The fight for infrastructure bragging rights: with bipartisan stimulous perhaps?

Submitted by Lee Batdorff on Mon, 02/22/2010 - 02:58.

With relief I read in a recent Plain Dealer article (1) that Ohio Senate President Bill Harris may lead Republican legislators to skotch the $400 million slow train across Ohio. Mind you, one of the many things we need  in the U.S. to be competitive with the rest of the “advanced” world are fast passenger trains, with reduced carbon footprints, racing between major cities less than 400 miles apart.

When Governor Ted Strickland jumped on this 39-miles-per hour average speed train to provide claimed to be effective transportation between the big three Ohio towns, I felt sorry for him, all of us in Ohio, and the nation. I felt embarassed to have voted for Strickland.

He listened to only one side of the argument for passenger rail in Ohio. This apparently is to gain political advantage by linking the 3-Cs. Our governor apparently did not make sense of the fact that 39-mph average speed is not going to draw the number of passengers necessary to make this proposal work.

Strickland is right: The 3-C proposal, as currently configured, has cross-state political appeal in that it connects Ohio's three big cities: Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. However this case alone does not make it an effective thing to do.

Just who is Strickland speaking about when he, according to the PD, whined that rail detractors are "cheerleaders for failure”? (1)

Strickland and Obama said it: believe lousy math

The political risk in Ohio for Strickland and Obama is giant by the simple lousy math of it: Where is $17 million annually going to come from to operate this slow train competing with automobile travel that usually operates long distance at speeds of 60 plus? Why pump $400 million into infrastructure spending that has a large possibility for failure when there are so many other urgent infrastructure maintenance and replacement needs?

With many services provided by the State of Ohio being cut and all federal, state and local taxes under attack, (by the great recession, by Republicans, and by the Internet), another $17 million in real money proposed to come from Ohioans for something this derailed-- is obviously dangerous stuff for any politician supporting such a plan.

Millions bled annually from Ohioans, and $400 million in Federal tax dollars (with interest) squandered on rail transportation with an average speed closer to that of a zoo train than geniune high speed rail, will make Strickland, Ohio Democrats, and national Democrats--headed for rabbit stew.

Buyer beware! What is high-speed rail?

Successful high speed rail depends disproportinatly on one thing to be effective in the market place. This is to provide regular, fast and dependable passenger links between dense activity centers, such as downtown-to-downtown of major metro areas. To work, this service must be substantially faster than driving an automobile between these two locales.  High speed rail is being done very effectively at 150-mph plus speeds in several nations in Europe and Asia that the U.S. is competing economically with. There is 100-mph-plus service between Boston, New York City, Philedephia, Baltimore and Washington on the U.S. Eastern seaboard. Apparently no one briefed Obama and Strickland in High Speed Rail 101.

While Flordia is funded a fast train, in Ohio tradition rules (3)

Why build a slow train in Ohio while our nation's competitors are already well into the future of fast train travel? Apparently, tradition.

A PD story quotes Ken Prendergast, executive director of All Aboard Ohio, a non-profit organization that promotes rail travel saying: “all states that received funding for high-speed rail have spent years, if not decades, building their conventional-speed train service.“ (1)

"No high-speed service was ever built without a conventional speed precedent," he said.

With all due respect to the decades of volunteer work Prendergast and his colleagues have put into 3-C: A 39-miles-per-hour average speed is hardly conventional for successful  inter-city passenger rail. This has probably been true since late in the 19th century.

A visionary Democrat: Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur

Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur Democrat of Toledo apparently is one Democrat gaming to not get bit by this situation.

"Why are we bothering with something that's low-tech?" asked congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, in an interview with The Plain Dealer. (2)

This Plain Dealer story continued: Kaptur, whose seat on the House Appropriations Committee normally gives her influence over transportation spending, had hoped the state would apply for federal stimulus money to turn the existing Amtrak line between Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Toledo and Chicago into a bullet-train corridor.

As a supporter of high-speed rail I agree with Congresswoman Kaptur.

End our denial over infrastructure needs with bipartican stimulous in Ohio

However I wonder about the validity of high-speed rail in a nation of urgent  infrastruture needs of all kinds. I'm concerned about the validity of our city centers themselves. Some parts of Cleveland look like scenes from Life After People on the History Channel. When you get off the high speed train there better be at your arrival something other than streets with water line burst sink holes and neighborhoods with exploding abandonded homes. (4)

What could $400 Million in stimulous do toward helping with urgent infrastructure needs in Ohio? Can Obama and Strickland and some Ohio congressional Republicans turn on a dime, and put this “transportation” money to more urgent needs, at their political gain? (Some congressional Republicans appear to have an love-hate thing going with Obama. While they denounce him for promoting the Federal stimulous dollars which some Republicans then have turned around and scooped up for their home districts to their political gain. (5))

While many billions of dollars have been invested in maintaining and upgrading our sanitary infrastructure in recent decades, (and there are large drops in pollution to show for it), there is much more to do. This is especially true in older cities, large and small, that need replacement sewers and water lines. Then there are our crumbling roads and dangerous bridges. The troubled infrastructure list is extensive. And where most of the instrustructure repair action is, in older areas, are were stimulous jobs are much needed.

In the U.S., in this economy, what is the most important factor for picking infrastructure to finance?

The needs listed above sound ripe for bipartisan stimulous. There are more sexy needs too. Provide reasonably priced broadband access in Ohio's rural areas that need it. Improve and smarten the electrical grid to make better use of power, better resist black outs, hook up wind turbines and provide competitive advantage for our region on an international level.

The way things are now politically in the U.S., and Ohio—none of these are going to happen. Why? There is not enough sex appeal to the life-and-death infrastructure needs. As a species, in Ohio, some of us depend on the sex appeal of faux high speed rail!

If this nation does not find its way to better address urgent, (and real), needs with the $400 million of etheral Federal dollars, I'd settle for a two-way Megabus route, (they've got wifi),  morning, noon and night linking the downtowns of the 3-C cities; plus the $400 million being invested in upgrading the current Cleveland-Pittsburgh Amtrak passenger service providing real, frequent, high-speed rail with an average speed in excess of 150-miles-per-hour.  The distance between Cleveland and Pittsburg is about 125 miles, similar to the mileage between Cleveland and Columbus, except that Cleveland and Pittsburg metro areas are both substantially bigger than Columbus, providing more potentenal market for this highly specialize service.  And, this could be the first link of the long-proposed Midwest Chicago-Pittsburg high-speed rail link, (6). Considering that about A Pitt-Cle link, (with one stop in Youngstown), of 150 mph-plus double track could be build to the tune of about a probable $2-2.5 billion in current dollars, (much of it in etheral Federal dollars).

Hopefully with such speed between our cities, we can truly compete with European and Asia passenger rail—for international bragging rights, along with having rotting sewers.

Notes:

(1)-Republican skeptics may block Ohio 3-C passenger train plan, Plain Dealer, Feb. 19, 2010,
http://www.cleveland.com/open/index.ssf/2010/02/republican_skeptics_may_block/3113/comments-4.html

(2)-Ohioans wonder whether new rail line will be too slow, underutilized, Plain Dealer, Feb. 6, 2010,
http://www.cleveland.com/open/index.ssf/2010/02/ohioans_wonder_whether_new_rai.html

(3)-Flordia High Speed Rail, Wikipedia, htttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florida_High_Speed_Rail

(4)-Man accused of causing West Side explosion arraigned on arson charge, Plain Dealer, Feb. 5, 2010,
http://blog.cleveland.com/metro/2010/02/man_accused_of_causing_west_si.html

(5)-Democrats Target Stimulus Critics Who Sought Funds; Some Republicans Who Slammed $787 Billion Program Also Sought Funds for Projects in Their Districts, Letters Show, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 16, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703562404575067372476731404.html

(6)-Midwest High Speed Rail Association,
http://www.midwesthsr.org/network/index.html

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Pittsburgh Cleveland rail access

I'd settle for a two-way Megabus route, (they've got wifi),  morning, noon and night linking the downtowns of the 3-C cities; plus the $400 million being invested in upgrading the current Cleveland-Pittsburgh Amtrak passenger service providing real, frequent, high-speed rail with an average speed in excess of 150-miles-per-hour. 

Now we're talking---I would agree with your above statement entirely--no offense to Columbus and Cincinnati, but a Megabus would suffice.  And, a high-speed train to Pittsburgh?  Well, that would be the bomb.  Pittsburgh has achieved so much more in the way of historic preservation than Cleveland.  Plus the same route leads to the Westmoreland Museum in Greensburg, PA--possibly the best small town museum in America.

Thank you Lee for this thought-provoking post!

What could $400 Million in

What could $400 Million in stimulous do toward helping with urgent infrastructure needs in Ohio? Can Obama and Strickland and some Ohio congressional Republicans turn on a dime, and put this “transportation” money to more urgent needs, at their political gain?

Isn't the $400M part of a $8B high-speed rail appropriation? In other words, the $400M can't be used for non-rail purposes, even if those purposes make more sense.

Apart from that, I agree with much of what you're written. A 39-mph train from Cleveland to Cincinnati is, to put it bluntly, a dumb idea.

Where is the OH in Fed stimulous package?

Dear Differentpointofview:

Thank you for your point that the Feds can't simply convert $400 million in transportation funding to other uses. I was thinking more on the line of with-holding this money and in turn provide other infrastructure spending on urgent needs.

This or placing the $400 million in transportation money into the initial phase of building the Chicago-Pittsburgh (with  stops in Cleveland, Youngstown and Toledo) High Speed Rail line. Because, at approximately 130 highway miles between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, these are the closest two major cities along the proposed Midwest High Speed Rail route, (Cleveland and Chicago are over 300 miles apart) (1). It probably would require less infrastructure construction to provide the Pitt-Cle service than Cle-Chi service. To demonstrate to citizens that this is both possible, and for international economic appeal (to draw jobs), necessary, why the inner-city service must be built.

This first link would also eventually be connected to the proposed Keystone Corridor High Speed Rail service in Pennsylvania linking to high speed rail lines on the Eastern Seaboard (2) as well as high speed service to Chicago.

One would have to be very creative to spend only $400 million to build a high speed rail service that is quickly useful, so citizens see something useful coming from their money as quickly as possible. How can we get the most speed for the buck in a way that demonstrates that infrastructure spending must continue in high speed rail over the next two decades, and still spend only $400 million?

Of course, if the cities being linked by such service are falling apart due to lack of maintenance of unsexy sewers etc. then what good is High Speed Rail?

Also, Ohio apparently has missed  special attention taken toward forclosed homes here that Obama has given five other states (3).

It is time for Obama to provide funds toward a project or projects meeting well-thought-out real needs that serve as an initial step on long term infrastructure improvement which is important, unlike a superfluous slow train across Ohio.

Midwest High Speed Rail Association
http://www.midwesthsr.org/network/index.html

Keystone Corridor (Pittsburgh-Philadelphia) High Speed Rail
http://www.fra.dot.gov/Pages/652.shtml

Feds defend Ohio's exclusion from foreclosure relief program - Plain Dealer, February 26, 2010
http://videos.cleveland.com/plain-dealer/2010/02/feds_defend_ohios_exclusion_fr.html

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Undemocratic China pulling ahead of of democratic USA

While the U.S. wallows in political infighting of democracy, China's undemocratic leadership has determined what industries to dominate in the 21st Century and are making the necessary investment to build these industries. One of these industries is high speed rail for both passengers and freight. The Chinese have developed the technical abilities to build the trains and the rail system that they can export to places like the USA.

Obama should focus high-speed rail investment on Acela, New York Times, by Christian Wolmar,
March 8, 2010
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/08/opinion/08wolmar.html

China Sees Growth Engine in a Web of Fast Trains, New York Times, by Keith Bradshere,
February 12, 2010
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/13/business/global/13rail.html