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Monday, February 21, 2011

The Train To Nowhere

“Welfare of the people in particular has always been the alibi of tyrants, and it provides the further advantage of giving the servants of tyranny a good conscience.” — Albert Camus

If the nation is going to reduce its out-of-control spending, the first step is to stop spending money on things we do not need. Despite President Obama’s call in his State of the Union speech for linking 80 percent of the nation by high-speed rail, it is hard to imagine a more unnecessary program.

For example, people who travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco — along the route planned for one of the nation’s first high-speed-rail projects — already have choices. They can fly, drive, take the bus, or travel by train. True, some would prefer to tax their fellow citizens so that they can have another choice, high-speed rail. But indulging this desire would be as legitimate as funding government grocery stores for people who prefer not to shop at their local grocery chains.

Among intercity transport modes, only Amtrak is materially subsidized. User fees pay virtually all the costs of airlines and airports, which (together with connecting ground transportation) link any two points in the nation within a day. The intercity highway system goes everywhere, and nearly all of it was built with user fees paid by drivers, truckers, and bus companies.

High-speed rail is a budget buster. Japan, with the world’s leading system, illustrates the financial devastation that higCalifornia HS trainh-speed rail can produce. For 25 years, Japan borrowed to build a system serving the ideal rail corridor, nestled along a single coast with a population of more than 75 million people. Ridership was artificially increased by high gasoline prices and one of the highest highway tolls in the world. Yet this modest system, only twice as long as proposed California system, played a major role in driving up a gargantuan rail debt that was transferred to Japanese taxpayers. The rail debt added more than 10 percent to the national debt. This is akin to adding $1.4 trillion to the U.S. national debt.

Virtually everywhere high-speed rail has been constructed, financial liability has fallen to the taxpayers. In Taiwan and the United Kingdom, taxpayers assumed billions of dollars in private debts for much more modest high-speed-rail systems than Japan’s.

All of this could have been avoided. Through the years, high-speed-rail cost overruns have been well documented. Most recently, research by Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford University, Nils Bruzelius of Stockholm University, and Werner Rothengatter of the University of Karlsruhe (a former president of the influential World Conference on Transportation Research) found that passenger-rail cost overruns above 40 percent were common and that overruns above 80 percent were not uncommon. Overruns can go even higher: On Korea’s high-speed-rail project, they were between 200 and 300 percent, the president of the country’s rail system said.

High-speed-rail cost escalation has reached these shores. Even before the first shovel has been turned, California’s high-speed-rail costs have risen at least 50 percent, inflation adjusted. The cost estimates for the first approved section of the Los Angeles–to–San Francisco line, a “train to nowhere” from Corcoran to Borden, indicate escalation beyond $45 billion.

In Florida, boosters tell taxpayers that their liability for the Tampa to Orlando high-speed-rail line would be only $280 million, and that, somehow, a private bidder will shower additional billions upon them to pay any cost overruns.

Boosters also claim that high-speed rail will provide substantial environmental benefits, reduce highway-traffic congestion, and ease air-traffic congestion. Yet, as Joseph Vranich and Wendell Cox showed in the Reason Foundation’s “Due Diligence” report on California’s high-speed-rail proposal, the cost per ton of greenhouse gas removed would be from $1,900 to $10,000. This is 40 to 250 times what the International Panel on Climate Change research indicates greenhouse-gas removal should cost ($50 per ton). Our estimate does not account for the revised (much lower) ridership projection. Even the rosy reports produced by boosters show that high-speed rail would remove only a small percentage of cars from the roads. The hope of reducing air congestion is just as elusive because travel origins and destinations are so dispersed in the United States and because the number of people forsaking air travel for high-speed rail will be small.

California seems to be ignoring the national trend against high speed rail and racing down the path towards this boondoggle. Gov. Jerry Brown is a fervent backer HSR. He has even gone so far as to request the federal dollars Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin have rejected. Brown has never liked automobiles so this is not an unexpected action on his part.

california-high-speed-rail-mapHailed as a high-speed road to the future, a jobs program and a symbol of America's dedication to innovation, President Obama has proposed spending $8 billion on a bullet train — a down payment on a nationwide network that will cost $53 billion over the next six years. Currently the House of Representatives has taken this money out of the budget for this year and there appears to be a mood for them trashing the entire $53 billion. The Senate has yet to act on the budget and Obama has vowed to veto it of he does not get all he wants. The battle lines are forming and the outcome is unsure. Jerry Brown, like the good progressive he is, is waiting on the sidelines for his share of the federal pie.

But in the one state where the federal high-speed rail project is underway, critics say money is being misspent, ridership studies are inflated, the route is politically corrupted and the system will never be self-supporting. "They don't know where they're going to build it, they don't have a mile of right of way under possession, it is not shovel ready, it is not even engineer ready," said Richard Tolmach, with the California High-Speed Rail Authority. "It is still a work in progress where the line might go. Right now it is not somewhere the feds should be putting their money."

But the feds are putting money into the project. Already California has received about $3.8 billion, mostly in stimulus money. But as the high-speed rail project that is furthest along, it stands to bring home the lion's share of any additional federal money.

And that is where the controversy comes in. The first leg of the project is slated for the middle of Central Valley — not between major cities, or congested freeway corridors like San Francisco and San Jose or Orange County and Los Angeles. The Central Valley site is between Borden — a point on the map where no one lives — and Corcoran, a town where half the residents will never board a train because they're in prison.

"We heard things like it's the 'train to nowhere' and we tell people we're not nowhere, we're Mayberry," Corcoran City manager Ron Hoggard said. “The train will never stop in Corcoran, but many locals want the jobs. However, city officials fear the noise, environmentalists fear for the wildlife, and farmers don't want their land and irrigation lines bisected.”

"So if it comes through town and it's elevated, you know you have an elevated graffiti magnet at 85 decibels every six minutes. That's probably not a good thing for this small town feel that we want to have," Hoggard said.

"We have to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes, that's by state law. The only way to do that is through the Central Valley," said Jeff Barker, with the California Rail Authority.

The state hopes to leverage the public money into billions in private investment. But so far the ridership numbers put out by the state don't support profitability, thereby requiring a government guarantee. That is something supporters won't admit, since it would likely sink the project.

Unlike our vast interstate highway system HSR will not benefit the people in Montana, Nebraska or Kentucky. Why should their tax dollars to go California to build this Disney-like project? In fact what benefit will it bring to the people of Riverside or San Diego? The interstate highway system was financed by user fees (federal and state gasoline taxes, license fees and trucker fees. The people in Montana benefit by being able to drive to Los Angeles or New York over a continuous network of dual highways. Truckers can deliver goods across the county cheaper and faster, thus reducing the price for shipping. The same logic applies to airlines. The users pay for the planes, the security, the air traffic management system, and airport fees when they purchase a ticket. None of this applies to the California HSR. How many passengers will travel it each day from San Francisco to Los Angeles and what will the cost for a ticket be? California HSR was another one of the many initiatives placed on the California ballot that was deceiving to the voters. If the initiative had spelled out the true costs to the taxpayer I doubt if proposition 1A would have passed.

Critics say the bullet train is a boondoggle and black hole of taxpayer dollars for decades to come. Advocates say it is a vital link in America's transportation future, relieving congesting in the skies and on the freeways. They also say it will create thousands of jobs, helping justify the cost. But in California alone, with new estimates putting the cost at $65 billion is it a luxury the new Congress feels America cannot afford.

The price for Obama’s dream for HSR will cost the American tax payer $655 dollars each year for the next ten years. If you want to see what it will cost you each year click here for the Taxpayer’s Calculator?

Voters gave the new Republican House of Representatives a mandate to cut spending. Zeroing high-speed rail out of the federal budget may be the litmus test. If Congress fails to stop this costly and unnecessary program, it would call into question their commitment to spending reduction.

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