Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Is High-Speed Rail Social Engineering by Governor Jerry Brown?

This article supports many of the points we've been making recently. The question is, why is the Governor so insistent on supporting what is obviously a moribund project that has no business being launched.

We pointed out elsewhere that the Governor will have political ambitions beyond his term of office. I would imagine his being offered a Cabinet position, or that of "elder statesman" in some capacity within a Democratic Administration. 

Sons need to outshine their fathers. Watch Mitt Romney at work. We saw it with the Bush family. Brown has lived in the shadow of his father's greatness all his life. His father built stuff all over California.  What Jerry is about, is redeeming his name (remember Moonbeam) to obtain greatness, the dream of every politician.  Turning the state around; creating a grandiose vision.

Most of us who so strongly object to this project do so on rational grounds, including all the obvious short-comings of the rail authority and their transparent fabrications in order to sustain the project's existence in the face of the truth.  They tell lies, we point out their lies, and the press broadcasts those CHSRA failings. These are matters of indifference for the Governor who has his eyes fixed on larger issues.

To begin to realize his dreams, the Governor's first step was to throw as many rascals out of the rail authority and its staff, including the CEO, as he could and replace them with his own rascals.  The next step is to fold this formerly autonomous loose cannon of a rail authority within the bureaucratic folds of a Department of Transportation that includes Caltrans.  They know how to build and manage highways, and tend not to make the newspaper headlines each day. That reorganization hasn't happened yet, but it will. 

Now, the Governor can proceed to embrace those luscious, dangled $3.5 billion free dollars from Washington to add to his failing budget and make it look so much better.  Washington wants this to happen to save face, and Brown wants it to happen to build a career of greatness, like his father's. 

My colleagues wish for Brown to bring this project to a close. They want to persuade him to do so. So do I. However, I fear that this isn't going to happen for all the reasons I've been suggesting in this and prior blog entries.

Oh, and the point of this article is the assumption that Brown is pursuing a project intended to modify our behaviors; that is, get us out of cars and on trains. What we can call "social engineering."  Of course, that won't happen even if the train is up and running.  The train's customers are those that can afford to take any mode of transit they wish, drive, fly or take trains if they are available. 

This train is not for everybody; it's only for the affluent. HSR tickets will be in the $200. range as they are today everywhere else. Most drivers will not get out of their cars for a $200. train ride. There won't be that much social engineering or behavior modifying going on.  But, there will have been spent hundreds of billions of dollars on this social experiment, and they will have been wasted.

High-Speed Rail in Calif.: What Price Behavior Mod?

Posted 1/17/2012
07:10 PM ET

High-Speed Rail: Spending $100 billion on bullet trains that may or may not get some people out of their cars isn't transformative, just wasteful. So why is California's governor still on board?

Back in April 2009, Barack Obama was still in his yes-we-can mode, and he had this to say about his vision for high-speed rail: "Imagine whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour, walking only a few steps to public transportation, and ending up just blocks from your destination. Imagine what a great project that would be to rebuild America."

Coming on three years later, that rail system remains today what it was then: imaginary. And it seems likelier and likelier to stay that way. Despite the administration's commitment of $10 billion in federal stimulus money and tub-thumping for bullet trains, high-speed rail looks like an idea whose time has passed, or will never arrive.

State governments in Ohio and Florida have turned down federal money for high-speed trains. California is the last state still committed (at least officially) to a major intercity line. But that project is turning into a very expensive joke. Or, to put it less kindly, a fraud.

Every selling point that induced the state's voters to approve a $9.95 billion bond issue for it in 2008 now turns out to be bogus. Its estimated cost has risen to $100 billion from $40 billion. Its completion date has been pushed back to 2033 from 2020. Its performance promises — such as 2 hour, 40 minute travel time from Los Angeles to San Francisco — no longer look tenable.

In the latest blow to its credibility, the cost of alternatives (that is, more highways and airports to soak up future travel demand) has been shown to be wildly inflated.

Parsons Brinckerhoff, the New York-based engineering firm that has been deeply involved with the project from the start, has claimed that the rail system would spare Californians the need to build $170 billion in other transportation improvements. But the Parsons figure assumes levels of ridership that have no connection to reality.

The California High-Speed Rail Authority estimates that it will carry 30 million to 44 million passengers a year by 2040. Parsons, with an obvious interest in keeping the project alive, assumes ridership three times that. The upshot is that, at a realistic estimate of future use, the existing alternatives can handle the extra load more cheaply than the new rail system would.

For these and other good reasons (including an absurd decision to build the first leg of the system far from big metropolitan areas and most riders), public support for high-speed rail has evaporated. According to one opinion poll taken last December, most Californians want to get a chance to get a revote on the 2008 bond measure, and 59% said they would reject it this time.

One man bucking this trend — if anything, doubling down on the project — is Gov. Jerry Brown. He has just appointed one of his advisers as the new chairman of the rail authority and has publicly defied the skeptics.

"A lot of people want to turn off the lights," he said last week. "I'm not one of them. We're going to build, and we're going to invest, and California is going to stay up among the great states and great political jurisdictions of the world."

Brown is no fool. He can see the numbers as well as anyone, and he knows that there are plenty of other ways to produce union construction jobs. So why is he still so gung-ho?

Taxpayer advocate Joel Fox suggests that Brown wants to emulate his father, Pat Brown, who is remembered as a great builder. From 1959 to 1967, the elder Brown oversaw a boom in public projects — highways, universities and, most notably, a huge water system linking the state's north and south. Could high-speed rail be the younger Brown's 21st-century take on the same theme?

We can't read Jerry Brown's mind, but those echoes of big projects in the past make a point all their own. Back then, the state was building to meet the demands of its explosive growth. It was giving people what they wanted and needed — and were certain to use.

High-speed rail is nothing like that. It's not about meeting a need, but about changing behavior. Just think how many times you have heard that high-speed rail (or rail projects in general) will "get Americans out of their cars."

For these projects to pan out, in other words, millions of people will have to abandon the freedom and convenience of the private automobile. And for what? Travel times that can't come near the speed of airlines? Forget about it.

Back in the road-building days, states accommodated drivers on the drivers' terms. Now transportation engineering, at least in the rail realm, is a branch of social engineering. If Jerry Brown really wants to be remembered as a builder, he'll drop the behavior modification and go back to the basics.

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