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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Why High Speed Rail is Obama's Fantasy

“Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men.” —John Adams

I have been involved with so called High Speed Rail (HSR) for over twenty years. My involvement was as a civil engineer and Geographic Information Systems program manager. This involvement allowed me to meet with railway executives, planners, engineers and investors in the United States and Germany. I have also attended HSR conferences as a participant and speaker. This is the basis for which I write this post.

My first involvement with any rail transit at all was with Orange County, California in 1980–that’s right, 30 years ago! I was part of the planning team of Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Orange County Transit Authority team. My role was to provide mapping for any of the proposed routes for light rail transit in the county, this involvement peaked my interest in rail transit in general.

Orange County wanted to follow the San Diego model of its Red Car light rail system, which was built on the cheap to connect various outlying areas surrounding the City of San Diego with the central city. The San Diego model was and still successful because it was built in existing or old right of ways, there was no dramatic terrain changes, no environmental issues and law suits and they had defined origins and destinations (O&D). The San Diego light rail transit system is in used to day and it effectively serves the community.

Orange County was a different story. The primary problem was that there was no defined O&D. The counties workforce was diverse with many people journeying north to Los Angeles each day. After years of planning and debate there is not one inch of light rail transit in Orange County. Even with the voters continuing to support bond measures no money as ever been spent on light rail. Buses and freeway modifications were the answer for the counties transit needs.

My next involvement was with the Los Angeles County Blue Line light rail from Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles. This was successful because again there was a definite O&D for the ridership. The project took 5 years to build and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) continues to build lines today. They have a red line, a green line, an orange line and special dedicated bus transit corridors. The problems began for the MTA when they began building subways. There horrendous cost over runs for these lines and a massive federal government bailout was required to complete the lines.

With my increasing interest in rail transit I joined the Bechtel team that was attempting to build a real HSR from Anaheim, California to Las Vegas. This lone would have used the German Maglev technology and would transport travelers from Anaheim to Las Vegas in about 80 minutes at speeds that would exceed 250 MPH. The route would follow the course of Interstate 15 for the bulk of its travel.

There were some engineering challenges along the route, such as a mountain range to cross. The major issue, however, was the desire to use State of California right or way along I-15. The California Department of Transportation resisted this plan until the legislature passed a bill allowing for the use of the right or way for rail transit. Of course there were the environmentalists opposing the plan on many specious issues, such as they did not want to see an elevated rail line along I-15 as it would mar the natural beauty of the desert.

The real problem, however, was money. There would only be State or Federal money if private investors were involved. With no proven record of performance or the ability to generate revenue in Germany investors were not lining up to put any money into the project. Today is you want to go the Las Vegas from Anaheim you drive, take a tourist bus or fly.

Involvement with this project did take me to Germany in 1988 where I rode the 18 mile Maglev test track, in Emsland, Germany and do some GIS consulting for the German Federal Railway (Deutsche Bundesbahn). In discussions with DB engineers and officials I got mixed messages concerning the viability of Maglev’s revenue generating ability. The technology was sound, but here was no track record of operating success or revenue generation. To my knowledge the only operating Maglev line in the world is in Shanghai, China, where it was constructed to impress visitors to the 2008 Olympic Games.

The other HSR line I was involved with was the Texas HSR corridor from Dallas to Houston. This was to be a more traditional steel wheel line using the French TGV technology. The main investor in the line was Morris and Knudsen (MK). To this extent MK was even going to build the train cars. The line was opposed by the environmentalists and Southwest Airlines and after two years of fighting a losing battle MK went broke and they withdrew from the project. The project was never resurrected.

Now we fast forward to today. High-speed passenger rail has received increasing interest by policymakers in recent years. President Barack Obama is a strong supporter of high-speed rail, and Congress included $8 billion in high-speed rail funding in the 2009 economic stimulus legislation. Congress appropriated an additional $2.5 billion for 2010, and the president is proposing $1 billion annually in high-speed rail funding over the next several years.

Under the Obama administration's 2009 national high-speed rail plan, about 8,500 route-miles of high-speed trains would connect cities in 33 states. In an example of budget creep, however, the administration's updated plan in 2010 included more than 12,800 route-miles in 42 states.

I can recall Vice President Biden’s pronouncement that HSR would create a million jobs and solve our nation’s transit problems, this from a man whose only experience with rail transit is riding AMTRAK from Delaware to Washington D.C. He is dead wrong. The only jobs that will be created are for the transportation planners, bureaucrats who will administer the billions of dollars and politicians that will promise to bring pork laden earmarks to their states.

California offers a cautionary tale. In 2008, California voters passed a measure allowing the state to issue nearly $10 billion in bonds to start constructing a high-speed rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The state's estimated cost for the entire system went from $25 billion in 2000 to $45 billion by 2008. A Reason Foundation analysis concluded that the rail line could cost up to $81 billion.

A Cato essay on high-speed rail takes a “sober” look at the costs and benefits of high-speed rail and concludes that the federal government should reverse course. The reality is that high-speed rail systems are extraordinarily expensive and serve only a small and elite group of people even in those nations that have the longest experience with them.

High-speed rail is not a grand solution to America's congestion and mobility problems, as it is often alleged to be. While high-speed trains in Europe and Japan are technologically impressive, nearly all the routes in those jurisdictions lose money and need large subsidies to stay afloat. America's geography is even less suited for a successful high-speed rail system than Europe or Japan because our cities are less dense and spaced farther apart.

The federal government should withdraw its support for high-speed rail, and instead focus on major aviation and highway reforms to improve the nation's mobility. America faces major transportation challenges, but throwing taxpayer funds down a high-speed rail money pit will not solve them.

With the states in financial ruin with their entitlement and pension programs there is no way they can afford such lavish spending on elite programs like HSR. As a resident of California I see the proposed HSR line from San Francisco to Los Angeles as one of the greatest boondoggles in the state’s history of boondoggles. With growing water crisis and California’s aging water delivery system California needs to decide where it can spend its limited monetary resources –water or trains.

Funding for highways is a bit different. Highways and freeways are funded by user taxes, i.e. the users pay for the roads use. Gas taxes, license fees, truck fees and tolls pay for roads. Even during the depression of the 1930’s highways created jobs and wealth. I write about this in my series of essays on Route 66. It was not only the construction jobs that were created, these were temporary jobs. The wealth was created by the businesses and commerce that grew along the road. Gas stations, diners, motels, restaurants, tourist attractions, and trucking companies are just a few examples of the permanent jobs that were created along this great road. There were many other roads with a similar track record. How many diners and gas stations will populate the HSR lines?

Aviation also creates jobs and wealth. Yes, I know that in some ways the airlines are subsidized by the tax payers for their use of airports and the air traffic control systems. That said, the airlines do pay substantial fees for airport usage and the air traveler pays and form of user tax for airports and security when they purchase a ticket. The air travel industry has created millions of jobs in aviation such as pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, shippers, and air traffic controllers. It has created other jobs in airport management, construction, traveler support facilities, and travel agents. The City of Ontario, California derives a great deal of revenue from its airport. They benefit from the fees the airlines pay, the fees garnered for the FedEx and UPS hub there, and the ancillary support facilities such as car rentals, commercial properties and food services. How many office buildings will be built adjacent to HSR lines?

While billions have been allocated for HSR under the Stimulus Plan nothing is targeted for the modernization of our aging air traffic control system. This, as you can understand, has infuriated airline industry members. The next generation air traffic control systems incorporating more use of GPS would reduce flight delays, increase air-travel capacity and make the skies safer almost immediately. When airline industry members asked Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, about rail projects at an FAA conference, He responded, “Let me give you a little bit of political advice: Don’t be against the high speed rail . It’s coming to America. This is the president’s vision, this is the vice president’s vision, this is America’s vision. In two or three decades, U.S. cities will be connected by high-speed rail – whether airlines like it or not. People want alternatives. People are still going to fly, but we need alternatives. So get with the program.’’  The Great and Powerful Oz has spoken!

How will HSR create millions of jobs? First of all this is a fantasy. Second, you don’t build projects to create jobs, you build projects because they make financial sense and provide a distinct benefit to the users. Any jobs created by building HSR will take years to materialize. First will be the jobs for the professional transportation planners, mappers and bureaucrats. Next will come the jobs for the attorneys and right of way agents. Then will come the jobs for the engineers  and designers. Finally, after ten years or so, the jobs for the construction workers will arrive. And after the construction is completed the jobs for the operators, maintenance crews and the people who push the food carts through the cars will be available. SEIU will be delighted.

A HSR from San Francisco to Los Angeles is packed with engineering problems and any estimate you are given is political and not realistic. Even if the state has the funds to throw away on HSR the environmental suits would be fodder for the attorneys, cost millions of dollars and delay the project for years. If you are older than twenty don’t expect to take a HSR trip in your lifetime.

For a complete essay on the folly of Obama’s  grandiose dreams of High Speed Rail click here.

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