Monday, February 6, 2012

High-Speed Rail: Why are we doing this?

It's not the Los Angeles TImes.  They love high-speed rail.  This article is from the Los Angeles Daily News, and their editorial puts it on the line.  The HSR project must be stopped. 

The more we think about this project, the more we can acquire a certain dispassionate perspective. 

We know what has happened to passenger rail in the US.  Yes, there has been a recent ridership up-tick, but the total numbers of all passenger train riders remains less than 30 million per year, and that includes all the commuters who take Amtrak to work and back home daily.

Second, there has been no hue and cry for increased or improved Amtrak passenger rail service in California.  There are local and regional commuter rail services in both the LA Basin and the Bay Area.  However, although they can and should be vastly improved, these have nothing to do with an inter-city non-commuter 500 mile rail service between LA and SF.  

The fundamental flaw here is not that high-speed rail was devised as a solution for totally inadequate transit capacity for this trip.  It's that a group of politicians (not transit professionals) have been promoting the idea of a government paid for high-speed rail project in California, somewhere. They have rationalized this "solution" by uncovering transit-related problems that they argue it can solve. As it happens, upon closer inspection, those problems will, in fact, not be solved by high-speed rail. 

The continued enthusiasm for the high-speed train is based on the misconception that this is a service like all other passenger rail, and should, ultimately, become commonplace.  The President argues that HSR should provide access for 80% of our national population.  

However, that is nothing like what high-speed rail is in other countries, and certainly would not be in this case in California. And, please note, that in most other countries, high-speed rail is highly integrated with existing and extensively used passenger rail service as a primary transit modality.  This  state has no such underlying and culturally embedded passenger rail networks on which most Californians rely.

We have stressed that this will be a luxury train.  It will provide premium service, of which high-speed is one component. There will be many amenities and indeed, speaking in broad rail transit terms, the entire HSR operation is an amenity.

The costs for construction are astronomical. So will be the costs for operation.  Therefore, even with massive government subsidies to sustain the operation of the trains, ticket costs can be guaranteed to be the most expensive of all passenger rail tickets. 

What is seldom pointed out is that whereas the rail authority keeps stating that delay increases costs and that everything will cost more than it does currently the longer we wait, they do not acknowledge that this will also be true for the train tickets they intend to sell in that distant future. 

That fact constrains ridership to be far more limited than that based on the President's requirement of access for 80% of the population.  80% of the population, even if they lived across the street from the HSR train station, would not be able to afford to ride the train; actual ridership will be a miniscule fraction of the total population. 

Such sweeping inclusiveness sounds so American, but is erroneous. Access, by definition, would be only for an exclusive, affluent segment of the population, including business executives and professionals, many with travel expense accounts.

None of what we have been saying here plays into any of the discussions or debates.  One problem is that much of the focus is on the train's construction and how many jobs that would create.  And such a discussion would not be different if the construction consisted of not much more than digging holes and filling them back in with concrete.  

Democrats in particular favor public mass transit, and see high-speed rail as one aspect. In the US, it will be nothing of the sort. The Democrats may be right when it comes to buses, trolleys, subways, and even regional commuter rail. Those are indeed, public mass transit modalities.  But that will not be the case with high-speed rail, which is, and will be quite special.

Also, Democrats favor what Unions favor; that is, work opportunities for the unemployed.  And again, unfortunately, high-speed rail construction will not be the much promised employment bonanza, contrary to all the promotional rhetoric. Promises of a glorious economic future emerging from the existence of a luxury train for the affluent is nonsensical.

An underlying message that we have been trying to present here is that the reason for terminating this project before it begins, is not the deeply flawed management, conception and design of the CHSRA, although that is how this organization has managed to point all the floodlights on itself. The issue is that even if well conceived and managed, building high-speed rail, in this time and in this place, is wrong.

It is a gilding of lilies, when we don't even have lilies, so to speak.  If anything, California needs a sharply upgraded rail system that is regional in scope within the two geographies, north and south.  There is no compelling demand for connecting them since the current and anticipated traffic is modest at best. 

It cannot be possible that I am the only one entertaining such an understanding.  Others must see this as well.  Therefore, many of those promoting this project have ulterior purposes and that has been the central premise of this blog:

It's not about the train; it's about the money.

Editorial: High-speed reality
Evidence grows that bullet train will be a misfire

Posted:   02/05/2012 04:05:08 PM PST
Updated:   02/05/2012 05:53:28 PM PST

IT is becoming increasingly clear that it would be a grave mistake to spend another dime right now on California's high-speed rail fantasy. The latest blow to the project comes from state Auditor Elaine Howle, who said that "the program's overall financial situation has become increasingly risky."

Her negative report comes on top of severe criticism from the Legislative Analyst's Office and the rail authority's own peer review group.

They all have accurately concluded that the rail project lacks anywhere near the state, federal and private financing required to build a $98 billion high-speed rail system from the Bay Area to Los Angeles.

Howle questions the rail authority's ridership projections, saying the group that reviewed those numbers was "hand-picked" by the authority's chief executive officer.

Ridership is the foundation of the fiscal viability of the rail system. Without an adequate number of riders, there will not be a sufficient revenue stream to pay for operational expenses and to attract private investors, both of which are requirements for the success of high-speed rail and to meet the mandates of the rail bond measure voters passed in 2008.

There is no way the high-speed rail system can meet the latest forecast of 36.8 million rides a year on a San Francisco-to-Los Angeles system. Where will the riders come from? There are only about 3.2 million airline riders a year going to and from Los Angeles and San Francisco and another 1.7 million traveling between Los Angeles and Oakland and San Jose.

That's 4.9 million airline riders. Even if all of them quit flying and took the train, another 31.9 million riders would have to come from those who now drive. But why would huge numbers of motorists choose a 2.5-hour train ride when they have rejected a one-hour plane ride?

The auditor also found that:

-The cost estimates do not include phase one operating and maintenance costs, yet based on data in the plan, these costs could total about $96.8 billion from 2025 through 2060.

-There are no details about the current largest potential funding source, the federal government.

-There have been inappropriate contracting practices such as splitting Information Technology services totaling $3.1 million into 13 individual contracts with one vendor. The State Contracting Manual prohibits agencies from splitting contracts to avoid competitive bidding requirements.

-The authority is missing statements of economic interest for some of its contractors despite the conflict-of-interest code requirements; and the authority does not require any of its subcontractors to file statements of economic interest. As a result, the authority has no way to verify that subcontractors do not have real or perceived conflicts of interest.

It is time for Gov. Jerry Brown to face reality and kill the high-speed rail project as it is now configured. Committing billions of dollars of money that could be used for schools and other needed state services makes no sense at a time of large budget deficits and could undermine the governor's ballot initiative asking for tax increases.

No comments: