Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Drowning In a Sea of Truthiness

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

The Reason Foundation is in full-scale attack mode on Prop 1A this week, flooding the state's newspapers with anti-HSR op-eds that stretch the bounds of truth and credibility. I guess that's easy to do when you're flush with oil money. As we've explained before, the Reason Foundation's HSR study is a tour de force in truthiness with statements that bear little connection to reality. Unfortunately, California's media outlets tend to listen to these guys, even when their claims have been so thoroughly discredited.

This week the Reason Foundation folks have been joined by another group of longtime HSR deniers - Richard Tolmach and his "California Rail Foundation." The CRF is a fancy name for Tolmach and two friends, who comprise the entirety of the organization. It has no website, no phone number, no members, no email list. It's basically Tolmach's effort to look like something other than a gadfly. Tolmach got an op-ed published in the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Reason Foundation has shown up in the LA Business Journal and the San Diego Union Tribune. Their message is starting to resonate, so it's worth spending some time deconstructing their nonsense.

Tolmach's article is full of misstatements and outright lies. For example:

In this year of global market meltdowns, voters should be cautious about a financially-leveraged proposal like Prop. 1A. The numbers don't add up and the High-speed Rail Authority refuses to explain how the system it proposes can be financed.

Not so. The CHSRA has explained how it would be financed. $10 billion comes from Prop 1A. $10-$15 billion comes from the federal government which has already signaled its intent to help fund it - something none of these op-eds acknowledge. The rest comes from the private sector which has shown strong interest.

What if neither materializes? Then we don't spend any money. Prop 1A mandates that no money can be spent unless matching funds are secured. What if the credit crunch means nobody buys our bonds? Then we wait until the market opens up, or we do nothing. In each case, California loses nothing.

How can taxpayers trust the rail authority with $20 billion, given this record?

Who says we have to trust them? Prop 1A contains numerous safeguards, including Legislative appropriation of funds. Tolmach conveniently omits that fact.

They go on to make the usual claims about ridership using the same truthiness that we debunked last month. Tolmach mentions TGV Southeast. "mike" had a good response to that:

The TGV Paris Southeast (PSE) line gets 45k passengers per route-km (20 million pax / 448 route-km) while the THSR gets 101k passengers per route-km (34 million pax / 335 route-km). CA HSR is forecasting a high of 80k passengers per route-km in 2030, or around 56k passengers per route-km at today's populations. This is slightly above TGV PSE but well below THSR. It does not seem unreasonable since the LA Metro Area is larger than Paris Metro Area or the Taipei Metro Area.

Not satisfied, Tolmach continues his column, throwing outright lies at the reader:

High-speed trains may never run, as the revenue bond is only a small fraction of the total amount required. The rail authority's idea is apparently to start a very big hole in the ground, then come back and ask for $30 billion to $70 billion more from taxpayers. Federal funding, following the Wall Street bailout, is as unlikely as private investment.

Let's say that again - those statements are lies. Prop 1A contains very strict language preventing the CHSRA from spending money before matching funds are obtained. The recent Amtrak bill contains some HSR funding and Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) intend to propose a massive HSR spending bill. Barack Obama, who looks increasingly likely to win the November election, is a strong supporter of high speed rail and has spoken of his desire to fund infrastructure projects like HSR as part of an economic stimulus package and green jobs program.

Tolmach's lies are matched by the absurdity of Reason Foundation Senior Fellow George Passantino, whose column in today's San Diego U-T is a blatant attempt to mislead readers. Have a look at his description of the HSR route:

For San Diego taxpayers, the high-speed rail system, on November's ballot as Proposition 1A, is an especially bad deal. Want to get out of traffic and commute via a quick bullet train ride from San Diego to Irvine? Sorry, the train does not go there. Well, at least you can go from San Diego to Anaheim. Actually, that route isn't offered either. How about a direct trip from San Diego to Los Angeles? Yes, you can make that trip, but you'll head to Escondido, out to Riverside, and then onto the Ontario Airport, before heading back west toward Los Angeles.

Passantino is being dishonest - San Diego is part of Phase II. And more astoundingly, he seems to not grasp the concept of "high speed" - meaning that even going from SD to LA or OC via Riverside is going to be faster than driving or taking the Pacific Surfliner.

The rest of his column contains the same misleading statements Tolmach's op-ed included. So it goes with the Reason Foundation, which has decided that truth be damned, a sustainable, prosperous high speed rail future has to be stopped at all costs.

Considering how much money the Reason Foundation has it seems clear that, in fact, a No on 1A organization HAS indeed materialized, and is overwhelming us in spending. It's time we fought back. Write letters to the editors of these papers explaining why the op-ed authors are not to be believed. Help distribute Yes on 1A signs, stickers and info cards. Donate. But most importantly, explain to everyone you know that these op-eds are nonsense.


Aaron said...

Well, for what it's worth, I got my absentee ballot today and voted yes, and am mailing it back tomorrow morning, so... here goes :). I'm looking forward to this blog being able to talk about scoping and instruction instead :).

Robert Cruickshank said...

Damn right. I also received my ballot, already voted yes, and look forward to putting it in the mail tomorrow as well.

It will be fun to talk about the implementation details after November, won't it?!

Anonymous said...

Keep dreaming. This is a lot of speculation. It's ALL speculation. Obama has talked about improving our transportation. He said nothing about funding HSR. He said nothing about throwing $10 billion at CA. It's ALL speculation. I'm not saying it's NOT going to happen with certainty. I'm saying you're all assuming for the best. It's too much to hope for.

The benefits are overly exaggerated and using passengers/km doesn't work. Connecting SF and LA isnt connecting the population of France like TGV. The whole passengers/km is very deceptive because it's one statistic used to show that the system "works." How about this. TGV has fewer than 12 million riders PER YEAR. Tell me California, how are your 37 million people going to out-ride the French who drive a lot less than we do to begin with? Flights between SF and LA are plenty, and there's plenty of competition. Even ACELA, the Northeast Corridor's form of "HSR" which is far more populous than SF and LA and has more transportation issues and is clearly a better market had fewer than 3 million riders last year. So what's the point? Do I think 117 million riders is dreaming? Yeah. Do I think the other 65 million figure is dreaming too? Yes. So sure this is a long HSR route, so if you use passengers/km it seems to work but people seem to forget there's miles and miles of barren land between SF and LA. If you want to talk about sheer population served versus ridership, it's CLEAR that this rail line is going to be underused, and RECORDS SHOW through Acela and

Matthew Fedder said...

I should have asked for comments before sending it, but here's my letter to the editor in response to the SD Op Ed:

Mr. Passantino's opinion on Proposition 1A stokes fears where none should be. Not a single cent of bonds will be issued until the remaining funds for the project are secured, ensuring that the project will not begin until it can be completed. That funding will not be difficult to secure. Our next president and congress have all pledged firm support for high speed rail, as part of a commitment to green infrastructure that will power our economy for the next 50 years. Senator Biden is as ardent a supporter of high speed rail as you can find -- his daily commute on the Acela train feeds his conviction. And companies who have reviewed the project's business plan are chomping at the bit to take part. In an uncertain economy, projects with a steady stream of revenue such as the high speed train will bring are among the most appealing to investors.

Costs will largely be controlled by using the same proven technology that has been used in Japan, France, Spain, Italy, China, Taiwan, and South Korea.

His opinion completely ignores the hundreds of billions of dollars we will have to invest in roads and airports to accommodate California's growing population. California's population is predicted to hit 60 million in 2050, and to accommodate their transportation needs will require $80-120 billion in highway and airport projects, according to state projections. Cynical about cost overruns, Mr. Passantino? Try adding 45% to that price tag, and you will start to see what a bargain the high speed train is.

Now is not the time to cower in fear. Now is the time to invest in jobs and infrastructure. The high speed train will one day be seen in the same light as the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco Bay Bridge, and the California Water Project: Bold investments made during tough times that will pay dividends for generations to come.

bgfa said...

Good letter, Matthew. I will be voting for HSR. I currently fly regularly between LA & SF, and would be happy to replace that trip with a train.

I'd also like to see Southwest Airlines invest in CAHSR. Why not?

Anonymous said...

No business plan lawsuit filed by the Howard Jarvis group.

The SF Chronicle reports on the Authority's failure to comply with state law which demanded a business for the project by Sept 1st.

More info is available from derailhsr
More will follow

I personally gave input last July to the Transportation and Housing committee on this very issue.

To keep the voters of California from having a valid business plan for a $45 billion project is not to be excused. The plan was mandated by Sept 1st in the law. Judge Kopp agreed to produce the plan. The excuse from the Authority of no funds --- what a joke.

Rafael said...

Fiona Ma post on California HSR in the Huffington Post.

The core of the Reason Foundation's "due diligence" report is that ridership will be lower than advertised because the trains supposedly won't travel nearly as fast as advertised. They claim a transit time of 3 hours 40 minutes for SF-LA. They argue the lower speed would be a direct result of FRA rules that would add a lot of weight to off-the-shelf designs.

They also argue that California does not have the population density nor the public transport infrastructure necessary to support high ridership numbers.

All of this is nonsense, for the following reasons:

1) Train weight affects acceleration, not speed. Heavier trains do require more aggressively banked tracks in curved sections, but those tracks haven't been laid yet. Express trains will only stop in San Jose in-between SF and LA, therefore acceleration performance makes little difference to express line haul times.

2) The whole point of laying almost 800 miles of all-new dual track is to ensure high capacity, punctuality and an FRA waiver to operate lightweight, off-the-shelf train designs. The tracks will not be shared with freight trains nor with FRA-compliant passenger trains.

The only exception I know of is the future 1.3mi tunnel in downtown SF, which will be shared with Caltrain. That railroad itself petitioning for a waiver to use lightweight, off-the-shelf standard speed EMU equipment. There is every reason to believe FRA will grant both waivers. Also, no country has ever introduced HSR without any new rulemaking by the governing agency.

3) The disputed ridership numbers of 65-95 million trips per yaer (depending on the future price of oil) are projected for the year 2030, when California will have around 50 million inhabitants. Iff prop 1A passes, the cities served will use zoning laws to promote transit-oriented development. Both factors will greatly increase residential density over the present-day situation.

4) The cities and counties HSR would serve are investing heavily in new local transit infrastructure or planning to do so.

For example, measure R in LA county would fund - among other things - multiple rail and bus projects, including the extension of the purple line subway to UCLA/Westwood along Wilshire Blvd. The long-term objective is to extend the line all the way to Santa Monica. The Metro board has also kicked off a separate planning process for the Harbor Subdivision Transit Corridor, which will link LA Union Station, LAX and Long Beach Transit Terminal.

Measure B in Santa Clara county is designed to close the funding gap for extending BART from Fremont to Santa Clara/SJC via the downtown area. If this measure fails to win voter approval, the fall-back position would be a bus rapid transit system using the WPML ROW between Fremont and either Milpitas Great Mall or east San Jose.

San Francisco is forging ahead with the redevelopment of its Transbay Terminal, the associated rail tunnel to 4th and King and optionally, a underground pedestrian walkway along Fremont St.

Moreover, prop 1A itself would allocate $950 million to the existing Amtrak California and commuter rail services for much-needed capital investment.

The Reason Foundation discounts all of these non-HSR transit projects because they, too, have not yet been approved by voters. Their report therefore represents an extremely pessimistic scenario.

Anonymous said...


you write:

) The disputed ridership numbers of 65-95 million trips per year (depending on the future price of oil) are projected for the year 2030, when California will have around 50 million inhabitants. If prop 1A passes, the cities served will use zoning laws to promote transit-oriented development. Both factors will greatly increase residential density over the present-day situation.

1. The projected ridership numbers were based by Cambridge on an artificially low fare as well as other factors, not just the price of oil. Kopp keeps talking about $50 - $55 LA to SF fares in 2020. And he keeps talking about 117,000,000 passengers per year. He talks about $18 between Fresno and LA or SF. Yet Kopp keeps saying the train will be profitable.

Now I'll be wiling to grant you you can build ridership numbers by charging low, subsidized fares. Maybe you could give the trip away for no cost and just add another billion or two to the state deficit every year. The Reason report got their numbers by using the Cambridge numbers, but by using not the most optimistic projection for them but the middle of the road projections. That is certainly reasonable.

2. Urban sprawl. You say the cites will use zoning laws to promote high density housing, TOD development. Where are those laws? They are not in place today. Even if in place, without restrictions on outlying areas, urban sprawl will occur. Every land use expert I talk to expresses that outlook. Don't say urban sprawl will not be the result of this project. In point of fact, for many of the promoters of this project, it is indeed the object of the project. Remember the now supposedly eliminated station at Los Banos. The Village of Laugna San Luis development plans already approved by Merced County.

My outlook.

Spokker said...

Robert, San Diego is crowing about the out of the way routing to LA. I think it's understandable. However, I have heard that there have been various disadvantages to using the coastal route that the Surfliner current operates on, including difficult geography and beachfront NIMBY opposition. Have you written about any of that?

The routing looks like a compromise to me. While San Diego gets an out of the way routing in order for Riverside/Ontario to have service to LA, San Diego can still get to LA faster than driving and on the Surfliner.

Rafael said...

@ morris brown -

the $55 one-way fare for SF-LA is in 2005 dollars. By 2020, the number will be higher due to 15 years of general inflation.

The 117 million passenger number refers to the ultimate capacity of the system, not to expected passenger volume in 2030.

The fares touted by CHSRA are based on a model developed by SNCF. Its objective is to achieve high capacity utilization. The logic behind that is that the tracks and trains were paid for by French taxpayers, so they should be used as much as possible. Note, however, that SNCF charges widely disparate rates for a given route based on the date and time of day. This is similar to the rating engines used by airlines.

In other words, that $55 (in 2005 dollars) one-way ticket for SF-LA should be thought of as the lowest regular fare that will be advertised. On popular days and at popular times of day, the fare will likely be higher.

Has CHSRA been completely open and honest about how other HSR systems price their tickets? No, but then omission is the art of marketing.

Spokker said...

"TGV has fewer than 12 million riders PER YEAR."

TGV carries about 40 million a year.

"Even ACELA, the Northeast Corridor's form of "HSR" which is far more populous than SF and LA and has more transportation issues and is clearly a better market had fewer than 3 million riders last year."

Comparing Acela to CAHSR is disingenuous at best.

First, Acela is merely an express, first-class version of the Northeast Regional service. It doesn't really go that much faster except for a few short stretches in Massachusetts. It simply makes less stops.

Second, dense train service is wrapped around Acela in the form of Northeast Regional and local service such as NJ Transit, SEPTA, Metro-North, Shore Line East, and MBTA. It isn't just Acela on that corridor, and it isn't just Amtrak.

It just isn't going to be the same as running a 220 MPH train in California with little rail competition between LA and San Jose.

Spokker said...

"Has CHSRA been completely open and honest about how other HSR systems price their tickets? No, but then omission is the art of marketing."

Here's what they said about ticket prices way back when in the action plan.

"Average expected ticket fares between stations are
shown in 1999 dollars. The fares differ according to
the distance traveled, and whether or not they are
purchased in advance. Actual ticket prices will be
developed by the operator based on market conditions,
such as distance, time of travel, advanced purchase,
and special discounts for frequent travelers, families
and seniors. A special “commuter” rate applies to
the short-distance trips within the Los Angeles, San
Francisco Bay Area and San Diego urban region
where stations are spaced much closer together
and trains travel at reduced speeds."

Here's what the Implementation Plan had to say about fares.

"High-speed train fares will be set between the
cost of driving and the fares for air travel and
will vary depending on the service chosen, the
demand for seats and time of booking. To meet
passenger demand forecast by 2020, 86 weekday
trains in each direction are expected to run in a
mix of express and local trains."

I would consider that fabled $55 fare a baseline. But where's the deceit? There's always been some ambiguity about fares, that is, if anyone actually reads these documents.

I believe the goal is to set fares so that it costs more than driving but costs less than flying.

Spokker said...

The gist of the business plan lawsuit is that voters will be going to the polls without an updated business plan in front of them.

If there were an updated business plan what voter would read it? How many of them read the old business plan? Haha.

Anonymous said...


TGV carried over 80 million passengers in 2006 alone (Southeast, Atlantic, North, and cross-line). See p. 15. Your "fewer than 12 million" number is so wrong it's not even funny. They passed that back in 1985.


The $55 fare is in 2005 dollars, i.e. it will rise with inflation. Your favorite two people in the world - Cox and Vranich - estimate HSR operating costs at 5 cents per passenger mile. So in fact an average passenger fare of $55 (in 2005 dollars) from SF to LA means that the HSRA is making a $35 per passenger operating profit under Cox-Vranich's own assumptions. Some of this will go to servicing interest on private debt, the rest will go to system expansion or back to the state.

By the way, when are you going to post the correction on the derail site about how you overstated Caltrain's own numbers by 400%?

Anonymous said...


Good letter. Couple of suggestions: (1) Shorter is better. It has a much higher chance of acceptance if it's only as long as your first paragraph. (2) It may be a little presumptuous to assume that Obama/Biden have already won (though the odds currently favor them 3:1).

Anonymous said...

@qwerasdf..When did a wingnut like you ever go to France?!! Europeans drive ALOT..and they have a forward thinking transportation system WE progressive people here in California want HST and dont care what bunch of out of state naysayers and out of touch far right think tanks spit out.

Spokker said...

There are no cars in Europe.

Carfree in San Diego said...

There is a great article out today in bizSanDiego "High-Speed Trains to Stimulate Southern California Region". The study shows that the CAHSR will create an immediate and profound stimulus for the region.

"High-speed trains will generate more economic benefits annually to Los Angeles alone from added economic activity than the entire cost of the Proposition 1A bond, whose expense will be borne only partly by Angelenos, and will be spread over many years."

Anonymous said...

Prop 1A High Speed Rail Authority hit with suit over no business plan

As reported in the SF Chronicle and commented on here

Anonymous said...

@ Morris

To be specific, Howard Jarvis is suing them...much different rhetorically then "they are being sued".

Why don't you take up Golf or something Morris? Gotta be a better way to spend your sunset years then trolling the transit blogs, eh?

Anonymous said...

Hey Morris Brown,

In all fairness, why don't you add these articles to your "derail" website:

For LA Area


For Central Valley


For Bay Area

Your readers might like to read about them as well.

Anonymous said...

Something healthy is great but when we can't afford it?

That's like saying you're DROWNING in credit card debt but you want to go out and spend $299 for 24-hour-fitness' 1 year membership because it's GOOD for you? That's not reason to spend $300. Unless you can cut $300 out somewhere, don't talk about spending more.

Liberals understand nothing about spending. It's just SPEND SPEND SPEND. You throw out all these things that show EXAGGERATED benefits. I'm not denying that HSR will bring some benefits, but I think anyone who KNOWS about government funded projects knows that things run over budget and overtime. You can't SPEND YOUR WAY out of a budget crisis. And seriously? Steel is dropping in price so you now justify HSR? That's pathetic. Federal government and private investors should step in, but there's no GUARANTEE and definitely ZERO guarantee in amount of funding. I'm not saying that they won't, but you proponents rely too much on "best case scenarios." If we relied on those, there would be no market crash today. The best case scenario is that we're still in a stock market rally from the 90s.

Anonymous said...

How about not spending 700billon on a private companies fuck ups..instead spend that on roads and bridges and railroads. Maby in your narrow wingnut brains all the naysayers of this project might agree?

Matthew Fedder said...

It got published in Sunday's paper (2nd item)!

@Mike: The editor applied the knife right about where you said I should have -- they cut out references to Obama/Biden, fixed some typos, and shortened it by about a hundred words.