Sunday, February 20, 2011

This Week in Amtrak

Penn Station (New York City)Image via Wikipedia
From the Editors…

Beware the ides of… February? This week a brief of some current events.

Just How Much is that Wild Goose?

“A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it adds up to real money.”- Senator Everett Dirksen

Just how many names can one give to a hole in the ground? What does one name a hole that does not really exist? This particular hole, meant to connect suburban New Jersey with New York City, has had many names and titles. A decade and half ago, it was known as the “Trans-Hudson Express Tunnel” (THE Tunnel) or, deridingly, as the “tunnel to Macy’s basement.” Later known as “Access to the Region's Core,” (ARC) ground was officially broken in June of 2009. On October 27, 2010, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (New Jersey being the only state officially participating in this project) gave it a new name: Dead. Concerned that the $8.7 billion undertaking would spiral to Big Dig proportions, the governor decided the price was too rich for New Jersey’s blood. There were meetings and more meetings between Trenton and Washington, but despite Federal demand for payback of $271 million, the project was axed once and for all… or so it seemed.

On February 6, 2011, a new player, Amtrak, rode into town along with U.S. Senate representation from New Jersey. Together, they announced a new scheme to build, and a new name: The “Gateway Tunnel.” They intend to spend $50 million for more design and engineering work, with a potential cost of $13.5 billion for completion. (It would appear Governor Christie’s concerns over costs were more than prescient.)

Two days earlier, the City of New York contracted with Parsons Brinckerhoff, Inc. to (quickly) study the feasibility of extending the No. 7 subway line west, under the Hudson River to NJ Transit’s station at Secaucus, New Jersey. Unlike the previous tunnel plans, this would allow riders transferring at Secaucus access to the West Side of Manhattan, Times Square, Grand Central Terminal, and Queens, without traversing an already-full Pennsylvania (Penn) Station.

Unlike the ARC, the Gateway Tunnel (actually two tunnels with one track each), proposed by Amtrak and friends, will not terminate north of Penn Station or Macy’s basement. Rather, it will run directly into Penn Station, adding to its already burgeoning passenger congestion. Currently, Penn Station handles a daily crush of some 600,000 persons. The existing century-old, twin single-track tubes handle a maximum of 23 trains per hour. It is expected the new Gateway Tunnel will allow for an additional 21 trains per hour. No source for this project's funding was cited.

Just two days later, on February 8, Vice President Joe Biden announced a new Administration initiative to spend $53 billion over the next six years on High-Speed Rail projects nationwide. The goal is to allow high-speed train access to 80 percent of the public within 25 years. Again, no source for the requisite funds was cited.

Not everyone is onboard with the immediacy of interest in “High-Speed Rail.” As has been reported in these pages before, many have advanced their political careers on “stop the train” platforms; therefore, it does not portend well that the two U.S. Representatives who declared this initiative “dead on arrival” are the House Transportation Committee Chairman and Railroads Subcommittee Chairman.

John Mica (R-Fla.) was his usual sanguine self in frankly appraising this development: “This is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio.” Mica is none too happy about the previous $10 billion pledged for HSR, or about the involvement of the Federal Railway Administration (FRA) in the HSR corridor selection process; and is especially displeased with the continued interference of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation. “Amtrak hijacked 76 of the 78 projects, most of them costly, and some already rejected by State agencies,” said Mica. “Amtrak’s Soviet-style train system is not the way to provide modern and efficient passenger rail service.”

Bill Shuster (R-Penn.) also had his take on this latest HSR missive: “The Administration continues to fail in attracting private investment, capital, and the experience to properly develop and cost-effectively operate true high-speed rail.” … “Government won’t develop American high-speed rail. Private investment and a competitive market will.”

To date, $271 million has already been spent. This includes $26.3 million for property acquisition in New Jersey for what was the ARC project; and $50 million has been proposed for more study of “ARC-lite.” Of the $10 billion pledged for “High-Speed Rail,” at least $1 billion has already been spent. To keep this all in perspective, Amtrak currently has on-order 70 new railcars for Eastern trains at approximately $2.3 million per each. The $1.321 billion already spent and proposed could have purchased over 500 of these railcars, expanding Amtrak's existing fleet by one-third. The problem with a wild goose chase is that regardless of the amount of money or resources expended, one still may not wind up with the goose.

An “E-Ticket Ride” to Fantasyland

Lathen, a small city of some 11,000+ souls (in 2009), may not ring a bell in the minds of those from outside the Emsland district in Lower Saxony, Germany. Yet, Lathen boasts what may be considered the world's fastest form of overland transportation. This is where ThyssenKrupp's Transrapid Maglev test track extends over 30 kilometers. If one is interested in buying one’s very own maglev transportation system, then Lathen is the place to visit. The test track was built to devise, test, improve and (most importantly) sell the concept of maglev; nothing more, nothing less. It does not see active scheduled service for the general public to ride.

The team members involved in writing, editing, and publishing this newsletter are all current or former residents of the State of Florida. As such, we have been watching intently the now almost-daily developments, with the latest incarnation of fast trains here being Florida High-Speed Rail. On February 16, newly-elected governor Rick Scott officially turned down $2.4 billion in Federal funds earmarked for the initial east-west, Tampa-Orlando route (roughly 80 miles). His reasoning for doing so included projected cost overruns and questionable ridership/revenue projections. This has become quite the firestorm in Tallahassee, and may rage for some time to come.

Governor Scott was not the only one questioning the validity of this project. At this year’s Southwest Rail Conference, one presenter succinctly pointed out that American HSR supporters were “attempting to have their icing without bothering to bake the cake.” Specifically he added, “Florida needs to mature its HSR plans.” Transporting tourists from theme parks to the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico is not a mature reason for building HSR.

When the go-ahead for High-Speed Rail projects came early last year, it was like popping the cork on a bottle of long-fermenting ideas. For Florida, it was a matter of dusting off the plans for the stillborn Florida Overland eXpress of 1996. When proponents for Florida HSR were questioned about the validity of this endeavor, the answer was curt and simple: The state already owns the right-of-way, and the environmental impact studies are complete. It is true that both of these prerequisites are a major hurdle for any project; still, is it not odd that public benefit was not one of the top two reasons for building?

Would Tampa-Orlando HSR be of anymore use to riders than the test track in Lathen? The simple reality is: No. It was not, nor was it ever meant to be, a serious contender for moving residents about the Sunshine State. As much as Lathen proved the workability of maglev, so too would Florida HSR be merely a vehicle to test and prove the feasibility of High-Speed trains in America. Every nation that has ventured into the HSR arena has had to develop its own system, with its own parameters to suit that nation's specific needs and conditions. The United States will be no different. Those involved with Florida HSR have been in talks with the FRA about requirements for vehicles traveling at hitherto-unseen speeds. As State Senator Paula Dockery said, “This was going to be a model for the nation.”

Numerous potential companies and consortia of companies have been eagerly awaiting the expected payout to develop all the systems for such a project. Now that it appears Florida HSR has been scrubbed, those would-be builders are scrambling. Without Florida, where else will they “beta test” their product? Without Federal money, who will pay to develop new, or adapt existing, technology for use in America?

Had the Tampa-Orlando line been built, the technology would have been built, tested, redesigned, retested, ad nauseam until everything was ready for primetime; after which, maybe the second phase of Florida HSR, a north-south, Orlando-Miami route (roughly 230 miles), would have been built. Tampa-Orlando is, however, a bit of a misnomer. In reality, the Eastern terminus is not the city of Orlando, but rather the airport (which bears its name, but is nowhere near Orlando). The western end is not the beautifully-restored downtown Union Station, but rather a parking lot off the highway. The likelihood of drawing riders was about par with drawing bees with vinegar. No matter how technically successful this may have been, would the public tolerate the spending of billions more of public monies in order to go to Miami?

Universal Truths

Every project has to start somewhere; and someone has to pay for it. Whereas private dollars may combine with public monies and actually build the line on State property between Tampa and Orlando, what about the future? When the champagne stops flowing and the confetti settles, there will still be a train to run. Will those private dollars still be there to fund its operation? When all is said and done, Florida HSR is nothing more than a novelty, a $2+ billion tourist attraction for foreign and domestic visitors to gawk at before moving on to the next attraction. Speaking as a resident this very expensive, publicly-funded tourist trap is the last thing we need here.

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chudexs said...

A fascinating paper.
I love reading your writing
I got a lot of input
thanks and encouragement to keep writing.

Anonymous said...

I agree, and I would have to say that a tampa-orlando line would be just too short. I believe that they should take a tight turn to jacksonville, and then So. Carolina.