Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bullet Train Turns Out To Be Shooting Blanks

Is California coming to its senses? Well, I wouldn't go that far, but it does appear it is having flashes of sanity. One of the federal government's pet projects, supported by the Democratic legislature in California, is a high-speed train running from San Francisco to Los Angeles. OK, no cracks about out of the frying pan and into the fire.

In 2008, the voters of California were still on their "unlimited resources, unlimited spending, unlimited taxes, green weenie" trajectory. They approved a nearly ten billion dollar bond measure to create and fund a High-Speed Rail Authority. Meanwhile the Democrats in Washington DC are pushing their initiatives to throw good money after bad on green highway schemes, plug-in cars, and high-speed transit to get people out of their cars and into the cattle cars. California legislators are so adept at spending other people's money, that when a number of states recently rejected federal highway funds, the solons stood outside the hallowed halls of Congress and the White House and begged that those rejected funds be funneled to California for their lithesome Lionel.

A combination of the realization that the rail project is already exceeding the original estimates by more than double (for a reduced project), the market and housing crash, and the unseemliness of begging Washington for mo' money, mo' money has resulted in a backlash against Euro-style transit schemes. The voters are coming back to consciousness and are saying that they don't care if France, China, Germany or Timbuktu have high-speed rail--we're going to cling to our guns, our Bibles, and our automobiles. The home of the freeway is no longer willing to be the home of the giveaway.

In response to a public outcry (with words like "we can't afford this goddam thing, and we don't want it anyway"), Republican Assemblywoman Diane Harkey horrified the green weenies and feeders-at-the-public-trough Democrats by giving a major speech regarding the bullet train. "We're de facto bankrupt. We're trying to issue bonds for public works in the billion-dollar range and having problems getting any takers, and our rates are sky-high for municipal debt. Is issuing more debt (including taking matching funds from the feds) for high-speed rail a priority when competing for scarce resources for education, water, and local transportation?" Harkey is no amateur politician making a political point. She spent thirty years as a successful executive in corporate financing and banking before being elected to the Assembly.

Stanford Business School, the Rail Authority, and Silicon Valley members of a study group all reached the same conclusion: the plan as originally laid out would now cost $66 billion, or about $52 billion if drastically cut back to a point where only Los Angeles and San Francisco would have train stations. A nearly-identical result was attained by an independent group called Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD).

Silicon Valley executive William H. Warren adds ridership to the stew. "The real problem is, how will the legislature know they have a ridership estimate they can believe in--there is no track record of such estimates being correct. The idea of doing a small project and seeing if they can validate a smaller forecast before moving on to the full project is not an idea they (the Democrats and bullet-train enthusiasts) seem to be able to understand." Warren is being charitable. Cal-Train and Amtrak have regularly overestimated ridership and income by factors of three to four times. Investors back off when it becomes apparent that every single ride is sooner or later going to have to be subsidized by government money since the projects will never even come close to showing a profit.

To add to the Authority's woes, many former supporters are now opponents of the whole damn mess. Environmental Impact Reports were jury-rigged to show that the impact of such a high-speed system would be minimal. In fact, they will require huge disruptions to the roadway environment, along with considerable movement of residences, residents, and businesses to accommodate a system that is quite a bit more damaging than a traditional rail system. Even relatively low-speed trains such as those on the Cal-Train routes have an abysmal safety record resulting in a death or injury on their right-of-way two or three times a month. Now imagine that train barreling at you at 200 mph.

With major Bay Area and suburban Los Angeles communities objecting to nearly every facet of the project now, the Authority has switched its emphasis to the financially hard-hit Central Valley (hard-hit because of other government green weenie schemes) for early development. Important San Francisco peninsula cities such as Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto (where Stanford University is located) have sued the authority on environmental grounds. Figuring that they've already ruined the environment in the Central Valley with their "fish, not agriculture" programs, they might as well get started on major portions of the roadway between Bakersfield and Fresno so that when the ship hits the sand, they can say that "all that work and job-creation would be wasted if we stop now." One critic calls that "the rail to nowhere ploy."

Madera County Supervisor David Rogers was very blunt in his criticism at the Assembly hearing. "I regret to tell you that despite all our hard work and good will, the High-Speed Rail Authority has disregarded all our offers and ideas, given us lip service to placate our reasonable demands, and blatantly and arrogantly ignored us (Note: Madera County is one of the Central Valley areas that the Authority wants to start building in)." To an Assembly that included several Democrats nodding in agreement, he went on to say: "The Authority is a master manipulator pitting Central Valley city against city, county against county, farmer against farmer, by dangling promises of maintenance jobs and temporary construction jobs in front of our impoverished region."

It remains to be seen how this power-grab and forced compliance will ultimately shake out. There is considerable opposition to the project, but it tends to be less organized and more fragmented than the spendthrift green weenie public transportation crowd. Maybe what is really needed is not a bullet, but a wooden stake and a gravedigger's shovel.

Note to our readers: Today is my next-to-youngest granddaughter's birthday party, and she wanted to have it at a family Pizza place. Hmph. But that means we'll be trekking down to the bright lights of Bakersfield, and won't be back 'til afternoon Pacific Time. Please feel free to comment, and I promise I'll respond as soon as I get home.


Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk - even if some of the newly converted skeptics are doing so because of the "enviro" impact, it is good to see more Golden Staters exhibiting common sense. As far as Congresswoman Harkey is concerned, "I love it when she talks dirty!"

LL said...

Liveable, loveable Bakersfield? OMG...

Nobody would ride the train. How many people FLY between LA and SF every day? Not that many. And how much cheaper than an airplane ticket would a train ticket be?

Southwest Airlines offers round trip tickets from LAX to Oakland for $89. At that fair rate, how many tickets would somebody have to buy to pay for a $60 billion project - including accumulating interest on the loan to build it? And could you make a train THAT BIG to hold everyone it would take to pay off the white elephant?

Be careful in Bakersfield. Bring your .45 and two spare magazines. Get out of town before dark when the zombies appear.

Tennessee Jed said...

Bakersfield, eh? Hawk, no wonder you are rekindling an interest in western country and rockabilly.Bakersfield is the home of that genre. Made up largely of dust bowl Okies from the depression, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard developed the famed "Bakersfield sound" which was a rebellion against the luxurious stringed orchestra backed country coming out of Nashville at that time. Just saw Merle Tuesday night here in Knox Vegas. "Okie from Maskogie" indeed! Enjoy the party :-)

Tehachapi Tom said...

I could never believe 200 MPH trains. Even with no access grade separations for DOT to approve 200MPH is a stretch.
With our probability of even a small earthquake that thing would have to be re certified every time we had even a small tremor.
The engineers designing the thing have all forgotten the basic tenant of engineering, get the most for the least cost.
I had opportunity to discuss wireless communications along the route with one of the consulting engineers. He stated that for in house rail system radio they wanted to use cellular technology.
That sound real good till one starts pricing what the equipment costs at each site along the rails path would cost.
I ask why not use a more conventional communications system and the response was we like the concept of cellular. That concept would cost more than ten times more, but it would sound real high end.
I'll bet the same hi end thinking would have caused the total cost to far exceed the $66B. When it is public money additional zeros added to the trailing end of the number seem to further validate a projects importance.
Our existing rail system was built primarily with private money and very little government interference. If high speed rail from anywhere to anywhere else would be such a viable entity there would be private investors lining up to buy in, don't you think.

Unknown said...

Tennessee: I am happy for any "awakening" that stops these government boondoggles. If it takes enviro-weenies getting up in arms, so be it. Ain't Harkey great?

Unknown said...

LL: All estimates are that the tickets would be as high or higher than plane fare. How oil prices would affect that I couldn't tell you. Maybe the train will be nuclear-powered, or have giant solar panels on the roof.

I tell ya, I wish we had high-speed helicopter service between Caliente and Bakersfield. It's a harrowing hour and a half drive, much of it on narrow, winding mountain roads. I'm letting my daughter do the driving today, I had to do it yesterday for a different granddaughter.

Unknown said...

Tennessee: My oldest granddaughter went to a big county and western concert at the Buck Owens theater a couple of weeks ago. But at least we still speak the same language--sort of. LOL

T_Rav said...

But, but, how will Obama be able to unite the country through high-speed rail now?

Also, Happy Birthday Little LawHawk.

JB1000 said...

Bicycles, Buses and Limosenes. You will ride the train when only the ruling elite are allowed to fly. And think of all the opportunity for consulting fees, real estate 'deals' and union construction jobs on a project that big. I expect that track will get laid. The train might never run but the track gets laid.

AndrewPrice said...

I agree with JB, I can see them building the tracks but never using them. That sounds like the perfect ending for this latest scheme to spend America into prosperity.

BevfromNYC said...

Yes, lets see how well these things work out. They have been building the 2nd Ave subway line in Manhattan on and off for about 82 years. Planning started in 1929 and they finally broke ground in earnest for Phase One in 2007. That was after a few false starts the last sometime in the mid-70's or 80's.

This first phase encompasses a line between 63rd and 96th Streets. Yes, that's 33 blocks (1 1/2 miles) in 85 years. This "Phase One" is scheduled to be completed in 2016. The entire line is supposed to run between 125 Street and the Wall Street area. Phases Two through Four are as yet unfunded. Who knows how much the final cost will be, but I do not think that anyone alive today will live long enough to see completion.

And this isn't even "high speed rail"...

Unknown said...

T_Rav: He'll probably just talk faster.

I'll pass on your birthday wishes. Thanks.

Unknown said...

JB1000: I used to love train travel, but that was the late 40s to early 50s. We'd take the City of Chicago or the Super Chief back and forth between Chicago and Los Angeles. The trip itself was part of the fun. If I want the scenery to go past at 250 to 300 mph, I'll take a small plane. And if it's for speed only, that's why God invented jetliners.

Unknown said...

Bev: But at least subways make sense in a concentrated area like Manhattan (and even San Francisco, for that matter). But when they say "nobody walks in L.A.," they don't mean it's because they're taking the bus or the train. This state, and particularly Los Angeles were built for the automobile. We have great superhighways between L.A. and San Francisco, where you can drive at 70 mph most of the way. You're free to stop when and where you want, and you still have a car when you get to your destination. This scam simply makes no sense at all in these economic times, and not much more when we do have money to throw around.

Unknown said...

Andrew: If I hadn't moved to the Central Valley, I probably wouldn't entirely have understood what a vicious trick building the system in the middle would be. The Central Valley has been devastated by the EPA and green weenies protecting useless fish, so they know everybody is desperate for work. This is cynicism on stilts. Bribe nearly-hopeless people to do a job they're not familiar with and don't want to do so their families won't starve. Build enough track with the money the Authority does have, then say "wouldn't it be a shame if we left this beautiful project unfinished between the Central Valley and Los Angeles and/or the Central Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area?" They're spitting in the faces of people that the same politicians have impoverished.

StanH said...

Though your article speculates a sudden logic with the good people of California, my guess you’ll get your choo-choo, when has reason or logic ever stopped a committed liberal, determined to destroy America, cost be damned.

When my kids were small we had a place here in the Atlanta area “American Adventures,” it sounds very much like the same set up. We did their birthdays there on several occasions, the kids had a ball, the parents were exhausted.

Unknown said...

Stan: I'm not good at predicting political behavior in California simply because it flies in the face of all known logic systems. But I'm guessing that this project may be DOA only because the forces arrayed against it are so diverse (for once, that word works for us). From NIMBYs in the north to confused immigrationists in the south, from coastal protectionists in the west to mountain protectionists in the east, and the taxpayers who will never use the system and don't want to pay for someone else to use it, the opposition is all over the boards. But then this is the state that elected Jerry Brown, Barbara Boxer and the entire tax-and-spend Democrat crowd in the middle of a major recession.

As far as I'm concerned, they should build it with the terminus on a cliff over the Pacific, load it up with the entire state government and the entire Congressional delegation and send it out into sea at 200 mph.

My kids all got the Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor treatment. And I got to have their gigantor banana splits. I miss Farrell's. Right down to the off-key singing of Happy Birthday and the flaming ice cream birthday cake and the waiters in 19th century firefighter outfits.

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