Thursday, May 26, 2011

Stop high-speed rail before it starts

by MARK LANDSBAUM
Orange County Register

For only $43 billion, or maybe $66 billion, or maybe more, plus another billion a year for three decades, Californians might someday, although not real soon, be graced with what variously has been described as "the bullet train to bankruptcy"; "the train to nowhere"; "the train almost to Bakersfield," and assorted other epithets or, perhaps more appropriately, epitaphs. What a deal, eh? Not exactly.
The much-heralded, but much less-likely to locomote, 200-mph bullet train may never leave the station. Good riddance.

In 2008 Californians engaged in big-time impulse buying. By a 53-47 margin, voters decided they would like a real fast train to whisk along, on tracks that don't yet exist, between San Francisco and Los Angeles and points south. After all, the French do it.
Like most of what has gotten California into its fiscally calamitous condition, little regard was given to the project's cost-benefit ratio, even though $9.9 billion in bonds would have to be paid off at a cost of about $2 for every dollar borrowed.

"Put it on a credit card," was part of the contract authorized by the 6.6 million voters who said "Yes" to Proposition 1A. That computes to about one-sixth of all Californians committing all of us to an immense boondoggle to be enjoyed, at best, by about one-sixth of the number who voted for it.
As with all boondoggles, what promised to cost "only" $32 billion in 2008 now is estimated to cost $43 billion. Less-gullible estimates put the price tag at $66 billion.
Plus, Washington politicians now holding the purse strings give no indication they are willing to part with more money to help lay the tracks. And in Sacramento, even spend-a-holic Democrats are unlikely to find much more dough, if any, to throw at the train as long as they are staring at projected $10 billion budget deficits stretching at least four years into the future.
What's that mean for the bullet train? At the least, delay. What does delay mean? It will cost even more.
At least the federal government kicked in about $3 billion so far. The problem is that when the House of Representatives was captured last fall by Republicans, that money spigot began to run dry. What would it mean if federal funds flowed no more?
"Ongoing federal funding is necessary to give the private sector confidence to invest," a California High-Speed Rail Authority spokesman acknowledged. So far, with only a handful of billions from Washington, no private money has materialized. Imagine when none ever comes.
Will state government pick up the slack? Not likely. The state's independent Legislative Analyst recommends rejecting the rail authority's $185 million budget request and reducing it to a paltry $7 million while officials figure out what to do about the boondoggle. The Legislative Analyst's Office suggests the state take over the project because the train authority is unaccountable, inappropriate and ineffectual, on top of its funding being "highly uncertain."
What would it mean for the state to withhold that money?
"Delay, cost overruns, a loss of talent from our consultant team, a loss of private-sector confidence, less confidence from our federal funding partners," the agency spokesman told us.
Suddenly $66 billion may be too low. Incidentally, that's more than state government plans to spend this year on public schools, kindergarten through college.

What we find fascinating about this scam is that nearly everyone recognizes it to be a boondoggle, even the usual suspects you might expect to find in cahoots. State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, said last year that Wall Street bankers told him "almost universally, they're convinced that no one can finance the routes from L.A. to the Bay Area, that it just will never work economically, certainly in the foreseeable future."
In the state Senate, a Democrat has proposed firing the train's board of directors, and a Republican has proposed defunding the project. Even the large daily newspaper up the road from our offices, known to be several degrees ideologically to the left of yours truly, editorialized last week that, "it is a monument to the ways poor planning, mismanagement and political interference can screw up major public works."
Environmental groups, agricultural interests and NIMBYs through whose upscale townships the train proposes to rumble have raised objections because of the disturbance such a massive project and intrusive operation would create. Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto have sued on environmental grounds.
Is there anyone left still aboard this train? It's not every day an idea is so bad it gets shot down from every quarter. We would expect Republicans, generally, to despise the proposal as crafted. Generally, they do.
The Republican chair of the House railroads subcommittee dubbed high-speed rail schemes "insanity," while the House Transportation Committee chair dubbed them a "Soviet-style train system." The California State Senate Republican Caucus more than a year ago asked whether high-speed rail is "simply a glossy work of fiction that will create a funding black hole, promising decades of public subsidy for big construction contractors and the companies tasked with building the trains and locomotives."
The GOP caucus seemed to answer its own rhetorical question by pointing out that during the 2008 bond campaign, train promoters promised ridership would be 117 million people per year by 2030 and that trips would cost only $55.

One year later, ridership estimates dropped 60 percent, and the estimated price of a ticket doubled. And that was more than a year ago. It's anyone's guess what ridership estimates are now. Why's that important? Prop. 1A requires the train pay its way. Taxpayer subsidies are prohibited for operating expenses.[See page 8 in the text of Assembly Bill 3034, at 2704.8(J)]
That's partly why the state's independent Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor reported to the Legislature this month that new estimates must be calculated for ridership---and costs.
If you're a bothered by this boondoggle, you not only have a lot of company, you should be. We asked what would happen after spending all these billions to build speedy trains, lay hundreds of miles of tracks, acquire countless acres of rights-of-way and construct depots, only to discover the train doesn't operate profitably. Will trains stop rolling?
"That will be for a private concessionaire to contend with, not the state," the Rail Authority's Jeffrey Barker told us.
Picture that. After spending $43 billion or $66 billion or whatever, the bulk of which will be siphoned from taxpayers' pockets, private train operators discover their gaudy toy can't operate profitably. Is it conceivable a private company would continue operating at a loss? Or walk away?
California may be buying an exorbitantly priced, 800-mile-long trinket.
"What are the contingency plans?" we wanted to know.
"Again, this risk would be transferred away from the state to a private concessionaire," we were told. Not very reassuring, is it?
We doubt things will get that far. "Without some participation by the federal government, we would not be contemplating constructing a high-speed rail system," Barker told us.
Considering Washington's climate, it's time to stop contemplating. Money from Washington so far came not only courtesy of the boondoggle-minded Obama administration, it came as pork with strings attached, dictating where it must be spent. That's why the first 130-miles of track are proposed from not quite Modesto to not quite downtown Bakersfield. The sparsely populated Central Valley may be the least-likely stretch of California to provide long-distance train riders. Train authorities concede that if only the Central Valley segment is built, it can't be profitable.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association's Jon Coupal pointed out two years ago: "[A] devastating study by the Reason Foundation...revealed that (high-speed rail) proponents representations regarding costs, fare price and profitability were pure fantasy."
Sooner or later, reality bites. People ought to come to their senses in time to cut off further taxpayer dollars to this high-speed, white elephant before it becomes just another California Fantasyland museum piece.
Thanks again to High-Speed Rail Talk for the link.

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26 Comments:

At 9:57 PM, Anonymous Peaches said...

Bob - what the fuck is wrong with you? High Speed rail is the most important infrastructural investment this county has made in 60 years. You don't like the cost? Too fucking bad. What do you propose as an alternative? More traffic? More fucking freeways?

Since you've obviously made up your mind, I'll say what 72% of San Franciscans say every Tuesday: Please get run over by a bus as soon as possible. NO ONE Likes you.

 
At 9:00 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

The name is "Rob," not "Bob," Peachypoo. Typical that, as a high-speed rail booster, you can't even get that basic fact right. You represent a faith-based constituency, since you can't deal with the realities of the issue.

No one likes me? Oh dear, you mean I'm not a member of the city's "family" that gave the unions a blank check on the city treasury and is driving us toward bankruptcy? The same morons who did that all support high-speed rail, a policy that threatens the State of California with bankruptcy! Shamefully stupid and a betrayal of the public interest.

 
At 12:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of boondoggles preferred by cranky "non-progs"

USELESS

 
At 1:50 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

This post is about high-speed rail, not the sit-lie ordinance. Pretty hard up for evidence for prog political victories, aren't you?

 
At 3:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not only will Lahood make sure this happens, he is pushing bikes

 
At 9:09 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Speaking of Sit-lie and those poor, oppressed street punks, Nevius is spot-on this morning.

 
At 4:31 PM, Anonymous Addison Paul said...

More good evidence:

http://burritojustice.com/2011/05/25/hsr-your-are-my-density/

http://burritojustice.com/2011/05/24/do-not-fail-high-speed-rail/

 
At 8:31 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

That's not evidence. It's just dicking around on a computer, cutting and pasting some maps, and throwing in a few traffic and population projections. There's no discussion of the project itself. You have to focus on the project to say anything meaningful, particularly the finances.

 
At 9:34 AM, Anonymous Darian Los Grettos said...

Bob - you are correct that union swine is a major reason this costs so much. But that's not the fault of high speed rail. Even with unions screwing things up, this project would be radically good for California almost any way you measure it. It would lower transportation costs across the board, might make the central valley livable - and a true bedroom community of LA/SF taking pressure of closer development (exactly the things you like - no more high rises in SF if you can zip in from modesto when you need to)

.. and I'm only getting started. opposing high speed rail isn't just ignorant, it's evil.

 
At 10:09 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Like every high-speed rail supporter who's commented to this blog, you haven't done any homework. Your argument is nothing but smart growth rhetoric. Click on the links in the above piece and you will find reports that actually deal with the numbers, which show that there's no way this project can possibly be a good deal for California.

 
At 5:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Homework? What "homework" have you done? You find an article that has as its conclusion the one you find appealing, declare it as correct, and a thorough debunking of the majority of opinions on the opposite side. That's not "work".

Have you researched any of the lower level details? BJ actually looked at population densities. You just read an article that says "High speed rail is a boondoggle".

 
At 7:46 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Again, there are several links I've put into this guys article that are a good place to start on the issue, especially this one.

Then move on to this one. These guys are good on the numbers, and they have meticulous endnotes that lead to other sources.

This is a blog that seems to track everything that's written on the subject, though from a critical perspective.

 
At 7:53 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

The point is that to have something worth saying you have to do some reading. You seem to think it's like a sporting event, and you just choose up sides and root for your team. Here are some pro-HSR sources, that is, they're on your team! Rah, rah!

Here's the California high-speed rail site. And here's a pro HSR blog. Compare his arguments, which I find unconvincing, with those of the HSR critics and report back here.

 
At 9:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

WHY do you find the arguments unconvincing. I can read the papers and interpret them differently than you. Tell me WHY my interpretation is wrong.

Oh yeah "Because you're a bike nut, that's why". Convincing!

 
At 9:57 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

What interpretation are you offering? You're just pulling it out of your ass. There's no indication that you've read anything, either pro or con, on the issue. Don't waste my time.

 
At 10:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Don't waste my time" e.g. "Don't make me think or do actual research, it makes my head hurt"

 
At 11:28 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

I've just provided a half dozen links that I use on high-speed rail. Where are your links? Where is your argument? I've done and continue to do "research" on the subject. You've done nothing to indicate that you know anything about it.

Here's another link on the subject for you to ignore.

 
At 12:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob, you're absolutely right, a complete fantasty. High Speed rail is a complete joke - we have to stop putting these bonds on the ballot, the idiots are bankrupting us.

 
At 2:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your definition of "research" is laughable.

 
At 2:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob isn't being bankrupted by these idiots - that would imply he pays taxes.

 
At 2:22 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

"Your definition of "research" is laughable."

What's yours? Pulling goofball rhetoric out of your ass? Put up or shut, moron.

 
At 2:33 PM, Anonymous Dr P. Hannelson said...

Is this some kind of joke? I have spent more than 23 years studying high speed rail. It is absolutely critical that California have it built.

You are correct, however, in pointing out that the costs - caused mostly by unions and lawsuit happy property owners - are incredibly high.

Spain built their line at something like 1/3 of the per-mile cost this is proposed at - though simliar but even more densely populated terrain.

The train should be built regardless (There are too many arguments to get into here), but scorn should be heaped at naysayers, profiteers, corrupt politicians and unions - hopefully if we jail a few of them we can get the price of the train lowered eventually.

 
At 4:59 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Wrong on all counts, Doc. The only scorn that should be heaped is on folks like you, who huff and puff and present no serious argument.

 
At 5:55 PM, Anonymous Dr P. Hannelson said...

No serious argument? Are you totally nuts? There are 100s of arguments, but all you really need are these:

1) High speed rail is better than driving or flying for distances around 400mi or less. It's faster & easier any way you slice it. DO you really need me to prove that?

2) We are utterly overburdend in terms of both highwayand airport capacity, plus those things cause a lot of pollution

3) Development potential for the central valley (now a nightmare of hell sprawl) is enormous and HSR is the key catalyst

4) Development there means less pressure here. Everyone wins.

It is actually evil for someone who wants to be a thinker to oppose HSR. If you are not evil, then I insist that you do some real thinking. you are deadly wrong.

 
At 9:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hopefully if we jail a few of them we can get the price of the train lowered eventually.

I'm down with throwing Rob into the clink.

 
At 10:04 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

You ignore the documents and writers I link in earlier comments that address these and other issues with HSR.

 

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