Monday, July 21, 2008

Ill Advised?

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

I really should be packing for my trip to Seattle, but this could not pass without comment. Tim Hunt has an op-ed in today's Oakland Tribune calling high speed rail "ill advised". Far as I can tell the only thing ill advised is his op-ed:

And, when it comes to transportation, the bullet train is a remarkable boondoggle. Its board approved the environmental impact report last week that identified costs between $42 billion and $45 billion. If costs were half that much, it's way past time for voters to end this fantasy of politicians who love to spend your money.

This is ignorant nonsense. Because a $10 billion bond will not be floated all at once, but dribbled out over time and as needed, it is not likely to necessitate a tax increase. If it did the cost to the average Californian would be $750 total - going off of arch-conservative Tom McClintock's own numbers - or $37.50 a year if paid in annual installments. I just paid that much to fill up my car last night, whereas high speed rail would save me money.

Remarkably Hunt does not mention anywhere in his column the high price of gas. Nowhere does he mention the airline crisis. Nowhere does he mention the energy or climate crisis. And if it's the economy he's so concerned about, what does he have against the 450,000 jobs that this will create, many of them coming within the next few years when they will be desperately needed?

The language of the "boondoggle" is frequently used by transit opponents. Any government project with a big price tag is immediately seen as a recipe for ruin. The involvement of Parsons Brinckerhoff usually amplifies these cries - but as we have explained before this is to miss the key details entirely. The Big Dig, the usual whipping boy of anti-government critics, was a highly unusual and deeply mismanaged project. Rail projects, especially high speed rail projects, have routinely been delivered on-time and either on or very close to the original budget projections - including here in California.

Unfortunately he goes on:

And for those who still dream about BART extending to Livermore, the bullet train is yet another negative. The approved EIR shows the route coming over Pacheco Pass and then up the Santa Clara valley to San Jose and then north along the Peninsula to San Francisco. Livermore advocates hoped for a route that went through the Altamont Pass to a high-rail connection in Livermore between BART, ACE and the high-speed rail. Pleasanton would sue the pants off of any agency wanting to move more trains — let along high-speed trains — through its downtown, but it might live with a few more ACE trains with most of the passenger traffic taking BART.

The high-speed rail board decision ends that possibility and should send a clear message to Valley voters as well as those voting across the state.

That's odd. Here I thought there was a meeting just last week on extending BART to Livermore. And this notion that the HSR authority "ends the possibility" of more ACE trains or undermining BART to Livermore? Did he miss the part of the plan where Altamont is specifically designated as an HSR corridor that will get funds even though it's not on the main track? That such funds would almost certainly lead to an ACE boost? That plan would be immeasurably boosted by passage of AB 3034 but instead of bashing Republicans that have held it up, he goes after the Authority with a charge so baseless that it leads me to wonder whether Hunt has even the slightest clue of the basic details of the project.

This is a silly boondoggle and deserves to be buried now instead of consuming more precious public funds.

Remember, the state is still $15 billion-plus out-of-balance and could not afford this silliness in the best of times, let alone now.

This is sleight-of-hand, as the deficit and HSR are totally separate issues. The state Legislative Analyst, a respected nonpartisan office, concluded the state could afford this bond. More importantly, not building this will worsen the budget gap as Californians lose jobs and reduce spending due to high gas prices they can't avoid. Again Hunt completely ignores the crippling impact of those high prices on our economy, to which HSR is a partial but valuable solution.

High-speed rail may have its place in America — most likely moving freight between the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to processing centers in the Inland Empire around San Bernardino — but it's certainly not trying to ship people north to south to compete with airlines.

Why not? Acela has taken 40% of the market share on the Northeast Corridor from the airlines. HSR in Spain - which is very similar to California in how its cities are distributed - is successfully challenging the airlines, especially on the Madrid-Barcelona route, one of the world's busiest.

Hunt seems to be completely ignorant of both the stunning global success of HSR as well as soaring ridership on California trains. Were he better informed he might not be making these kind of arguments.

Voters likely will face a $10 billion initial investment to be followed by several more bonds. It's well past time to stop throwing good money after bad on this project that is so ill-conceived that it doesn't even have a business plan.

Wrong again. It does have a business plan. 8 years old, yes, but it exists. AB 3034 would mandate that the Authority update the plan, but Republicans opposed it. Not exactly a good way of holding government accountable or providing the public the latest information, is it?

And, what's more, the current legislation in Sacramento calls for the engineering to be done by Caltrans instead of contracted to an outside firm. Caltrans already is a major roadblock to getting projects moving. That provision to require Caltrans engineering is a sop to the engineers' union and other public employee unions, and another strike against doing things efficiently. Caltrans, despite some good efforts by appointed leaders, defines government bureaucracy that consumes vast amounts of taxpayer and private money with little to show in progress or improvements.

Again, this is simply false. The provision in question was struck from the bill when it was amended in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Once again Hunt fails on even the basic facts of high speed rail. If he can't get those facts right, can we trust his arguments? Of course not. The only thing "ill advised" here would be assuming Hunt's op-ed is of any value in assessing Proposition 1.


Anonymous said...

The theme that Rod Diridon keeps preaching, "this project will not raise your taxes" keeps coming back.

This is a general obligation bond, and the funds to service this bond will come from general revenues -- taxes.

Nobody suggests that payment of the interest and principal on this debt is going to come from anywhere except general tax revenues, which are obtained by state taxes. Of course it raises your taxes -- don't be silly.

Diridon does himself and the CHSRA no favor by continuing to repeat this falsehood, and this goes to the heart of the situation; that the leadership of this project is devious and incompetent.

Kopp continues to tell the voters the system is safe and that "there has never been a fatal accident on any HSR line in the world". That is a big lie. It rivals his proclaming that "for $55.00 in 2018 you will be able to have a one way ticket from Los Angeles to San Francisco." Surely nobody believes that -- look at the current ticket prices for HSR in other parts of the world. two to three times and more in today's dollars.

This project does noting to cure congestion in the urban areas. This project is a tool of political interests and land developers.

All California voters must reject this project. This project is indeed a boondoggle.

Anonymous said...

Hey anonymous, why don't you start using your name. Most people are afraid to use their name when they don't have a leg to stand on in their rebuttals to the HSR project. Plain and simple.

Maybe someone should delete the anonymous posting choice and allow the website to remember or post the IP addresses of where the comments are coming from.

This is NOT a boondoggle (stupid word anyways that fits with the opponents very well).

Vote yes on prop 1!!

Rob Dawg said...

Robert, for all your incisive and generally correct skewering of some of the oppositions points, taxes isn't one of those. Even if taxes were not covertly or overtly higher, even if the dynamic model indicates costs of doing nothing are higher than comitting to HSR it doesn't matter. People just plain old do not believe this isn't a tax increase. By continuing to insist that this is not aa tax increase you are doing the political eqquivalent of stepping into traffic because you are protected by a crosswalk and have the right of way. In both cases the cost of being right are very steep.

Cas said...

Nowhere in the article did Robert say that high-speed rail would not raise taxes.

In fact, he laid out exactly how much it would cost each Californian--$37.50/year in new taxes for 20 years.

One tank of gas per year for high-speed rail. It's a tax, but a small one, and one offset by the benefits.

Spokker said...

I would gladly pay reasonably higher taxes for this project. You gotta pay the cost to be the boss.

Rafael said...

@ anonymous @ 9:02am -

a) Rod Diridon is referring to the fact that Prop 1 is not directly tied to any tax increase. It will increase the state's debt burden but, according to the Legislative Analyst, the increment is entirely within the state's ability to shoulder based on projections of existing state taxes.

Of course, if Gov. Schwarzenegger or his successor decide that California needs more dams or other public works at some point in the near future, those might entail tax hikes. First come first serve.

b) Afaik, CHSRA has been very careful to stress that their have been no accident-related fatalities in France or Japan. The 1998 accident in Eschede, Germany, did involve an ICE train traveling at 125mph. However, it was traveling on legacy tracks and featured a since-banned wheel retrofit design that caused the chain of event that led to the loss of 101 lives. Since the proposed California system will use dedicated HSR track and the latest HSR trainset technology - probably based on articulated frames - your complaint strikes me as irrelevant in this particular context.

c) CHSRA's ridership study used a volume pricing model similar to the one pioneered by state-owned SNCF in France, which recently forked over EUR 131 to that country's Finance Ministry after operational expenses for all forms of rail transport were covered.

Over 100 million passenger trips are delivered by the TGV network every year. France considers its capital investment in the passenger-only TGV network a public works project that need never be repaid by operating profits. That mindset is substantially different from that in the US, where railroads have long been owned and operated primarily by private freight companies.

The situation is reversed for freeways, which in the US are generally paid for by taxpayers. In France, most motorways are privately owned and operated toll roads.

The $55 one-way fare for SF-LA actually refers to 2005 dollars, a detail Judge Kopp did get wrong in a radio interview in June. At 2.5% inflation, the equivalent price in 2008 dollars would be around $60. In 2018 dollars, it would be around $72 - but then again, the cost of everything else, including airline tickets and gasoline, would go up as well.

Note that the ridership study was conducted prior to the recent explosion in the price of oil, essentially as a result of rising demand in both the OECD and G21 nations. IMHO it's a safe bet that oil will cross the $200/barrel mark (in 2008 dollars) well before 2018. That means HSR fares will likely be well below airfares even if CHSRA's construction cost estimates proves mildly - not wildly - optimistic.

Anonymous said...

"Rail projects, especially high speed rail projects, have routinely been delivered on-time and either on or very close to the original budget projections -"
By Bent Flyvbjerg
, World Bank
Infrastructure Network
. Office of the Vice
President, World Bank
Published 2005
World Bank
31 pages

"This paper focuses on problems and their causes and cures in policy and planning for large infrastructure projects. First, it identifies as the main problem in major infrastructure development pervasive misinformation about the costs, benefits, and risks involved. A consequence of misinformation is massive cost overruns, benefit shortfalls, and waste. Second, the paper explores the causes of misinformation and finds that political-economic explanations best account for the available evidence: planners and promoters deliberately misrepresent costs, benefits, and risks in order to increase the likelihood that it is their projects, and not the competition's, that gain approval and funding. This results in the "survival of the unfittest," where often it is not the best projects that are built, but the most misrepresented ones. Finally, the paper presents measures for reforming policy and planning for large infrastructure projects, with a focus on better planning methods and changed governance structures, the latter being more important. "--World Bank web site.
Will you reject Flyvbjerg's research as well? He, by the way, is not a NIMBY who lives next to the tracks.

Tony D. said...

Don't worry Robert. What we're basically getting from Tim Hunt (and these gutless anon's) is the opinion of the 30-40% who won't vote for Prop. 1, regardless of the facts. Heck, we would probably have a hard time convincing these people that the surface of the Sun is hot! Anyhow, the naysayers are betting that California voters are stupid and ill informed; WE'RE NOT! The strong majority realizes the importance of this project and what it means to our future. Again Robert, don't worry about these folks, kick back and enjoy your matrimony! By the way anon 1:10, who made this Flyvbjerg character the God of infrastructure?! Anyhow, his piece you referenced would make for excellent toilet paper on the high-speed trains of many a successful European system. GO HSR AND PROP. 1!!

Anonymous said...

Flyvbjerg is a University Professor and internationally recognized expert on infrastructure projects.

With regard to Robert's claim that passenger rail projects in California are "routinely" delivered within budget, then which projects he is talking about?

BART-SFO? (100% overrun)
BART-Dublin/Pleasanton? (100% overrun, and elimination of one station after funds ran out)
BART-Warm Springs? (50% overrun so far and construction hasn't even begun yet)
eBART? (100+% cost overrun, due to conflicts with UP over their ROW)
LA Red Line extension? (100% overrun, leading to temporary moratorium on new subway construction).

In Europe, high-speed rail projects actually have good record for staying under budget. But whether that experience can be replicated in California seems a bit unlikely.

Anonymous said...

There are so many problems with this project it is hard to understand why anyone wants to approve it at this time.

Take the airlines. Here is a project that the public sector is going to subsidize and will attempt to take 50% of the air travel between LA and SF Bay area.

Why aren't airlines by now trying to fight it. People in this blog say its because they want to give up on a route this short.

That is just plain garbage. Southwest and others want the high volume routes. What they don't want is problematic routes of shorter distance like Fresno to LA or SF.

They are quite confident they will be hardly effected on the routes they want and will be able to shunt off the shorter routes onto the HSR line. You know the $18 fare route from Fresno to LA or SF.

How will they compete? No problem. I flew the other day from LA to San Jose; total time in the air 49 minutes. Sure right now I had to get there an hour ahead of time. But wait until they have HSR competition. They will get TSA security lines designated for these commuter type of runs, and just like in the old days of going from NYC to Washington or Boston, you will be able to arrive just a few minutes ahead of departure, wisk through the special lines and be on your way.

Poor HSR, needing 2.5 hours or so trip time to make the trip, whereas a 600 MPH airplane gets there in 50 minutes. HSR just won't be able to compete, except by perhaps fares so low they will doing what all passenger lines in the US have always done, show huge deficits.

No, the airlines aren't dumb. They are quite willing to dump off the routes they don't want and keep the high volume, profitable routes. Of course San Diego to the Bay area or Oakland to LA or San Diego, or Sacramento to anywhere won't be affected. No the airlines will come out just fine.

Jack Duluoz said...

I would remind Bikerider that HSR and BART are about as similar as a highway and a monorail. Bart is an obsolete boutique proprietary system, incompatible with any other rail system in the world. HSR is run on standard gauge rail used the world over.

Furthermore a large reason for cost overruns are obstructionist delays which contribute to huge legal costs and an increase in the cost of materials.

Brandon in California said...

Two things:

Point 1:

I think Tim Hunt and the Oakland Tribune are both getting loads of attention and they are probably lovin it! A whole blog post to their editorial.

They may be a paper in a major metropolitan region, SF Bay Area, but their daily circulation ranks no better than 4th among for-fee papers at a paltry 67k-ish.

90% of the Bay Area probably does not know that paper exists!

Others Bay Area Papers:
SF Chronicle: 400k-467k
SJ Mercury: 249k
Contra Costa Times: 182k-194k

Free Weekly:
Bay Area Guardian: 117k

The Oakland Tribune circulates fewer papers than the weekly free paper.

Point 2:

I've picked up Bent Flyvbierg's "Mega Projects and Risk; An Anatomy of Ambition".

I truely had a lot of trouble reading his book and falling behind his message. He seemed biased, provided incomplete examples, and some of his points did not seem to connect the dots.

I concluded that he was a small and inconsequential voice.

Maybe I'll pick it up again and 'try harder' to be swayed to see the merits of his points.

Anonymous said...

@Brandon M. Farley

Bent Flyvbierg's "Mega Projects and Risk; An Anatomy of Ambition" and other papers are considered classics and standards in the field.

You may not know about him, but that hardly make him "a small and inconsequential voice. "

Brandon in California said...

Anon 6:52,
Well, I indicated I may pick it up again and give him another chance. My first read was that his critiques were insufficient, one-side, biased.

But I am repeating myself.

I took it off the shelf and put it by my bed-side. I am open minded, like always...

Do you have a lot of familiaity with his writings?

Anonymous said...

I would remind Bikerider that HSR and BART are about as similar as a highway and a monorail. Bart is an obsolete boutique proprietary system, incompatible with any other rail system in the world. HSR is run on standard gauge rail used the world over.

BART's proprietary technology does contribute to its high costs. But these historical 100% cost-overruns are common for conventional rail in California too. eBART, MTA red-line, San Francisco 3rd-line, Central subway, Muni metro-extension are all conventional rail projects with massive cost blowouts.

Brandon in California said...

Some of those have not yet been built yet... which imo, makes citation of them irrelevant. The point should be to compare b4 cost estimate and post construction cost.

Btw, the Bay Bridge was origionally estimated to cost less than $1b to rebuild. After redesign and redesign... contruction unit costs for steel and concrete balooning... it's now at around $6.2B!


So, it's not excusive of rail... if that was the intent. It happens to all sorts of projects. The common denominator among them would be that they are unique designs catered to local conditions and at the mercy of construction costs.

Anonymous said...

You can always take the position that overruns in cost are due to un-foreseen changes in the economics -- rising labor or commodity costs etc.

However, on many projects it is obvious they are purposely under-estimated on costs so they can gain popular support. That for sure is the case with Prop 1. Even Robert admits there mostly likely will be cost over-runs although he thinks they are of the range of 10 -15%. More realistic will be 100 -150% overruns.

Be aware the Field Poll has just published results on Prop 1. It shows that 56% of likely voters now support the measure. That should make advocates very happy.

But if you read further, you find that only 22% of those same voters were even aware of the project before being polled and they based their preference solely on reading of the ballot label; that label is nothing more than an ad favoring support for the Prop.

The poll is based on a small sample of 672 and the uncertainly is +-5 - 6 %.

Jack Duluoz said...

furthermore; 3rd st MUNI, Central Subway, and the vaguely worded "Muni Metro-extention" are the same freakin' project, the second half of which has yet to even reach the final design phases.

Hardly proof positive of inevitable cost overruns and governmental ineptitude. Bikerider also cites the LA red-line, but fails to mention the on-time, on-budget Gold line.

Regadless, following this deft logic we should never build anything ever because it might be expensive.

Hey guys i bet you didn't know that public libraries and schools don't make any money either!

You wanna see the root of cost overruns? Just wait for Morris and his crew to take this thing to court.

Tony D. said...

So let me guess Morris, the 78% who weren't aware of Prop. 1 will all oppose the prop. this November. GET REAL!! (I know that's what you were implying/wishing with your post). Hey all, Rod Diridon of the Norman Mineta Transportation Institute (SJSU) is also a well respected expert on transportation, and he supports Prop. 1 and HSR! Look anon's and naysayers, cherry pick all the "expert opinions" against big public projects all you want; you are in the minority and Prop. 1 will win this November...the 56+% of us don't need your vote anyway!

Spokker said...

"But if you read further, you find that only 22% of those same voters were even aware of the project before being polled and they based their preference solely on reading of the ballot label; that label is nothing more than an ad favoring support for the Prop."

None of the propositions besides parental notification did very well in the awareness category. And parental notification has been on the ballot before.

It's only July. Wait until October when ads are on TV and the mud is really flying.

Rafael said...

@ anon @ 5:22 -

comparing raw line haul times is very misleading because people neither live nor work at airports nor train stations. What passengers care about is door-to-door travel time and, what they can do while in transit.

On a recent trip from the Bay Area to Los Angeles, my outbound flight was canceled and my inbound one delayed by two hours due to "low clouds at SFO" that had already cleared by the time we got there. Door-to-door, my return trip took almost 5 hours! Add to that the time-consuming and/or humiliating rituals of check-in, security and baggage claim and, flying short haul is just not attractive these days - regardless of fares. Moreover, you can't really use a cell phone on a short haul flight nor are you offered broadband internet service.

HSR will allow many passengers to board and alight much closer to their in-state origin and destination, respectively. There is also no need for baggage handling. That means door-to-door travel times will often be competitive for the types of short-to-medium-distance trips envisaged for California HSR, even if the raw line haul times suggest otherwise.

Thanks to lower fares, more generous seats and tables, cafe/restaurant cars, uninterrupted cell phone coverage and almost certainly, courtesy electrical outlets plus terrestrial broadband internet access permitting videoconferencing and multiplayer games, HSR will win market share against short-haul aviation even if airlines can persuade TSA to relax its security protocols a little. For example, air traffic volume between Madrid and Barcelona instantly fell by 15% once the competing HSR line was completed, in spite of special fast-track procedures for travelers without checked bags at the airports. And that's without broadband internet.

There will be some security protocol for HSR passengers, quite possibly one that is more intrusive than the undercover surveillance currently employed by Amtrak. However, attacking a train - especially an articulated high-speed train - usually doesn't yield the kinds of spectacular disaster and associated media coverage that terrorists crave. Carlos the Jackal tried it in France in 1983 and it was something of a damp squib. It is quite difficult to derail a train with a device carried on board by a passenger.

Attacking the tracks is another matter and, CHSRA still needs to present details of the anti-trespass and foreign body detection measures it intends to construct along the proposed 800-mile network. Note that these measures will be transparent to passengers, so there may be no need to subject every single one of them to check-in and metal detectors.

Anonymous said...

@tony d. others.

I was not implying anything about how the 78% of un-aware voters were going to vote.

As a "denier" of the project, I certainly would be much happier if the poll showed 56% against rather than 56% in favor.

As Robert talks about in a newer thread, with this many of the voters not aware of the project, who knows how they are going to break.

Remember you are looking here at a telephone poll and 78% of those being polled know nothing about the project. Everyone is read the ballot label, which has been written by CHSRA to promote passage of the measure and then are asked if you in favor or not.

The situation when voters cast their ballots this fall will be much different. Hopefully there will be much greater awareness of the project and the ballot will not only contain the ballot label, but also pro and con arguments and pro and con rebuttal statements.

So from my vantage point, I'm not overly concerned about the 56% now against, I think when more is known, especially valid arguments against the project, the voters will reject Prop 1.

What is pretty interesting is the following:

The poll conducted by CHSRA in Feb. reported the same 56% in favor of the project.

What is really different is the CHSRA poll also reported that 49% of those polled knew about the project. The Field poll, taken almost 5 months later, shows only 22% know about the project.

How can you reconcile these vastly different numbers, from supposedly two valid polling organizations?

Draw your own conclusions.

Robert Cruickshank said...

What part of "there is no tax increase in Prop 1" do the HSR deniers refuse to understand?

Bonds do not necessarily raise taxes. There is NO cause-and-effect relationship. It *could* lead to a tax increase if the state feels they need more revenue or it might not.

The misinformation being put out on this is stunning.

Robert Cruickshank said...

As to "cost overruns" - does a 200% increase in eight years count as a horribly flawed public works project?

'Cause that's how much gas prices have risen from 1999 to 2008 in the Bay Area.

This whole focus on "omg cost overruns!!!" is designed to distract us from the core point, which is that we are facing FAR WORSE cost overruns from the current method of transportation. And the HSR deniers have offered us nothing - absolutely nothing - in response to these overruns. By opposing the core project that will allow Californians to get out of their cars and planes, and provide jobs and stable energy prices, they are shackling us to a failed present.

Remember that when these folks come up with these nonsense arguments. They cherry pick the projects - complain about BART to SFO and the Red Line but ignore the the Gold Line or Seattle's Sound Transit. They ignore the fact that BART and the Big Dig were specially-designed projects but HSR is an off-the-shelf standard technology.

They're making logically flawed arguments so we can defend a failed policy.

Is THAT what we want for our future?

Anonymous said...


You seem to have lost all sense of reality. I hope you are able to hold it together for the next major bombshell to hit the project -- coming before the Middle of August.

Maybe you already know about it --

Robert Cruickshank said...

What next bombshell is that? You all are wasting everyone's time filing a baseless CEQA suit? You've been showing those cards for weeks now. You're going to unleash a "save the multimillion dollar backyard tennis courts in Menlo Park" campaign? You're going to once again show you have no concept of an energy crisis?

The more Californians learn about the project the more they like it. That's gotta rankle.