Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Washington Post comes out against the California High-Speed Rail project

If you have a job, be prepared to take the day off in order to read the flood of articles headed your way on this blog today.

The most important thing that can be said about this excellent article in The Washington Post, below, is that it is in The Washington Post.  Along with The New York Times, the Post is among the most widely read papers and among the most liberal. It's audience is Washington, D.C.  That means the entire vast bureaucracy of national government and all the supporting industries and economies that support it.

I lived and worked in Washington for fifteen years and can tell you that national news is local news in the Capital city.  So, to have such a detailed critical article in the Post should be a powerful message to the Democrats, one which we have been making for some time.

If something is supported by a political party that is demonstrably good for the nation, this benefits the party that supports it. But, the obverse is also true.  When a project, especially one of this magnitude, turns out to be a really bad project, the tar also sticks to the advocates of that bad project. In the case of HSR project, all that's missing are the feathers.

I'm a Democrat and I implore my Party to let this thing go before it starts to drag them all down.  Right now, Boxer, Pelosi, Feinstein and many other key Democratic players are not only promoting this project, doubtlessly for the "free" $4 billion of federal money earmarked for California, but they are quoting what has been demonstrably untrue in order to advocate the project.  They raise issues like "jobs" which we know now are outright lies.  They also insist on repeating the other false HSR promotional refrains with which we are so familiar and which have been exposed most recently by the rail authority's own peer review group.

If they are really smart, the Democrats, beginning with the President, will drop this hot potato before it burns them painfully in the career.  Jerry Brown, are you doing your homework on this project?

California’s high-speed rail to nowhere
By Charles Lane, Published: January 9
In announcing the appointment of a new economic adviser last summer, President Obama emphasized his commitment to fact-based policymaking. It’s “more important than ever,” he said, to get “recommendations not based on politics, not based on narrow interests, but based on the best evidence, based on what’s going to do the most good for the most people in this country.”

If only the president and his political ally, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), would follow that advice regarding their pet project for the Golden State: high-speed rail. No matter how many times they tout the mega-project as the job-creating wave of the future, they can’t change the mountain of evidence that high-speed rail is, in fact, a boondoggle.

The latest authoritative warning came last week from the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group, which called the program “an immense financial risk” for the state and refused to recommend that the state legislature sell $2.7 billion in bonds to start a 130-mile initial stretch of the system.

Thanks to federal policy, if California does not start work on the rail line by Sept. 30, it will lose an additional $3.3 billion in federal money — possibly dooming the system.

But the Catch-22 is that, if California does start building without securing future funding, it could end up with a $6 billion track to nowhere. As the Peer Review Group (PRG) explains, that’s because, for economic-stimulus reasons, Washington insisted that California build the initial stretch between two outposts in the lightly populated San Joaquin Valley.

“[M]oving ahead .?.?. without credible sources of adequate funding, without a definitive business model, without a strategy to maximize the independent utility and value to the State, and without the appropriate management resources, represents an immense financial risk on the part of the State of California,” concluded the PRG, an independent body established by the 2008 referendum that authorized $9 billion in high-speed rail bonds.

And that’s not to mention the risk to U.S. taxpayers, most of whom do not live in California.

The report, published Jan. 3, was consistent with previous takes from California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analysis Office and the PRG itself.

The PRG’s caution seems amply justified, given that the project’s costs are already mounting far beyond what voters were originally told. The 2008 referendum assumed a $33 billion price tag for a system stretching from Sacramento to San Diego. But more recent estimates have reached $98 billion.

But, to Brown, the warnings lose validity through repetition. The PRG report “does not appear to add any arguments that are new or compelling enough to suggest a change of course,” his spokesman said.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has declared that “we will not be dissuaded by the naysayers and the critics,” told me to discount the PRG report. He said its lead author, former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) erstwhile transportation chief Will Kempton, used to support building a high-speed line in the San Joaquin Valley — until he “switched allegiances” and became CEO of transportation for Orange County. Kempton denies it.

One could just as easily say the California High-Speed Rail Authority angrily rebutted the PRG report because two of the authority’s board members are officials of construction unions that stand to benefit from the project. Or that LaHood’s views reflect the president’s political interests.

But enough of the inevitable pork-barrel politics. On the merits, high-speed rail would be a questionable investment even if California could afford to build it.

LaHood and other boosters marvel at bullet trains in Europe and Japan, insisting simplistically that we need them, too.

But the sprawling, decentralized cities of the United States do not make convenient destinations for train travelers. International experience shows that high-speed rail entails expensive debt service and large operating subsidies. This would likely be the case here as well, since, for better or worse, rail must compete with well-established air and car options. Business travel is one ostensible purpose of bullet trains in California, but increasingly people meet via video conference.

For these and other reasons, high-speed rail in the United States would lower carbon emissions and reduce traffic far less cost-effectively than would alternative solutions.

It’s especially odd for a Democratic president and governor to saddle California with the cost of bullet trains when the state is facing chronic deficits, tax increases and social spending cuts. Maybe this is why polls show that a majority of Californians have turned against the project. It’s still not too late to hit the brakes.

© The Washington Post Company

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