Sunday, January 17, 2010

The rise of the Lilliputians … the decline of America

China just completed the world’s fastest high speed rail line, a 664 mile stretch between Wuhan in central China to Guangzhou, north of Hong Kong. The significant fact is not that it is the fastest rail link (217 mph average), but that it was built in less than four years.

If we were to commit the resources to a similar effort, we wouldn’t have completed the environmental impact statement much less resolved the innumerable lawsuits in the same amount of time. The Lilliputians have simply immobilized us. Lest anyone think such an effort was ever beyond our capabilities, in 1869 less than four years after construction began, we completed the 1,775 mile long transcontinental railroad, a great deal of it through mountains and hostile territory. Ironically much of the work done then was by Chinese laborers. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned there.

The ability of obstructionists to delay and simply add indefinitely to costs makes large projects in the US like this, almost impossible. Private corporations that must operate at a profit simply cannot afford the delay. Stretching out a project for ten or fifteen years means interest incurred at the beginning just piles up before a revenue stream can hope to pay it off. In many cases it becomes an insurmountable burden.

Such was the case in the granddaddy of all obstructionist targets, the Shoreham nuclear plant on the north shore of Long Island. Twenty-two years after it was ordered, LILCO its owner threw in the towel and admitted defeat. The state of New York and Suffolk County had dragged their feet and saddled it with so many restrictions the debt burden made the project impossible. The final straw was Governor Cuomo’s refusal to allow the emergency evacuation drill, required by the NRC. They couldn’t pass the test because they weren’t allowed to take it.

By 1989, when LILCO gave up, the cost of the plant had balooned to $5.3 billion. By comparison, across Long Island Sound in Connecticut, Millstone II a similar size nuclear plant ordered in the same year as Shoreham (1967) cost $424 million and was producing full commercial power in 1975.

On the railroad side a “high speed” (115 mph) rail link between Washington DC and Charlotte NC has been “under study” since 1992 with little or no movement. It has received some funding under the stimulus program, but no plans to build the link have been proposed.

If we are to be competitive in the world economy, we don’t have the luxury of taking twenty years to complete a four year project. History will pass us by.

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