14.2.19

THERE IS NEVER A GOOD TIME TO BUILD THE WRONG PROJECT.

California governor Gavin Newsom will finish the a-building section of high speed railroad in the Central Valley, but the continuations to San Francisco or Los Angeles are on hold.
“Let’s be real,” he says. “The project as currently planned would cost too much and, respectfully, take too long. Right now, there isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were,” the San Francisco Gate reports.

Instead of completing the intended route, pegged at $77 billion to build in the next decade, Newsom wants to finish tracks between Bakersfield and Merced in the Central Valley. Roadbed construction, including several massive bridges, is nearly complete on the initial Fresno-Madera segment.

“Abandoning high speed rail entirely means we will have wasted billions and billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises...and lawsuits to show for it.,” he claims. He intends to make use of the investments already made rather than send $3.5 billion in federal funds back to Washington, D.C.
That's a sunk cost fallacy at work. It's also the logic of Federal money.  When Wisconsin governor Scott Walker scrapped the extension of the Hiawatha service to Madison, whatever operating subsidies he didn't commit the state to might have been exceeded by the breach-of-contract damages to Talgo, the builder of the trains for the project, and when his secretary of transportation asked if he could apply the Federal money allocated to rails to fixing the highways instead, the Secretary of Transportation said no.  Republican governor in Wisconsin, Democrat president, reverse the roles today, same problem.

The political posturing has begun, with the usual suspects entrenching in the usual way.  "Celebrate, don’t mourn, the end of what’s always been a bad plan."  That's Scott Shackford in Reason, who elaborates,
Californians are just going to be left with a train in the middle of some of the more rural parts of the state because the Newsom administration doesn't want to have to repay the federal funding.

Whatever may come next, this is happy news for most California citizens. Voters approved a ballot initiative in 2008 that set aside a $10 billion bond to begin the project of building a high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco with the promise that more funding would come through from the feds or from private sources, that the train would not require subsidies to operate, and that it would help fight climate change.

But it didn't take long for all those claims to be shown as unlikely, especially the costs. President Barack Obama's administration did provide $3.5 billion in stimulus funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but the project otherwise saw little additional outside financial support. The train's cost ballooned from $64 to $77 billion (and it would likely end up well over $100 billion if actually completed). The construction on the first leg began in the middle of California, near Fresno, and it wouldn't even link Los Angeles to San Francisco until 2029.
There's a fair amount of spiking the political football accompanying the announcement.
The decision to end the project after the current construction is finished is, of course, a big blow to former Gov. Jerry Brown. This train was his pet project and he undoubtedly saw it as his legacy. No matter how much evidence was presented that the whole deal was a big boondoggle that would leave taxpayers holding the bag, Brown didn't waver.

But the announcement is also a bit of a kick in the teeth for the proposed Green New Deal by progressive Democrats in Congress. The Green New Deal, pushed by lawmakers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), heavily leans on the idea that high-speed rail could be used to link cities and ultimately reduce the use of air travel. It was a wholly unrealistic plan for any number of logistical reasons, as Joe Setyon explained last week. Newsom killing off the project's expansion also implicates the massive costs of the lawmakers' proposals.

And Newsom is no fiscal conservative. In all likelihood, he wants to use the money he'll save from not building the train on other big progressive aims, like single-payer health care coverage or propping up the state's overextended pension system for public employees. As bad as they are, those aims are at least preferable to an absurdly overpriced makework project intended to line certain people's pockets at the expense of the taxpayers.
Twitchy gets in on the fun.  "It really does seem like Nancy Pelosi’s had just about enough of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And who could blame her? If you were Nancy Pelosi, wouldn’t you want to very publicly stick it to AOC right about now?"  Constitutional separation of powers is still a thing, thus they issue a disclaimer.  "We may never know if Nancy Pelosi was indeed responsible for the project’s derailment, but one thing’s for sure: We’re enjoying this immensely."

At Right Wisconsin, they're enjoying California asking for the Wisconsin stimulus money that they have now decided isn't productive enough to justify spending more.
After Wisconsin turned down the federal money for a  so-called “high speed rail” line between Milwaukee and Madison, California gladly took the money. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett complained about Governor Scott Walker’s decision by thinking of the federal government as Santa Claus.

“My congratulations to the workers in California and Florida. As a result of this decision, you will have a merry Christmas,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Barrett saying at the time. “I’m just sad the same won’t happen here in Wisconsin.”

(Florida would later kill its “high speed” rail project, too.)
It's more realistic to note that Florida is still going forward with faster passenger trains, if under the Virgin Brightline banner, and with rolling stock that seems well suited for the California project.  "Some of the right of way toward Orlando, as well as an expressway median in the Tampa direction, once figured in an Obama-era stimulus project that a subsequent Florida political establishment stopped.  The political economy of private passenger trains will no doubt occupy us in the future."  I wonder if the people at Virgin Rail would be interested in a franchise to run the California service.

We'll see, though.  The Virgin Rail public offering for its North American services is off again.  There's another public deadline involved.  Apply now or forever lose your cash.

The Right Wisconsin folks are more interested in told-ya-so than in any analysis of the railroad projects.
If high-speed rail can’t make it in population dense California, what made anyone think it could work in Wisconsin?

When then-Gov. Jim Doyle approved the less-than high speed rail plan between Milwaukee and Madison, the federal government was going to spend $810 million for a train that would have run (57 mph on average) slower than traffic between the two cities and would have terminated at Madison’s airport. When critics mocked the idea of anyone wanting to take the train only to end up outside of the city, the end location was quickly changed to a location in downtown Madison, demonstrating that the plan for the train was not well thought out.
In part, neither the California nor the Wisconsin plans were well-thought out. Under the terms of the non-stimulus stimulus plan (thanks, Obama) only "shovel ready" projects could be built, meaning plans, or perhaps pipe dreams, for which the environmental clearances were already in place.  In California, only the open country portion of the coastal route, through a relatively sparsely settled part of the state, qualified (and could be built with the available money.)  That's not necessarily a bad idea, but nobody thought too carefully about connecting that part of the railroad with existing rail service into the Bay Area, particularly on the west side of the bay, or into Los Angeles.  The Madison extension of the Hiawatha service had a much better chance.
[T]he point that is being missed by residents of southeastern Wisconsin is that the extension isn't simply to serve the Milwaukee-Madison market. The extension creates a matrix of sub-corridors aside from just Milwaukee-Madison. Madison, Watertown, and (if they got a station) Oconomowoc residents will be able to take the train to the Milwaukee County Airport Amtrak station to catch a flight. (This station is currently the most popular between Chicago and Milwaukee, with the exception of Chicago). Waukesha County residents could catch their trains at a Brookfield station and ride through to Chicago instead of driving to the Milwaukee Airport Amtrak station (which is what many west suburban residents do now to catch a train to Chicago; the airport Amtrak station is easier to deal with than downtown Milwaukee).
The California line, which will be completed, is not (yet) being set up as an extension of any train service, whether it's regional, Amtrak California, or Virgin Brightline.  A special correspondent for Railway Age notes that seven procedural things, most of them reflecting constraints imposed by granting agencies that had no idea what they were dealing with, or thinking that they Had. To. Do. Something, sent the train out of the depot with flat wheels and ineffective brakes.  Makes the machinations of C. P. Huntington and Oakes Ames look public spirited.  "It's the process, stupid," notes Daniel Herriges for Strong Towns.  Or perhaps it's the stupid process.

Unfortunately, there's some cheerleading in Streetsblog California that suggests the governor and the California Passenger Rail advocates are drinking the same beer devotees of stadium subsidies drink.
To those critics who say California should stop building it, [Governor Newsom] said, “Abandoning high-speed rail entirely means we will have wasted billions of dollars with nothing but broken promises and lawsuits to show for it.”

“And by the way,” he added, “I am not interested in sending $3.5 billion in federal funding back to Donald Trump. Because that’s what it would take.”

Even though there is currently no clear path for high-speed rail to connect Sacramento and San Diego, “let alone from San Francisco to L.A.,” he said. “We do have the capacity to complete a high-speed rail link between Merced and Bakersfield.”
That's two lessons learned from Wisconsin, where Governor Walker did have to send the money back, and where the breach of contract suits have probably eaten up all the operating subsidy the state avoided paying.

What comes next, though, is not cause for optimism.
Newsom clapped back at critics who call a Central Valley project a “train to nowhere.” “I think that’s wrong, and I think that’s offensive,” he said. “The people of the Central Valley endure the worst air pollution in America, as well as some of the longest commutes. And they have suffered too many years of neglect from policymakers here in Sacramento. They deserve better.”

The cities of the Central Valley are, he said “more dynamic than many realize.” The region is renowned for agriculture, but is also “hungry for investment, a workforce eager for more training and good jobs…. who deserve a fair share of our state’s prosperity.”

“High-speed rail is more than a train project,” he said. As a tool for economic transformation, it could help “unlock the economic potential” and create the “backbone of a reinvigorated Central Valley.”

Meanwhile, he plans to make immediate governance changes. “We’re going to hold contractors and consultants accountable to explain how taxpayer dollars are spent – including change orders, cost overruns, even travel expenses. It’s going online, for everybody to see,” he said, calling it a “new day” for the program.
Dilly, dilly.

What, then, do we do with the Merced - Bakersfield Electric Air Line?  The Midwest High Speed Rail Association has thoughts.
The California High Speed Rail Authority is looking at two options for initial operations of Central Valley segment before the tunnels [required to reach San Francisco and Los Angeles] are constructed.

One option is to create a high-speed demonstrator in the Central Valley that runs at 220 mph and is contrained to the high-speed track. Passengers would change to other trains or buses at Bakersfield and Merced.  This should be a high priority.

The other is to reroute the current Oakland/Sacramento–Bakersfield Amtrak San Joaquin trains to the new line.

With the right train equipment, California wouldn’t have to choose one or the other: it could do them both and do them better.

That means moving past the binary of conventional vs. high-speed rail. It means following the Interstate Highway model where sections of high-speed highway were added to the existing network over a 40 year period. It means unifying the high-speed line with the existing Amtrak and commuter rail systems.It will require a train design that operates at high-speeds on high-speed track and smoothly at conventional speeds on freight track.
Does that sound like Cold Spring Shops, seven years ago?  "Electrify the Peninsula commute zone and the high-speed lines with the same voltage and frequency, then equip the diesel with sufficient fuel capacity to cover the non-electrified parts, and offer a single seat service, with a mode change during a station stop."  There's a dual-mode locomotive running on New Jersey Transit.  It's a Siemens product, just like the all-diesel Chargers on the Chicago regional routes and Brightline.
The right train will be able to switch quickly from electric to diesel operation, and its suspension will need to be flexible enough for freight tracks but stable enough for high speeds. A lightweight trainset will accelerate faster and take turns more nimbly on conventional tracks than our current trains—meaning it will slash transit times, even without going faster speeds.

If such trains were in use on the Amtrak San Joaquin and ACE commuter routes, they could travel faster over existing tracks. More importantly, they could join the high-speed line at Merced and really open the throttle to create a same-seat, high-speed ride from the Bay Area and Sacramento to Bakersfield.
Perhaps, ultimately, into Los Angeles, and to a connection with the Las Vegas service? Let's see if California officialdom works on that line into Los Angeles, because a fast line through the Central Valley getting to the Bay Area at Emeryville won't generate a lot of traffic.

One of these days, though, the deferred maintenance on the roads is going to come due.  Here's a Trains analysis.
The nation’s collective political unwillingness to view and fund passenger rail investments on an equal footing with highway and transit projects means priorities are free to change with state administrations; this was the case when both Wisconsin and Florida Republican governors rejected President Obama’s federal high speed rail money. However, California’s about-face occurred within the same political party.
Four years ago, I wrote, "[T]here's opportunity to move toward a more market-based regime of highway funding."  In the midst of a City Journal polemic, primarily spiking the football, Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox note,  "Of the many high-speed rail lines built in the developed world, only two (Tokyo-Osaka and Paris-Lyon) have ever been profitable, and in each case highway tolls for the same routes exceed $80 one-way, making high-speed rail in those cases an economical consumer choice. California, the green heart of the resistance, has met fiscal reality; reality won."

This round, perhaps, but highway tolls in the $80 range might be what it takes to keep the Interstates in a state of good repair.  Meanwhile, a Passenger Rail network with diesel trains running at 110 to 125 or 140 mph in open country will offer almost all the time savings of the bullet trains, and at a much lower first cost.  Never argue with a rectangular hyperbola.

The road pricing part of transportation policy will be for another day.

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