Monday, March 12, 2012

High-Speed Rail Obeys "The Iron Law of Infrastructure"

When The Economist (a British publication) talks about "the iron law of infrastructure" we have to acknowledge that there is, in fact, such a law, or as the British say, "common law" based on repeated practice.  That law holds that for any government sponsored infrastructure project, the bigger it is, the greater to cost over-runs will be, and when completed, the lower the productivity will be measured against promised projections.  Also, it always will take longer to build than promised initially.

The California project was, when they voters were asked to support it, going to be completed by 2020.  Now it's 2033. And remember, they haven't started construction yet.

The research professor, Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford has published several seminal books demonstrating how consistent this practice has been in recent decades.

California's high-speed rail project is no exception.  Indeed, it may become the historical text-book example of this 'common law.'  Typically, construction costs skyrocket once construction has commenced.  In this HSR case, those costs have already tripled before the first shovel of dirt has been turned. 

And, what were projected to be over one hundred million annual passengers (117,000,000, a number so ridiculous that one has to doubt the sanity of the CHSRA), has now shrunk to less than 40 million. Still far too high, by the way.

The single biggest problem with this project is. . . .wait, there is no single problem.  There are a suite of problems, one greater than the other.

1. It's an "unfunded mandate." That means that the government insists on building something without funds. That's impossible, you say. You would be correct, but that isn't stopping the California Governor from taking seed money from the federal DOT and spending it to start what will surely be an unfinished effort, incomplete when the funds run out, without running any trains. Take the money and run, eh, Governor?

2. It's unnecessary. Systematic studies of the project's forecasts points out that each prediction is based on false information. It is intended to solve problems that either don't exist or this premium luxury train cannot solve. The state has many problems, transit being one of them.  This project won't touch those problems.

3. The project reeks of mismanagement. It's what State Senators Simitian and Lowenthal called not passing "the smell test." The potential for "waste, fraud and abuse" -- governmentese for corruption -- is enormous and the project has been severely chastised by a number of other government oversight agencies. Nothing that the rail authority has promised is, or will be, true.

4. The most basic way to understand this project is that it was never intended to solve any transit or  transportation problems in the state.  It was devised as a project capable of processing billions of taxpayer dollars, or, to put it in a quickly understandable way, a boondoggle and political pork, or as The Economist says and as the British put it, a "white elephant."

Yes, Stanford's Professor Richard White has it correctly as he cites our Vietnam War as an appropriate analogy.  A morass that cost us dearly in life and treasure, and today there is nothing to show for such vast and painful losses, except of course, a deterioration in the world's opinion of the United States. 

Let's put it this way: If you liked the Vietnam War, you'll love this high-speed train project.

High-speed trains
Going nowhere fast
Even California, America’s last big hope for high-speed trains, is reconsidering
Mar 10th 2012 | LOS ANGELES 

NOT long ago, Barack Obama was hoping that high-speed trains would provide America with the desired “twofer”. First, building the special tracks and locomotives would put a division or two of America’s army of unemployed back to work. Then, once built, the trains would get people out of cars and planes and to their destinations in a way that would be cleaner and use less foreign oil. 

But those dreams have mostly died. Republicans have decided that government spending, not outdated infrastructure, is the real bogeyman, and Republican governors in Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio have rejected federal money to begin building.

Only in California does the dream live on. As Governor Jerry Brown, aged 73 and a Democrat, likes to remember, another big railway project in the 19th century connected the young state to the rest of America. In the 1960s his father, Pat, served as governor and built ambitious aqueducts and highways. In the 1970s Mr Brown himself became governor for the first time, and had visions of his own grand projects. These, as much as his theological bent and his liking for meditation, earned him the nickname “Governor Moonbeam”.

Today Mr Brown still sparkles as he mocks the “dystopian journalists” and “declinists” who obstinately fail to see that California’s population will grow from just under 38m now to about 50m in 2030; and that, unless the state has something like Japan’s bullet trains, Californians will choke in traffic jams or go mad waiting for delayed flights in inadequate airports. Of late, he has compared his state’s planned high-speed train to the Panama and Suez canals. And he has added that if China, Germany, Spain and Japan can build one, there is no earthly reason why California shouldn’t do so too.

California’s voters used to agree. In a 2008 ballot measure (before Mr Brown became governor for the second time), they approved $9 billion in bonds to fund just such a train. As advertised, it was to connect the two big population centres, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area. Speeds were to reach 220mph, giving a travel time of less than three hours; the project was to cost $33 billion and be completed as early as 2020.

Then the iron law of infrastructure projects asserted itself. According to current estimates, the train would in fact cost three times as much or more, and take 13 years longer to build. Mr Obama still wants to help; he has asked Congress for $35 billion in railway funding over five years, of which $3.5 billion may go to California. But even with the bond funds, those dollops would cover less than 13% of the estimated cost. Republicans are in no mood to allocate more.

It gets worse. After the ballot measure, it was decided that construction should begin not in the two population centres but in the vast and flat farmlands of the Central Valley, where building is much easier. This means that funds could run dry before the big cities are even connected to the network. A high-speed train would then run through sparsely populated countryside, with hardly anybody riding it. 

Some call this a “train to nowhere”, others a white elephant. Using a rather more original metaphor Richard White, a professor of history at Stanford, calls it “a Vietnam of transportation: easy to begin and difficult and expensive to stop.”

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