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Debunking NIMBY Math on California HSR

“California High Speed Rail will forever need an operating subsidy.” That is the latest claim from an anti-HSR group called the Community Coalition on High Speed Rail.

The group recently assailed CAHSR’s estimates that the system will cost 10 cents per passenger mile to operate, saying the figure is far too low and questioning the official math that the $81 San Francisco-to-LA fare would cover the costs of the trip.

But their numbers just don’t check out, says Network blog Systemic Failure:

CC-HSR extrapolated a 10-cent operating cost per passenger mile based on the the published $81 LA-SF premium fare, and assuming 50% profit. They compared this 10-cents number to a study done in 2007 that reports a per-mile operating cost of around 30-50 cents per mile for European high-speed rail operators.

So according to the CC-HSR, the LA-SF fares are too low, and would have to be at least triple the $81 fare just to break even. Does this argument make sense? Well, let’s look at SNCF fares for Paris-Avignon, which is exactly same distance as LA-SF. This image is a screenshot taken for a random reservation on the SNCF web site:

You are welcome to try your own trip reservations, and do the Euros to Dollars conversion —  but the SNCF fares don’t seem all the far off from CHSRA fares. And if it really cost SNCF more than 30 cents/passenger mile, then the Sud-Est wouldn’t even be profitable, which even CC-HSR admits is not the case.

Systemic Failure hints that CC-HSR’s supposedly economic objections are actually grounded in NIMBYism. The group is composed of people whose homes border the proposed rail line, whose published concerns include “dirt, dust noise” and “loss of trees.”

Elsewhere on the Network today: Discover Lee County marvels at the complete unwalkability of the greater Ft. Myers, Florida area, where walkscores of 0 — yep, zilch — are the default condition. Urban Review STL readers sound off on the Missouri proposal to allow concealed firearms on public transit. And This Big City shares 10 crowd-sourced ideas for improving cycling in cities.

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Would Romney Build Roads or Rail?

All eyes are on Texas Gov. Rick Perry these days, the faraway frontrunner in the Republican race. But as the primary goes on (and on and on) more Republicans might take note of the fact that in a matchup with President Obama, only one candidate stands a chance of winning: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

As governor of Massachusetts, Romney had a mixed record on transit and smart growth. Photo: Daily Caller

According to the most recent polling data, Obama trounces Gov. Perry. He makes mincemeat of Bachmann and Gingrich. Only one poll shows a winning Republican candidate, and that’s Romney, with a two percent edge over the president in a recent USA Today poll.

We took a hard look at Rick Perry’s approach to transportation last fall, when he was running for re-election. As Texas governor, Perry championed a mega-highway plan that would make the Road Gang blush. He blocked metrorail extensions and vulnerable users legislation.

But what about Romney? His record as a red governor of the blue state of Massachusetts is a little more complex, and worth exploring.

In a recent Boston Globe story comparing current Democratic Governor Deval Patrick with his predecessor, Romney emerges as the more inspired candidate when it comes to smart growth. (It doesn’t help that Patrick was caught driving around in an SUV last week while telling his constituents to observe car-free week.)

According to the Globe, Patrick has done away with a program originated under Romney to encourage “mixed-use, walkable, downtown-centered, transit-oriented growth” and counter sprawl.

Under the Romney program, communities got credit for green building, saving energy, preserving open space, and zoning reform, among many other categories. Those that scored highest went to the front of the line to receive about $500 million per year in grants and revolving loan funds for infrastructure including water and sewer projects. The idea was to put state funding to municipalities through a filter, and reward innovation in sustainability at the local level; previously the money was just doled out.

Romney also pioneered an interagency partnership in Massachusetts not unlike the Obama administration initiative that brought together HUD, USDOT and EPA. Romney’s Office for Commonwealth Development brought together state agencies on transportation, environment, housing, and energy — a collaboration which has served as a model for other states. To head it, he hired Doug Foy, the head of the Conservation Law Foundation and “arguably New England’s most important environmentalist,” according to ModeShift.

Romney’s administration encouraged brownfield, instead of greenfield, development and created a bond program to encourage transit-oriented development. And ModeShift says he was “for RGGI (the Northeast regional greenhouse gas emissions compact) before he was against it.” Read more…

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Mica Extends Olive Branch to Amtrak, Dems Pound Rail Privatization Plan

Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL), the top Democrat on the Railroads Subcommittee, began her remarks at yesterday’s Transportation Committee hearing like this:

My notes say that I’m supposed to say, ‘Thank you Mr. Mica for holding today’s hearing.’ I don’t think so. Because I think legislation that affects the entire passenger and freight rail system in the United States deserves hearing, examination and debate. There are numerous legal, financial and operational questions that need to be answered before we auction off Amtrak to Wall Street investors.

Rep. Corinne Brown (D-FL) wasn't quite ready to thank Mica, as is customary, for holding the hearing.

The hearing was called at the last minute as a result of Brown’s and others’ demands for a full airing of Democrats’ concerns before taking quick action on the Republican plan to privatize Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL) started off blustery and aggressive, saying, “We’ll have a hearing every week if we have to until we get this done” and dismissing his critics’ concerns with visible frustration. Once he got that out of his system, though, he adopted a more conciliatory tone as he talked about Amtrak.

He introduced Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman with some self-effacing humility: “[Boardman] takes a beating from time to time, sometimes from me, unwarranted, and I apologize publicly for that, but he does as good a job he can with the cards he’s dealt,” Mica said.

That was just the beginning of Mica’s overtures to the embattled rail chief and his allies. He prodded Democrats and witnesses for suggestions for improving the plan, looking to incorporate their suggestions to build consensus for the bill. Significantly, Mica even allowed that the plan to privatize the Northeast Corridor could end up leaving Amtrak more or less intact, especially since Amtrak is already looking for private-sector partners to team up with.

“I’m not trying to limit any service they provide, or privatize all of Amtrak,” Mica said. “I don’t mind giving authority to Amtrak to do what we’re trying to achieve. I don’t know that we need to create a second entity to do this.”

He said he’d been told by Amtrak leaders in the past that they didn’t have the authority to team up with the private sector to operate and maintain the corridor. “The key is to attract private capital, so we have got to have the ability, for whatever entity, whether it’s Amtrak or another entity, to attract that private capital.”

Boardman indirectly chided Mica for his previous attacks on Amtrak, saying, “The stability of Amtrak and its future are critical to have any confidence in us as a centerpiece. And this legislation, and the way that we’re characterized on a regular basis, doesn’t sustain that in the investment public. And it’s not accurate. Sir.”

Read more…

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Cutting Train Budgets Could De-Rail Transamerican Routes

Senators in Appropriations have to ask, Who rides the train cross-country anymore? Photo: Pignouf

The idyllic cross-country train trips that many Americans still take could get derailed by today’s “slash and burn” federal budget policies. Meanwhile, fears for the safety of rail passengers in the post-bin Laden era are drumming up political support for costly security measures and raising, once again, questions about why the federal government funds rail routes without any promise of profitability.

At this morning’s Senate Appropriations hearing on budget requests for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Amtrak, the three senators in attendance were unified in their support for funding rail transportation. They’re working on the funding request for the FRA for 2012, not the rail piece of the overall transportation reauthorization. Still, with huge disagreements over spending levels in Congress still raging and a showdown looming over cuts as a quid-pro-quo for raising the debt ceiling, next year’s funding is a significant question.

So the three senators present wanted to know how they could be expected to defend rail funding without more transparency in the budget allocation process. They also asked pointed questions about what the administrators of the FRA and Amtrak were doing to keep riders safe from the terrorist attacks threatened by Al-Qaeda.

The FRA has taken on a greater role in the allocation of funding for rail projects over the last several years and senators appeared frustrated over a lack of clear information as to where the funding would come from. Indeed, some security projects appear in the FY2012 budget request but the FRA is also requesting a USDOT loan to for the same thing.

Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) was quick to commend FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo for his efforts, but called him out for not improving transparency about how, when, where and why projects are funded. “I support investments,” she made clear. “Now is the time to address critics head on. We must communicate with the people.”

Murray and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) presented a grim future for surface transportation if funding does not keep up pace with booming population growth. The only other senator to speak, ranking Republican Susan Collins of Maine, agreed and reminded her colleagues that the ambitious national rail plan proposed by the FRA, including high-speed rail, has yet to be followed up with any cost estimates, for construction or operations.

Szabo, for his part, could only promise that studies to be released within “the next couple of months” would present the “broader business case” for funding both high-speed rail and individual projects across the country. Szabo, the first union railman to hold his position, was proud of what his agency was doing to keep hazardous freight secure – but admitted that there are still unimplemented security measures that date back to 9/11. He pointed out that for every $50 spent on aviation security, only $1 went to surface transportation.

Read more…

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Excitement at Transbay Event, But Federal Transportation Bill Uncertain

Transbay_groundbreak_1.jpgSenator Barbara Boxer, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, US DOT Secretary Ray Lahood, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Transbay Joint Powers Authority Board Chairman and SFMTA CEO Nat Ford at the Transbay Transit Center groundbreaking. Photos: Matthew Roth.

Though most of the California political class celebrated the groundbreaking of the new Transbay Transit Center with U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood in San Francisco yesterday, significant questions remain for funding a national high-speed rail network through the federal transportation act.

The event swarmed with Secret Service and various other branches of law enforcement keeping an eye on a crowd that, as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom joked with LaHood, was mostly made up of consultants on the Transbay project.

LaHood cracked wise several times at Newsom's expense, repeating more comments Newsom made before the press conference to the public and the media and suggesting Californian's should vote him in as Lt. Governor on his humor alone.

When he stopped ribbing Newsom, LaHood gushed about how far "ahead of the curve" California is on high-speed rail. LaHood said U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) had cast "courageous votes" that made the stimulus bill possible, which meant a $48 billion infusion for the US DOT or nearly two-thirds his annual budget. From the $8 billion President Barack Obama added for high-speed rail nationally, California received $2.3 billion, $400 million of that for the Transbay Transit Center.

"People who come back from Europe or Asia and have ridden high-speed rail, like many of you have, come back to America and ask why we don't have high-speed rail in America? Because we've never made the investment, that's why," said LaHood. "This year we had 8 billion times more money for high-speed rail given President Obama's vision to connect America with high-speed, inter-city rail."

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Obama Aide Defends Transit Safety Plan as Different from Rail Rules

Federal Transit Administration (FTA) chief Peter Rogoff today mounted a defense of the White House's transit safety plan, assuring some skeptical members of Congress that he does not want to "replicate" inter-city rail safety rules that have taken flak for impeding the development of viable U.S. train networks.

reagan_metro_station.jpgAs of last year, D.C.'s Metro had less than one full-time employee working on its safety panel. (Photo: VisitingDC.com)
Referencing the safety struggles of Washington D.C.'s Metro transit system, where oversight was relegated to an under-funded, effectively inactive committee before a series of rail accidents last year, Rogoff acknowledged that previous federal regulators were "complicit in wrongdoing" to some degree.

"[W]e engaged in at least helping the transit industry develop voluntary [safety] standards," Rogoff told the House oversight committee. "As a federal agency, I feel it's our obligation to identify what the safe practices [are]. The only way we can ensure there will be safe practices is to have mandatory standards."

The Obama administration's transit safety proposal [PDF] would seek to impose such mandatory standards for transit safety, requiring local agencies to meet a minimum threshold of compliance or be subject to federal monitoring. The president's budget for fiscal year 2011 would set aside about $30 million to help transit agencies pay for any safety upgrades required by the new federal oversight.

"It is not our goal to replicate the voluminous [Federal Rail Administration] rulebook for transit systems," Rogoff told lawmakers. The FRA's slate of safety standards have required Amtrak's Acela trains to stop short of maximum speeds and Caltrain commuter rail to delay introduction of lighter-weight cars, coming under fire from rail advocates.

But lawmakers' openness to debating the White House safety plan does not mean the FTA can count on passage this year. Leaders of the House transportation committee have indicated they do not aim to take up the transit safety bill as a free-standing measure, instead leaving the issue to the next six-year federal infrastructure bill -- which may not come to a final vote until next spring at the earliest.

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A Day After Their TIGER Win, Freight Railroads Carve Out More Turf

The freight rail industry yesterday claimed
the top three awards in the Obama administration’s competition for $1.5
billion in TIGER stimulus grants, with Transportation Secretary Ray
LaHood singling out train shippers for an online shout-out:

chart.png(Chart: AAR)

You know, although passengers and
commuters have human faces, we need to remember that trade depends upon
the safe, smooth, and efficient delivery of goods. Our groceries depend
upon it as well. And jobs depend on it.

This DOT understands that.

But freight companies are hardly resting on their laurels today. The Association of American Railroads (AAR),
a Washington trade group that represents freight movers as well as
Amtrak, is just out with a report that carves out the industry’s turf
in a big way — including a legislative wish list.

Titled
Great Expectations, the report positions the freight industry as an
economic powerhouse well-positioned to power the nation through a
recovery from its lingering recession. Freight railroads generate $265
billion of economic activity per year while emitting 75 percent less
than similar shipments carried by truck, according to the AAR.

To
illustrate the financial might of the top U.S. freight companies, the
AAR produced a chart (above) that compares train shippers’ annual
spending on capital infrastructure and maintenance with the highway
budgets of major states.

So with the industry riding high from its stimulus victory, much to the dismay
of its trucking competitors, what’s standing in the way of a freight
renaissance? Government regulations, according to AAR chief Edward
Hamberger.

Read more…

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The White House Transportation Budget: What’s In Line for the Axe?

In a fiscal year 2011 budget that proposes to increase spending on several core transportation
priorities, the White House also aims to eliminate a few
infrastructure programs that may prove popular with lawmakers.

KCH_1.jpgSen.
Robert Byrd (D-WV) used the STP program to earmark millions of dollars
for road projects in his home state, including the above "King Coal
Highway." (Photo: MCRA of WV)

Among the budget items slated for elimination are a $10 million fund
aimed at helping cities and towns adapt to climate change, $34 million in
rail line relocation grants — which, the White House noted, is siphoned off by
congressional earmarking rather than a merit-based process — and a $12
million inter-city bus security program that was unsuccessfully
targeted in last year’s budget.

But
the largest proposed funding cut under the U.S. DOT’s
purview is
the Surface Transportation Priorities (STP)
program, which distributed $293 million last year to an array of local
road, bridge, and trail projects earmarked by members of Congress.

The
STP program is "not subject to merit-based criteria or competition; nor
are states or localities given the flexibility to target them to their
highest transportation priorities," the White House wrote in explaining
its bid to zero out the spending.

Eliminating STP funding
(which the Obama administration proposed to do in its budget for the
current fiscal year) is likely to prove a heavy lift with lawmakers who
depend on politically valuable transportation earmarks to win favor
with voters. The program is a longtime favorite of road-building
stalwarts such as former Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman
Robert Byrd (D-WV), who earmarked more than $20 million in STP money
for West Virginia roads in 2008 alone.

However, STP
money has also benefited clean transportation projects that might not
otherwise have secured federal aid. In recent years, lawmakers have
steered program funds to build a trail along Connecticut’s Quinnipiac
River ($1.4 million), conduct a seismic retrofit of San Francisco’s
Golden Gate Bridge ($1.9 million), and build new parks in Louisville, Kentucky ($5.8 million in 2008, courtesy of Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell).

Will
the administration succeed in its latest effort to slim down
congressional transportation earmarking? The first clues are likely to
emerge later this month and next month, when Transportation Secretary
LaHood and other U.S. DOT officials begin their rounds of testimony on
Capitol Hill.

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White House Awards $2.3B for California High-Speed Rail

California's bid for a federal high-speed rail network with top speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour is often called the "only true" bullet train proposal on the table -- and the Obama administration agreed today, bestowing $2.34 billion on the Golden State to the delight of lawmakers and rail advocates.

The largest share of the state's high-speed rail award, $2.25 billion, will go towards an Anaheim-to-San Francisco link that is expected to cost about $42 billion to complete.

20091026134234_Preferred_state_102209pm.jpgGraphic: CHSRC (click to enlarge)

Smaller grants were given to improve service on the San Diego-Los Angeles Surfliner route, the Capitol Corridor route from Sacramento to the Bay Area, and to give trains new emissions control equipment.

The popular Capitol Corridor route will get a $29.2 million infusion -- including $6.2 million for the Sacramento Rail Relocation Project and $23 million will be allocated to "easing bottleneck conditions" between Davis and Sacramento.

"We can now move full speed ahead with these projects immediately, creating much-needed jobs, improving mobility options by enhancing Capitol Corridor intercity passenger train service and generating regional economic activity," Capitol Corridor Managing Director David B. Kutrosky said in a statement.

The White House grant is less than half the size of the state's initial $4.7 billion allocation, but the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) has the voter-approved ability to match the federal aid dollar for dollar.

U.S. High Speed Rail Association chief Andy Kunz praised the administration's decision to spread high-speed rail aid out among 13 different corridors, prodding states such as California to "get creative" and leverage other funding sources.

State are "all going to scramble, going to build their own money and support systems to get these things up and running," Kunz said in an interview.

Read more...
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Bus vs. Rail: Transit’s Quiet Culture Clash?

The question of running buses or building rail has preoccupied transit planners in many an American town, with Maryland's Montgomery County being the latest locality to choose between trains and bus rapid transit (BRT), which tends to be the less expensive option.

brt_bogota_poster.jpgBogota's Transmilenio BRT has won praise for its roomy coaches and well-designed stations. (Photo: Streetfilms)

But another, far thornier aspect of the bus versus rail debate has made its way into the public dialogue, giving fodder to transit-minded bloggers from Matt Yglesias to Atrios: Is there a cultural bias against buses? The issue, fraught with social equity implications, made its way into a debate on conservatives and transit held today by Transportation for America.

The debate focused largely on the themes of the book Moving Minds, in which co-authors Bill Lind and the late Paul Weyrich aim to convert their fellow conservatives into transit advocates. But Lind is also an unabashed critic of buses, which he believes are unappealing to average American travelers and impede the prospects for transit expansion.

"Most Americans like transit but don't like riding buses," Lind said today, adding that "if you give them a bus, they drive," but rail would be a more preferable mode than the auto.

Sam Staley, the Reason Foundation director enlisted as the conservative transit skeptic for the debate, was put in the unlikely position of defending well-designed BRT's ability to serve communities.

Depicting buses as second fiddles to rail is "underestimating the importance of the quality of service provided," Staley said. Where rail is treated as superior, he added, often it is "doing a better job of getting point to point, and doing it faster, than a bus," but well-funded bus systems "are doing a good job at competing."

For a more in-depth look at the bus-rail dichotomy, check out the Transportation Research Board's recent paper on how the choice affects local transit goals.