Posts tagged ‘HSR’

The Public Rail Spending Game

Kevin Drum has a very good, succinct description of how the rail (light rail, high speed rail, commuter rail) spending game works, in the context of California High Speed Rail (HSR)

As near as I can tell, the HSR authority's plan all along has been to simply ignore the law and spend the bond money on a few initial miles of track. Once that was done, no one would ever have the guts to halt the project because it would already have $9 billion sunk into it. So one way or another, the legislature would keep it on a funding drip.

It's a time-tested strategy, and it might have worked if not for a meddling judge.

Here is a great example of this from Chicago, where all they could afford at first was a single station.

I applaud Drum for opposing this boondoggle, but if he really understands this so well, I wonder why he seldom demonstrates any skepticism about other rail and mass transit projects.

Rail projects, particularly light rail projects that are being constructed or proposed in nearly every major city, are a classic example of a nominally Progressive policy that ends up hurting all the people Progressives want to help.

Bus-based mass transit is an intelligent way to help lower income people have more urban mobility.  Buses are relatively cheap and they are supremely flexible (ie they can switch routes easily).  Such urban bus systems, which like any government run function often have their problems and scandals, never-the-less can be reasonably held up as a Progressive victory.

But middle and upper class people, for whatever reason, don't like buses.  But they do like trains.  And so cities, under middle class pressure, have shifted their mass transit investment to trains.  The problem is that trains are horrendously expensive.    The first 20-mile leg of Phoenix light rail cost over $1.4 billion, which amounts to about $70,000 per daily round-trip rider.  Trains are also inflexible.  You can't shift routes and you can't sell them-- they have to follow fixed routes, which tend to match middle class commuting routes.

Because the trains are so expensive to operate, cities that adopt them quickly start cutting back on bus service to feed money to the rail beast.  As a result, even transit poster-boy cities like Portland have seen the ridership share of mass transit fall, for the simple reason that rail greatly increases the cost per rider and there is not an infinite amount of money available to transit.


Keystone XL: Voting for the Stone Age

(update: link is fixed)  My new Forbes column is up, and it attempts to strip away the window dressing around the Keystone pipeline decision to get at the core issue -- "a quasi-irrational ('I'm blogging against the modern economy from my iPhone'), almost aesthetic distaste for energy production, the modern industrial economy, and capitalism itself. "  Read it all here.

PS-  the contrast between the Administrations support of the egregious HSR project in CA and its rejection of the takes-no-tax-dollars Keystone XL infrastructure project reminds me of my earlier piece on the Timeless Appeal of Triumphalism.   Politicians love to shift capital from private, boring, productive things like pipelines to sexy taxpayer-funded things that they can put their names on.

What Thomas Friedman Wants for America

When it comes to high speed rail, the Left tends to have a Santa Clause mentality.   They want the rail, but refuse to even discuss its costs vs. benefits, as if it is going to be dropped in place by Santa Clause.

I have actually had pro-high-speed rail writers call me a dinosaur for taking a cost-benefit approach.  After a reasoned article on why our rail system, with its focus on freight, makes more sense than China and Europe's focus on high speed passenger rail, Joel Epstein wrote me that I should get out of the country more, as if I am some backwoods rube that would just swoon if I saw a nifty bullet train.  For the record, my actual experience on a high-speed rail train in Europe confirmed that it was a nice experience (I knew it would be) and that it was a financial mess, as my son and I were the only passengers in my car.  I would be all for HSR if Santa Clause dropped in down from the North Pole, but it costs a lot of real money.

How much money?  Well take the system in China that Friedman and Epstein and many others have begged the US to emulate:

The rail ministry that builds and operates the trains has an incredible 2.1 million employees, more than the number of civilians employed by the entire U.S. government. Moreover, the ministry is in debt to the tune of 2.1 trillion yuan ($326 billion), about 5 percent of the country’s GDP.

Things I Didn't Expect to Read, Part 2

Several years ago, I made a bet that California high speed rail would, if built, end up costing over $100 billion.  Incredibly, Kevin Drum is making the same bet.

The disappointing part is that he is quick to say that this project is an outlier, that certainly he still supports other HSR rail projects.  But they all look as bad as the CA project.  The CA project has just gotten more attention and scrutiny because of its size.  If memory serves, Drum was right there supporting the Tampa to Orlando line, which if possible is even dumber than the California line.  In my experience, the difference between a good high speed rail project and a bad one is basically how much one digs into the numbers and challenges the assumptions.  With enough leg work, they all look bad.