Sunday, December 5, 2010

High-Speed Rail

High Speed rail

Sorry about the lack of post recently.  I've been busy with life over the past few days.  I have also been gathering information on some upcoming posts and want to make the background information I use in my opinion pieces is accurate.

For some reason, the high-speed rail has caught my interest over he past few days.  I have been aware of the desire of the Obama administration to push for high-speed rail and recently, there seems to be a bit more of a push, at least in the news media.

 Several corridors are being looked at as possible sites for the initial construction of a US version of the Shinkansen (Japan’s “Bullet Train”). Among those are routes between Sacramento-Bay Area-San Diego; Seattle, WA to Eugene, OR; Houston-Dallas-San Antonio, TX; Charlotte, NC to Birmingham AL; NYC to DC, and the upper Midwest centered on Chicago.  Eventually the plans are to have it cover nearly all of the “Lower 48” except the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana (Max Bacus, where are you?)

 Initial planning budget calls for $10B for feasibility studies, all taxpayer funded. And based on what is coming out of the current Democrat-control Congress and the Obama Administration the “feasibility” of high-speed rail isn’t what is being studied, but rather site placement and other ways to spend this money.  The Obama Administration has made it clear that High-Speed rail is something that is going to happen come heck or high water.

 But let’s do a little more digging into the cost of this whole project. The California corridor is currently one of two at the head of the line for start of construction. It is estimated that the California Corridor could cost in the neighborhood of $33.0B. For the sake of argument we’ll not discuss or include in the figures the expected cost overruns (hey, it is a government funded project), or any inflation. It looks like there will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 36 separate high-speed rail corridors developed. This estimate is probably conservative since many of the later projects are extensions of “existing” high speed corridors.  Using the $33B from the California project as a base line and the rough estimate of 36 different corridors an initial figure of $1.2T to build this project is seen. Doing some research, not all of this money would come from the federal government. California expects about 30% ($10B) to come from private and local (state funds?) sources.  If this line holds true, the American taxpayer will still foot a bill for the high-speed rail somewhere close to $840B. To repeat, this does not include cost overruns and inflation. That is a tax bill of $2,333.00 for each man, woman, and child in the USA (pop=360M)

 Let’s take a look at the feasibility of building this and, more importantly, having it used as intended. When I was station in Japan a few years back travel was not measured in distance but in the time it took to reach a destination. Roads were overcrowded and poorly built. Too many cars for the roads. Most of the expressways into downtown Tokyo (world’s largest city) were two lanes each direction. Surface streets, for the most part, were narrow, crowded with pedestrian and bikes, and way too many traffic lights for smooth flow. Long distance travel between cities wasn’t much better with the heavy tolls charges every time you exited the expressway.  The trains, both local and Shinkansen, were used heavily. It was just easier and more cost effective to use the rails then to use the car in a lot of instances. We used the train and subway system to get downtown often for these reasons.
 Because we don’t have these same issues, I really don’t believe we’ll use the high-speed rail the way some people envision. And since we most likely won’t used the system as envisioned will it be self sustaining and not require continuous federal subsidies like AmTrak? Some will point to the ACELA that runs the Boston to DC corridor as an example of high-speed rail success, and I won’t argue that point.  It does appear to be successful with heavy ridership and appears to be self-sustaining. But I think I should point out something that often gets overlooked when making the ACELA argument. The Boston to DC corridor is much like Japan. The ACELA owes its success mostly due to the over-saturated transportation venues in the Northeast. The roads are seem to be constantly at gridlock. The airlines probably couldn’t get another aircraft into the pattern even if they wanted to.

 Out west, we don’t seem to have the same depth to the transportation issue the Northeast does. Our roads are more wide open and less crowded. There are notable exceptions in Seattle, LA and the Bay Area but these exceptions are limited to the locations themselves. Moving between LA and San Fran is fairly easy, moving along at 70-80MPH except for during the busiest 3-4 weekends each year (Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Christmas). Seattle proper is horrible also, but once clear of Tacoma and the Fort Lewis area, traffic moves along pretty well even during the weekends. Would the cost of high-speed rail be justified to help alleviate traffic on those four weekends?

 Would people choose to give up the freedom of their personal vehicle to ride the train from LA to the Bay Area? I really don’t think so unless it became so costly to drive that it forces one to move to the train. And that raises some interesting questions. Would the Obama administration put policies in place that would make driving one’s personal vehicle cost prohibitive that it forces people who wished to go see grandma in San Fran to travel via the high-speed rails? Would they add a fuel tax that raises the cost of gasoline 2-3 bucks a gallon to pay for the high-speed rail and to force people onto the trains? Would they regulate CO2 to the point as to make purchasing a car that meets pollution mandates so costly that it would be out of reach for the most of the American public? Would tolls charges on I-5 be so high that people couldn’t afford to drive from LA to San Fran? What other policies could be enacted that force a migration from the personal vehicle to mass transportation?

 High-speed rail does have some merits, especially if it is located properly. Could the Northeast use more? Quite possibly. What about another line between NYC and DC? Even the LA to Vegas has potential since people who go to Vegas tend to stay downtown and not venture beyond the shadows of the casinos.

But what about the corridor between Minneapolis, NM and Milwaukie, WI with a primary stop in Madison?  Already, the newly-elected Governor of WI is talking about using the $800M designated for the Madison to Milwaukie route for repair work on the bridges and highways in WI. The Federal Transportation Dept has told WI this money is for the high-speed rail project and nothing else.

There is a very nicely designed website done by the US High-Speed Rail Association that anyone interested in the subject should cruise through, bearing in mind the intent behind the web site is support for high-speed rail.  Most interesting to me is the web page that highlights the proposed routes to be built over the next 20 years or so.

On the US High Speed Rail Association web site they cite numerous benefits of a high-speed rail network.  Over the course of the next week or so, I am going to post these benefits and make some points against these benefits.  If the benefits have merit, I will also point those out.
Here are the benefits from the US High Speed Rail Association.
1. Creates millions of “green jobs” nationwide building the new rail infrastructure and manufacturing the rail cars.
2. Pays for itself by significantly reducing our $700B and year oil purchase trade deficits.
3. Offers and convenient, comfortable way to travel without hassles or delays.
4. A Major step toward solving global warming by reducing our oil consumption and emissions
5. Drastically reduces our oil addiction and lowers our risk from the coming oil peak crises.
6. Lowers our dependence on costly military operations securing oil flow from around the world.
7. Lowers our national security risk, and ends wars for oil.
8. Freedom from Oil – Powered by clean electricity from renewable energy sources: wind, solar, geothermal, ocean/tidal.
9. Safe, affordable, green transportation for everyone.
10. Saves lives (43,000 Americans die each year in car accidents).
11. Provides efficient mobility that moves people and goods without delay and waste.

So please come back every so often to follow up on my posts.

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