Right and Left Media Agree: Rail is a disaster (”Lost Cause,” “Fiscal Pipedream,” “Government Waste”).

COST Commentary: The three articles below each discuss the fact that High Speed Rail is very wrong for this country at this time. The first is from the Wall Street Journal and the next two are from the Washington Post. These two media ends of the political spectrum are now agreeing high speed rail is a disaster (“Lost Cause,” “Fiscal Pipedream,” “Government Waste”). While this is about high speed rail, 90% of the negatives are exactly the same as the proposed Austin Urban Rail and are being demonstrated right here in river city (Austin) by Capital Metro’s Red Line Commuter. This commuter rail is a financial disaster and provides zero net societal benefits to the taxpayers and low income citizens who sholder the burden of this wasteful spending of precious tax dollars.

Wall Street Journal Editorial

Runaway Trains

Obama’s high-speed rail plan is a fiscal pipedream.

We suppose every President is entitled to a pipedream, but President Obama’s vow in his State of the Union address that 80% of Americans should have access to high-speed rail in 25 years is a doozy. Vice President Joe Biden has followed up by proposing $53 billion in high-speed rail funding over the next six years. Seriously?

On recent evidence, this train is running in reverse. Though the Obama Administration has allocated more than $10 billion for high-speed rail projects the past two years, the new Republican governors of Wisconsin and Ohio, Scott Walker and John Kasich, have rejected the federal money. They don’t want to put their taxpayers on the hook for projects destined for Insolvency Junction. Florida Governor Rick Scott is also reconsidering his state’s proposed Orlando-Tampa line.

Even California, that famous incubator of pipedreams, is having second thoughts. The state has proposed an 800-mile high-speed rail plan from San Diego to San Francisco. Bay area residents are now protesting that the line will damage property values, while Central Valley farmers complain the line will ruin their land. The greater wonder is how the state will pay for a $43 billion train even as it’s facing a $28 billion budget gap over the next 18 months and $20 billion annual deficits four years after that.

Two years ago California taxpayers approved a $9.95 billion bond initiative to fund the train, buying the pitch that it would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and attract 94 million riders. The state’s high-speed rail authority told voters a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Los Angeles would cost $55—about the price of a Southwest flight. They said private equity firms were dying to invest, and that the train would operate without a public subsidy.

Studies by economists and financial consultants Alain Enthoven, William Grindley and William Warren have since debunked the rail authority’s claims. Based on the costs of high-speed rail lines in Europe and Japan, the price tag likely will fall between $62 billion and $213 billion. A one-way ticket from San Francisco to Los Angeles will cost about $190, which means more people will choose to fly.

Because of uncertainty over costs and ridership forecasts, private equity firms say they won’t invest without a revenue guarantee, i.e., an operating subsidy. Even if the state somehow manages to attract $10 billion in private equity, its business plan calls for another $5 billion in local grants and $15 billion more in federal funds. The $15 billion that they want from the feds would be nearly a third of Mr. Biden’s $53 billion figure. Maybe high-speed rail is a back-door bailout for California.

Messrs. Obama and Biden argue that the U.S. has to invest in high-speed rail to stay competitive with the world. Only if we’re competing in the Debt Bowl. Two high-speed railways in the world have broken even, and those are in densely populated areas of France and Japan where people drive less because gas prices are twice as high as in the U.S., and many foreign intercity highways levy tolls.

The only area of the United States where high-speed rail begins to make sense is along the high-traffic, high-population Northeast Corridor from Washington, D.C., to Boston. Amtrak’s Acela peaks at 150 miles per hour but averages only about 70 miles per hour because it has to share tracks with other trains. A truly high-speed rail that runs on its own dedicated track could reach 220 mph and cut the travel time nearly in half.

While such a line might offer benefits for the region’s commuters, Amtrak estimates the line would take 25 years to develop and cost $117 billion. According to a 2009 study by the Congressional Research Service, six to nine million riders would need to take the train each year to justify the costs of high-speed rail systems similar to those in other countries. The Acela carried 3.4 million people in 2008.
Until the proponents of high-speed rail solve the problem of runaway costs, we’ll stick with the train in Disney’s Fantasyland. Who knows, maybe 80% of the country has taken it for a ride by now.
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The Washington Post

High-speed rail is a fast track to government waste

By Robert J. Samuelson
Monday, February 14, 2011

Vice President Biden, an avowed friend of good government, is giving it a bad name. With great fanfare, he went to Philadelphia last week to announce that the Obama administration proposes spending $53 billion over six years to construct a “national high-speed rail system.” Translation: The administration would pay states $53 billion to build rail networks that would then lose money – lots – thereby aggravating the budget squeezes of the states or federal government, depending on which covered the deficits.

There’s something wildly irresponsible about the national government undermining states’ already poor long-term budget prospects by plying them with grants that provide short-term jobs. Worse, the rail proposal casts doubt on the administration’s commitment to reducing huge budget deficits. The president’s 2012 budget is due Monday. How can it subdue deficits if it keeps proposing big spending programs?

High-speed rail would definitely be big. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has estimated the administration’s ultimate goal – bringing high-speed rail to 80 percent of the population – could cost $500 billion over 25 years. For this stupendous sum, there would be scant public benefits. Precisely the opposite. Rail subsidies would threaten funding for more pressing public needs: schools, police, defense.

How can we know this? History, for starters.

Passenger rail service inspires wishful thinking. In 1970, when Congress created Amtrak to preserve intercity passenger trains, the idea was that the system would become profitable and self-sustaining after an initial infusion of federal money. This never happened. Amtrak has swallowed $35 billion in subsidies, and they’re increasing by more than $1 billion annually.

Despite the subsidies, Amtrak does not provide low-cost transportation. Longtime critic Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute recently planned a trip from Washington to New York. Noting that fares on Amtrak’s high-speed Acela start at $139 one-way, he decided to take a private bus service. The roundtrip fare: $21.50. Nor does Amtrak do much to relieve congestion, cut oil use, reduce pollution or eliminate greenhouse gases. Its traffic volumes are simply too small to matter.

In 2010, Amtrak carried 29.1 million passengers for the entire year. That’s about about 4 percent of annual air travel (2010 estimate: 725 million passengers). It’s also roughly a quarter of daily automobile commuters (124 million in 2008). Measured by passenger-miles traveled, Amtrak represents one-tenth of 1 percent of the national total.

Rail buffs argue that subsidies for passenger service simply offset the huge government support of highways and airways. The subsidies “level the playing field.” Wrong. In 2004, the Transportation Department evaluated federal transportation subsidies from 1990 to 2002. It found passenger rail service had the highest subsidy ($186.35 per thousand passenger-miles) followed by mass transit ($118.26 per thousand miles). By contrast, drivers received no net subsidy; their fuel taxes more than covered federal spending. Subsidies for airline passengers were about $5 per thousand miles traveled. (All figures are in inflation-adjusted year 2000 dollars.)

High-speed rail would transform Amtrak’s small drain into a much larger drain. Once built, high-speed-rail systems would face a dilemma. To recoup initial capital costs – construction and train purchases – ticket prices would have to be set so high that few people would choose rail. But lower prices, even with favorable passenger loads, might not cover costs. Government would be stuck with huge subsidies. Even without recovering capital costs, high-speed-rail systems would probably run in the red. Most mass-transit systems, despite high ridership, routinely have deficits.

The reasons passenger rail service doesn’t work in America are well-known: Interstate highways shorten many trip times; suburbanization has fragmented destination points; air travel is quicker and more flexible for long distances (if fewer people fly from Denver to Los Angeles and more go to Houston, flight schedules simply adjust). Against history and logic is the imagery of high-speed rail as “green” and a cutting-edge technology.

It’s a triumph of fancy over fact. Even if ridership increased fifteenfold over Amtrak levels, the effects on congestion, national fuel consumption and emissions would still be trivial. Land-use patterns would change modestly, if at all; cutting 20 minutes off travel times between New York and Philadelphia wouldn’t much alter real estate development in either. Nor is high-speed rail a technology where the United States would likely lead; European and Asian firms already dominate the market.

Governing ought to be about making wise choices. What’s disheartening about the Obama administration’s embrace of high-speed rail is that it ignores history, evidence and logic. The case against it is overwhelming. The case in favor rests on fashionable platitudes. High-speed rail is not an “investment in the future”; it’s mostly a waste of money. Good government can’t solve all our problems, but it can at least not make them worse.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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The Washington Post
A lost cause: The high-speed rail race

Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 8:23 PM

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S fiscal 2012 budget includes $8 billion for high-speed rail next year and $53 billion over six years. In the president’s view, the United States needs to spend big on high-speed rail so that we can catch up with Europe, Japan – and you-know-who. “China is building faster trains and newer airports,” the president warned in his State of the Union address. But of all the reasons to build high-speed rail in the United States, keeping up with the international Joneses may be one of the worst. In fact, experience abroad has repeatedly raised questions about the cost-effectiveness of high-speed rail.

China would seem to be an especially dubious role model, given the problems its high-speed rail system has been going through of late. Beijing just fired its railway minister amid corruption allegations; this is the sort of thing that can happen when a government suddenly starts throwing $100 billion at a gargantuan public works project, as China did with rail in 2008. Sleek as they may be, China’s new fast trains are too expensive for ordinary workers to ride, so they are not achieving their ostensible goal of moving passengers from the roads to the rails. Last year, the Chinese Academy of Sciences asked the government to reconsider its high-speed rail plans because of the system’s huge debts.

Of course, if the Chinese do finish their system, it is likely to require operating subsidies for many years – possibly forever. A recent World Bank report on high-speed rail systems around the world noted that ridership forecasts rarely materialize and warned that “governments contemplating the benefits of a new high-speed railway, whether procured by public or private or combined public-private project structures, should also contemplate the near-certainty of copious and continuing budget support for the debt.”

That’s certainly what happened in Japan, where only a single bullet-train line, between Japan and Osaka, breaks even; it’s what happened in France, where only the Paris-Lyon line is in the black. Taiwan tried a privately financed system, but it ended up losing so much money that the government had to bail it out in 2009.

When it comes to high-speed rail, Europe, Japan and Taiwan have two natural advantages over every region of the United States, with the possible exception of the Northeast Corridor – high gas taxes and high population density. If high-speed rail turned into a money pit under relatively favorable circumstances, imagine the subsidies it would require here. Every dollar spent to subsidize high-speed rail is a dollar that cannot be spent modernizing highways, expanding the freight rail system or creating private-sector jobs. The Obama administration insists we dare not lag the rest of the world in high-speed rail. Actually, this is a race everyone loses.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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