Truth vs. Truthiness on Prop 1A
I’ve been regretting not having the time to write a thorough deconstruction of the Cox-Vranich HSR denier report. But the nice thing about high speed rail is that we have a genuine popular movement behind it. This blog is a part of that movement; whether we’re a significant part or not I leave for you to decide. For example, this blog isn’t just about me and what I choose to write about – we have some of the best and brightest commenters I’ve ever seen on a blog. They raise the level of discussion and provide the most complete insight on California’s HSR project anywhere online.
One of our commenters, “mike”, offered an excellent takedown of the HSR denier study in the comments to Thursday’s post. I’m reproducing it here on the main page in its entirety, because “mike” does an excellent job of exposing what Stephen Colbert so memorably called truthiness – if something feels true, it is true, even if the facts don’t support it at all. The Cox-Vranich study is a classic example of truthiness – it confirms the beliefs of those who already hated HSR, even though even a cursory glance shows its basic arguments to be unusually flawed.
Without further ado, here’s “mike”:
Robert & others:
Intellectual garbage collection is dirty work, but someone has to do it. Here is an analysis of the important points stressed by the Cox-Vranich (C-V) report:
C-V’s ridership figures are wildly inaccurate. Using C-V’s preferred measure, JR Central reported 2007 ridership of 80 million passenger km per Shinkansen route km (44.5 billion passenger km / 552 km route). In the “high” scenario, CA HSRA is forecasting roughly 27 million passenger km per HSR route km (30 billion passenger km / 1,120 km route). So C-V’s claim that CA HSRA is using numbers higher than those achieved on any other system in the world is absurdly false – in fact, CA HSRA’s numbers are only 1/3rd of what has been previously achieved.
JR Central’s Shinkansen is the densest ridership in the world. A more informative comparison would be the TGV or the new Taiwan HSR (THSR). We don’t have passenger-km ridership for those lines, but we can compute passengers per route-km. The TGV Paris Southeast (PSE) line gets 45k passengers per route-km (20 million pax / 448 route-km) while the THSR gets 101k passengers per route-km (34 million pax / 335 route-km). CA HSR is forecasting a high of 80k passengers per route-km in 2030, or around 56k passengers per route-km at today’s populations. This is slightly above TGV PSE but well below THSR. It does not seem unreasonable since the LA Metro Area is larger than Paris Metro Area or the Taipei Metro Area. And more importantly, the SF Bay Area is twice as large as the Kaoshiung Metro Area and four times as large as the Lyon Metro Area.
C-V project an expected cost overrun of 33%. IMO, this is the most reasonable part of their report. There is some non-zero probability that this could happen. In contrast, their other claims are laughably inaccurate. That said, cost overruns are a potential flaw of any infrastructure project, so if they want to make their argument based on cost overruns then they have to oppose virtually all public infrastructure projects (which, being associated with the Reason Foundation, they might, though Wendall Cox does seem to love building highways).
[Note from Robert: I agree, though I think we are also right to insist that cost overruns be discussed with respect to reason and evidence. C-V treat them like some inexorable law of physics, which is nonsense.]
C-V claim that operating costs will be 4.8 cents/seat mile rather than the 3.5 cents/seat mile. This sounds troubling until you consider that the operating costs for US airlines are 11.9 cents/seat mile (April 2008), and on the short California routes they will be closer to 14-15 cents seat/mile. AAA estimates average car or truck operating costs at 17-24 cents/mile (sedan is lowest, SUV is highest) So even using C-V’s own figures, HSR can undercut airlines by 65%! More likely, HSR would undercut airlines by, say, 35% and then give the additional 30% back to the state (or, in the first couple decades, use it for system expansion).
Cost of Alternatives:
C-V get really outlandish here. They use an average cost of $6 million/lane mile for highway widening projects despite the fact that most recent Caltrans highway widening projects have averaged around $20-40 million/lane mile. More incredibly, they use an average cost of only $33 million/lane mile for a new Bay Bridge despite the fact that the current one (which should be much cheaper than a future one, given their argument about escalating costs) cost $260 million/lane mile!! CA HSRA’s cost projections are not going to be exact, but they will never be anywhere as wildly inaccurate as C-V.
C-V claim that CA HSR will divert a total amount of highway traffic equivalent to only 175 lane-miles of capacity. This claim does not pass the laugh test. Using C-V’s own (very low) ridership estimates, HSR will carry at least 35-46 million passenger-miles per weekday. 175 lane-miles of highway capacity is only sufficient to transport 4-5 million vehicle miles travelled per day, so by C-V’s own calculations only about 1 in 10 HSR riders will be a road-diverted driver. They also claim that HSR will have limited success in capturing airline passengers, so fully 80% or more of the passengers in their ridership forecasts are induced demand! This is an incredible result that no reasonable economic model could generate. It also strengthens the case for HSR, rather than weakening it, because induced demand is better than demand captured from other modes. If HSR steals people from highways or airplanes, all that we can conclude is that it provides a product that is at least as good as those modes. But if HSR induces new travel, we can conclude that it is providing a product that is far superior to those modes, since people who before refused to use either air or highways are now being induced to travel by the new superior modal option.
Composition of Passengers:
C-V complain that CA HSRA’s ridership numbers are over-optimistic because almost no one will ever choose HSR over driving for shorter, commuter-like trips (under 100 miles). At the same time, they claim that the low-speed Northeast Corridor is instructive for projecting what CA HSR ridership might look like. The NEC serves around 10 million long-distance intercity riders per year and 60 million shorter-distance, commuter riders per year. Thus the ratio of short-distance to long-distance riders is 6:1. Even if we omit Metro North’s New Haven line, the NEC still serves over 30 million shorter-distance riders per year (ratio of 3:1). C-V’s claim that shorter-distance riders will comprise only a trivial fraction of HSR riders is thus completely refuted by the NEC data that they themselves argue should be instructive.
In summation, given the horrible factual inaccuracies of the report (so bad that some of them must be intentional), I agree that going forward it is sufficient to dismiss anything from the Reason Foundation or these authors by simply noting that their track record on telling the truth is abysmal.
At the same, the fact that even under Cox and Vranich’s own figures, HSR has a cost advantage of around 3:1 vis a vis airlines and 4:1 vis a vis cars should give us a great deal of confidence in its ability to successfully attract ridership and generate a substantial operating profit.