Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Government vanity projects … Glory to the leader, misery for you and me.

The world is littered with vanity projects intended more to glorify the government in power than serve the needs of its citizens. The extravagant waste by the Chinese government, spending tens of billions of dollars in Shanghai for last year’s Olympics, is a prime example of this. Now many of the gleaming new office buildings stand nearly vacant and many of the Olympic structures ill suited for further use.

But worse than where the money was spent, is where it wasn’t. Three months before the Olympics in Sichuan province, tens of thousands died in government built substandard school buildings that collapsed from the 8.0 earthquake. The road and transportation infrastructure was so bad and fragile there was simply no way to get rescue workers to the sites where they were needed and when they were needed. Years of government indifference to funding structurally sound schools led to a needless loss of life. A comparable 8.0 earthquake in 2003 on Hokkaido Island, Japan killed only one and that was a person hit by a car while cleaning up rubble.

In Europe, another vanity project is the A380 Airbus, the largest commercial airliner ever built. Double the size of its more fuel efficient (per seat mile) rival, the Boeing 787, it trades away frequency for capacity, an advantage at slot limited airports. Only problem, with air travel in a funk, slots are now less of a problem. Airlines operating smaller, but equally efficient equipment have the flexibility to fly either two flights at advantageous times or cut back to a single flight depending on market conditions. And the market agrees with the small/frequent strategy. Airbus, which originally planned to produce 26 monster A380s in 2009, has now cut its current production rate of 18 to 14 because of order deferrals by the airlines. And French and German taxpayers will have to pick up the tab for Airbus's losses.

But the biggest vanity project of all is high speed rail. None of the European or Asian lines comes close to breaking even financially. All are money losers. Even worse, all needed new rights of way, as will ours, for gentler turns the high speeds require. High speed tracks can not be shared with freight to reduce costs because of speed incompatibility. For safety reasons there can be no grade crossings, all lines must be bridged over or tunneled under. Starting from scratch, condemning property for right of way through eminent domain in already developed urban and suburban countryside will give NIMBY new meaning. And you can’t zig zag with high-speed rail as you can with highways to avoid an expensive or politically sensitive obstacle.

Other political hurdles include where and how many stops there will be on a run. Each stop adds about 6 or 7 minutes a trip, 1 to 2 minutes for the stop and the balance for acceleration and deceleration. When the Pennsy first operated Metroliners (the first fast rail in the eastern corridor) they wanted non-stop service to compete with the highly successful Eastern Airlines Shuttle between Washington and New York. The target was two and a half hours for the 225 mile trip. But union requirements for two crew changes, one in Philadelphia and another to run the last 15 miles from Newark to the City, as well as the threat by Maryland to mandate onerous “full crew” laws if they bypassed Baltimore, added about 15-20 minutes to the trip.

The proposed Florida High Speed Rail System ran into similar problems before it was mercifully killed by referendum. The proposed line was to run from the Tampa Airport to the Miami Airport with 5 intermediate stops along the way. Two were planned for Orlando, one at the “attractions” and the other at the airport. Big problem: the “attractions” stop turned out to be Disney World which freaked out the other “attractions.” So the typical political solution was imposed: add a third and needless stop in Orlando and lose another 6 to 7 minutes.

An analysis of the original Florida constitutional amendment that mandated the rail system points up the horrendous costs and losses involved. And these are in year 2000 dollars and prices.

[I]nternationally renowned public policy consultant and transportation expert Wendell Cox has released eye-opening costs and data regarding Amendment Initiative No.1, which Florida voters will decide on Nov. 7,[2000]. According to the report, the estimated cost to construct a high-speed rail system connecting the state's five largest metropolitan areas would be between $8.2 billion and $21.9 billion; take 20 years to complete; and cost Florida between $617 million and $1.6 billion in annual deficits once in operation.

High speed rail would realistically take around of 3 hours for the 320 miles of Tampa to Miami with 6 intermediate stops, bridge slowdowns and urban area speed limits using 150 mph trains. By comparison, there are frequent airline flights, providing slightly over one hour service, which would beat the train by about two hours to the precisely the same destination (the airport). Planes beat trains hands down. They pay their own way through gate fees, fuel taxes and landing fees to cover airport facilities and the Air Traffic Control system. Security costs are covered by ticket surcharges. And the planes and crews are paid for by the airlines. Not so with trains. And if you think trains operate on time, you haven’t traveled Amtrak lately.

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