Sunday, December 25, 2011

Questions for the Federal GAO about HSR

I'm not holding my breath, but a serious Federal General Accounting Office (GAO) audit would certainly expose the fraudulent aspects of the HSR in California. I couldn't ask for more.

In this article we're hearing a great deal from Daniel Krause, who is a professional HSR supporter.  That is to say, his salary depends upon his support for high-speed rail. Enough said.

And, by the way, I'm aware that this article is from Fox News.  That this article is categorized under Politics rather than Technology, or Transportation, is a clue to what's really wrong with HSR as it now stands in the US.  

By now we all have observed that the conservative and Republican oriented news publications have opposed the National and California high-speed rail efforts, while the Liberal and Democrat biased media have supported it.

Therefore, we are watching to see if our Democratic Party elected officials will begin to embrace the destructive realities underlying this HSR effort and say so.  

At the very least, accepting the concept of HSR as an alternative transit modality and a possible role for it in the US, both Parties should acknowledge the fact that the California HSR project has been, from the start, a disaster in the making.

This has been amply documented and is a matter of record. Almost in a Vietnam War paradoxical turn-around (saving villages by destroying them), we believe that the only way to save HSR in the US will be to terminate it.

The general improvement of passenger rail in the US should begin with a clean slate and a well thought out agenda, not with aggressive public relations campaigns. Those PR gestures are not substitutes for doing it right.  They are cover-ups for doing it wrong.

In California, the best way to conceive of high-speed rail is to start with a clean sheet of paper and some basic questions, honestly asked and honestly answered.  What do we actually need? Where do we need it?  How much of it can we afford?  What is the larger transit context of rail, all transit modalities, and the economy?  The premise that it will cost us all more if we don't build it, is unmitigated, unsubstantiated BS.  That argument is a marketing tool, not fact.Lying to promote a project is not the same thing as planning.

And, perhaps most important is to begin with the TRUTH; honest, empirically based studies, research, analysis and genuine community participation throughout the state.  For example, there can be none of the lying about surplus operating revenues, and that world-wide, all HSR systems are "profitable."  That's transparent nonsense.

Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) as a planning vehicle cannot be the charade it has been in the manipulation of the public. It must be the initiating foundation of the project, not an afterthought.  The advocacy and management of such a project must be staffed by trained professionals, not amateur politicians with personal self-aggrandizing agendas.  Once the public is lied to enough, the project stops having any right to exist.

Maybe I'm asking too much; seeking the impossible.  If so, then we will continue to make all infrastructure development in California and nationwide a political football, with truth as the first victim.  Whatever the future, projects, particularly of this order of magnitude will continue to fail, and they should.  

The constant comparison with earlier infrastructure projects, such as the Interstate Highway, Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc. are fundamentally fallacious.  Those projects had full funding plans in hand.  They were intended to serve EVERYONE, not just a select few. They met the basic criterion of  "the greatest good for the greatest number."  They were components of a public utility infrastructure, like power  utilities, water, sewage, land protection/restoration, etc.  Until HSR is re-conceived in such terms in the US or in California, there is no place for it.

California does not need, now or ever, a fancy luxury train affordable only by rich people.  It's un-American.

High-Speed Rail Project in California Under Scrutiny
By William Lajeunesse
Published December 23, 2011

The Obama administration's plans for a bullet train could be headed off the tracks in California, the one state where its high-speed rail initiative is still alive. 

Since the project was first unveiled in 2008, officials tripled its projected cost, delayed its start of service 13 years, downsized ridership projections and increased ticket prices. Almost two-thirds of Californians now say they'd vote against issuing bonds to pay for a project they narrowly approved just three years ago. 

"It is not viable. It is not the best use of tax dollars, especially when you're borrowing the money to do it," said California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who originally supported the project as a member of the state legislature. 

McCarthy, the House majority whip, is among 12 Republicans asking for a federal audit into the assumptions and potentially misleading claims used to sell the California bullet train to voters. 

Their questions cover the following concerns: 

-- Ridership projections. Rail proponents claimed more people would ride the Los Angeles to San Francisco train than all Americans who currently use Amtrak. Critics say those figures were highly inflated. While state highways are congested, a bullet train traveling that far with virtually no stops will not drive people out of their cars, they say. 

-- Cost. Originally, voters were told the project would cost $33 billion, with state government, federal government and private enterprise sharing the cost roughly equally. New projections put the price tag at $98 billion, with no accurate assessment of how much each entity would pay. 

-- Travel time. By law, the train must take less than two hours and 40 minutes to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco. That means reaching 220 miles an hour with one stop in San Jose. But other cities are now demanding equal treatment for bearing the cost and other negatives associated with train. But proponents say adding stops in Bakersfield and Fresno, among other locations, could slow the train considerably. 

-- Ticket prices. Voters were told their money would pay only for capital or construction costs. Operating revenues would be paid for through ticket prices. However, newly revised ridership figures show that could require a government subsidy of $100 per passenger per ticket. And no private company has yet stepped forward to accept their share of the risk. 

"The reason private equity is slow in coming is because Congress is not taking action," said Daniel Krause, of Californians for High Speed Rail. 

But Krause added: "We need to move forward on this project because the costs of doing nothing are far greater." 

Krause estimates that two rail lines equal six to eight lanes of highway and, with California expecting to add 20 million residents, said high speed rail is necessary to relieve congestion. 

But the current proposal keeps changing. The cities of Bakersfield and San Jose recently voted to oppose the project. Farmers in the Central Valley worry about the environmental impact and the state's powers of eminent domain to take their land if they choose not to sell. Because the train is extremely loud at high speed, officials worry about noise and are asking the planners to elevate the track near their cities. Raising track raises construction costs. 

"Costs have gone up, which is typical of large infrastructure projects," Krause admits. 

High speed rail is the Holy Grail of public infrastructure projects. The California leg would be the single largest public investment ever in the U.S. Proponents originally claimed the bullet train would create more than 1 million jobs. They recently revised that downward, to several thousand. 

"The numbers don't lie," said McCarthy. "And every time you look at this, the worse it looks." 

When the president took office, he identified 10 corridors around the U.S. appropriate for high-speed rail. The stimulus bill earmarked $8 billion to jump-start the project. Since then, almost every state dropped out of the running because they couldn't afford their share of the cost. California is still in and wants all the money that's left. Supporters' strategy is to get some rail bed laid in the cheapest place they can find, then argue California is the only legitimate high-speed corridor under construction. Other states are attempting to claim the stimulus money for inner-city train travel, arguing it will help more commuters, faster. 

Opponents in Congress have a different strategy. They believe high-speed rail is a bad public investment and believe a Government Accountability Office audit they've requested will prove it, thereby killing the project before a single spade of dirt is turned.

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