar priorities, but it wasn’t and isn’t hard to look at the recent state bond initiatives and the recent federal stimulus package to see all the wasteful distractions and spending that had nothing to do with a taxpayer investment in our infrastructure.

Affordable housing, overreaching labor unions, questionable environmental initiatives and other priorities really diminished the cost-effectiveness of our state and federal governmental transportation initiatives … in large part because they really don’t have much to do with improving transportation.

Did and does our state and federal spending on roads, rail, sewers, power lines, etc. get to enough projects and people to please the taxpayer and put a dent in unemployment and our economy?  Hardly.  

If we want to increase our annual spending on transportation in Washington, the annual transportation budget (and TEA-21 seven-year plan) should be upgraded and renewed after years of delay, and if it’s funded at the expense of lowering funding for social services, defense or other areas of undeniably wasteful spending (with much larger budgets than we commit to transportation/infrastructure) then so be it.

Stop with the gimmicks, recognize taxpayer investment as just that—and build projects quickly and on budget.

It’s that simple, but with politics and human nature, it’s questionable that such a simple lesson will be truly learned as we march into 2012.

But one can hope, right?

(Ken Alpern is a former Boardmember of the Mar Vista Community Council (MVCC), previously co-chaired its Planning and Outreach Committees, and currently is Vice Chair of its MVCC Transportation/Infrastructure Committee. He is co-chair of the CD11 Transportation Advisory Committee and chairs the nonprofit Transit Coalition, and can be reached at He also co-chairs the grassroots Friends of the Green Line at   The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Alpern.) -cw

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