Friday, July 13th, 2012

High Speed Rail Advocates Discredit Their Cause – Again

Let’s see. California’s cities are going bankrupt. The state’s finances are a shambles. Everything from safety net services to state universities has been experiencing cutbacks. K-12 education is about to get whacked with major cuts unless voters approve a large tax increase. Your jobless rate remains high. What do you do?

If your answer was, “Borrow $2.6 billion we don’t have, towards a total cost of $68-100 billion, to build a segment of high speed rail between San Francisco and Los Angeles that connects neither SF nor LA,” we have a winner.

Unsurprisingly, the polls show the public (which voted to authorize the bonding a couple years ago when they were told the price tag would be much lower) have taken a strong turn against the project.

I once asked whether there was any highway boondoggle big enough that even the most fiscally conservative governor would reconsider it. Sadly, I haven’t found one yet. But likewise, there doesn’t seem to be any project anywhere with the label “high speed rail” attached that mainstream HSR advocates won’t support, no matter how dumb it is.

I explore this a bit in a piece I’ll admit writing while annoyed called, “High Speed Rail Advocates Discredit Their Cause – Again.” I hope you’ll check it out.

I don’t think we need a nationwide network of high speed trains, though they are appropriate for some places. I do believe we need genuine high speed rail, not the Amtrak on steroids solutions that have been pushed in most place. The Northeast Corridor is the logical place to start.

But the way high speed rail has been handled by its major supporters, ranging from the Obama administration frittering away $8 billion to mainstream supporters who seemingly have no concern about cost effectiveness or practicalities (or even if we are really talking high speed rail or not), high speed rail doesn’t need any enemies. Its friends are doing quite enough work to make Americans turn against HSR on their own.

13 Comments
Topics: Transportation

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13 Responses to “High Speed Rail Advocates Discredit Their Cause – Again”

  1. J.D. Hammond says:

    While my support of the California proposal could be said to be tepid at best, I also believe the deviation along 99 is not particularly bizarre nor particularly lengthy. What confuses me more is the decision to delay connecting Bakersfield to Los Angeles, and connecting them indirectly when they finally get around to it – presuming they do.

    So why Tehachapi and not the Grapevine? I understand it’s the ruling grade, but are the differences in grade so significant between one and the other that it would be impossible to not swing thru Palmdale and create a bunch of ridiculous kinks?

  2. Philip F says:

    I completely agree with you… and to paraphrase the words of James Howard Kunstler, “we need to rebuild our REGULAR RAIL NETWORK first, before we do anything else.”

    I cannot believe that there is only 1 train per day between Los Angeles & San Francisco – The Coast Starlight. First, we should expand Amtrak to run that route 3-4x/day ON TIME, then we can talk about speeding up trains. The most important thing is having frequent & reliable service above all else.

  3. Andrew S. says:

    So what’s the answer exactly? You hate the 110 MPH enhancements being called HSR but what can California do then if not jump to building the behemoth project they are taking on? Yes we can incrementally improve the Northeast Corridor but what about the Chicago Network or California? You haven’t left much room for advocates to support HSR of any kind there. Shouldn’t we work for the project and then try to improve it like your criticism of the Ohio River Bridges project or are you advocating the rest of the country wait to improve themselves until the Northeast Corridor produces a worthy “demonstration” product?

  4. RyderCup2 says:

    I hear the Pork Train coming it’s rounding round the bend…

    Rebuild the existing Amtrak routes and let regular speed trains run on them is the make sense/non-pork train approach.

  5. david vartanoff says:

    first, @ Phillip F, there are 6 trains per day linking the Bay Area to the LA basin. Unfortunately they force me onto a bus for crossing the Grapevine, but they are still faster than the Coast Starlight and have a good on time record/.

    second, the “where should we cross the mountains/San Andreas Fault” question is not trivial. None of the choices are optimal, and each has some advantages.

    third, IINM the bonds which I voted for are separate from
    other CA financial issues.

    fourth, as to genuine HSR v Amtrak at 1950s speeds (ie much faster than present), the answer is both ASAP. IMHO the US needs many HSR routes. The NEC needs upgrades, but far more critical is extending it south to Richmond this decade and to the Carolinas thereafter.

  6. Danny Handelman says:

    I suspect municipalities are going bankrupt because of a poor allocation of resources, not necessarily scarce resources. For example, 75% of the municipal budget is directed toward public safety before bankruptcy. Roads, highways, and bridges have a negative rate of return on the investment if one considers the external costs of the automobile (air, water, soil and noise pollution, congestion, collisions, stress, sedentary lifestyle, opportunity cost of doing something more productive, etc.), so there should be a large shift from these funding targets toward rail and public transit. However, at the local level, of highest priority is to make it feasible to walk to one’s common destinations by eliminating height and minimum setback restrictions, require the first two floors of infill buildings be used for retail and offices, increase impact fees for low-density land use and decrease for infill and base property taxes on the value of land rather than combination of land and building.

  7. TMLutas says:

    Between, rail investments, road investments and telecommuting investments, the ROI is going to be
    1. telecommuting
    2. road
    3. rail

    in that order and for the foreseeable future. For ROI nothing beats training managers to competently manage remote workers so that you can get commuters off the transport grid entirely. Every telecommuter converted is a win with no down side for the urban planner.

    Rail is superior for predictable trips for large groups of workers to known destinations. That is not the direction that our economy is heading. We are in an era that is still playing out of hollowed out large enterprises, outsourcing, nimble competition and change, change, change. As a society we’re all looking to speed up societal response to changing environments so we’re going to have *less* predictability over long periods of time. Urban areas will rise and fall depending on the competency of their governance and their ability to ride the waves of a changing economic environment.

    Can anybody seriously look at how the world economy is developing and tell me how rail beats road in that environment? I just don’t see it.

  8. Alon Levy says:

    Andrew S: recall that Aaron does support HSR, for a reasonable cost. The current price tag for CAHSR is not reasonable, and on top of it the most recent revelations regarding the HSR Authority’s response to an offer from SNCF to build the project at much lower cost showcases just how untrustworthy it is. It’s those revelations that triggered the post. And the same is true of NEC construction: building HSR there for $15 billion is reasonable, building it for $30 billion is really expensive, and building it for $117 billion is public works for contractors and consultants with a small transportation component.

    And TMLutas: the environment you’re describing is one that came about precisely because of road construction. If you build a road network, you’ll get a network of secondary cities with everywhere-to-everywhere connections, never forming a large critical mass. If you build a rail network, you’ll get primary and secondary cities with an emphasis on thicker connections involving the primary cities and corridors in between. In both cases, it’s a process that takes decades, and therefore reinforcing it looks like modernity. In Japan and the UK, modernity looks like centralizing everything around the capital just because this is what has been happening in the last few decades; in the US, modernity looks like decentralized geography. In both cases businesses adjust to the infrastructure and come up with innovations that play to the infrastructure’s strengths.

  9. Wad says:

    In about two years we will figure out if we can still talk about high-speed rail. I don’t mean there’ll be laws against it, but I mean that California will be high-speed rail’s last stand. Once it loses, it would be unconscionable to talk about it.

    As it stands now, 70% of Californians want to repeal high-speed rail. There is not a single constituency in favor of high-speed rail anymore. Not one. And the California High-Speed Rail Authority has effectively contaminated high-speed rail on the conceptual level. High-speed rail: indefensible politically, economically, and morally.

    Watch the repeal vote. When it finally happens, there will never be high-speed rail anywhere. Period. The opportunity will be lost and gone forever.

    Defending high-speed rail would be as pointless and galling as trying to popularize eugenics or slavery.

  10. Wad says:

    @TMLutas, Here. We. Go. Again.

    The “future will make infrastructure obsolete” canard is old. Tired. Played out. And it happened so fast that you missed its maturity.

    Most of the upside promised by the world of instantaneous telecommunications has already happened. Any work that is possible through telecommuting … well, assume that it is done and returns are diminishing from here on out. Then again, you could look at congestion on surface roads and highways to see that despite all the telecommuting infrastructure in place, it has done very little to displace traffic and won’t displace more in the near or medium-term future.

    Roads have a different problem: There are too many of them. Roads reached a saturation point. (You did bring up ROI.) Whatever kind of return you are seeking from roads — financial, mobility or some other good — is minimal to even negative. There’s no network effect to be gained from an incremental addition. Plus, new roads don’t bring about creative destruction of older roads. Keep that in mind when it comes time to resurface or replace an ever-growing complement of lane-miles.

  11. Chris Barnett says:

    Alon, I think different geographic and social factors have controlled land development patterns (and thus urbanization) in the US vs. UK and Japan. I don’t think it’s as simple as “rail vs. roads” as “cause” of development patterns.

    UK and Japan are island nations. Both have had strong central governments for many centuries. Insularity, centralization and government control are built in. Japan especially has only a small area that is flat and buildable; high land value and density are the inevitable result.

    The US has always had plenty of land for expansion of its population, and it has never been densely populated as a whole. Its strong central government is a relatively recent historical development.

    Roads have always been necessary to serve the relatively sparse and dispersed population of “flyover country” in the US, so the US was a “road building” country before railways.


    And wad…there were also too many rail lines in the US once. The NY Central and Pennsy were largely redundant, the result of too much speculative capital chasing return.

    Sound familiar? We have too many houses and office buildings and strip malls and airlines today, for the same reason.

  12. Wad, I think that regardless of what happens in California, people in the Northeast Corridor will continue to make rail investments, but the way California is going down is sending a chill across HSR generally no doubt.

  13. bment says:

    We’ll have a new rail system when China decides they want to build one here. They have the capability and they have the money. When they build all the railroads that Chinese territory can handle they will need to expand to other parts of the world, and the USA is prime real estate. We will be riding Chinese owned trains on Chinese owned tracks. Why not? We need trains and China can build them for us. The high speed rail advocates here are just spinning their wheels, they don’t have any money for this. All these pipe dream plans will go out the window when China gets in the game.

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