Saturday, August 23, 2008

Obama + Biden = High Speed Rail?

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

As Barack Obama finally announces his vice-presidential pick, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, there's been a lot of discussion about how he reflects or complements or even detracts from what Barack Obama stands for. Most of those discussions focus on the war in Iraq, domestic economic policy, the nebulous media fiction of "gravitas," etc. But there's a key area where Biden and Obama are not just in agreement, but have been outspoken leaders: trains, and high speed rail in particular.

Obama has already made a name for himself as a high speed rail advocate, as we've previously discussed at this blog. Obama now adds to his ticket one of the most committed supporters of Amtrak and a high speed rail proponent in Joe Biden - or as Atrios calls him, Vice President of SUPERTRAIN.

Biden is a regular Amtrak rider in order to stay connected to his family:

Biden vowed to remain a fixture in his sons' lives. Valerie became their surrogate mother, and Biden began the daily commute from Wilmington to Washington that made him an Amtrak champion for life. Even after Biden met and married his second wife, Jill, five years later, he didn't surrender the back-breaking schedule. "Kids keep a thought in their heads for 12 hours," he says at one campaign stop. "They aren't gonna keep it for 24 hours."

Most of his trips are on the United States' closest thing to a high speed train, the Acela, which he helped create. Biden has been long supported high speed rail, as shown by these comments from 2001:

A lead author of the legislation, Senator Joseph Biden, Jr. (DE) said, "Every advanced economy in the world invests more than the United States in high-speed inter-city service. We like to think of ourselves as the most advanced country in the world, and I believe we are, but for years we have nickel-and-dimed passenger rail service in this country."

Biden explained the broad support for the legislation, stating, "We have the support of the many members all across the country because our country's transportation system is already stretched to the breaking point."

Comments from a 2007 town hall when Biden was still a Democratic presidential show the breadth of Biden's HSR vision:

“I commute 250 miles a day on high-speed rail,” Biden said. “I'm Mr. Amtrak.”

Biden proposes an interstate high-speed rail service similar to the interstate highway system.

“One mile of one lane of I-80 costs $22 million,” Biden said. “One mile of I-95 (on the East Coast) holds more traffic and costs $41 million.” By contrast, “One mile of high-speed rail costs $1 million.

“You can fit more people on a rail car and you'll be taking 50 automobiles off the road. Rail uses 1/50th of the cost (of a car) in terms of energy consumption.”

Biden said the reason why railroads haven't been used more in the past is because of special interest groups, most notably the airline industry. “They get $350 million a year to go where no one wants to go,” Biden said, qualifying that by saying that there is not enough business to support a commercial flight. He said people don't like the idea of subsidizing railroads, yet the airline industry gets subsidies to fly to sparse locations.

Or this, also from an Iowa town hall in 2007:

You are looking at Mr. Transportation,” he said in response to a question about using an electrified rail system like Europe’s. “I am the reason Amtrak keeps moving.”...

“Why do you think businesses are leaving (the U.S.)?” he said. “We need a good infrastructure, which would benefit economic development.”

Whether you plan to vote for the Obama-Biden ticket or not, it's clear that they do have the possibility to dramatically raise the profile of high speed rail in America. They also "get" high speed rail and why it is so fundamentally important to the future of this country. I can't imagine a better boost for our own HSR plan than to hear one of them mention it in a debate or a nationwide TV ad.

Picking Biden also has some political drawbacks. If the ticket is successful in November, one of Amtrak's and HSR's most important backers will leave the US Senate for the Executive Branch. It's possible that Biden could do for Obama what Lyndon B. Johnson did for John F. Kennedy, and use his masterful knowledge of the Senate to be the president's de facto Senate lobbyist and "fixer." Unfortunately it's also possible that Biden won't be able to play as strong a role for high speed rail as he might have while still a sitting US senator.

Despite that potential problem, the Obama-Biden ticket is still much better for high speed rail advocates than the alternative. John McCain is an noted Amtrak hater and has shown little love for HSR. It's hard to envision a McCain Administration accepting a large budget appropriation from Congress for California's HSR project, and that might set things back five years.

Not having Biden in the Senate to advocate for HSR would be unfortunate, but having McCain in the White House to block it would be far worse.


Rafael said...

"One mile of high-speed rail costs $1 million."

Perhaps he's referring to upgrading existing freight tracks to support top speeds of 110mph instead of 79 on the East Coast. Twenty years ago. Laying brand-new track with overhead catenaries is a good deal more expensive per mile, especially today and in California.

Just do the math: $45 billion / 800 miles = 56 million/mile. Then again, constructing 3000 new freeway lane-miles plus 5 new runways would end up costing even more.

Matt said...

I think that you overstate the loss of power that Biden would have going from Senator to VP.

Anonymous said...


But then again, 3000 new freeway lane miles and 5 new runways will still be needed (if they are ever to be needed) regardless of whether this project is built.

One of the big lies is "build this train project" and you won't need more freeways or runways. What a joke.

Some advocates cast this project like a WPA project of the thirties.
They say it will create 450,000 new jobs. New jobs equals new homes and new families in the central valley. The equals lots more cars which equals more freeway lanes to be built. Bonanza for land developers and speculators. That's what this project is all about. It certainly is not about providing transportation.

In any event with AB-3034 now killed, the leadership of the CHSRA will have a free hand in doling out the money. There will not be public/private partnerships. The core segment is estimated to cost 33 billions. With 9 billion from the bonds and even with Fed matchin money of 9 billion, where is the rest going to come from? Another bond measure?

Oh, and by the way, now they can build their station in Los Banos also.

It won't raise your taxes!!! What a joke.

無名 - wu ming said...

well, there's a silver lining to biden after all.

Spokker said...

"I think that you overstate the loss of power that Biden would have going from Senator to VP."

But should Obama be unable to fulfill his duties as president we'll finally have a guy in the White House with a boner for trains.

Anonymous said... we dont build high speed rail ..then what.. even more you ever go to Europe?
they have lots of freeways AND high speed rail! Unless your planning on strict population control there is still going to be 50 million people here..SO stop think just for YOUR little world and think of others in the future..speaking of WPA projects you enjoy some of this still to this day!!Dont worry Menlo Park will be fine..

Robert Cruickshank said...

It's also possible that Biden's train ridership is going to become part of this election. Obama already referred to it when he introduced Biden in Springfield, Illinois today - "he knows all the conductors on the train by first name." Obama used it to suggest that being a frequent train rider or commuter makes you an authentically blue-collar man of the people.

Whether that's true of Biden is, of course, open to debate. As is whether Biden's statements on high speed rail are totally accurate, as rafael notes.

But what is so interesting about Biden as VP is that he might be able to help frame rail as a political winner. In the context of this blog, that is a big deal. Let's see if the Obama-Biden ticket follows through on it.

Especially if, as is speculated, McCain picks Pawlenty, who hasn't exactly been helpful to Minnesota's rail efforts.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:18,

I feel many of your assertions are incorrect. If there was a 101 course for peeps just becoming aware of HSR... I'd provide a link.

No one is saying freeways and airport expansion will still not be needed.

What is being said is that the proposed HSR system at the estimated cost will serve more people than comparable cost improvements with freeways and airports.

Thus, HSR is more effecient with public dollars.

Aside from funding, is also produces less pollution than what would occur with competing systems too.

And, reduces reliance on foreign oil... and therefore also improves national security interests and helps mitigate some of the demand that causes higher gas prices.

Because of your response, I wonder if you're a republican or McCain fan? And then I wonder if Paris Hilton could have gone further with her video response. I think she could have linked old white dudes with being impotent with new ideas. McCain, after all, is all about the status quo.

Conerning Public Private Partnerships...

There is nothig in the current Prop 1 language that precludes the CHSRA from pursuit of 3rd party agreements. In fact, all stakeholders are very much in favor of maximizing non-state public funding.

What AB 3034 would have done was provide more oversight on this matter, but 3034's absence certainly does preclude PPP's and we should count on them occurring.

Concludign recommendation...

In the absence of a 101 sight for HSR I suggest doing some research at a variety of sights to learn more about what it is.

brandon m farley
(posting from a friends comp)

Anonymous said...

An interesting tidbit from wikipedia:

"In 1987, Joe Biden ran as a Democratic presidential candidate, formally declaring his candidacy at the Wilmington train station on June 9, 1987."

brandon m farley
(posting from a friends comp)

Anonymous said...

@ brandon m farley

The argument is clearly, build this project and you won't have to build 3000 new freeway lane - miles and 5 new runways. As I stated, this project is not going eliminate the need for those projects, when and if there are to be needed.

Clearly without Prop 1A, which the Governor insisted be passed or he would not support the project, there is no demand for private funding. The only restriction is that only 1/2 of bond money be used for construction funding. The CHSRA would seem to be able to spend whatever they want on acquiring ROW, construction drawings etc. AB-3034 would have curbed that somewhat, but it is a dead baby now.

There is a huge funding hole. This bond measure only would provide $9 billion. The CHSRA says it will take 33 billion for the core segment. Of course it will take much more than that. But where is the rest of the money to be derived? Lehman Bros. was supposed to be leading the charge. I suspect they will be spending most of their time these days, saving themselves from bankruptcy.

I see where you have contributed to Californians for High Speed Trains. I wonder if your are going to get your money's worth. They have been able to spend over $110,000 thus far promoting the project. How much more can they spend in the next two months?

Spokker said...

I personally don't give a crap about public-private partnerships. I thought it was bullshit from the very beginning. The most that will happen is leasing out the retail space within the stations. If you've ever seen the ferry building in San Francisco, that's what a high speed rail station should look like inside. It's practically a mini-mall for commuters and day trippers.

High speed rail needs to be slingshot to completion by the state of California and the federal government. Only after LA-SF is completed and exceeds all expectations will more lines be built, and only then will there be any chance of private investment.

But if there never is a private investment in high speed rail, it will not bother me at all.

If your next question is, "Well why is the CHSRA so gung-ho about PPP financing or whatever the hell they call it?" I will say that I wish they would stop with that nonsense.

Nobody's investing in this damn train.

Anonymous said...

ONCE AGAIN TO ALL...900BILLON FOR A WAR? SO NO BULLSHIT ABOUT THE "COST OF THIS SYSTEM".And for all the Anti-tax crowd Thats the low end of the real price of this middle east field trip

Anonymous said...


Since you seem to do nothing more than troll all the blogs, why don't you post some kind of realistic view.

Why PPP? There is the little problem of "where is the money going to come from"?

California voters are bing deceived into believing a HSR line is going to be built from SF to LA and that the cost of this train is $33 billion. Yet only $9 billion is coming from the bonds. The Feds, even by the most optimistic advocates, are saying they will match with $9 billion.

Hey guys, that's only $18 billion. Now your only $15 billion short.

That is $15 billion short using CHSRA estimates. Nobody, even Robert, believes that $33 billion is enough to build the project.

What kind of project is this? Its the kind of project that will spend years spending what ever funds they can get their hands on and end up with nothing more than a lot of paperwork, deeds to acquired land, but certainly not a functioning train.

As you say, no private group is going to invest in this boondoggle. Are California voters going to be willing to accept that they need to come up with say $20 billion more?

This project is going nowhere. It is certainly is not a project about transportation.

Look at the big spending Californians for High Speed Train web site. What are they saying.

"The short-term and long-term economic impacts of a high-speed rail system would be tremendous for California's economy. Construction of the system is estimated to generate almost 300,000 jobs. Following construction, the system will provide 450,000 permanent jobs in California. These jobs will have a huge ripple effect into other areas of California's economy, such as the service and manufacturing industries. Overall, for every dollar invested in this system, we will see two dollars in return."
Congressman Jim Costa

That is certinly not a statement about transportation. Its a statement which says "lets get started on a WPA type of project."

There is not a prayer that a SF to LA core segment can be built. At least they should get realistic and start by building something that might get completed like LA to Anaheim, the end segment of the core.

Spokker said...

"Are California voters going to be willing to accept that they need to come up with say $20 billion more?"

I don't know whether they will accept it or not, but this project should be funded by the state of California and the federal government. This is vital transportation infrastructure that most first world countries already have.

Even some borderline third world countries have it haha.

There should not even be a ballot initiative. Our legislature should be brave enough to push this project through instead of worrying about our cell phones and trans fats.

Once it's built, then we can worry about private investment.

"That is certinly not a statement about transportation. Its a statement which says "lets get started on a WPA type of project.""

So what? That's just one of the reasons to build this thing. The project is about transportation. It's about providing jobs. It's about the environment.

You're cherry picking here.

Spokker said...

"At least they should get realistic and start by building something that might get completed like LA to Anaheim, the end segment of the core."

I may be just trolling, but I actually agree with you here. If a small segment were focused on first it could be completed in a relatively short amount of time and allow the technology to be demonstrated to the public and potential investors.

The problem with this is that the state may be reluctant to pay for Anaheim's, Norwalk's, and Los Angeles' segment, even though its success would mean completion of the rest of the system, and HSR projects in other states.

The behemoth of a project that is California High Speed Rail exists partly because you have to try to please everyone everywhere, an impossible task, in order to convince them to get behind the project.

Anonymous said...

Well a few core segments such as San Fran to San Jose and perhaps connecting the Southern Region might be a good idea before connecting the middle. San Jose would probably be an instant hit, would it be best to get the LA suburbs connected to San Diego first and then connect the middle portions as revenue flows in?

Either way, it will be an uphill battle since infrastructure takes time to build. Political figures and more oversight will end up screwing the project and that does not need to happen. This needs to be a model project for the rest of the United States.