Thursday, February 03, 2011

Support for high-speed rail is collapsing

The curtain goes down on U.S. high speed rail
By Fred W. Frailey
Trains: the magazine of railroading
March, 2011

I'm going to go out on a limb---but not a long one---and declare an end to the era of high-speed trains outside the Northeast Corridor just two years after that era began. Yes, kaput. I am amazed how abruptly it ended, how enthusiasm and political backing for the $10.5 billion federal government program simply dissolved. Voters in the elections last November gave high speed rail no support at all. In two states, Wisconsin and Ohio, Republicans campaigning for governors vowed to stop the high-speed rail projects under way in their states and won.

But the collapse of support is not merely a partisan event. Bigger forces are in play. The execution of this idea was botched. Even if it hadn't been, there's no money. Huge federal deficits led to a voter backlash in 2010. Whether or not deficit spending helped the economy climb out of the Great Recession, people are alarmed. They see how excessive debt led Greece and Ireland to the brink of national bankruptcy. Could it happen here, they ask? From now on, politicians will feel the heat to lower budget deficits and improve the government's balance sheet.

There are two ways to kill high-speed rail. One is for Congress to take back all of the economic stimulus and high-speed rail grants that the Treasury has not yet dispersed---which is to say, practically all of the high-speed rail money. As of late 2010, a mere three projects had begun turning dirt to improve tracks. Those are in Illinois, Maine, and Vermont.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the new chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, wants to redirect unspent high-speed rail money into Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, where he feels it will do the most good. Other House Republican leaders want to return unspent money to the Treasury and not re-spend it.

Taking back appropriated funds is called a rescission, and it would drive a stake through the heart of high-speed rail, abruptly ending President Obama's initiative almost everywhere. But wouldn't the U.S. Senate, still controlled by Democrats, refuse to go along? I'm not sure. Bear in mind that in less than two years, 23 Senate seats now held by Democrats will be up for re-election, versus just 10 held by Republicans. In today's environment, fiscal austerity easily trumps passenger trains. If you doubt me, please note how few politicians are rallying behind high-speed rail, having seen its toxicity in last fall's elections. Imagine that funds for high speed rail become part of a big, omnibus package of rescissions. I could see the Senate going along. Then the onus would be on President Obama to affix his signature or be cast as a spendthrift before an angry electorate.

Maybe you don't think rescissions will succeed. OK, then high-speed rail will starve to death. High-speed rail will get no more than $1 billion from Congress in 2011, maybe less. Then what the feds haven't paid for, probably won't be paid for. California would be left to finance the unfunded $30 billion or so of its $43 billion-plus high-speed line from San Francisco to Southern California, which it obviously cannot; the state looks more and more like Greece. Also stranded would be Illinois, whose $4.4 billion project to run 16 110-mph trains a day between Chicago and St Louis is barely one-fourth funded. The votes not to spend more money on high-speed rail are there.

So any way you cut it, the high-speed show is over. The Onion satirizes [see video below] that Obama will soon unveil a plan for high-speed buses instead. Next high-speed rail will probably become fodder for Jay Leno's monologue. It's hard to recover from ridicule.

Many aspects of this saga were handled badly. Election results suggest that the public was never really won over. Plus, very few high-speed rail grants funded entire projects. Most paid for planning (such as state rail plans for Idaho and Colorado) and environmental studies, or at best the start of ambitious plans, such as in California and Illinois. By dividing the $10.5 billion pie into 107 slices, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had something for almost everyone.

But frankly, there was little to show for it. Amtrak, which sorely needs money to improve the Northeast Corridor, wasn't even eligible to seek a high-speed rail grant.

The Federal Railroad Administration, the rail industry's safety cop, was unprepared for its new role as grant-giver. Enforcing safety, FRA adroitly plays the role of Big Foot. It tried to administer high-speed rail the same way, demanding that host railroads agree to onerous penalties for less-than-ideal train performance once improvements were in place; the railroads refused to go along. Agreements that could have been in place six and eight months ago are still being haggled over. Delay is murderous to public support.

And the cause wasn't helped when FRA gave the California High-Speed Rail Authority another $715 million in October on the condition it be used quickly to build in the Central Valley district of an endangered Democratic congressman (he won in a recount). The Sacramento Bee is calling this first, 54-mile segment of the 800-mile California high speed rail system "the railroad to nowhere."

I don't know what could reverse the course. Obama could try to put high-speed rail back on track, but he would need more support from Democratic Party office holders than I think is forthcoming. And don't look for railroads to rush to the defense of bullet trains. "We're neutral," a Class I executive tells me.

The one undertaking that could benefit from all this is the Northeast Corridor, which cries for capital dollars. Priority 1 should be constant-tension catenary wires above the rails to enable 150-mph (instead of 135) running south of New York And 1976-era Amfleet cars beg to be replaced.

But high-speed rail, R.I.P.
Thanks to High-Speed Rail Talk for the link.

video

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16 Comments:

At 5:22 PM, Blogger DonP said...

The hook for all of this is all the "Federal Money" the State will get. Where do the State folks think all that money will really come from?? The "HSR fairy". NO!!! It all comes from the taxpayers who already have to worry about a $14,000,000,000,000+ deficit. Folks, we are all in real trouble but the politicians don't seem to realize this.

 
At 5:35 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

You're right, Don. As a Democrat, I'm disappointed in President Obama---and my two Senators, Boxer and Feinstein, who were still on board for this boondoggle last November. Don't they or anyone on their staff look at the numbers? Makes my party look like, well, tax-and-spend liberals.

 
At 10:48 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

But we have to give credit to Democrat Bill Lockyer, State Treasurer of California, for sounding the alarm on the shakey funding of CHSR last year.

 
At 11:11 AM, Anonymous Government Grants said...

Many aspects of this saga were handled badly. Election results suggest that the public was never really won over. Plus, very few high-speed rail grants funded entire projects.

 
At 12:21 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

The CHSR ballot measure in 2008 didn't pass by a landslide, and it wouldn't have passed at all without the provision that banned the state from subsidizing its operational expenses after it was built. Even so California's voters were conned by inflated passenger projections and other puffery by HSR's supporters.

 
At 12:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good thing we have all that oil - "Peak Oil not being a problem" and all that...

Wikileaks Cables from Saudi Arabia re:Saudi's overstated their reserves

 
At 12:49 PM, Anonymous Kato Kaileio said...

Rob - high speed rail is an investment. It's also the most important piece of infrastructure this country has proposed since the interstate highway. It's absolutely critical and NEEDS to be built.

It's unfortunate that California is such a boondoggle of lawsuits and pansy Palo Alto chumps who don't want to hear an occasional train whistle.

Opposing High Speed Rail is shitting on this country.

 
At 7:27 PM, Anonymous NONIMBYS said...

Anderson is The MAIN NIMBY along the Caltrain line...WE ARE GOING TO BUILD HSR IN CALIFORNIA

 
At 7:55 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

No, I support Caltrain, a rail line that's demonstrated its untility already. Better to put the HSR money into Muni, Samtrans, and Caltrain than squander it on a completely new, very expensive system that will only carry a relatively few well-off people. Just because it's a train doesn't mean it's a good investment.

 
At 9:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you need to read this

 
At 9:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is also relevant...

From CAHSR blog.


He’s doing that not just because he likes the concept of bullet trains. It’s also part of the president’s 2012 election strategy. David Axelrod and other White House advisors have made it clear that a key to their 2012 efforts will be to mobilize young Americans – those of us 30 and under – to become the president’s base, just as they put him over the top in 2008. Millennials quite strongly support HSR and have no patience for the arguments against it. They have no sympathy for NIMBYs, because Millennials are seeing their future being blocked by people who already got theirs, and demand innovation to reopen the paths of upward mobility. Millennials don’t buy the argument that nobody will ride trains, because they’re shifting away from driving and know they’ll use trains regularly. Millennials reject the claim that HSR is uneconomical, because they have no problem spending billions to invest in the future, and understand that the truly uneconomical and wasteful thing to do is remain chained to our cars and ever-rising oil prices.

--> Your opinion should matter less because you have less stake in the outcome. It's true.

 
At 10:25 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

If what you say about "milennials" is true, they/you are morons. Look at the numbers, and you can see that HSR is a dumb investment, especially when there are so many existing transit systems that carry millions of people every day are in financial trouble. This is not a generational issue; it's a matter of supporting a stupid waste of taxpayers' money building a system that only a few well-off people will ever use. You're being played for a sucker by the HSR lobby.

 
At 10:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's a matter of supporting a stupid waste of taxpayers' money building a system that only a few well-off people will ever use.

--> You've just made a case for ending taxpayer support for airports. Thanks.

 
At 6:26 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Airports have already been built, and the airlines pay for almost all the upgrades. California's HSR authority isn't close to having enough money to even build the system. There won't be much help coming from the State of California, either, since we're virtually bankrupt.

And consider this on subsidies to different transportation systems:

"Trains rely heavily on subsidies. Drivers pay 98 percent of the costs of roadways through gasoline taxes. Government subsidies from other revenue sources amount to only a half-cent per passenger mile. Air travel is subsidized to an even lesser extent: one-tenth of 1 cent per passenger mile."

"Amtrak's subsidies come to 22 cents per passenger mile, and urban rail transit subsidies average 61 cents per passenger mile. (Amtrak's new Lynchburg-to-D.C. run has exceeded ridership expectations, yet fares still haven't covered the operating costs, let alone operations plus capital costs.) New York's subway system boasts the best financial record in the country. Yet its fares cover only two-thirds of its operating cost."

 
At 9:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Airports have already been built, and the airlines pay for almost all the upgrades."

Another fact free comment! Terminal 2 is about to reopen. Find ONE piece of supporting evidence that the airlines paid for that.

"Drivers pay 98 percent of the costs of roadways through gasoline taxes."

You trolls keep reposting various versions of that (unsourced) lie over and over and over. Doesn't it get tiring?

 
At 9:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Airports have already been built, and the airlines pay for almost all the upgrades."

Another fact free comment! Terminal 2 is about to reopen. Find ONE piece of supporting evidence that the airlines paid for that.

"Drivers pay 98 percent of the costs of roadways through gasoline taxes."

You trolls keep reposting various versions of that (unsourced) lie over and over and over. Doesn't it get tiring?

But if we want to go down that road - MUNI only covers 20% of its operating costs. Shut that bitch down!

 

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