Saturday, August 23, 2014

Jason Henderson takes a vacation

Guess what Jason Henderson did on his vacation? Yes, it had to do with riding his bike.

But before he tells us about that in his latest Guardian piece (Contending with cars, at the polls and on vacation), he unburdens himself about the political situation in San Francisco:

San Francisco's politics of mobility devolved into a cesspit this summer. Beginning with Mayor Ed Lee's retreat on Sunday parking meters, purportedly to garner support for his transportation bond and vehicle license fee proposals, Lee's bait and switch ultimately backfired. Rather than nudge the city's transit finance debate in a sensible, progressive direction, confusion and duplicity by the mayor and some supervisors over parking policy has instead empowered a Tea Party-like faction that's placed a backwards initiative on the November ballot.

Mayor Lee is worried about getting city voters to approve the $500 million bond, which needs a 2/3 vote to pass. Since it apparently isn't polling well, the mayor tried to placate voters by rescinding Sunday parking meters for two years and keeping the raise in the vehicle license fee off the ballot.

Seems to me that the mayor has been straightforward about his concerns. No "duplicity" is evident.

What Henderson calls "a backwards initiative"---Proposition L on the November ballot---was in the works long before the calculations by the mayor Henderson mentions. Some Republicans are prominent supporters of Prop. L, but so are a lot of Democrats like me.

Henderson tries to pin the Tea Party label on those who support that proposition and oppose the city's anti-car, pro-bike movement, but he and the Bay Guardian left are the only thing in San Francisco's close to Tea Party-like political extremists (see this and this).

As I've argued for years, the left-right political labels are not helpful in understanding local politics and issues. The reality seems to be that opposition to the anti-car movement has united many city liberals and conservatives against the anti-car policies pushed by City Hall and the Bicycle Coalition.

On his vacation, Henderson took Amtrak to Portland and rode his bike back to the city:

The trip to Portland takes more than 17 hours on a good day. I'm not necessarily arguing for high-speed rail, but this length of time is a big problem for Amtrak. It's not a technology problem — it's politics. Amtrak is caged by the timetable of freight railways that own the tracks. This often results in delays since the freight railroads have eliminated double tracks and rationalized their routes to maximize profit while having little concern about passenger rail.

That's not "politics"; it's economics. Passenger rail hasn't been profitable in a long time, but freight rail is, which is why Warren Buffett invested in freight rail instead of passenger rail. Amtrak is already subsidized by the federal government with a billion dollars a year. What does Henderson suggest?

Rail is critical infrastructure and key to our national energy and climate policy. It should not be left to the whims of freight haulers and private profit. It's time for the political will to coordinate the right-of-way to improve travel times as well as increase frequency of passenger trains. Six years ago, improving Amtrak was a signature platform of the Obama Administration. But Republicans — many filled with racist vitriol — have fought anything he stands for. And they hate Amtrak almost as much as they hate Obama. During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republicans vowed to gut Amtrak and mocked Obama's pro-Amtrak policies. In Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, the hate ran so deep that funding for rail was simply sent back to Washington, even as cities in all of those states pined for rail as an economic development strategy.

This is muddled and poorly-informed. Of course Republicans tend to oppose whatever Obama supports, and some of them may be racists. But what Henderson is referring to in Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin is not support for Amtrak or "rail" in general but Obama's high-speed rail program. The governors of those three states are Republicans, which of course made it easy for them to oppose the president's program. One suspects that if a Republican president was proposing the program, they wouldn't have opposed it!

But they weren't necessarily motivated by "hate" or racism or even politics; they understood that by accepting the federal high-speed rail grants their states would be responsible for the inevitable cost overruns in building the systems and then have to pay to operate them after they are built (see Governor Scott's statement on why he rejected the money).

Governor Brown doesn't seem to care about these issues; he seems to think he can find the money somewhere to build his high-speed rail system. He recently hijacked $250 million in cap-and-trade money for the project---a lot of money but not a significant sum for a project that will cost at least $100 billion.

I support President Obama on most issues, but his high-speed rail program is the kind of thing that earns Democrats their tax-and-spend reputation. 

See Megaprojects and Risk, by Flyvbjerg, Bruzelius, and Rothengatter, where the authors study cost overruns on a number of large infrastructure projects all over the world, including rail projects: "There is a massive and highly significant problem with inflated forecasts for rail projects. For two-thirds of the projects, forecasts are overestimated by more than two-thirds" (page 26). This of course is also true of rail projects in the United States:

The US Department of Transportation study of ten rail transit projects calculated viability by cost-effectiveness analysis, which related cost to ridership. As mentioned, cost overruns in the ten projects ranged from -10 to +106 percent, whereas actual ridership was 28 to 85 percent lower than forecast ridership. The result was actual costs per passenger on the average 500 percent higher than forecast costs (ranging from 190 to 870 percent) and, accordingly, an actual project viability much inferior to that projected (page 42).

The issue of inflated ridership projections is one of the many issues raised by critics of the California high-speed rail project (see pages 32-37 here for a more thorough analysis of the ridership issue).

But Henderson doesn't deign to grapple with the thorny details about how much rail projects cost. Instead, those of us supporting Prop. L are haters like the president's opponents: "This kind of zombie-like Republican hate towards Obama and Amtrak is remarkably similar to the posturing of the anti-transit, car-firsters pushing Prop L."

More on Henderson and Portland tomorrow.

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At 5:50 PM, Anonymous sfthen said...

"[Henderson] and the Bay Guardian left are the only thing in San Francisco's close to Tea Party-like political extremists."

The biggest Tea Party event in San Francisco occurs on the last Friday of every month, the disruptive 'Critical Mass.'

The Bay Guardian has always needed a bogey man windmill to charge against, for the longest time it was the "Downtown Business Machine," which made it easy for Brugmann to make up anything he wanted. There were people in SF who could be viewed as that "machine" but they were people with names and if the crap the SFBG spewed was ever associated with a name they would've been sued to fast every cat owner in SF would be out of their weekly litter liner.

These SFBG types have always been around, in the 1950s they were Joseph McCarthy railing about communists in the State Department and they were in Berlin in the 1930s. Now they're in SF railing about Tea Party Republicans ruining their brilliant plans. Little difference.


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