Friday, January 20, 2012

Some Thoughts on High-Speed Rail Policy

Today's policy and strategy lesson about high-speed rail comes from a paragraph just written by Ken Orski, one of our HSR gurus.
JANUARY 19, 2012 4:24 PM
The merits of HSR are not the issue
By Ken Orski
Publisher, Innovation Briefs

All of the comments so far have missed the central point in the high-speed rail (HSR) debate: that it is not the merits of high speed rail that are the issue but the Obama Administration’s handling of its HSR initiative. It’s the flaws in the Administration’s approach and its misleading rhetoric, rather than the appropriateness of HSR technology, that are the key reason why the press and public opinion have turned skeptical and why Congress, on a bipartisan basis, has refused to fund the program two years in a row. 

The Administration’s inept handling of the program was the focus of a December 6 hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. I thought our exchange about high-speed rail could benefit from taking a fresh look at the Committee’s conclusions.

Well, with all due respect for Ken's point, while I agree that the merits of high-speed rail play almost no role in the national high-speed rail program, it is not the central point.  There is no central point.  There is, instead, a lasagna of issues, of which the ignoring of the merits (or absence thereof) of high-speed rail is merely one.

The project exists, for better or worse, on many levels.  The level that has been persistently neglected at both the national and state level, is the study of transit and transportation in the US and in California, of which passenger rail is merely one component. Furthermore, we have been proceeding on the unsubstantiated assumption that Amtrak is inadequate and what's missing are high-speed trains. That is to say, the HSR promoters have been pushing this project devoid of a rational context.

No distinction is being made between urban and regional public mass transit, including rail, and inter-city travel.  The promoters have sold us on a conclusion and solution to a problem that has never been satisfactorily analyzed.  That is to say, the merits of high-speed are indeed at issue. 

Many argue that super-fast trains are obsolete inasmuch as steel-on-steel-rail is obsolete.  And if not now, it certainly will be fifty years from now, that being the target date of a fully functioning 800 mile operational HSR system in California. Let's put it this way; technological evolution is moving us away from mechanical moving parts to electronic processing and energized motion. 

Now, while it is appropriate to continuously upgrade the technologies we have (just watch what is happening to the auto and aircraft industries), high-speed rail in the US is making a revolutionary leap into the past. I know that sounds odd, but our transit technologies have been evolving away from track-based modalities.  Not true of freight, of course, but certainly it is the case with passenger transit.

The other layers of this multi-dimensional problem of HSR includes the politics and economics, as well as the underlying ideologically and philosophical differences between those who advocate for and those who advocate against the HSR program and its project manifestations. Politically, high-speed rail has become a weapon in the war between the Parties. Economically, high-speed rail not only has no possible funding, but can't be justified in dollar and cents terms. 

Ken is right, of course.  The Obama Administration was sold a faulty bill of goods and mistakenly jumped on this video-vision of zippy passenger trains fleeting all over the US.  The President said, at one point, that 80% of Americans would have HSR access.  Big Deal!  (I wonder how much the relentless lobbying of the California HSR operatives in Washington had anything to do with the President's "vision for the future.")

What if 100% of all Americans had access? So what? How many of them will be able to afford the tickets? How many of them would want or need to take this train? And even if so, how often?  The picture we have had painted for us is of multi-millions of Americans driving their cars to the junk-yard, and for the rest of their lives going everywhere by high-speed rail.  And that is, of course, absurd.

The Obama Administration was testing the waters with that first, suddenly available, $8 billion as part of the ARRA Stimulus package. The intend was to launch a nationwide effort to build high-speed rail corridors everywhere. It was an "unfunded mandate." That's when the government make demands that it doesn't provide funding for.  And, that's where we are today.

The government wants a vast, stunningly expensive program that it can't pay for and that is not based on rational planning or decision-making. There has never been a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, even as we all talk glibly of hundreds of billions of dollars. 

It is as plain as the nose on our faces that there is really no legitimate justification for pursuing this program any further. Claims of economic stimulus or jobs creation are hollow; without substance. There are no legitimate transit claims.  Anticipated traffic gridlock throughout our nation, if it comes, will not be relieved by a high-speed train. And all the other, endlessly repeated claims made by the rail promoters have been de-constructed and exposed as fraudulent.

Governor Brown, bite the bullet and make the hard decision. Whatever aspirations you have for the state or for yourself, this project will fail to deliver and will haunt you to your dying day.

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