New Mexico is not getting High Speed Rail, at least not soon!

Last week I wrote about my appearance on Channel 4’s News on the topic of “high-speed rail.” Of course, when government officials discuss rail in a “high-speed” context, some inevitably get stars in their eyes and believe that this means 150 mph or more.

Blogger Heath Haussamen makes this mistake in his weekly blog roundup when he writes that 2 hours to Denver would be “cool.” He’s actually citing a post by the Santa Fe Reeper blog which fantasizes about actual high speed rail to Denver which is being advocated by a special interest, but is not even remotely on the table policy-wise because it would be ridiculously expensive.

The reality is that Denver and Albuquerque are 450 miles apart. Even running at the Reeper’s fantasy speed of 200 mph, trains won’t go from ABQ to Denver in 2 hours. At 110 mph, the speed
proposed by President Obama, Governor Richardson, and Sen. Udall, a train trip from Albuquerque to Denver would take at least 5 or 6 hours.

Rail advocates can dream about 200 mph rail in New Mexico if they want to, but if Obama had any brains at all, he’d focus resources on increasing speeds on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, an area with far greater population density than New Mexico and Colorado, yet the Acela only gets up to 150 mph, it’s top speed, for a few miles of its trip between Washington, DC and Boston.

The RailRunner is already enough of a boondoggle. Can’t we stop wasting our money with that?

High Speed Rail: Another Boondoggle for New Mexico?

Governor Richardson and Sen. Tom Udall held a press conference today to discuss efforts to bring “high speed rail” to New Mexico. According to the two of them, “New Mexico, Colorado and Texas could receive up to $5 million from the Federal Railroad Administration under the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 to study the viability of the El Paso to Denver High-Speed Rail Corridor.” Watch the 6pm news on Channel 4 as I was interviewed on the high speed rail issue earlier today.

While using taxpayer money to study these issues is minor in the scope of the overall federal budget, the Rio Grande Foundation has produced a study on the issue that throws cold water on the idea of high speed rail. The release is available here and the full paper can be found here.

As author Randal O’Toole points out in the study:

The administration’s proposed high-speed rail plan will cost $1,000 for every federal income taxpayer, yet the average American will ride high-speed trains less than 60 miles a year, says a new report from the Rio Grande Foundation. The report says that the average New Mexico resident will rarely use high-speed trains.

The federal government is proposing to build true high-speed rail lines—with trains going faster than 120 miles per hour—only in California and Florida. In most of the rest of the country, it is merely proposing to upgrade existing freight tracks to boost top Amtrak speeds from 79 to 110 mph.

Trains with a top speed of 110 mph will have average speeds of just 55 to 75 mph. Not only will that attract few people out of their cars, says the report, such trains will actually be less energy efficient and more polluting than driving.

The federal government left New Mexico out of its plans entirely. But New Mexico’s share of local proposals for moderate-speed trains Albuquerque to Denver are likely to cost $400 for every New Mexico resident—and true high-speed trains would cost at least $7,500 for every New Mexican.

Seems like we could save that $5 million and use it for something a bit more useful than another study, but if the study is done honestly, it will likely show that the costs of moderately high speed rail far outweigh the benefits.

Denver’s Streetcar/Light Rail Horror Story

There are so many stories out there about rail systems that over-promise, under-deliver, and go way over budget. Denver is one major city that unwisely passed major tax hikes (with voter approval) to pay for a train system. In that city’s case, the train is called FasTracks. Unfortunately, although not unpredictably, as was written up recently in the Denver Post, the system is costing way more to build than originally anticipated — or at least what the politicians were willing to tell the voters to get the system approved.
According to the article:

Voters approved a $4.7 billion FasTracks plan in 2004, agreeing to pay an additional 0.4 percent sales tax for RTD to build 119 miles of rail throughout the metro area by 2017. RTD says it needs an additional 0.4 percent sales tax — which would bring its total to 1.4 percent.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, unrealistic assumptions were integral to getting voter approval:

RTD used relatively aggressive projections for long-term growth of sales-tax revenues in its 2004 FasTracks plan. Lower revenue forecasts might have forced RTD to scale back the project or seek a bigger tax increase, hurting its chances at the polls. The Post found that RTD’s revenue growth projections were among the highest of eight transit and planning agencies in the West and Midwest. Only planners in Phoenix used a higher average long-term growth projection.

Thankfully, at least to date, Albuquerque has not followed Denver to streetcar hell. Hopefully stories from Denver deter politicians and voters alike from going down the same track.
HT: Harold Morgan

John Charles Presentation now available online

Recently, John Charles visited Albuquerque and presented on the drawbacks of Portland’s transportation and land use model. His powerpoint presentation is available here. As if to validate the timeliness of this presentation and the fact that many policymakers consider Portland to be the model for the rest of America, columnist George Will, writing in Newsweek recently, discussed Obama’s transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the Administration’s emphasis on Portland-style rail and land-use planning.
Will writes, in a passage that backs-up Charles’ belief that the Portland model is really about controlling the rest of us:

For many generations—before automobiles were common, but trolleys ran to the edges of towns—Americans by the scores of millions have been happily trading distance for space, living farther from their jobs in order to enjoy ample backyards and other aspects of low-density living. And long before climate change became another excuse for disparaging America’s “automobile culture,” many liberal intellectuals were bothered by the automobile. It subverted their agenda of expanding government—meaning their—supervision of other people’s lives. Drivers moving around where and when they please? Without government supervision? Depriving themselves and others of communitarian moments on mass transit? No good could come of this.

Hopefully, Albuquerque residents will keep Will and Charles’ admonitions in mind when they head to the polls in the city election this October.

MRCOG: Moving in the right direction?

In today’s Albuquerque Journal, I was rather perplexed to see the headline ‘Light Rail’ on rubber about the latest efforts by our friends at MRCOG to put more Albuquerque-area residents into transit while removing them from their cars. My first thought was “They just won’t leave this trolley issue alone!”
Then I read the story and found out that what is really being discussed is something called Bus Rapid Transit. Done right, bus rapid transit can be a much more cost-effective way to move people than rail systems such as the Mayor’s streetcar or even the Rail Runner. In fact, I suggested bus rapid transit as an alternative to the Rail Runner, but Lawrence Rael downplayed it as a solution.
The fact is that we already have a form of bus rapid transit in Albuquerque — the Rapid Ride bus. Before we close off any road lanes to use them for buses only, careful studies need to be done about potential ridership, a cost-benefit analysis, and whether simply allowing the buses to alter red light timing might be more effective. Nonetheless, at least it is a step in the right direction.

High Speed Rail: Another Obama Boondoggle

We at the Rio Grande Foundation have been harshly critical of both the Albuquerque Streetcar and the Rail Runner. It is not because we have an irrational hatred for trains, rather it is the burdens these projects place on taxpayers. After all, while roads and airlines are largely self-sufficient (and I’d be happy to see government cut them free to become even more-so) trains are incredibly expensive.
President Obama’s plan to spend at least $5 billion to subsidize a high-speed rail network is the latest example of a politician who has fallen in love with the lure of taxpayer-subsidies for passenger rail. Like the RailRunner (but on a larger and more expensive scale because it is supposed to operate at higher speeds) Obama’s plan will prove to be a wasteful and costly boondoggle.
Obama’s high-speed rail plan is actually nothing new. In fact, back in 2001 when I worked for the National Taxpayers Union, I critiqued a plan put forth by then-Chairman of the House Transportation Committee, (a Republican) Don Young to spend $71 billion to build a nationwide high speed rail network.
Thankfully, Obama’s plan is scaled back relative to Young’s, but the massive $787 billion “stimulus” passed earlier this year actually put the plan into motion.

The Streetcar that Won’t Die

Back in 2006, the Albuquerque City Council tried to pull a fast one on the voters by passing a streetcar system into law on the night before a big Congressional election. While there has been no public push for the streetcar since then on the part of elected officials, Councilor Isaac Benton has not let the project die and he has worked to promote it within his 21st Century Task Force. There are of course many property owners downtown and rail buffs out there who have kept a candle alive in hopes of bringing the streetcar back once the upcoming Mayoral election is over and the economy recovers.
So, when this article in support of the streetcar appeared in the Journal, I took notice. The article was written by J.W. Madison, the Founder, Rails Inc. an organization with some ambitious goals for 2012, including “regular rail service from Raton to Las Cruces and 50% of our electricity (being) renewably generated, especially from wind and solar.” I’m not exactly sure what the latter goal has to do with promoting rail service in New Mexico, but I digress.
Anyway, I couldn’t allow Madison’s assertions to go unanswered, so I wrote this column which appeared in the paper this morning.