Sunday, August 28, 2011

Going Nowhere Fast

For some strange reason that defies pinning down, the Left in this country seems to be in love with the idea of high speed rail. They don't love it enough to ride it themselves, mind you, but it seems to feed their sense of noblesse oblige. They often cavil on about the poor and minorities, two groups of human shields behind which the Left often retreats. But in this year of our Lord 2011, it is the rare individual who has need of a car, but can not get at least temporary use of one. Most times either a neighbor, friend, or family member has a car and will take them wherever they need to go. Then there are the Watermelons (green on the outside, red in the middle) who don't own a car in order to save Gaia from the ravages of people driving gas guzzling cars.  But these types are often rather affluent and can afford to rent for the occasional trips. Enterprise Rental even advertises that they will come and pick you up! Perhaps it is simply the love affair limosine liberals have with everything European, and high speed trains are memories they all have of their youths spent traveling the continent. Whatever it is, they are willing to spend huge amounts of other people's money on rail systems that don't make sense to anyone not caught up in the religion that has become of "environmentalism." 

So, it was with some amusement that I read in the American Thinker today an article by Kirk W. Kelson on California's attempt to prop up the high speed rail movement in an article entitled I Already Own a Bullet Train. Kelson writes that California wants to build a bullet train to run between Frseno and Buttonwillow, two destinations one can imagine having a huge demand that is unmet by traditional transportation alternatives. To give you a taste for Mr. Kelson's writing style, a quote or two:

If you're of a mind someday to whisk conveniently between Fresno and Buttonwillow -- and, hey, who doesn't daydream about that? -- California will have you covered. Traveling 220 miles per hour (mph), you'll get from "nowhere" to "nowhere" in a brisk 30 minutes.

You're right: "nowhere" is a harsh way to describe two hardworking towns in a valley better known as the "Food Basket of the World." But I'm just quoting one-time representative, former California State Assemblyman Rusty Areais, who snivels that "'[n]owhere' will never share the relative prosperity of this state until we do something about its relative isolation" (audio). According to Rusty, racing through "nowhere" at 220 mph will finally put "nowhere" on the map. Don't blink denizens of Merced. "Your" "share" of California's "prosperity" just whizzed by.
Of course, Mr. Kelson owns a Jaguire, which is capable of speeds far in excess of the limits usually placed on highway driving. All that is needed is a willingness to face the consequences. But in his snarky way, Kelson has a point: namely that for the amount of funds expended on high speed rail lines that go from nowhere to nowhere, and which often require a car to drive you to your actual destination, building another lane of highway may be the answer.

Consider a Reason Magazine article from 2009 entitled Oberstar Misleads on Light Rail by Robert Poole. Poole finds that for construction costs alone a typical freeway costs $40-60 million per mile. A huge amount, to be certain. But rail costs an average of $124 million per mile. When you consider that the highway will carry 150,000 people per day versus the rail, which carries only 25,000, you realize that it is not even close. Based on the above, any transportation engineer would opt for highways.  But there is more. The costs to operate the rail system is a constant drain, and if passengers do not show up as expected, the fixed costs will eat the system up.  Highways, on the other hand, represent sunk costs to be sure, but there is no need to continue accruing costs to use it.  There is also the fact that the highway, once built, can carry not only passenger, but trucks and commercial vehicles as well. In other words, a highway is a more versatile tool for transportation than is high speed rail.

Perhaps these are some of the reasons the State of Florida opted out of the Administration's offer of $2 billion of federal grant money to build a high speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando. In a NY Times article on February 16th, Governor Rick Scott rejected federal funds because:

Mr. Scott said at a news conference in Tallahassee on Wednesday that cost overruns related to the Tampa-to-Orlando line could leave Florida taxpayers stuck with a $3 billion tab. Further, he said that if the state deemed the project too costly after having started construction, it would be required to return the $2.4 billion to the federal government. He also said he believed that estimates of riders and revenue for the rail line were too optimistic, and that state taxpayers would have been left to pay for subsidies to keep the line running because it would be unable to pay for itself.
Look, I like trains. Trains have a certain romance about them that evokes an era of luxury with sleeping cars, and restaurant cars that served exotic gourmet dishes to pampered patrons. The names of famous trains live on in songs and fiction. But, as Mrs. PolyKahr found out recently, that era is gone. Now, a grumpy conductor takes your ticket, and you are lucky to get a rather poor meal cafeteria style served by people who definitely thinks they are doing you a favor. You get better fair from a microwave meal at home. Or, for that matter, from any of the road side restaurants that dot our freeways.

Of course, it wouldn't be this way if a company could make money by providing luxury services to passengers willing to pay the costs. But nobody is. The last privately owned passenger trains died out in the 1950s. I remember riding on one of the last runs of the Akron, Canton, and Youngstown line as a small child, with my mother. Now passenger trains are all subsidized. The employees see patrons of these lines not as the source of their jobs, but as bothersome customers that they are required to serve. The actual source of their jobs is from government handouts, and they would have those jobs whether anyone rode the train or not.  But therein lies the nut in the shell-if a company could make money providing passenger trains, it would be providing them.  The fact that they can not should be a cautionary signal to lovers of high speed rail, who have a fiduciary responsibility to spend the taxpayers money wisely.   

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