Engineering public opinion: Rail opponents, take heart — the train can still be stopped.

Bill Howard is pretty analytical, no-nonsense type of man. As a professional engineer by trade, he allows the facts to lead him, not ideology or self-interest or emotion. Now that he has more time on his hands, he has taken an open-minded approach to his review of high-speed rail, and he would prefer to spike the whole thing.

Howard is not exactly sure what concerns him more, the lack of facts used to argue for rail or the conflict of interest that often comes with it. One thing he is sure of: based on his very recent inquiries for information, the design and funding details are not as far along as is implied in a recent media accounts. Howard believes it will be both possible and reasonable for the next governor to change the present plans for Madison-to-Milwaukee rail.

“I don’t believe that [can’t-be-stopped] view at all,” he asserted, noting that only 5% of the available money has been spent, much of it to upgrade the area rail bed, which is beneficial for freight service whether or not high-speed rail comes to fruition. Thus far, the federal government has allocated $810 million for Madison-Milwaukee high-speed rail.

Howard, one-year removed from 21-year tenure as sole owner and CEO of Imagesetter, an electronic publishing and printing business, is in the process of writing his next professional chapter. In the interim, he’s examined the merits and demerits of high-speed rail, and the establishment of the Regional Transit Authority, and has concluded that neither is a good deal for the economy or for taxpayers.

It’s not that Howard, a former UW lecturer in engineering economic analysis, thinks that constructing and operating a passenger rail line between Madison and Milwaukee cannot produce some identifiable, marginal good. He believes that it can, but in his view the negative effects argue overwhelmingly against moving ahead at this time.

Enough Platitudes

With decisions largely devoid of any factual basis, the public is shown “studies” or presentations with gorgeous, futuristic drawings, or photos of sleek, modern, aerodynamic trains, which are likely not the trains that will actually be provided and used for the projects that will receive funding any time soon, Howard stated.

“People are just looking for neat pictures,” Howard lamented. “They hear platitudes, but nobody talks about the facts. Those pushing it don’t want to talk about the facts because they are simply not there.”

Perhaps more telling, the studies are prepared and presented by companies that have an economic interest in railroads, or groups which simply want rail. He cited one presentation, made for the Conference of Mayors by Siemens, a multi-national corporation headquartered in Germany. One of their major lines of manufacturing is trains.

These presentations, Howard opined, are almost entirely “feel good” pieces, without any substantive discussion of the economics, potential ridership, or other facts to support the use of rail. They simply use broad, general statements about creating jobs, saving the environment, and reducing our reliance on oil, without any facts to back up the statements.

Among the facts, from Howard’s vantage point, are the following points:

  • The most coherent documentation of the plan for the Madison-Milwaukee High-Speed Rail is the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program application supporting forms, which the Wisconsin Department of Transportation submitted to the federal government on October 2, 2009 as justification for funding for the project. Howard’s recent inquiry to the DOT for clarification of several questionable entries revealed that its position is that the original submission was not a ready-to-go plan, but a preliminary estimate document. They are still negotiating with the federal government and with multiple local governments as to what will be the final federal contribution — the DOT is trying to get additional federal funds — and how local communities will be expected to share in construction and operational costs.
  • Specific questions, particularly regarding anticipated ridership volumes, revenues from fares, operating costs, subsidies, and which entities will be expected to pay the subsidies could not be answered because they said they were still updating information, Howard indicated. Therefore, subsidy figures which are frequently quoted actually are unknown.
  • This will not be “high-speed” rail by either the Federal Railroad Administration definition, or any common sense understanding of “high speed.” The FRA has three high-speed rail (HSR) categories, including: HSR Express, a service operating in corridors 200 to 600 miles long, with a top speed greater than 150 mph, running primarily on dedicated tracks (there are no such operations in this country at the present time, but one is proposed in California); HSR Regional, a service operating in corridors 200 to 600 miles long, at 110 to 150 mph, on a mix of dedicated tracks, and tracks shared with freight operations. At the moment, the Acela Express service in the Northeast corridor is the only service in the country that meets those standards; Emerging HSR, a service operating in corridors 100 to 500 miles long, at top speeds of 90 to110 mph, on shared tracks, which is expected to have limited effect on shifting passengers from other modes of transportation. This service, Howard contends, would not be defined as “high speed” in any country but the United States.
  • The application shows that by 2013, when the service is supposed to start operating, the top speed will be 79 miles per hour and the average train speed over the entire route will be 57 mph. By contrast, in 2018, after the nearly $1 billion has all been spent, and the entire project has been operating for five years, the planned top speed will have gotten to 110 mph, and “the average train speed over the entire route will jump all of the way up to 59 mp,” Howard stated.
  • The needs of people wishing to use public transportation between Madison and Milwaukee already are being well taken care of by Badger Bus, which: neither requires nor receives any subsidy; pays $0.575 per gallon in fuel tax which, if not used by state government to balance non-highway parts of the budget, goes toward highway maintenance; pays $2,500 per bus, per year for license fees; provides employment for dozens of people who pay income taxes; provides a lower fare, a shorter travel time, the availability of free parking at the Park and Ride lot, and a more convenient, flexible service than can be provided by a rail system that is constrained by where the tracks and stations are located, and will average only 59 mph.
  • A recent study titled, Where High Speed Rail Works Best, prepared by America 2050, identifies five essential elements for rail success: metropolitan size, corridor distances, transit connections, economic activity (GDP), and traffic congestion. America 2050 studied 27,000 city pairs to determine their likely demand for high-speed rail service, and then it conducted additional studies on the 50 most promising pairs of cities. Not only did the Madison-Milwaukee pair fail to be among the top 50 pairs, the Chicago-Milwaukee pair wasn’t included either. There were seven other cities paired with Chicago that were among the top 50. The entire line from Chicago to Milwaukee to Madison fails to meet even the minimum levels for any of the five elements which are needed for a successful operation.
  • All of the money provided for the Milwaukee-Madison line will be borrowed, and it will contribute at least $1 billion to the federal debt. Although both the state and local governments think of federal money as “free,” it is not free, and all U.S. taxpayers pay the price, Howard noted. In addition, when the project has been built, although some of the ongoing subsidies may come from the federal government, there is little doubt that the state and local governments will be left with significant, continuing subsidy payments that must be met, either by raising taxes or reducing other services, or both.

Back to Rail Reality

According to Howard, there is some disengagement with reality among those who think “free” federal or state money will continue to be readily available. While he can’t say for a fact that severe belt tightening will take place at all levels of government, he believes that anyone who thinks the spigot will not be closed is either not paying attention, or has very little understanding of current governmental economics.

Howard concedes the high-speed rail project would produce jobs, maybe even quite a few, but he adds that not all jobs are helpful to the economy. He contends that any construction jobs will only be short-term while rail and station facilities are built. In addition, since the train operation will be mostly paid for and run by the government, whatever jobs it produces will be government jobs. In the long run, he contends that these jobs drain rather than enhance the economy because they use up public wealth through the subsidies, rather than create public wealth as for- profit businesses do.

By going ahead with this project, governments will be subsidizing the government’s business as it competes against the Badger Bus, a viable private business. “This is neither a fair nor a wise use of governmental power and money,” Howard stated. “It sends a poor message to the very business community we are trying to nurture and grow.’

It also could crowd out necessary public expenditures. If the rail project proceeds, Howard poses the following question: from where shall we take the money — education, public safety, funds needed to promote economic development, etcetera?

Noting that some would advocate more tax increases to support the added costs, Howard feels the universal need to create jobs would be compromised if government takes more out of the private sector.

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