Sunday, December 7, 2008

Will It Be A Sustainable Stimulus?

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

Barack Obama released another entry in his 21st century version of the fireside chat yesterday, a YouTube video on economic stimulus. The key section:

"Second, we will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s. We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and we’ll set a simple rule – use it or lose it. If a state doesn’t act quickly to invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they’ll lose the money."

The "roads and bridges" comment has generated criticism from across the transit blogs, including this excellent article from Trains for America. The Transport Politic believes that the signs remain good that "much of this money will in fact go to non-automobile-based transportation," citing Joe Biden's comments on Tuesday.

I'm not sure I agree, actually. What seems to be unfolding is a dual-track approach to infrastructure spending in DC: an economic stimulus that emphasizes immediate projects, many of which will be obsolete 20th century transportation like roads; and a long-term infrastructure investment package that will give a bigger boost to sustainable transportation like HSR. Biden said some good things at the National Governors Association meeting but that is being overshadowed by persistent reports that Obama wants to use the stimulus to fund projects that are ready to go within 180 days. His YouTube speech gives a lot of credence to that view.

A dual-track infrastructure approach strikes me as a fundamentally flawed way to handle the current crisis, especially if the first and more immediate track directs billions towards roads. That's exactly what we should NOT be doing with our stimulus money. Roads don't build long-term economic growth, unless we're planning to follow Robert Toll's insane advice and reinflate the housing bubble. The nation's bridges do need repair and that's fine, but we need new road capacity like we need a hole in the head.

Economic stimulus should meet two needs at once: produce immediate jobs and spending, and fuel long-term growth. FDR's New Deal projects did exactly that - the nation's nascent highway network needed a LOT of investment and improvement in 1933, from roads to bridges. The New Deal helped seed the economic boom of the 1950s in that way. They didn't sit around building canal towpaths.

Obama's stimulus must provide the basis for 21st century prosperity - and that means sustainable infrastructure projects need to be accelerated and funded so that they can get built. Electric rail meets the twin needs of any economic stimulus very well. It should be included, or even made the centerpiece, of an early 2009 stimulus plan.

I'm not concerned that Obama is backtracking on support for HSR. He is likely to embrace the Kerry HSR plan. But that plan isn't large enough to meet the nation's HSR needs.

More importantly, economic stimulus is a sure political winner. If HSR funds are enfolded within a stimulus package it becomes very difficult for Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats (Southern conservatives who generally do not support sustainable transportation) to block it.

For a candidate who campaigned on a theme of change, Obama is showing himself to be a maddeningly cautious politician who prefers to fall back on the old ways rather than embrace something new but sensible. Perhaps the criticisms of his perceived inexperience stung more than we thought. Even from a political perspective it makes sense to include HSR in an immediate stimulus bill - it not only demonstrates support for sustainable infrastructure, but it will provide greater political returns as the economic benefits roll in. Obama needs to not be thinking about his political position in summer 2009 but in summer 2012. The medium-term view would suggest that a nation at work on sustainable infrastructure is a political winner for Obama, and when the projects are completed and provide the foundation for 21st century prosperity the way the New Deal infrastructure projects did in the 20th century, Obama's party would reap the lasting benefits.

There is very little to be gained, and a great deal to be lost, by returning to a failed 20th century model. As Logan Nash at Trains For America wrote:

But in talking to people in both Tennessee and Minnesota, I’ve come to believe that people are fundamentally interested in passenger rail. They’d like to be able to get out of their cars every once in a while, but they just don’t think it’s convenient as it stands now. They’re also concerned about the massive monetary investment rail requires. But of course, we’re already spending $700 billion, why not put some of that towards a system that can improve quality of life, spur commercial development, and help our environment?

Barack Obama and Joe Biden are exactly the people who could raise these points, who can make a case for investing in HSR, Amtrak, and transit. And they seem to want to. You can feel it bubbling under their well-practiced political veneer. Maybe that’s enough. A more well-rounded Secretary of Transportation and even a neutral administration would be a vast improvement. And if some of that “infrastructure” money is tagged for rail improvements, that’s good news even if it’s kept quiet. But much more progress could be made if our newly elected leaders would be bold enough to bring this topic to the foreground.

That progress will only be made if we organize to make it happen. It's time for transit activists online and offline to start getting involved and helping Americans demand that our political leaders provide sustainable, sensible stimulus.


BruceMcF said...

On road and bridges, I'd argue that drawing the simple line is the best: fix what we got. If we couldn't afford to keep the road network in a state of good repair during two extended recoveries, extending the road network now will just make that problem worse.

Rafael said...

As a first cut, Obama's focus on

- repairing roads and bridges
- upgrading the national power grid to support plug-in hybrids
- making broadband internet access cheaper
- energy-efficient buildings
- (partially) socializing healthcare

seems reasonable enough. However, the devil is in the details. I'll address only the first four:

- Obama has articulated the big hairy audacious goal of making the US independent of "foreign" oil in 10 years. He wasn't talking about Canada, Mexico, Norway or the UK. He was talking about cutting structural US demand for oil by almost 1/3. That would still leave it well above European and Japanese levels relative to GDP, but at least it would be a significant improvement.

- repairing roads and bridges is useful because the US cannot switch away from cars and trucks anytime soon, if ever. However, expanding road capacity would merely invite even more road traffic and the urban sprawl it facilitates. Team Obama should consider that when awarding stimulus funds.

Also, it's useful to remember why all those roads and bridges are in such a sorry state to begin with: states simply aren't taxing gasoline and diesel heavily enough to pay for adequate maintenance. It's yet another example of US consumers wanting to have their cake and eat it, too.

- plug-in hybrids currently exist only as garage hacks. There is not a single such product from any major auto manufacturer on the market today. GM is betting what little is left of the farm on its Chevy Volt, but that was conceived when gas prices were at $4 and rising.

Now that the bubble has burst, it's far from certain there will be many takers for an otherwise humdrum $35,000+ PHEV in 2011. US consumers currently have little reason to believe that gas prices will be high during the next decade, so why should they pay a $10,000 premium up front?

If politicians had any cojones at all, they'd raise gas taxes by $0.02 each and every month for the next eight years. If the middle class wants a net tax cut, let them earn it by switching to more fuel-efficient vehicles. The current model of using generous tax credits does not produce sustained demand, cp. all those Priuses now gathering dust on dealer lots.

- plug-in hybrids and even more costly fuel cell vehicles consume exactly the same road and parking space as conventionally powered cars do. These technologies do exactly nothing to alleviate gridlock, so by themselves they are not enough.

- grid-connected electric trains remain the only transportation technologies proven to move large numbers of people over significant distances using something other than oil.

Ergo, rail capacity expansion and electrification projects should rank high on Obama's list, even if they are still 24 months away from breaking ground. It's not just about getting people back to work asap, it's also about ending up with assets that contribute toward the long-term goal of energy independence.

- electric rail will only attract large numbers of customers if the cities and counties served adopt zoning laws and development plans geared toward exploiting this transportation resource. No funding without firm transit-oriented development (TOD) plans.

- in addition to connecting local transit, that means changing consumer perceptions of bicycles as sports equipment. Especially in combination with passenger rail, folding designs - possibly with electric assist - should be perceived as fair-weather commute vehicles. Of course, that means TOD plans have to include bicycle infrastructure, especially suitable lanes and traffic lights.

- the development of reliable mobile broadband internet access should be encouraged, especially for passengers on board electric trains (high speed or otherwise). Time spent in transit should become productive time, with features such as videoconferencing fully available. That means installing terrestrial systems rather than relying on geostationary satellites.

- rail freight should also be partially electrified for the sake of air quality, especially near the nation's ports. In addition, a significant shift from road to rail will require high speed cargo/rapid freight corridors and rail-oriented industrial zoning and development. Rail freight operators will need fiscal incentives to pay for electrification and two-mode locomotives.

- electric grid upgrades should focus on adding redundant long-distance interconnections using a high voltage DC overlay grid. They are needed mostly for resilience in the event of a natural disaster and/or terrorist attack, less so for fancy vehicle-to-grid concepts. The possibility of combining their construction with railroad electrification merits further study.

- in California, improving earthquake resilience would generate construction jobs immediately and ought to be eligible for federal grants. After all, major quakes are expected on e.g. the Hayward fault as well as the San Andreas in the next 30 years. Current estimates peg the cost at hundreds of billions, a sum sure to trigger appeals to the federal government as the insurer of last resort. It would be appropriate to minimize the liability.

The only caveat is that retrofits must be performed correctly to be of any use, so only work done by certified contractors should be eligible for grants.

Anonymous said...

"obsolete 20th century transportation like roads"

Roads will still be needed for delivery trucks, engineering vehicles, connections to rural areas, etc. Moreover, when electric vehicles start to hit mainstream, road expansion won't necessarily significantly increase oil consumption.

You really can't compare roads to canal towpaths. Roads are here to stay for at least this century.

Anonymous said...

Well I have already sent mail to DiFi and Boxer and Obama's site asking for a real high speed rail investment commitment in this bill.
Altho a good idea, upgrading Federal buildings with energy updates will just come across as a waste to the average person and piss them off. Somthing needs done on that "sexy" level just like the 1930s and our HST is about the number one thing on that list just look at all the new articles on it.

bossyman15 said...

i too also send mail to obama's site.

here's what i wrote:

In the December 6, 2008 of weekly address. Obama spoke about investing in roads and bridges. Now I don't really like that. I understand about bridges and roads needing repair. That's fine but I don't want to see more of "highway wideing" type of projects.

To me, more roads = more oil usage and more pollution. Which would void Obama's goal of reducing oil usage and pollution.

I would prefer if that money goes toward mass transits AND more passenger rails, that includes High Speed Rail like the one in California. (these will create longer term jobs than roads!)

I urge you to not to invest too much money on roads and bridge, instead invest more money into passenger rails and mass transits.

Rubber Toe said...

Here is your stimulus package. The Beijing-Shanghai high speed train is now 91% complete with 110,000 people working on it.


bossyman15 said...

is this same bullet train line that shanghai daily are talking about?

if so then damn it has not been one year since construction and already 91% compelted!

why can't we put this much effort like they do.

Anonymous said...

Electrification and upgrade of the existing rail system:
A synergistic set of solutions to multiple issues focused on Electrified Railroads

That proposal is a bit critical of CaHSR in terms of its priority.

Rafael said...

@ bossyman15 -

simple: because the US chooses to spend its money on weapons and war. The Pentagon budget request for 2009 is over $515 billion plus something on the order of $125 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That's a whole lot of railroad tracks.

Rafael said...

@ ink -

what Alan Drake calls "semi-HSR" is very similar to what I've referred to as "rapid rail": passenger plus medium-distance light/medium freight at 110-125mph max. with optional electrification. That permits grade separations to be implemented as and when cross road traffic conditions require. In built-up areas, this could be implemented on existing ROWs owned by long-distance heavy freight rail operators, albeit limited to 79mph max.

Out in the countryside, rapid rail would use tracks of its own, straightened using short tunnels etc. and equipped with significant track superelevation in sweeping curves. Where two or more competing heavy freight railroads currently use roughly parallel alignments, it would make sense to establish shared freight corridors (cp. Alameda corridor in LA).

Wrt true HSR, I agree that it only makes sense in a select few portions of the US, California. Construction of true HSR does cost more per mile than rapid rail and, electricity consumption is 4x at 2x the speed (power demand is even 8x). However, true HSR competes with short-haul aviation, not cars and trucks.

That said, the full ridership potential of true HSR is only unlocked if it is embedded in a network of rapid rail corridors. It is appropriate for HSR trains to run on rapid rail tracks for up to 1/3 of the total route distance, providing direct service to and from secondary destinations. This is essentially how SNCF runs many of its TGVs, because passengers prefer not having to transfer.

In the California example, all sections with top speeds below ~125mph (e.g. SF peninsula, LOSSAN) should really be thought of as rapid rail rather than true HSR, even if they are fully grade separated. The spur down to San Diego, almost regardless of the route, is also rapid rail rather than true HSR.

The single biggest obstacle to establishing rapid rail corridors and integrating them with the true HSR network is the draconian FRA rule against mixed traffic. This prevents FRA-compliant legacy/heavy freight and UIC-compliant passenger/medium freight rolling stock from sharing any section of track, however short.

luis d. said...

@ Rafael -

Not to mention the trillions of taxpayer dollars that the CIA steals for black projects for the United States Military.

They only look out for themselves and not their citizens. This ammount of money could have taken VERY good care of our infrastructure problems.

ian said...

I think this is the perfect opportunity to take advantage of our "seat at the table" at as some here have already done, and tell Obama we don't like more roads and bridges, we want rapid rail

@rafael, bikes: I think velo'v and ve'lib bike rental systems are the perfect answer for many cities, so that you don't have to take up space with your bike on transit... plus you don't have to take your potentially expensive/slightly heavy/cumbersome folding bike with you... but you can if you want...

@electric cars -- they only solve half the problem... I'll quote a post on an article about the proposed bay area wide battery sharing infrastructure program for electric cars:
"I hear electric car traffic is much nicer to sit inthan combustion engine traffic."
which is true, to an extent... cleaner air, less noise? haha

Rafael said...

@ ian -

velib' is a rental network of sturdy conventional bicycles in Paris, France. Vienna (Austria) has offered something very similar called Citybike for several years now, albeit on a smaller scale.

In California, the only city that comes close in terms of density is SF, but that city is chock-full of steep hills. Pretty much everywhere else is sprawl-o-rama, so it would take forever to get where you need to be on pedal power alone. Either way, in hot summer weather, you'd be drenched in sweat by the time you arrive.

A system modeled on velib' but using non-folding electric bikes might work, except that you'd need an awful lot of bikes at an awfully large number of locations (again, except perhaps SF). Combined with the high unit cost of electric bikes and the increased risk of theft, it is unlikely that any California city could afford to support such a service for long.

This is why I figure private ownership of folding electric bicycles, used in combination with trains, is a more realistic proposition. You can get them for as little as a few hundred dollars nowadays, though fancy ones do cost much more. The kind of people who are willing to use any type of bicycle at all for commuting won't have any problem folding one up and walking it onto a train with level boarding.