What Fresh Hell Is This?

February 20, 2011

Jack Kelly Sunday

This week in his Post-Gazette column, Jack Kelly goes after high speed rail. More specifically, this paragraph in President Obama's State of the Union Address:
Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail. (Applause.) This could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying –- without the pat-down. (Laughter and applause.) As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway. [Note: The descriptions of audience reaction are found in the original.]
Jack, as usual, spins the numbers just enough to make his argument almost completely detached from reality.

As context, the president's high speed rail plan is intended for more than just quicker, cheaper travel times. Here's Obama a few paragraphs prior:
We have to do better. America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, constructed the Interstate Highway System. The jobs created by these projects didn’t just come from laying down track or pavement. They came from businesses that opened near a town’s new train station or the new off-ramp.

So over the last two years, we’ve begun rebuilding for the 21st century, a project that has meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry. And tonight, I’m proposing that we redouble those efforts. (Applause.)

We’ll put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We’ll make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment, and pick projects based [on] what’s best for the economy, not politicians. [Again, audience reaction is from the original]
But Jack avoids any discussion of the jobs created (either directly or indirectly) from the plan. Why should he when he can compare apples and (pictures of) oranges? For example:
Fares on Amtrak's Acela train average 75 cents per passenger mile, compared to about 15 cents for intercity driving and 13 cents for flying, Randal O'Toole of the Cato Institute wrote at National Review Online.

"New York to Washington tickets on the Acela start at $139," Mr. O'Toole noted. "JetBlue starts at $39 and Megabus averages less than $15."
Note the examples used. Acela is the high speed business and first class express route from Boston to DC. Jet Blue, on the other hand, is a low cost airline and Megabus is a low cost express bus service. Hmm...first class/business class train travel vs low cost jet/bus travel. That'll skew the numbers, doncha think?

On a tangent, I loved reading this part:
High-speed rail, said Mr. Obama, "could allow you to go places in half the time it takes to travel by car."

We should take with a grain of salt such claims from the guy who told us Obamacare would cut health care costs.
This from the guy who thought that Weather Underground guy Bill Ayers ghost-wrote "Dreams of My Father" and that Van Jones was a communist who was arrested in LA during the Rodney King riots. The misinformation in the Van Jones column was so egregious that the P-G pulled it from their website within a few days.

You're welcome.

So I am not sure Jack Kelly should be throwing around the "grain of salt" metaphor. There ain't enough salt in the ocean for that when you actually look at his columns.

And what should we make of this sentence?
I read somewhere that Denver International Airport covers more land than would be required to build a rail line from Alaska to Miami.
Curious that Jack couldn't track down the source of that line, given his research skills in the rest of the column.

Luckily I could track it down. And one minute of reading will tell you why Jack didn't reference it. It's a column from 2002 in favor of maglev rail service. And here's the paragraph Jack remembered:
If we don't build a high-speed ground alternative, we'll have to spend more money on highways and airports. Such renovations and additions are costing a bundle in some of the nation's largest cities. Renovations to JFK airport in New York cost close to $10 billion. A planned renovation of Los Angeles International Airport is expected to double that. And we're simply running out of space in which to put airports and highways. The Denver airport alone occupies more land than it would take to build a rail line from central Alaska to Miami. [emphasis added]
So I am not really seeing the relevance. Do you?

Or of the entire column. Do you?

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Davoe makes an important point regarding the "comparison" between top-drawer transportation choices and barebones cheap, but that's not all that's wrong here. Kelly (or rather, the Cato relict that he quotes) has to massage the figures to come up with the 75c per mile "average" cost of Acela travel between Washington and NYC. In any case, a trip on the regular Northeast Regional trains, which (true) takes 40 minutes longer than Acela, costs $76 (full fare; there are many discounts available), which comes to 32c a mile. And as for the actual driving costs, the IRS allows 55c per mile (down from 58.5c) for business deductions. That doesn't include tolls, of course. And you can WORK on a train (billable hours!) or rest or have a snack or a drink.

Bus is a non-starter for anyone except for those for whom ticket price is the only consideration. When Amtrak came into existence, something like 3/4 of rail service in the USA disappeared. Nothing whatever happened to bus ridership. Not even a temporary uptick. (Not all passenger rail routes that disappeared were poorly patronized: the government arbitrarily limited the original Amtrak system to 20 terminal points.)

According to Messrs Cato and Kelly's thought experiments, Acela trains should be empty, or else populated entirely by the brain-dead. That doesn't speak well for the prosperous-looking business types who make up most of the Acela ridership, now, does it? What do they know that Cato and his followers don't?