DoT rejects CA request for flexibility on high-speed rail

posted at 12:00 pm on May 31, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

Earlier this month, I wrote a column for The Week that detailed the unlearned lessons in California from their thus-far expensive flop in high-speed rail.  The Wall Street Journal reports that understanding may finally be dawning on the Golden State’s legislators, even the Democrats who have bet big on fixed-track technology.  The rejection by the Department of Transportation of a request on construction timing and location has led to the belated realization that further action may leave California taxpayers holding the bag for many billions of dollars:

At the urging of the state watchdog, the rail authority asked the feds for more flexibility about where and when to start building. Last week the Department of Transportation told them to dream on. In a letter responding to the request for more flexibility, Under Secretary for Policy Roy Kienitz ordered the authority to charge full speed ahead since “once major construction is underway and approvals to complete other sections of the line have been obtained, the private sector will have compelling reasons to invest in further construction.” Private sector seems to be the Obama Administration’s code for government.

Even some of the state’s Democrats are protesting the Administration’s mulishness. Democratic state senator Alan Lowenthal told the Los Angeles Times that “there is nothing in the letter saying the federal government would commit $17 billion to $19 billion for the project . . . If it had, we would build the Central Valley segment right now. But the state needs to be financially and fiscally responsible.”

Well, that would certainly be a novel approach for California, but a welcome one indeed.

The private sector won’t invest in high-speed rail because there isn’t any reason for consumers to choose fixed-track transport between the proposed stops, San Francisco to Los Angeles.  Several airlines already service the route and fly twice as fast between the two cities than the proposed train ride (2 hours, 40 minutes).  That means that passengers have a greater selection of outbound and return flights, as well as a number of options on airports, depending on their needs.  The high-speed rail system will be a government monopoly, with resources allocated by political need rather than passenger need, much as we’re seeing already.

Lowenthal’s right that Californians will pay through the nose for a high-speed rail construction that starts off as inferior to the airline services already in place, but that’s not the only cost that California taxpayers will carry.  They could take a lesson from Boston’s Big Dig, another gigantic boondoggle pushed by the federal government that has cost Massachusetts taxpayers billions in cost overruns — and the maintenance costs are already skyrocketing, thanks to poor construction:

State transportation workers are struggling to plug Big Dig tunnel leaks that gush as much as 1.4 million gallons of water a month, driving up repair costs in the notorious money pit known as the Central Artery by millions of dollars each year.

Despite what acting highway administrator Frank DePaola of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation called a “vigilant” ongoing effort, the persistent leaks are at least partially to blame for the crumbling fireproofing, corroded lighting and concrete falling from tunnel walls and ceilings that have plagued the Central Artery’s tunnels, according to inspection reports.

How much will the tunnel cost Massachusetts in annual maintenance?

Officials pay for the pricey upkeep out of the $458 million Central Artery trust fund created after contractors who built the $15 billion system — originally projected at less than $3 billion — settled criminal and civil charges after a Jamaica Plain woman was crushed to death by a falling ceiling panel. At the current rate of repairs, that fund could be tapped out in less than 30 years, while the tunnels were meant to last 100 years.

“The cost of maintaining this will be horrific,” said Jack Lemley, an engineer and former Big Dig consultant who “wasn’t a bit surprised” by the escalating cost of the leaks.

Lemley estimates current maintenance needs at more than $200 million, which means the fund will get tapped out much sooner than 30 years.  And this comes from a project whose initial estimated cost of $3 billion quintupled by the end of the project.  California would do well to heed the lessons of the Big Dig as well as the true lessons of its own report on the high-speed rail project and shut it down before it turns into yet another public-works sinkhole.

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Hey, will that train run when the wind’s not blowing?

petefrt on May 31, 2011 at 12:06 PM

No one has bothered to examine the negative effects that stopping the rail line will have on thieves from L.A. being able to travel cheaply to San Fran to burglarize the high-end neighborhoods there.

It works in Minnesota, where criminals from Minneapolis can get to Bloomington and back with their stolen goods quite cheaply on the light rail system.

Bishop on May 31, 2011 at 12:07 PM

Wait a minute! You mean that the money (that was insufficient to build the railroad in the first place) comes with strings?

Big surprise!

Vancomycin on May 31, 2011 at 12:07 PM

Lemley estimates current maintenance needs at more than $200 million, which means the fund will get tapped out much sooner than 30 years.

Does this include the lawsuit settlements to the families of people crushed by giant tiles falling from the Big Dig tunnel?

teke184 on May 31, 2011 at 12:08 PM

Libtrads love to talk about the trains in Europe and Asia. What they don’t tell you ever is that none of those trains ever make money. China’s system is hundreds of billions in the hole. Tawian’s high speed trains had to be bailed out a few years ago. Japan’s trains needed govt bailouts in the 80s and 90s. In Europe most lines are money losers.

angryed on May 31, 2011 at 12:09 PM

This is California. Can’t people just float to where they want to go?

Shy Guy on May 31, 2011 at 12:10 PM

Guess who runs one of California’s largest construction companies that specializes in building freeway overpasses and bridges? Why someone who ran the Big Dig project of course.

One more reason I’m glad we left the Golden State years ago.

kringeesmom on May 31, 2011 at 12:13 PM

The payoffs hidden in land acquisition, construction contracts and the union dues are there to be re-distributed to the Obama Gang. The actual trains are worthless…unless they Federal Bankruptcy Courts can build new courtrooms inside the new stations to handle the massive bankruptcy overloads that Obama is working so hard to push the middle class into.

jimw on May 31, 2011 at 12:13 PM

We dodged this bullet
With the New Jersey Rail Link.
Thank you Chris Cristie!

The FedGuv was giving out “free” money to New Jersey to build a rail tunnel from Secaucus to a point 200 feet under Penn Station in New York. The first Two Billion would have been on Uncle Sam, and the remaining overruns would have come out of the New Jersey taxpayer’s already flayed hide.

There is no way the over-runs were going to come in at less than 200%. The future screwing of the New Jersey taxpayers was a metaphysical certitude. And yet, you should have heard the howling when Governor Christie shut that one down!

Haiku Guy on May 31, 2011 at 12:16 PM

Hey, will that train run when the wind’s not blowing?

petefrt on May 31, 2011 at 12:06 PM

Here’s an idea – put wind turbines inside the state assembly chamber in Sacramento. Or, generate electricity by burning money. They’ve proved that they’re great at burning (taxpayer’s) money, so why not get some “free” energy out of it?

Ward Cleaver on May 31, 2011 at 12:27 PM

“The cost of maintaining this will be horrific,” said Jack Lemley, an engineer and former Big Dig consultant who “wasn’t a bit surprised” by the escalating cost of the leaks.

-
And at some point the water will win… It’s real a matter of when, and who will die.
-

RalphyBoy on May 31, 2011 at 12:27 PM

This remains one of those things for which there is no market — because the segment of the population for which it would be better than the alternatives is very small — while also being intrusive, disruptive, and hideously expensive.

High-speed rail doesn’t pay for itself. It has to be subsidized. It’s also a huge consumer of electricity, which is the last thing power-challenged California needs to load on the grid.

Not only can’t we afford it, there’s no good reason to. This one ought to be a no-brainer.

J.E. Dyer on May 31, 2011 at 12:28 PM

Here’s an idea for the Big Dig: Let the tunnel flood, and then run passenger-carrying submarines back and forth through it.

Ward Cleaver on May 31, 2011 at 12:28 PM

Here’s an idea – put wind turbines inside the state assembly chamber in Sacramento.

Ward Cleaver on May 31, 2011 at 12:27 PM

That would be redundant, don’t you think?

J.E. Dyer on May 31, 2011 at 12:29 PM

The private sector won’t invest in high-speed rail because there isn’t any reason for consumers to choose fixed-track transport between the proposed stops, San Francisco to Los Angeles

At least with a bus you can close a route if it runs empty

Meanwhile, we are going to put high speed rail to nowhere in Detroit sucking up millions in Chinese Federal tax dollars.

They are already talking about a millage tax across multiple Michigan counties to pay for the maintenance of the riderless train, which will go along a route already bus serviced.

As if there are trainloads of folk waiting to ride between downtown Detroit, and the city limits?

Take the buses that run the same route. I did. I even rode the Amtrak train along the same route. Me and a couple busloads of other people. That was when Detroit had more jobs

What is it about politicians that makes them believe if you put out a train track, jobs will appear? It worked for the robber barons of old because there wasn’t anything better before they built the trans continental.

We would do better laying down a yellow brick road to Oz

entagor on May 31, 2011 at 12:29 PM

Democratic state senator Alan Lowenthal told the Los Angeles Times that “there is nothing in the letter saying the federal government would commit $17 billion to $19 billion for the project . . . If it had, we would build the Central Valley segment right now.

Oh, right. A central valley train…why? The donks have killed the valley with their epa regulations. Housing is going belly up there more than any other place in the state.

And there is nothing fiscally responsible about Alan Lowenthal or the rest of his family. They are a bunch of rich, connected donks who buy government positions.

Blake on May 31, 2011 at 12:31 PM

All new government projects that will be completed or implemented at a future date should include a clause that says something like:
“If this project (or whatever) is a failure or causes excess costs (or whatever) beyond what was planned, the politicians that at the time approved it will be held criminally libel for their decisions.”

Politicians who make decisions today that come to effect in the future should pay for their bad judgment that those at a later date will have to live with.

(Case in point: Merkel shutting down all German nuclear reactors by 2022. If she knew she was going to jail in 2022 if her planned failed and caused hardships on the country, she would think longer about it.)

albill on May 31, 2011 at 12:38 PM

Completely laughable says the guy from San Clemente who, while walking along coast, watches near empty trains head up and down coast.

What is up? Me thinks it’s about the left’s desire for train tracks back to their childhood.

Shivas Irons on May 31, 2011 at 12:38 PM

There are about 100 non stop direct flights between LAX/Orange County/Ontario and SFO/Oakland/San Jose every day.

The flight is around 1.5 hours. Add an hour at the airport and it’s 2.5 hours.

The distance between the two cities is 350 miles roughly. Say instead of an hour at the airport you only need 20 minutes at the train station. So the train would need to make the teip in just over 2 hours to compete time wise with fluing. Which means it would have to average about 180 MPH for the trip.

Average speed for trains in Europe is about 150 MPH. Which means that no matter what, taking the train will take longer than flying and most likely cost more. It makes no sense to build it…but that won’t stop libtards from pushing it on us.

angryed on May 31, 2011 at 12:46 PM

Libtrads love to talk about the trains in Europe and Asia. What they don’t tell you ever is that none of those trains ever make money. China’s system is hundreds of billions in the hole. Tawian’s high speed trains had to be bailed out a few years ago. Japan’s trains needed govt bailouts in the 80s and 90s. In Europe most lines are money losers.

angryed on May 31, 2011 at 12:09 PM

Roads don’t make money either. We subsidize cars and planes to make them affordable, why is it only offensive when we subsidize rail?

jonknee on May 31, 2011 at 12:48 PM

Hype and Trains!

ErnstBlofeld on May 31, 2011 at 12:49 PM

Someday, we will let industries stand or fail on their own without subsidies. Until that time, we will have to listen to how great the choo choo is.

search4truth on May 31, 2011 at 1:01 PM

Someday, we will let industries stand or fail on their own without subsidies. Until that time, we will have to listen to how great the choo choo is.

search4truth on May 31, 2011 at 1:01 PM

If that were the case we’d have no auto industry or airline industry. Both rely heavily on subsidies. I for one like being able to travel.

jonknee on May 31, 2011 at 1:03 PM

there isn’t any reason for consumers to choose fixed-track transport between the proposed stops, San Francisco to Los Angeles. Several airlines already service the route and fly twice as fast between the two cities than the proposed train ride (2 hours, 40 minutes).

The flight is around 1.5 hours. Add an hour at the airport and it’s 2.5 hours. The distance between the two cities is 350 miles roughly. Say instead of an hour at the airport you only need 20 minutes at the train station. So the train would need to make the teip in just over 2 hours to compete time wise with fluing.

Neither statement takes into account that air travelers are supposed to allow two hours of waiting time for TSA groping at the airport. Add that in, and timewise the train is a wash. Wasteful, stupid and socialistic, but still a wash.

bgoldman on May 31, 2011 at 1:04 PM

But the state needs to be financially and fiscally responsible.”

Heresy!

Off with his head!

novaculus on May 31, 2011 at 1:22 PM

Here’s an idea – put wind turbines inside the state assembly chamber in Sacramento. Or, generate electricity by burning money. They’ve proved that they’re great at burning (taxpayer’s) money, so why not get some “free” energy out of it?

Ward Cleaver on May 31, 2011 at 12:27 PM

Burning money is not good for the planet. We have to be green you know.

kringeesmom on May 31, 2011 at 1:24 PM

Neither statement takes into account that air travelers are supposed to allow two hours of waiting time for TSA groping at the airport. Add that in, and timewise the train is a wash. Wasteful, stupid and socialistic, but still a wash.

bgoldman on May 31, 2011 at 1:04 PM

And the travel time to the airport. Train stations are usually much closer to city centers where people already are than airports. It takes quite a while to get from SFO to SF and similarly from LAX to LA.

jonknee on May 31, 2011 at 1:24 PM

Maybe we should buy every DC and State congressman a Lionel Train set to take home with them. Then they could play railroad baron at home instead of with the taxpayers money.

kringeesmom on May 31, 2011 at 1:26 PM

“once major construction is underway and approvals to complete other sections of the line have been obtained, the private sector will have compelling reasons to invest in further construction.”

This guy is an idiot.

The only people with a “compelling reason” are the Democrats in Sacramento.

GarandFan on May 31, 2011 at 1:46 PM

The worst thing about the CA rail board moving this boondoggle forward is that it’s headed up by a guy who used to be the darling of the free market, libertarian GOP.

Curt Pringle, what happened to you?

PattyJ on May 31, 2011 at 1:58 PM

Don’t forget the now-show and no-work jobs for Tony and Paulie’s boys.

Kenosha Kid on May 31, 2011 at 2:14 PM

If that were the case we’d have no auto industry or airline industry. Both rely heavily on subsidies. I for one like being able to travel.

jonknee on May 31, 2011 at 1:03 PM

Bullcrap strawman argument.

The idea that something would not exist were it not for the all-powerful magic of government subsidies ranks right up there with Trutherism in the annals of libtard non-thought.

OF COURSE we would have cars and planes and roads and EVERYTHING ELSE if the government didn’t subsidize them. Likely they would ALL be cheaper too! Why? Because there is a market for transportation. As you yourself said, you like to able to travel. Well so does everyone else. Thus the primacy of the automobile in modern society.

Without stupid government interference it is likely that cars would be cheaper, faster, safer, and better made. Now, they might not be AMERICAN made, and they almost certainly wouldn’t be UNION made, but they would be made, and be available to anyone.

Government only adds costs, which limits quality, safety and overall value. Subsidizing ANYTHING invariably leads to it being a boondoggle and a waste of money.

wearyman on May 31, 2011 at 2:47 PM

A lesson Florida saw.

Kini on May 31, 2011 at 2:50 PM

And the travel time to the airport. Train stations are usually much closer to city centers where people already are than airports. It takes quite a while to get from SFO to SF and similarly from LAX to LA.

jonknee on May 31, 2011 at 1:24 PM

Except that most people live in the suburbs nowadays, and most airports are built near those suburbs, and most highways have routes leading directly to the airports, not the train stations.

We have an Amtrak station and an international airport here in Buffalo. The airport is easy to get to, cheap to park at, and quickly accessible from pretty much everywhere in Erie County. The Amtrak station is stuffed downtown in a maze of one way streets where it is almost impossible to find, has crappy and expensive parking, and takes forever to get to due to lack of direct highway access.

Buffalo’s situation vis-a-vis Airports and Train stations is NOT unique. It is the NORM in most cities. Why?
Because most train stations were built back in the 1800′s when people didn’t have cars, there was only the first tier of suburbs and then farms, and the Steam locomotive ruled. Most airports were built in large, open farmland just outside cities where arranging highway access was easy, and then the densely populated suburbs grew up around them.

As you can see, reality is the exact polar opposite of your statement. You are living in a fantasy.

wearyman on May 31, 2011 at 2:57 PM

Why don’t we find a minnow right in the middle of their Artery and cut this over priced monster in half. Why the people of that state continue to pay for stuff they don’t need is amazing.

Kissmygrits on May 31, 2011 at 3:11 PM

Kissmygrits on May 31, 2011 at 3:11 PM

Good point. How can they build a high-speed rail through Condor Habitat?

Kenosha Kid on May 31, 2011 at 4:41 PM

let me get this straight…..no drilling offshore in California and no drilling in Alaska ANWR?

But we can dig a friggin trench from LA to San Francisco and it’s A-ok?

Isn’t there a toad or owl that will have it’s environment altered?

Ditkaca on May 31, 2011 at 10:36 PM

Why the people of that state continue to pay for stuff they don’t need is amazing.
Kissmygrits on May 31, 2011 at 3:11 PM

With Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein as senators of our state, we really don’t have a choice when it comes to paying for crap we don’t need. Oh, and then there’s Moonbeam Brown, trying to “save” us from ourselves also.
Believe you me, the Central Valley doesn’t want that high-speed rail anywhere near us. Talk about your “bridge to nowhere…”

roxi618 on June 1, 2011 at 3:46 AM

Bullcrap strawman argument.

The idea that something would not exist were it not for the all-powerful magic of government subsidies ranks right up there with Trutherism in the annals of libtard non-thought.

OF COURSE we would have cars and planes and roads and EVERYTHING ELSE if the government didn’t subsidize them. Likely they would ALL be cheaper too! Why? Because there is a market for transportation. As you yourself said, you like to able to travel. Well so does everyone else. Thus the primacy of the automobile in modern society.

Without stupid government interference it is likely that cars would be cheaper, faster, safer, and better made. Now, they might not be AMERICAN made, and they almost certainly wouldn’t be UNION made, but they would be made, and be available to anyone.

Government only adds costs, which limits quality, safety and overall value. Subsidizing ANYTHING invariably leads to it being a boondoggle and a waste of money.

wearyman on May 31, 2011 at 2:47 PM

Who builds the roads? Who patrols the roads? Who repairs the roads? It sure isn’t the free market.

jonknee on June 1, 2011 at 9:27 AM

Except that most people live in the suburbs nowadays, and most airports are built near those suburbs, and most highways have routes leading directly to the airports, not the train stations.

We have an Amtrak station and an international airport here in Buffalo. The airport is easy to get to, cheap to park at, and quickly accessible from pretty much everywhere in Erie County. The Amtrak station is stuffed downtown in a maze of one way streets where it is almost impossible to find, has crappy and expensive parking, and takes forever to get to due to lack of direct highway access.

Buffalo’s situation vis-a-vis Airports and Train stations is NOT unique. It is the NORM in most cities. Why?
Because most train stations were built back in the 1800′s when people didn’t have cars, there was only the first tier of suburbs and then farms, and the Steam locomotive ruled. Most airports were built in large, open farmland just outside cities where arranging highway access was easy, and then the densely populated suburbs grew up around them.

As you can see, reality is the exact polar opposite of your statement. You are living in a fantasy.

wearyman on May 31, 2011 at 2:57 PM

I think enough people live in metro SF and metro LA that having stations in the city center is an asset. The train station in downtown LA is right in the middle of the 110, 101, 10 and 5. Freeway access is a non-issue. Perhaps not in Buffalo, but that’s not what’s being discussed here.

jonknee on June 1, 2011 at 9:32 AM

If you sup at the government trough, sometimes you choke.

Dandapani on June 5, 2011 at 10:53 AM