Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ohio learned its HSR lesson. Why can't California?

 Three states have rejected federal funding for high-speed rail.  Yes, these were all represented by a Republican Governor.

Ohio was one of them. Wisconsin and Florida were the other two. This  article explains how Ohio's governor, John Kasich, got into this deal with our former Governator.  One more tiny piece of evidence proving how seamy politics is.

Now, what we have been watching is the enormous momentum a bad idea can have if there is lots of money involved and lots of opportunities for making money from those government funds.  Parsons Brinckerhoff has distinguished itself over several decades for having singularly sticky hands with mega-infrastucture projects, the bigger, the more "profitable." 

Everyone in the press and in California is now familiar with the incredible rising cost forecasts for the state's high-speed rail project.  We ain't seen nothin' yet!  Once the project is initiated, and construction has actually started, just watch the costs climb way beyond anything speculated about now.  Remember, they haven't yet put down a single inch of track.  One reason is that once begun, it can't be stopped. Or, at least, it will be far more difficult to stop.

In this holiday season we must never forget.  This project has never been about building trains; it's always really been about the money and the politics needed to get their hands on that money.

Rail money that Ohio spurned chugs into the California sunset: Brent Larkin
Published: Saturday, December 24, 2011, 9:00 AM
 By Brent Larkin, The Plain Dealer

A year ago, Gov.-elect John Kasich received a note in the mail from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It arrived a few days after Kasich told the Obama administration he didn't want $400 million in federal money to build a so-called high-speed rail system in Ohio. The note from Schwarzenegger, written on thick, gold-embossed stationery, thanked Kasich for his decision and promised the redirected money -- most of which went to California for its rail project -- would be put to good use.

Kasich and Schwarzenegger are friendly. Nevertheless, a few days later, Schwarzenegger rubbed it in publicly. In a letter to Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Schwarzenegger professed his "astonishment" that Kasich and other governors-elect didn't want the rail money.

Schwarzenegger should have saved California taxpayers the postage and tossed the letters in a drawer. It's now abundantly clear Kasich's decision was the right one.

Across the country, high-speed rail projects are flying off the tracks, with states either pulling the plug on them or grappling with epic cost overruns.

And nowhere are those overruns worse than in California, where most of Ohio's $400 million ended up.

U.S. taxpayers have contributed $3.5 billion in federal stimulus to the initial, 178-mile leg of California's 800-mile, high-speed rail project. And while not an inch of track has been laid, the cost overruns are already staggering.

A state report issued last month estimated the cost of the project at $98 billion -- nearly triple the original estimate of $33 billion. That's more than $122 million a mile. The completion date has been moved from 2020 to 2033. So gigantic are the overruns that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has held two hearings to examine how a project could go so wrong so soon.

And three weeks ago, California's legislative budget office said the overruns are now so great that it is "highly uncertain" the project will ever be built.

With a couple of exceptions, newspaper editorial boards in the state have turned against the rail plan, as have some Democratic legislators who were once among its loudest cheerleaders. In November, a Washington Post editorial begged, "Somebody please stop this train."

There is now a move afoot to put the issue before California's voters. If that happens, polls show it's doomed.

The California project is managed by the Parsons Brinckerhoff engineering firm. This is the same outfit the Strickland administration handed a $23 million no-bid contract to do planning and design work on the Ohio project that Kasich killed.

But California is hardly alone. Earlier this year, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Rick Scott had every right to reject $2.4 billion in federal funds for an 84-mile rail project linking Tampa and Orlando.

Explaining his decision, the governor cited huge cost overruns, high maintenance costs and wildly optimistic ridership projections. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker turned down more than $800 million in federal funds for a high-speed rail project there.

In theory, high-speed rail is a great thing for the country's population centers -- a concept good for the economy and environment. But the peanut-butter approach used by the Obama administration to dispense stimulus money for high-speed rail seemed to be dictated more by politics than practicality.

Of all the rail projects awarded stimulus money, Ohio's was by far the worst.

Ken Orski is a former administrator for the federal Urban Mass Transportation Administration who for more than 22 years has published what the National Journal describes as "an influential and widely read transportation newsletter." Orski told me the plan advocated by former Gov. Ted Strickland gave high-speed rail a bad name.

"The Ohio idea was really just marginal improvement in Amtrak service," he said. "There has to be a place in the transportation spectrum for high-speed rail, but the Ohio project was one of the poster children for how not to do this."

That's what happens to a state's reputation when it proposes spending $563 million in taxes on a train system that would move passengers from Cleveland to Cincinnati at a slower speed than the New York Central took them in 1935.

Kasich was right to kill Ohio's snail-speed rail project. It's too bad the $400 million wasn't returned to the Treasury. Instead, it's being wasted 2,500 miles to the west.

Larkin was The Plain Dealer's editorial director from 1991 until his retirement in 2009.

To reach Brent Larkin:, 216-999-4252

No comments: