Thursday, July 12, 2012

Viewpoints: High-speed rail plan lacks common srnse

From the Sacramento Bee:  Viewpoints: High-speed rail plan lacks common sense

High-speed rail's biggest problem isn't high-speed rail but the people behind it, from backers in Washington to legislators in Sacramento who approved funding, capped by some rather artless fist-pumping from Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who seemed less interested in a better plan than in securing votes needed to pass a bad one.

Not that a better plan was in the offing from the California High-Speed Rail Authority, formed in 1996. The best it has produced is a business model whose costs have increased as the plan's promises decreased.
It's all been an object lesson in how to ruin a good idea.
There exists plentiful cogent analysis and constructive criticism, as there should be in any public works project of grand scale, but even at the most pedestrian level – where most taxpayers live – rarely has there been a project this size where logic comes to a crashing halt at nearly every turn.

Consider: If, in 2008, Proposition 1A had proposed laying that first mile of track between Borden and Corcoran, voters' reaction would've been, "There's a Borden, Calif.?"

The new route connecting Fresno to Burbank is equally imprudent. Who in Washington insisted on launching in the Central Valley? Who in the Central Valley benefits from Washington holding federal dollars hostage? Those blackmailers certainly won't be riding their 160-mile showpiece after their inaugural outing and perfunctory photo-op. Were it my call, I'd have told those in Washington to keep their money unless they agreed to build where we need it, not where they want it.

The operative question is this: If a main goal is to reduce congestion by inducing motorists to gravitate from driving to riding, why launch in a region where few people are driving? Fresno is not the Interstate 80 corridor to San Francisco, or the freeways linking Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and the Grapevine.

Those navigating that trek are what the Census Bureau calls "extreme commuters" – people traveling 90 minutes or more each way. More than 3 percent of working Americans do it, almost double the number from 1990, and the fastest-growing category of worker in America. Among the regions with the highest number of extreme commuters: Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Please don't tell me we first need to build in a flat, unobstructed wilderness where trains at their highest speeds can be tested and refined. What testing? Systems operating worldwide have already done that yeoman's work. We tout them as exemplary models for California. Implement what works best in those systems and discard what doesn't. Or do high-speed trains function differently in Fresno than in Barcelona?
Meanwhile, skeptical voters wonder how the governor would willingly borrow billions to support his vision while asking for a tax hike to "save our schools" because the state is broke. That's not vision; it's astigmatism. It's like saying you need to make mortgage payments, so let's buy a Winnebago.
No public works project is perfect, but for it to be palatable to the populace it purports to serve, it has to come with a comprehensible degree of common sense, and either this plan doesn't have it, or the people behind it don't know how to sell it.

It's disheartening for me, a huge advocate of rail transit. In New York where I grew up, mass transit is akin to oxygen, especially for extreme commuters. Systems in Washington, D.C., Boston and Chicago make those cities a pleasure to navigate. The Altamont Commuter Express trains proved a boon to development from Tracy to Stockton, providing a critical option for those employed in the Silicon Valley who couldn't afford Silicon Valley home prices. As a freeway alternative, the Capitol Corridor continues to increase ridership and revenue. Surely, there's a lesson in these models.

And sadly, America used to build things. From the Panama Canal to countless infrastructure projects undertaken under Franklin Roosevelt, who originally envisioned the federal highway system that Dwight Eisenhower carried to legislative fruition in 1956.

In the 1960s, not a day passed without stories about space travel or an exhibit that touched on the idea of "The Home of Tomorrow," "The City of Tomorrow," "The Transportation of Tomorrow."

Where is the tomorrow of today? In Afghanistan, costing us $5.3 billion a month, nearly the amount the Legislature approved to fund the first leg of a rail project? The F-22 Raptor? Since entering service in 2005, we've spent $77 billion on a fleet of 187 that has yet to see combat, isn't expected to any time soon and has been repeatedly grounded over oxygen system problems no one can resolve.

I'd like to think most of us would agree to do big things provided we choose the best path for doing them, but I'm not sure. Mostly, it seems what we do best anymore is make excuses to justify not doing anything.

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