Thursday, March 15, 2012

Keep the high-speed rail dragon alive, or, like St. George, slay it?

Two positions on the current status of high-speed rail and if it should continue, taken from The Sacramento Bee. Pia Lopez says keep the project going.

Ben Boychuk says stop the project.  Since Lopez came first in the article, I couldn't wait to read what Boychuk had to say and responded to Lopez's points myself.  Boychuk did a better job than I did.
Head to Head: Should California abandon its high-speed rail project?
Published Thursday, Mar. 15, 2012
THE ISSUE: Voters in 2008 approved Proposition 1A – the Safe, Reliable High-Speed Passenger Train Bond Act for the 21st Century. The California Legislature must decide by June 30 whether to release $2.7 billion in voter-approved high-speed rail construction funds to begin construction on the first segment and take advantage of $3.5 billion in federal high-speed rail funds.
Should California abandon its high-speed rail project?

Pia Lopez: No

Of course, California should build the transportation network of the future, adding a high-speed rail option to complement car and air travel, reducing roadway and airway congestion – and improving local passenger rail service. [Improving local passenger rail service is one thing, reducing roadway and airway congestion is another. We were told by the LAO at the Senate hearing that our inter-city transit capacity is far from fully utilized. We certainly can't use HSR as a reason for that reduction. And HSR has nothing to do with intra-city, urban and regional public mass rail transit. Bottom line? We don't need HSR.]

California has the most congested urban interstate highways in the nation – and a topography that leaves little room to expand. Ditto for our busy airports. [Wrong on both counts. Our interstate highways are far from congested. Our busy airports don't need HSR for relief. All they need is "NextGen" which upgrades in-flight management.]

We know from American history that the beginnings of ambitious, risky transportation mega-projects are the hard part. For example, though they were widely ridiculed, a handful of Sacramento merchants in the midst of the Civil War committed themselves to lobby state and federal governments and private investors for a transcontinental railroad – 1,500 miles over mountains and deserts.

The first miles were the toughest, as David Haward Bain recounts in "Empire Express": "Somehow 40 miles of track would have to be constructed – as quickly as possible – before federal aid would commence."

[A closer look at the transcontinental railroad is called for. Read Richard White's history: "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America."It was one of the most corrupt enterprises in US History. We don't need another of those.]

We find ourselves in a similar situation today. [No, we don't. The US, California and our new century are nothing like the late 19th century.]

That first 130 miles from south of Merced to north of Bakersfield would use $3.5 billion in committed federal funds – with a deadline to start construction by the fall – and $2.7 billion in state bond funds.

The full 800-mile system would take passengers between San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2 hours and 40 minutes – like the Paris-to-Brussels and Cologne-to-Frankfurt routes in Europe or the Tokyo-to-Nagoya route in Japan.  [The rail authority has already admitted that they will be unable to meet that time requirement. It will be more like four hours.]

Mega-infrastructure projects require a long-term mindset. As Gov. Jerry Brown reminded The Bee's editorial board last week, the French medieval Chartres cathedral took more than a century to build – a testament to a time when people were in the habit of investing in the future, not just in immediate gratification. [High-speed rail is like Chartres Cathedral only to the fundamentalist worshippers of high-speed rail.]

The California High-Speed Rail Authority has been responsive to legitimate concerns in the many critiques of its original plan.
[Then why have the critics not been silenced with the truth? The answer is obvious. The rail authority has been singularly un-responsive to "legitimate concerns."]

For example, upgrades to Caltrain in the Bay Area and Metrolink in the Los Angeles basin would take place while the initial 130-mile segment in the Central Valley – the 220-mph foundation for the system – is built. Current 79 mph speeds at the urban bookends would be improved to 110 to 120 mph – preparing for high-speed rail entrance.

Brown's first Proposition 1A capital outlay request is important. The usual skeptics will point out an obvious fact: federal and private funds are not yet available for the full 800-mile system. That's true for all mega-infrastructure projects.

Californians have a choice to accept risk or to go with what they know – freeway and airway congestion. Highway lanes and runways cost more than high-speed rail. [That is one of the most egregious lies of all.  It was concocted by Parsons Brinckerhoff, the prime contractor for the rail authority. They based their comparison not on ridership demand, but on what the maximum capacity of high-speed rail could be; i.e., it carried hundreds of millions of annual riders. Like all the other HSR numbers, these are also rigged to favor the project, regardless of costs.]

Now is the time for legislators to decide the state's transportation future. [It certainly is, and there is only one rational and reasonable decision. Terminate funding.]

Pia Lopez is an editorial writer at The Bee.

Ben Boychuk: Yes

Four years ago, when almost nobody contemplated a housing collapse and recession, much less a looming pension and entitlement crisis that threatens to swamp city governments, high-speed rail enthusiasts spoke of a gleaming train that in 2020 would begin moving millions of Californians from L.A. to San Francisco at 220 miles per hour for just $45 billion.

Today, the price tag is closer to $117 billion, the project completion date has been pushed back 13 years, and the train may never ever get out of Fresno.

A legislatively mandated peer review of CHSRA's fanciful business plan estimated true operating costs from 2025 to 2060 could approach $97 billion, nearly three times the original estimate of $1 billion a year.

Turns out, practically every promise and prediction about California's bullet train – from price to passenger estimates to potential profitability – was an exaggeration, a prevarication or simply utopian speculation.

Now instead of building a true high-speed rail system, the High-Speed Rail Authority is talking about a more incremental, "blended approach" that would piggyback electrified trains on upgraded existing rail transit routes. The Legislative Analyst's Office in December warned that CHSRA's revised scheme might be illegal under Prop. 1A. It may also fall afoul of federal rules governing how states may spend stimulus money.

Pia is entirely too glib when she dismisses "the usual skeptics" and the "obvious fact" that billions in federal tax dollars and private investment aren't available for high-speed rail.

The truth is, that money is not forthcoming any time soon, if ever.

Under one version of the omnibus transportation now winding through Congress, high-speed rail isn't merely zeroed out. The House bill's language also bars California from using other federal money to shore up funding for the project.

Meanwhile, Treasurer Bill Lockyer – whose job includes persuading Wall Street to buy $9.5 billion in bonds to pay for this boondoggle – says there are "substantial unanswered questions about the project's funding, and until those questions are adequately answered, it's premature to take the plunge." Given the likely answer coming from Congress, it's no wonder investors are playing hard to get.

For too long, California policymakers have in fact chosen immediate gratification over long-term thinking. The result is hundreds of billions in unfunded liabilities, and, incidentally, a crumbling and underfunded freeway system that people actually use.

Given a chance, voters would repeal Prop. 1A tomorrow. But the decision needn't go to the ballot. The Legislature should derail this crazy train before it's too late.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's "City Journal." (

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