Thursday, February 19, 2009

HSR Denial Alive And Well In San Diego

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

Just as passenger rail advocates are celebrating the federal government's down payment on high speed rail, and as we become aware that the retreat from last summer's record gas prices was a temporary respite, we get word from San Diego that the HSR deniers are still plying their trade, passing along the same old lies as if nothing interesting had happened between, say, November 1 and February 15. The San Diego Union-Tribune, which had happily spread some of the worst smears about Prop 1A during the campaign season, yesterday called on the state to "pull the plug" on high speed rail:

Nevertheless, a sober assessment of the project still raises profound questions – both about its viability and its advocates' honesty.

I quote that just to be clear at the outset that the U-T wants to make "honesty" part of the issue. That's worth keeping in mind as you read their lies:

We start with the High Speed Rail Authority's own official business plan. It was supposed to be made public by Sept. 1. Instead, it wasn't released until just after Proposition 1A was approved.

How often do we have to refute this zombie lie? The business plan was delivered 45 days after the state passed a budget. The September 1 deadline - given to the CHSRA five days before the deadline (on August 26) - was impossible to meet because of a budget crisis provoked by Republicans. There literally wasn't the money to hire consultants to produce the plan.

Given the business plan's contents, it's understandable why it was kept from voters (and the media). Throughout 2008, advocates touted the eagerness of the private sector to provide a large chunk of the project's huge tab. The plan, however, paints a far different picture. It warns that private investors could be wary of the project's risks and says private firms expressing interest “made it clear that they would need both financial and political commitments from state officials that government would share the risks to their participation.”

Of course private interests would have some wariness - but "wariness" doesn't mean "omg we're not investing in this" - it just means they're going to take a close and smart look. And they always want risks to be shared. That's commonplace in a large project like this. The U-T does NOT mention that the CHSRA has received over 40 statements of interest from private companies and investors, suggesting that this "wariness" is overstated.

Throughout 2008, advocates depicted the project as a pain-free no-brainer for local governments on the high-speed train's projected routes. The business plan, however, says cash-strapped local governments must come up with $2 billion to $3 billion.

I don't recall anyone saying the project would be a "pain-free no-brainer." Well, it IS a no-brainer that we need to build HSR, but we've always said it's going to cost a lot of money. We've also said that the cost will be worth it. Local government funding is anticipated to play a variety of roles, from a long-planned reshaping of rail corridors in Fresno to the Transbay Terminal to station-area developments in smaller cities. Here again the U-T takes an innocuous, widely-known fact and tries to make controversy out of it. It's essentially the same playbook as John Boehner.

The plan also simply drops claims that annual ridership would be about 117 million in favor of a vague prediction of “more than 90 million” annual trips. Yes, this figure is within the broad range cited by some campaign literature – but it wasn't the number used to persuade voters that the system would be highly profitable and would heavily reduce air pollution because people were using high-speed trains en masse instead of cars.

Note that they do not say the 90 million figure would mean HSR would not generate a profit. Nor do they say 90 million is unlikely. No do they say it would not achieve the air pollution reductions. Nor do they question the notion that people will turn to trains for intercity travel. No, they pull a typical HSR denier move and say "omg you changed the numbers! obviously you LIE!" Even though explaining that a range of numbers is possible isn't even a remotely dishonest thing to do.

Whatever advocates' specific ridership prediction, however, what's crucial to remember is its utter lack of a factual basis. Consider that the entire Amtrak system, with more than 500 destinations in 46 states, only has about 26 million passengers a year. Or consider the fact that the rail authority itself used to predict only 23 million trips a year.

What changed? As far as we can determine from advocates' own presentations, all that changed was their realization that grand claims for profitability and environmental salvation could only be made if forecasts were far higher.

First, comparing Amtrak to HSR is like comparing a Cessna to a 747. They are fundamentally different forms of rail travel. They use the national numbers, which do not explain that most of these destinations and states see one or two trains per day, instead of the Acela, which recently claimed that they now have 62% of the market on the Northeast Corridor. Nor does the U-T look at comparable HSR systems around the world. Nope, they cherrypick a stat and compare it to California HSR, even though the comparison is so logically flawed as to lack credibility.

It's not too late for state leaders to try to find a way to pull the plug on this project. Even in the best of times, it's unacceptable to commit taxpayers to spend nearly $10 billion on a project predicated on the fantasies of true believers and likely to end up costing taxpayers far more. In bad times, it's utter folly.

Sorry. America has spoken. We want high speed rail. And we're going to build it. The San Diego Union-Tribune can make up as many lies as it wants to about HSR - voters have shown they support it, America's political leadership has shown they support it, and the need is clearly there. If the best these HSR deniers can do is collect a bunch of lies and call it an "editorial" then they're in even worse shape than I imagined.

Can't wait to ride the California high speed trains to San Diego...


Anonymous said...

There has beens just as one of the comments points out. We have our "own" deniers right here in NorCal and they live in MenloPark and Im sure all here that search the news can see they are also still at it and are starting on round 2 after licking there Nov4
They back with the all the negetive HSR lies in local papers.

Brandon in California said...

I don't want to defend the UT; however, keep in mind that the organization is struggling mightely in this new internet world. They've raised their cover cost from 50 cents to 75 cents, cut staff editors and writers, increased proportion of AP or UP articles, and lost readership.

UT ownership has put the paper up for sale, and there have been no interested buyers. And, the LA Times did a feature on a competitor - a recent online news startup - b/c they are publishing indepth quality articles and scopping the UT left and right.

Myself, my Sunday ritual use to include reading the paper. Four years ago I purchased the UT. After a little while I augmented the UT with the LA Times. Soon, I dropped the UT altogether.

My prediction... the UT will fold by the end of hte year. And, the LA Times or OC register will expand coverage. I've already noticed an increase in SD coverage in the LA Times over the past 2 years.

Brandon in California said...

^^^ My point... the UT has less credibility each week. What writers and editors they have that have resumes... have left. What's left is a demorialized staff that probably only betters the City of San Diego staff in overall morale. No one is left to do fact checks or scrutinize articles.

Spokker said...

It sounds like San Diegans have pulled the plug on the Tribune.

Anonymous said...

So or they ignorant of the facts? Are they unable to grasp the big pitcure? Or are they just pure anti hsr and pushing an agenda? Or, are they just pandering in order to sell papers? Isn't it time to send some letters to the editor...

Brandon in California said...

The UT is short on staff and struggles to provide original content. With staffing levels so low, no one is really available to scrutize or fact check what their collegues are providing.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me like Amtrak's statistic for their market share between Washington and NY is pretty worthless since it doesn't include car and bus trips. . . the biggest mode of transportation for that route.

BBinnsandiego said...

The UT has lost more readership than any big city daily in the country. The reason is because no paper in the country is more out of touch with it's readership than the San Diego Union Tribune. It's editorial staff is a throw back to the conservative movement of the 60s. Nobody in this town takes them serious anymore.

Anonymous said...

AFAIK, the "117 million" number was just the extreme upper tail number that came out of a very wide range of sensitivity checks. Obviously this range of sensitivity checks also included numbers below 90 million.

I don't think CHSRA ever presented 117 million as a central forecast of ridership; rather, I think the Derail and/or Reason guys just grabbed it and ran with it, misrepresenting it as a central forecast (shocking to hear, I know). I would love to see an official press release or statement from CHSRA that presents 117 million as their central ridership forecast. My guess is that no such thing exists, and that "117 million is the central forecast of ridership" was totally fabricated by Derail or Reason.

Alon Levy said...

Anon, in most developed countries, rail carriers report their share of the air/rail market. When SNCF says it has 90% of the Paris/Lyon market, it makes it clear that it carries 9 times as many people as the airliners, not 9 times as many as all non-rail modes of transportation together.

This is important, because air/rail shares are very predictable based on distance, since air and rail both compete on time. The total share of air and rail versus cars is more complex, and depends on other factors, such car ownership levels, the amount of congestion, and the type of trip involved. Cars compete on flexibility, which is a more intractable animal.

Anonymous said...

@Alon Levy
Car ownership and car use are different things. The Swiss have both the highest car ownership and highest rail ridership in Europe. The UK has both a lower car ownership than France and lower train ridership.
In France we have, from time to time, a very good way to roughly evaluate the number of car owners who use the train: when SNCF employees go on strike. Normally, the Lyon-Paris autoroute is rather fluid and fast. When trains are reduced to minimum service, the six lanes of the highway are full and the nearer you get to Paris the slower you move. When you reach the Porte d'Italie you find yourself in a sea of cars moving at 2km/h, when moving at all.
This may explain why no-one in France complains about their tax euros being spent on railways they never use. They know how pleasant driving can be when the TGV empties the highways and what a torture it is on a trainless day.

Anonymous said...

What "facts" is the SDUT ignoring here? The fact that CAHSR is predicting annual ridership of ~90 MM annual trips, which is equal equal to the TGV-Eurostar system, from a population base less than half of what that network serves? A prediction is not a "fact," and this prediction seems a bit questionable.

Alon Levy said...

Anon, HSR lives on city-to-city travel. The correct base of comparison is the sizes of the cities served, not the national population. So we should compare LA and the Bay Area to Paris and London, not California to France and England.

The TGV serves only the minority of France that lives in the largest metro areas - Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Lille, Strasbourg, and eventually Toulouse. CAHSR will not serve all of California, but will hit most metro areas even with the starter line. This is far better than the LGV Sud-Est, whose largest intermediate city has 30,000 people. France may have 60 million people, but ultimately only the 11 million who live in Paris metro, the 1.7 million who live in Lyon metro, and so on count. This is favorable to California, where LA metro has 17.7 million people, and the Bay Area 7.2.