Friday, February 28, 2014

Do you support High Speed Rail?


Ask anybody living in California this question: "Do you support high speed rail?"

HSR Dissenters generally don't want taxpayer money being wasted.
HSR Supporters generally have had enough of this...
Answering a direct "Yes" or "No" to this question can be like taking the bait in a trap. What's the trap? Saying "Yes" could imply that one could care less about the bloated HSR price tags paid for by taxpayers and the flawed leadership related to the statewide project.

Saying "No" could imply the support of staying with the status quo in terms of getting around the state: More highways and airports. That translates into more cars on the roads and eventually traffic. We've had a long history of that! There's a lot misconception about high speed rail going around the state and the media today, so we will do what we can to set the record straight.

High Speed Rail is Proven Technology

Steel-on-steel, electrified high speed train technology with separated grade crossings has been proven beyond reasonable doubt all over the world to be an efficient and safe form of mass public transportation. HSR has shown it can accommodate more passengers at higher speeds than cars between two or more city centers, thus being more capacity and energy efficient. Rail travel also has shown to be less weather dependent than air travel. Many countries have developed high-speed rail that connect major cities. There is a solid case for HSR. This is not pro-rail ideology. These are facts. And it is therefore a fact that this technology works.

California has its share of major metropolitan centers and urban cities. The county seat cities in the Inland Empire, Riverside and San Bernardino, are two prime examples here at home. The three major cities of course being Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco for the state. It is therefore very feasible to incorporate steel-on-steel, electrified, high speed passenger train technology into our statewide transportation infrastructure connecting these points together with intermediate stops for local trains and separated grade crossings. Again, the technology has already been proven to work all over the world. It can work here.

Flawed HSR Leadership in the State

With that said, there is a lot of very valid and constructive criticism about how the State of California is handling getting statewide HSR infrastructure planned and built. One problem of course is the inflated per-mile cost that was still not quite addressed in the 2014 Business Plan. Like the 2012 Business Plan, CHSRA estimates about a $68 billion price tag for the Phase I project, connecting San Francisco with Los Angeles via the Central Valley and Palmdale regions plus the branch to Anaheim. The total distance is 520 miles. Based on the 2014 plan, HSR will cost taxpayers a whopping $131 million per mile. Compared to other systems, that is a high price tag. Where exactly and specifically is that money going?

To compare, the 1983 LGV Sud-Est bullet train in France cost $5 billion in today’s U.S. dollars. The distance is 254 miles, or about $20 million per mile. The Shinkansen HSR in Japan cost $20 billion in 2010 dollars. The per-mile cost added up to $63 million, a bit on the high side which earned the line its share of criticism. China's Wuhan-Guangzhou line was $17 billion, or $28 million per mile. To be fair, the Chunnel HSR system under the English Channel linking England to France costed nearly $500 million per mile in today's US currency as that project faced all kinds of serious problems. That was the first rail tunnel of its kind and scale. Tunnel boring also remains expensive.

Also, the media exposed that the CHSRA handed out $8 million to rail contractors...to simply submit losing bids to the project. That was waste. Also last year, excessive bureaucracy was exposed in terms of labor. In the private sector, when an employer posts a job opening, it selects the most qualified candidate to do the work. However for this project, 10% of the high speed train's labor force had to come from the "disadvantaged", which would potentially include ex-convicts, high school dropouts, foster children, and union apprentices. Almost a third of all work hours had to go to workers who live in "economically disadvantaged areas." Forget hiring a crew that is the most qualified to do the job. The money fountain is out of control. To be fair, it is noble to establish entry-level and lower-responsibility jobs for the disadvantaged, but those support job positions need to be offered by the private sector.

We want to see High Speed Rail done right!

We can go on all day about CHSRA problems and there are several valid points that we missed including the lawsuits and lack of leadership to negotiate fairly with NIMBY obstructionists in the Central Valley, but we should not throw out proven transit technology with the flawed leadership. Turning a vital statewide HSR infrastructure master plan into a self-serving, political pet project aimed toward pouring excessive taxpayer money into the special interests--especially labor union leaders and contractors--represents transit obstructionism at one of its worst.

Moving forward, Governor Jerry Brown, who backs HSR has to take a leadership role to get statewide high speed rail done right. That includes ordering, enforcing and proposing zero-tolerance rules on political pandering and getting the per-mile costs down to the market rates. Set a straight and fair master plan to get the costs down to at least the Shinkansen system's per-mile costs.

Brown has to be honest with the people and present these facts if he wants to retain support for HSR. Yes, that may involve working with the feds and having to do some hard-ball pitching to a stubborn ideological state legislature. The federal government is willing to cooperate as it extended the spending deadline of federal funds. With the flaws and facts already exposed, anybody in the state legislature opposing sound proposals to fix HSR and clinging to political ideology that keeps the HSR price tag high will be exposed and held accountable by voters.

It is clear that voters have had enough of this madness. California voters on November 4, 2008, with the passage of Proposition 1A, trusted the state with the $9.95 billion in borrowed seed money to incorporate proven HSR technology into our infrastructure with the private sector and the feds paying for the rest. There are now a growing number of Californians who no longer trust how the state is handling high speed rail and want it stopped. But if Brown wants to move forward in getting a first rate HSR system for the state, he must lead the way out of this mess, get the costs down, and for goodness sake, get the state to stop the special interest pandering at our expense.

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