Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Far Horizon of American Transportation

Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail. This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down (laughter). As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.
President Barack Obama – The State of the Union Address

Brilliant, spectacular, and a wondrous view of the far horizon of American transportation. Through this simple action plan for connecting American cities we will change the stilted and obsolete systems of private airlines, AMTRAK, and highways crisscrossing the American hinterland (they are all oh-so Twentieth Century). China has them (theirs floats on magnets and in time will be huge - 10,025 km or 6,230 miles), France and much of Europe has them (and it goes under the English Channel), even the totally failed economy of Spain is planning for the largest network of rail lines in Europe (Germany will probably buy the bonds – who else?). In all cases they’ve been built due to the inadequacy of autobahns and freeways – and the easy ability of the “state” to expand existing rail rights-of-way and add needed capacity. For a good biased discussion go to High-speed Rail at Wikipedia.

The key is, of course, the ability to interconnect major and sub-major cities and their downtown urban cores to the rest of America. Those pesky airports, especially now with their security issues (as the president pointed out), are just too inconvenient and too far from urban centers. And besides they are locally owned through airport authorities and the states and the feds aren’t getting their fair share. And again, it’s those stock owner airlines that can’t seem to make money (at least until recently). And besides who needs choices when it comes to airlines, one’s as good as the other; right Southwest? So, we’re from the government and here to help, and that farmer in Iowa would love to help pay for your train system.

High-speed rail comparisons with automobiles allows for all sorts of statistical games: throughput, capacity, double-decking, land use efficiency, speed, time utilization, energy efficiency, it’s “greener,” and it’s way-cool. What I really liked about the Wikipedia article was the lack of any numbers on how much these systems will cost. They talk about the venue and menu but not the bill.

In California the initial cost for the San Francisco/Sacramento to Los Angeles/San Diego route is about $50,000,000,000 (I like to type zeros). Like the Bay Bridge estimates, I think I can safely double that to $100,000,000,000 (or more). With our state population at 37,000,000 and with 13.5 million households, this is $7,400 per household to own the debt for the train system. At least airline passengers pay for airports through ticket sales. The high speed rail system can never charge the rider what it will really cost to ride the train. And unlike the freeways or the airlines, when a train with space age technology breaks down in the middle of Kern County, nothing and I mean nothing will go north and south for a long time and the system will back-up to Tijuana and Chico.

But it’s sustainable you say, it’s efficient, it’s “Green.” Baloney. There is inadequate electrical power to supply the power to run the trains (imagine the land covered with wind farms to run the thing – and what happens when the wind dies down?). Solar would require paving most of the desert to supply the kilowatts (no trains at night!). No, the only source that will work is the addition of nuclear plants to supply both the rails and roads (remember the cute Leaf, Tesla, and Volt are coming – and besides why don’t they name these cars with real powerful names like: Thor – God of Lightning). Yes, the future is electric and I support that, but what do you pay for first?: the rights-of-way, the track and stations, the underground tunnels or overhead tracks, the additional high tension towers through the state, the costs for Redevelopment Agencies to clear private property and build new stations, the new nuclear power plants, and the expansion of urban transit systems to bring you to and from the stations. It is the gift that keeps on giving. Just a few side notes: the cost to build a 4 lane rural interstate road is about 5 million dollars per mile. The cost to build the high-speed rail line equates to building 20,000 miles of freeway (that’s about 28 new freeways north to south), or 4,000 high schools, or 10,000 elementary schools, or 100 huge colleges. It could hire 66,000 police and/or firemen or 100,000 teachers (all fully served with benefits). It could also allow businesses to keep billions in wasted funds (through bonds and taxes) to hire thousands of employees to compete with the world – at really good salaries.

It is a world of dreamers and futurists, and President Obama is the head cheerleader. But the American worker and his children are the ones that will buy the tickets, and I’m afraid the trip will not be that good or the ride that smooth.

Stay tuned . . .

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