Saturday, June 23, 2012

Showdown for high-speed pork!

Pig train by Alexander Hunter

Since the state legislature is supposed to make a decision next week on authorizing the sale of state bonds on the high-speed rail project, there's a big push to round up support for the project. Public opinion has moved dramatically against it in the last year, which may or may not have any influence on the clueless "progressives" representing us in Sacramento. Mark Leno, Fiona Ma, Tom Ammiano, and Leland Yee have all been reliably dumb on high-speed rail, as has the Democratic Party in general, including Pelosi, Boxer, Feinstein, and, alas, President Obama. I say that as a Democrat who will vote for Obama in November.

The Democratic Party: The Dumb Party. That takes a little getting used to. Only the fact that the Republicans are dumber makes voting for Democrats defensible. (Some Republicans are good on the high-speed rail issue, though one suspects they wouldn't be very good if a Republican president and governor were pushing the project.) 

Mayor Lee showed his ignorance a year ago when he joined the mayors of San Jose, Sacramento, Fresno, and Los Angeles in a fact-free op-ed supporting high-speed rail (Big city mayors' case for high-speed rail grows stronger). Lee apparently has given the issue no more thought in the last year, since he repeated the performance in a full-page ad in the Chronicle Wednesday morning, with pictures of the same mayors all grinning like idiots, displaying the well-cared-for teeth of long-time public employees.

It's still a little surprising that neither these mayors nor anyone on their staffs has done enough homework to understand how bad---even disastrous---this project will be for California. The ad was paid for in part by the California Alliance for Jobs, which is a singing-for-their-supper labor group that doesn't really care if huge public works projects are wasteful boondoggles. All they care about is jobs for their membership. This is the sort of narrow, special interest political behavior that makes organized labor look like just another hog at the public trough.

The ad was also paid for by something called "Mayor Ed Lee's Committee for San Francisco," probably another group of fat-cat unions and/or corporations. I sent an email to the mayor's office asking who/what the group was but of course got no answer. Not surprising, I suppose, that they wouldn't respond to a blogger who thinks the mayor is a dim bulb and a liar.

A more high-toned piece of pro-high-speed rail propaganda---called a "white paper," which supposedly means a serious study---came last week from Transform, the group that spawned anti-car bike guy Joel Ramos, whom Mayor Lee appointed to the MTA board last year. (All it takes to qualify as a transportation expert here in Progressive Land is time spent in the anti-car movement, which means the Bicycle Coalition or a group like Transform.) Everyone on Transform's mailing list received an urgent email call to support the high-speed rail project. The only link in the message that works takes you to a pro-high-speed rail site that shows you how to contact state politicians: "Call Your Representatives Today! We are truly at a make it or break it moment for high-speed rail in California and in America."

The Transform study (Moving Ahead with High Speed Rail) is a lot like the SPUR study I wrote about last year. I suspect these organizations don't think many people will actually read these reports. Instead they just send a signal to faithful progs that someone, somewhere is doing the homework that validates their half-baked, groupthink view, that, yes, high-speed rail is something that all right-thinking progressives should support.

The report thinks the latest business plan---the Revised Business Plan---from the High-Speed Rail Authority is much better than earlier plans, because there will be "blended corridors," and the "urban bookends" of LA and SF will get some money to make "improvements" to their transit systems in anticipation of the day when high-speed rail will arrive. When exactly will that be? 2029 if all goes well, but there's nothing in all the reports and studies that I've read showing that it will.

The report tiptoes around some difficult issues. On the one hand, it thinks maintaining the "core project in the Central Valley"---the Train to Nowhere---is a good thing. On the other, it admits that, doggone it, Bakersfield opposes it, as does Kings County. Those hicks just don't understand how wonderful it will be when "transit oriented development" comes to the Valley and high-speed trains rip through their towns and their farms. To the author, this opposition "highlights the importance of community outreach and securing important right-of-ways before decisions are made that make future plans difficult and more expensive." No shit!

How exactly is the state going to get right-of-ways through profitable farmland and densely-populated communities like those on the Peninsula? A massive eminent domain program? That will not exactly put the state in solid with a public that, according to recent public opinion polls, has already turned against the project.

Why, for example, would Burlingame want a high-speed railroad roaring through the middle of town? The latest scheme talks about electrifying CalTrain and sharing tracks with that system, even though Union Pacific now has legal right to the rail tracks on the peninsula and shows no eagerness to surrender that right.

The Transform study buys the High-Speed Rail Authority's fantasy assumption that somehow, someday the federal government is going to give California billions to build the system, though it admits that "it is simply not possible to determine whether there will be a federal HSR program in the near to mid-future." Let's start building it anyhow based on the hope that someday the money will be available to finish it.

This is a common strategy for the boosters of mega-projects: Once they get a project started and the cost overruns pile up, they then argue that it's too expensive to stop! The authors of a study of large projects around the world ("Mega-projects and Risk") concluded that this tactic is common when selling these projects:

Cost underestimation and overrun cannot be explained by error and seem to be best explained by strategic misrepresentation, namely lying, with a view to getting projects started (page 16, emphasis added).

That "strategic misrepresentation" was practiced by supporters of high-speed rail; from the start they have inflated future ridership numbers and low-balled the system's price tag.

Something called "other funds (state, local, private)" is supposedly going to provide $5 billion for the project. Even more fanciful is the notion that "private capital" is going to kick in $13 billion. ("Therefore, the plan assumes significant private investment ---over $10 billion---in the last costly section of HSR track from the Central Valley to San Jose.") For years the CHSR Authority has been trying to sell the idea that private investors are going to invest in building the system. Not a single private investor has come forward since 2008 because they know that there's no money in passenger rail systems in the US without a government subsidy, prohibited under the terms of Prop. 1A, which requires that the users of the system pay for it. There is money in freight rail, which is why Warren Buffett has invested in that instead of passenger rail. (Amtrak is subsidized by the federal government with $1 billion a year.)  

That means that ticket prices and the projected number of passengers on the system are crucial ingredients in a plausible business plan. The HSRA claims that the system will have up to 30 million passengers a year, even though the busiest passenger rail line in the most densely-populated part of the country carries only 3 million people a year. The CHSRA's fantastic ridership projections have been an important factor in undermining its credibility.

There's an almost wistful discussion of Governor Brown's idea of using cap-and-trade as a source of money to build the system, but the report admits that this is "extremely uncertain," and it's unclear it would even be legal to use that money for high-speed rail.

It doesn't help this report's credibility when it parrots the trendy, anti-car fantasy that predominates here in San Francisco: "High-speed rail in California will respond to and support a growing preference for urban living in the younger generation---a generation that drove 23% less over the last decade and is increasingly choosing to live without a car." Dudes, high-speed rail is cool! 

Like the SPUR report, there's the awful prose that accompanies sloppy thinking: "...the Authority is utilizing the limited tools it possesses to effectuate land use change." And there's the inevitable "prioritizing," "prioritization," and "catalyzing."

The study has a section on "Risk Management," discussing the possible danger of increased costs in the future, but "As the legislature considers whether to move forward with HSR, it should do so with a view towards California in 2050 and beyond---the California we will leave our children and grandchildren." It's for the kids!

The greatest danger to our children and grandchildren from the high-speed rail project: saddling the state's taxpayers with a huge additional debt. If the $9 billion in state bonds authorized by voters in 2008 are sold, state taxpayers will be on the hook for as much as $647 million a year in bond payments even as the state, with a $16 billion deficit, is cutting aid to education and closing state parks.

Mark Powell on the revised business plan's legal issues.

Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CAARD) on the revised business plan and the travel time issue.

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