Tag Archives: HSR

New Transportation Budget Deal Cuts Out HSR Funding, but is it That Big of a Deal?

I’m not going to waste a lot of time rambling about finally getting a transportation funding bill through its final obstacles so the DOT knows what it can play with next year. We’re here, it’s settled (sort of), pop the champagne (if you want to get seriously into the weeds on this one please take a look at this monster of an appropriation proceeding):

  • TIGER Grants are back but there’s still a disconnect between supply and demand. States want Federal funding for adventurous and necessary infrastructure projects but it seems like there’s simply not enough cash to go around at this point so they’ll have to settle for $500 million overall.
  • High speed rail is out, completely. This may sound like a significant defeat when President Obama had originally requested $1 billion for HSR, but when you consider that $1 billion when get you about 200 miles worth of rail you can understand why my frustration is tepid at best. The sum may have gone a long way in funding economic and environmental impact studies but in many cases HSR corporations and individual states are happy to carry them on their state ledgers; it doesn’t single-handedly hamstring the burgeoning movement.
  • Amtrak is getting $466m for its operating budget and $952m for its capital budget (a ~25% cap is put on debt servicing from the capital funding). It’s a boost from last year’s appropriation but still only about 12.5% of what Pres. Obama requested for the country’s wildly successful rail program.

There’s a laundry list of other items included in the final copy of the appropriations committee meeting (FTA is getting increased funding, FHWA is still holding most of the paper) but I’ll let you wade through the rest of the document on your own.

Cool Concepts | High Speed Rail (Part II of II)

Aviation is the most environmentally taxing mode of travel over any distance. Jet fuel combustion, by chemistry and volume, emits tons of carbon dioxide during short flights and dozens more during long-hauls. Typically cars and rail rank 2nd and 3rd, though those statistics are dependent on load factors; the amount of passengers alters emission rates significantly and per passenger emissions can be considered more important than absolute emissions because it’s a measure of human efficiency rather than mechanical efficiency.

The way we do things is a lot easier to change than is the way our machines do things for us. Squeezing asymptote-like efficiencies out of our Saabs and Boeings and railcars requires billions of dollars of research, development, and implementation while organizing a carpool is 3 phone calls and a calendar book away. Abandoning the pursuit of combustable efficiency shouldn’t be advocated though. More people need to admit the difficulties associated with improving the most important invention of the 20th century and more politicians needs to understand that R&D funding is not a sunk cost.*

Infrastructure construction, as opposed to research and development, also has immediately tangible results. Cranes are a visible product of investment while researchers in a laboratory, while equally hardworking, are counterintuitively more abstract products of investment. Construction projects are also environmentally taxing and the alchemy of laying where there once were none— many consider the completion of HSR a superficial task of remodeling existing rail infrastructure to suit HSR cars, the equivalent of renovating highways to be more amiable to horsemen— is complicated at best.

Too many rail advocates consider only the end product of HSR infrastructure rather than imagine its ugly and environmentally damaging beginnings. Extraction of raw materials for track, stations, and peripheral necessities needs to stop being considered in the abstract when it comes to HSR: it is not an environmentally benign venture outside of passenger efficiency rates.

Environmentally pragmatism hasn’t usurped idealism yet, but that doesn’t mean that environmentalism is catholically hamstrung. The competition to create cleaner, cheaper, and ultimately more efficient energy has produced dividends already. HSR, apparently, is not held to the same standards. None of these modes exist in a vacuum, and in an age where materials are as scarce as land and the state coffers are light, the whole picture surrounding HSR’s environmental impact needs to be considered. A track in the valley between Los Angeles and San Francisco, is still a track that was not there before.

*(A slight aside: When Claudius Caesar traveled from Rome to his fort of London on the newly conquered British Isle it took him near 3 weeks. 1800 years later, when Queen Victoria visited King Humbert in Rome, it took her 15 days. Reducing overland travel by 5 or so days in nearly 2000 years is a failure of mankind considering the pivotal advances we made in disciplines in the arts and sciences. Today, however, that trip takes 18 hours. In 2000 years of invention nothing, up until the invention of the internet, has transformed human society as much as the internal combustion engine.)


Cool Concepts | High Speed Rail (Part I of II)

We here at Radials promised that the next section of the High Speed Rail would be an international policy comparison. Based on commentary, both digital and personal, it seems that there are two more pressing topics at hand: environment and economics. We’ll start with the environment in this section and move onto the positive and negative fiscal impacts of building HSR in the near future (if you missed Part I of the series you can find it here).

In 2008, Proposition 1a was approved in California with 52% of the vote. It approved a general bond issuance of $9.95 billion dollars to fund a $40 billion dollar project that connected the southern and northern epicenters of California’s populations: Los Angeles and San Francisco. California’s proposition system is a unique process in the United States derived from Platonic ideals about true democracy: people should generate state laws. Propositions are offered by state legislators, the propositions are supported or denounced by given groups, and the voters decide on which statutes are passed or not.

The system is tyrannically fair and has had its fair shares of foul-ups on the part of legislators and the public at-large. In 1978, Californians passed Proposition 13 which severely reduced high property tax rates, capped at 2% of total property value, an idea that was genuinely popular across the political spectrum. Prop 13 also required that a two thirds majority of the state legislature is needed to pass any tax increases, a prerequisite that has made California nearly immune to any tax-hikes. It also severely handicapped local school systems as property taxes were the main source of operating expenses, but Proposition is still overwhelming popular among Californian’s who are burdened with taxes similar to New York or Massachusetts.

A primer on California legislative quirks isn’t necessary to understand HSR and its future in America. The politicization of abstract ideas concurrent with official political campaigns in California does present a capsule of how HSR is treated by either side of the aisle in a severely polarized state and with a minor leap of faith, the nation at large.

This is especially present when the subject of environmentalism is broached. Train travel is generally seen as a more earth-friendly mode of travel for overland trips when compared to cars and airplanes. In a general sense this talking point isn’t in severe err, but the breadth of this type commentary is always open to interpretation. How much better is it? Doesn’t the nature of train travel require more auxiliary travel because the stations are infrequent and immovable? How are we going to power them?

Often these sorts of questions aren’t broached by politicians or HSR advocates and detractors. HSR is painted one way or another depending on which group you’re talking to: an environmentally friendly and consumer amicable alternative to aviation or a half-baked infrastructure plan that will plunge the US into further debt trouble. The truth, as it often does, lay in the middle.

Environmentalists are not usually seen as adept followers of realpolitik and tend to favor the Enlightenment ideals of information over emotion. They are often talented grassroots activists, small scale organizers and fundraisers, and puritanical in their ideals, but they can also be intellectually bereft of savvy and malleability, using talking points as rafters rather than foundations. In California’s case however, they took politicking seriously and no where is that clearer than in the advertising campaign launched by Californian’s for High Speed Rail.

The twin images of HSR and wind energy, two paragons of environmentalism, are not overtly linked in terms of application but more as a theoretical, and more cynically subliminal, link. Clearly, HSR is not going to be powered by wind turbines any more than dense urban areas will in the near future. The conflation of those two ideas is an attempt at a theorized political causation: if HSR is powered by wind turbines, then they must be related.

 Cool Concepts | High Speed Rail (Part I of II)

Copyright of Californians for High Speed Rail

Rail will still be powered by electricity, and in California as well as most other places in the United States, that means coal. I won’t go into the arguments surrounding coal and its place in domestic energy policy —Barbara Freese’s excellent book Coal: A Human History goes into far more detail than I ever could— but there are two things everyone should know about the much maligned carbon-compound: it’s dirty and we have a lot of it.

Does the fact that coal will most likely be powering HSR for years to come argue down the environmentalist view? No, but it does dent it. Coal certainly has a future in the States not least because of its abundance and all factors related to it: coal mining communities, coal refining magnates, and powerful lobbying teams. The fact that coal is a readily available, while not efficient, source of electricity should not completely paralyze the HSR movement.

What does, perhaps, damage the environmental argument of HSR badly is the relative efficiency of HSR when compared to aviation especially.

Cool Concepts | High Speed Rail (I)



I’ll be up front about this: I don’t think high speed rail is an effective idea for the United States. I’ll go into all the reservations I have about the concept at some point —I don’t think it’s imperative to this piece— but for now I’d like to just play the skeptic. Before we start though, I’d also like to say that I’d probably be on the train from LA to SF and Boston to NYC as much as any 20-something, which is to say a lot. Just because I don’t think it’s a good idea practically doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s a good idea theoretically. Deep breath, as I’m sure a lot of you will be mad at me after this.


picture 18 Cool Concepts | High Speed Rail (I)

HSR (Copyright America 2050)

President Obama’s heart is in the right place. He wants to reinvest in infrastructure in a (kinda) large way. Infrastructure, especially the interstate highway system (trivia: the entire system is named after Dwight Eisenhower), has a stellar public return on investment (ROI) and I know this administration understands that the economics behind infrastructure development and maintenance needs to be a fulcrum of  domestic policy.Whether the lack of serious investment is a product of the political arithmetic or a simple lack of financial means, I’m not so sure of though.

That hasn’t come through the legislative pipeline though: about $8 billion as “federal seed” money with several different states, most notably California, creating bond vehicles to augment any federal assistance. Let me explain why this is a problem, and let me try to explain it with a question. How much do you, the reader, think one mile of high speed rail costs to construct from scratch? Just one mile, 20 North-South blocks in NYC.

$50 million. That means that if California received 100% of the funding from the federal assistance program, they could build a train that leaves from LA or SF and ends in… Porterville, CA. Yeah, I don’t know where that is either.

6a00e551eea4f588340128760fd578970c 800wi Cool Concepts | High Speed Rail (I)

HSR (Copyright USDOT)

It also means that $1.5 billion that the Obama Administration delivered to the Southeast “corridor” of Tampa Bay- Orlando can go a grand total on 30 miles on federal-only funding. Aside: I understand why Obama went to Florida with this money and I’m actually happy he did. With his impending 2nd term campaign coming up, having shovels in the ground in a swing state can be more useful as a political tool than an infrastructure investment. He is a savvy man.

I will concede a point though: relative to global prices for high speed rail construction, $50 million a mile is actually middling (this info is taken from an excellent report from the UK Gov’t). Japan’s Shinkansen (swoon) is about $124 million, TGV Taiwan is $130 million, and the Italian duo of Naples-Rome and Florence-Turin are $119 million. That doesn’t mean that we can do it cheap though; we all need to consider that we have a lot more geography to work with and relatively cheap labor (compared to Japan at least).

shinkansen Cool Concepts | High Speed Rail (I)

Shinkansen (Copyright Dean Chamberland)

This is Part I. I want everyone to understand exactly how much HSR costs and where we are relative to the rest of the world. Some might point to other places in the budget where small shavings would result in the molding of a great rail system, but is there really the political will for that? Will we ever cede defense spending in favor of domestic development? Politicians have a taste for guns over butter and they have for the last 30 years; I don’t think things are changing there.

Next up: International Policy Comparisons.