Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Be afraid; be very afraid of not building high-speed rail in California

"If you don't give us the money to build this train, we are going to punish all of you by charging you even more to build more highways and runways." 
This is a direct quotation that no one said, at least not literally.  But, this message is implied by the rail authority and the Governor of California.  It is a threat.  It is intended to make us fearful of opposing the high-speed rail project. This sleazy practice of "reaching out to all the shareholders" is, fortunately, not working. 

Sometimes, when an article passes before our eyes, we feel we've read this already and we move on. Then the article resurfaces in another publication, and a re-reading suggests that it ought to be read by many more people.

Here is such an article. It's brief and to the point.  It reiterates something we've discussed, but it remains central to the arguments that continue to be used by the rail authority and the Governor of California. 

These same misconceived contentions have also been expressed by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and were quoted in the press.  That argument says that if we don't build the train, it will therefore cost us much more to create the transit capacity in other modalities, and we absolutely must have that transit capacity.

This is the fallacious logic of: If we don't do X, we must do Y.  And, the game is rigged so that Y will always appear even worse than X. You think the the train is too expensive. Just wait what not building it will cost you.  The real answer is, nothing.  To the contrary.  We will save billions of dollars.

There are assumptions buried in this equation that are patently false.  X has a certain transit capacity. Creating that equivalent capacity in other modalities will cost more than X.  

That argument is predicated on the highly contentious issue of high-speed rail ridership.  The original claim was that HSR would carry 117 million passengers annually.  At that time, the projected cost of high-speed rail construction was pegged at $33 billion.  Also at that time, the alternative modalities costs were projected to be higher, at $71 billion.

Today, the project cost is $117 billion but the ridership numbers have gone down to around 40 million annual riders.  These are the rail authority's own numbers. Therefore, if HSR will carry only 40 million annually, wouldn't you think that the equivalent alternative modalities would also need to have far less capacity than 117 million annually, and therefore cost less?

Well, according to the rail authority, and therefore also the Governor, you would be wrong.  Now the rail authority projects, as they did in their most recent business plan, that the alternative construction has risen to -- wait for it -- $171 billion.  WOW!  That makes no sense whatsoever.  

We can project this argument foward.  We already know that the ridership number of 40 million is also a gross exaggeration. All we need to do is look at other HSR systems and see their actual ridership far lower than was initially projected. 

Furthermore, we also know that the current cost estimate of $117 billion is bound to go higher.  Yet, we can also safely say that the alternative transit modality costs will be even lower, having to match an even lower potential HSR ridership.  One conclusion that can be drawn is that rather than costing more for building more highways and runways to sustain the equivalent HSR ridership forecast, it will actually cost far less and be a much better bargain than HSR.  

However, don't expect to hear that case being made by the people who stand to make fortunes from building this train, like Parsons Brinckerhoff. 

But, then, upon examination, any and all of the rail authority statements, whether in the funding plan, the business plan or any other public statements, make no sense whatsoever.  That's because they are made up -- invented -- in order to sell something that looks desirable on the outside, but is really gross on the inside.

We are being lied to.  And this threat of not building the train costing us far more is just one of the fabrications to which are subject to day after day.

President Obama And California's High-Speed Rail Fiasco

Jacob Heilbrunn | 01.17.12

President Obama has been pushing high-speed rail as one of the answers to America's technological future. Republicans have been pushing back, saying that it's a classic big-government boondoggle. They may be onto something. If California is anything to go by, the high-speed-rail project may be too ambitious and, ultimately, a fiscal disaster.

In California, unlike in many areas of the country, it's not really a partisan issue. The basic problem is whether the idea is fiscally feasible. Mounting evidence suggests it is not and the Obama administration, along with Governor Jerry Brown, is backing a bogus project that will saddle the state with enormous debts and never be completed on time. "We won't be dissuaded by the naysayers and the critics," Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood announced in December at a congressional hearing. He says private investors will help pay for the project, over and above the $4 billion promised by the federal government. Who are the investors? He doesn't say, most likely because he has no idea who would.

For a start, the estimates of the cost of the project in California, which is supposed to connect San Francisco and Los Angeles—a worthy aim—has tripled. As the estimates continue to soar, the popularity of the project is sinking. Although voters approved a $9.9 billion bond measure for the project in 2008, they're now getting cold feet, according to new polls. And well they should.

For another questionable aspect of the project is the estimated costs of not performing it. The champions of rail say that the alternative—increased use of highways and airports--would be about $171 billion. But as the Los Angeles Times reports,

Already, transportation researchers, government officials and watchdog groups are saying the $171-billion claim is based on such exaggerated estimates, misleading statements and erroneous assumptions that it is "divorced from any reality." "There is some dishonesty in the methodology," said Samer Madanat, director of UC Berkeley's Institute of Transportation Studies, the top research center of its type in the nation. "I don't trust an estimate like this." Until November, California High-Speed Rail Authority officials were asserting that the alternative cost of highway and airport construction would be $100 billion. Earlier predictions were billions lower. When the estimate for the bullet train project recently hit $98.5 billion, the authority ratcheted the highway and airport cost up to $171 billion.
Who's supplying the numbers for these costs? Private contractor Parsons Brinkerhoff, the Times says, which helped pay for the campaign for the bond fund back in 2008. It also has 108 employees working on the rail project in California. At a minimum, conflicts of interest would seem to be rife.

None of this appears to have deterred the Obama administration. President Obama wants to head into the 2012 campaign by bragging about the progress his stimulus package has made in preparing America for a new, high-tech future in California and elsewhere. Rail can be an effective way to move people in dense urban areas and cut down on pollution and congestion. The idea of high-speed rail is enticing and attractive. Its a laudable aim. But it's not one that the California project appears on track to perform.

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