A High-Speed Fantasy

From Smart Planet, Melissa Mahoney provides a glimpse into the fantasy world of "green" journalism with her article, "Obama's $50B infrastructure plan: what it means for rail."

In it, she reports:

President Obama announced plans yesterday in Milwaukee for overhauling the country's transportation infrastructure, to the tune of $50 billion. In addition to rebuilding 150,000 miles of the nation's roadways and refurbishing 150 miles of airport runways over the next six years, the Obama Administration laid plans to construct 4,000 miles of railroad lines. Hopefully, much of this track will carry faster trains.

After a year and a half, still clinging to that hope thing?

Peddling standard green fare, and parroting the newest administration canards, the author departs planet Gaia for a little high-speed fantasy adventure.

Fantasy #1. All this, for only $50 billion.

Sweet! Well...no, not really. From Transport Topics:

The White House did not offer a price tag for the full measure or say how many jobs it would create, but if Congress just reauthorized the expired transportation bill, the new measure would cost about $350 billion over the next six years, the [New York] Times said.

Fantasy #2. More jobs, and we'll get to them faster, to boot!

After spending upwards of $8 billion from Recovery Act funds on the high-speed rail endeavor, the Administration hopes the trains will escort commuters to their jobs faster, as well as create jobs for Americans to go to.

Who can argue with such a vision? But as Robert Samuelson wrote just over a year ago, "There's only one catch: The vision is a mirage."

President Obama's network may never be built. It's doubtful private investors will advance the money, and once government officials acknowledge the full costs, they'll retreat. In a recent report, the Government Accountability Office cited a range of construction costs, from $22 million a mile to $132 million a mile. Harvard economist Edward Glaeser figures $50 million a mile might be a plausible average. A 250-mile system would cost $12.5 billion and 10 systems, $125 billion.

Fantasy #3. New DOT manufacturing standards will actually lower costs.

A uniform standard creates a level playing field and economies of scale based on a common set of designs and technical requirements... Further, maintenance and repair costs will be lower because of lower parts acquisition costs.

When have additional government codes and standards ever lowered costs? Right...and I have some hammers to sell the Pentagon. And although slightly exaggerated, as the Washington Monthly reported regarding the legendary $435 hammer, it's "a good bet we paid too much for it," since "it's easier for contractors to overstate support costs."

Now correct me if I'm wrong, but "overstate support costs" sounds like the opposite of "lower parts acquisition costs". And although comparing different projects from different departments in different times, it still serves to illustrate the point: things are never less costly when government is involved.

Fantasy #4. Full speed ahead!

Despite some political and local community speed bumps, by 2015 high-speed trains may be gliding on rails between San Francisco and Los Angeles in California and Tampa and Orlando in Florida by 2015.

Those speed bumps might be looking a bit more like the Rockies. As the Economist states, "Cash-strapped American states are balking at the prospect of having to pay some of the costs of new high-speed rail development. "

Fantasy #5. This will not add to our national debt.

The administration said it would work with Congress to find ways to pay for the plan so that it would not add to the nation's rising deficit.

Truly? Honestly? More Kool-Aid? (Oh, and see Fantasies 1-4 above.)


As for the rest of Obama's infrastructure initiative, it may have a slow time getting passed by Congress this fall.

Welcome back to planet Earth!