The Future of Passenger Rail in America

On October 19, an Amtrak passenger train hit 111 mph in a test run on a 15-mile stretch of track between Dwight and Pontiac, Illinois. It was the first tangible return from a three-year $1.5 billion program of improvements funded under the Administration's high-speed rail initiative. The program hopes to shave about an hour off the 5 ½ hour rail trip between Chicago and St. Louis. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn who were aboard, called it a "historic" event. They were perhaps unaware, as Chicago SunTimes respected columnist Mark Brown pointed out, that "ten years ago, also on the eve of an election, the same Illinois Department of Transportation offered another demonstration along nearly the same stretch of track, also reaching 110 mph."

Setting this pre-election rhetoric aside, of President Obama’s vaunted HSR initiative that promised to connect 80 percent of Americans with high-speed rail, only two true high-speed rail projects remain.  They are the California SF-to-LA Bullet Train and the "Amtrak Vision for the Northeast Corridor." The future of these two projects is discussed below. A condensed version of this commentary appeared in the Wall Street Journal on September 24, 2012.


High speed trains are hardly new --- they have been crisscrossing France and Japan for over 40 years. But building a nationwide high-speed rail network in America is quite a novel idea. It originated with President Obama who, on April 16, 2009, announced a plan "to give 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed rail within the next 25 years." The program was seeded with an $8 billion grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), later supplemented with an additional $2.1 billion in general funds.

But this lofty and extravagant vision soon yielded to practical realities. One such reality is America’s demography. Unlike Western Europe and Japan, the United States, lacks an urban pattern that favors high-speed rail connections. This pattern requires large traffic generating city-pairs that are neither close enough to each other to favor travel by car nor far enough apart to favor travel by air. In Europe and Japan those distances happen to fall in the range of 200-400 miles (Think Paris-Lyon, 290 miles; or Tokyo-Nagoya, 220 miles). The only corridor in the United States that fits this description is the Northeast Corridor. No wonder, the Boston-to-Washington rail line has lately become a focus of high-speed rail planning.

Another reality is that true high-speed rail service requires a dedicated alignment reserved exclusively for passenger trains. Such is the case with the French TGV, the German ICE and the Japanese Shinkansen trains— as indeed, with any train that runs at top speeds of 150 miles per hour or higher. Having high-speed trains share a common track with lumbering freight trains as the Obama Administration has proposed to do, is to invite serious operational conflicts and safety problems. But dedicated rights-of-way for high speed trains require relatively straight and level alignments with minimal curvature. To assemble such rights-of-way in densely populated corridors where land holdings are highly fragmented, would be extremely costly and disruptive if not totally impossible.

Yet another reality is the uncertain prospect for further federal support. Such support is deemed essential for the future of the Administration’s HSR program (but not for the future of privately funded ventures such as the proposed Lone Star HSR line between Dallas and Houston). Congress, by denying White House requests for high-speed rail funds three years in a row, has sent a clear bipartisan signal that states should not count on continued congressional appropriations for high-speed rail. The lawmakers reaffirmed this intention by eliminating Title V of the Senate transportation bill (the National Rail System Preservation, Expansion and Development Act of 2012) from the final version of the surface transportation reauthorization (MAP-21). In the meantime, the $10.1 billion earmarked for high-speed rail has been fully committed.

In sum, high-speed rail advocates, promoters and dreamers need a triple reality check.

Improving Existing Rail Service

But this is not to say that nothing should be done to improve and expand existing passenger rail services, especially commuter rail lines serving major metropolitan areas. Even though such improvements will not result in significant travel time savings, they could lead to more efficient, frequent and reliable transportation service benefitting millions of daily commuters. In 2010, commuter rail systems across the country provided service to nearly 460 million riders.

Improving commuter rail services is indeed, the approach embraced by the California High Speed Rail Authority. Despite its avowed goal to link LA and San Francisco with high-speed trains, almost half of its initial $10 billion first stage of the project will be devoted to upgrading conventional transit and commuter rail services in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, the "bookends" of the high-speed rail line, e.g. through electrification of the SF-to-San Jose Caltrain and "connectivity" improvements in LA’s Metrolink.

The dollars spent on commuter rail improvements will have "an immediate and dramatic effect" according to the Authority’s chairman, Dan Richard. Will Kempton, chief executive of the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) and chairman of the Independent Peer Review Group advising the High Speed Rail Authority concurs. It will be a good investment, he said, whether or not the overall $68 billion high-speed rail project ever gets completed.

Similarly, in the Northeast Corridor where Amtrak has proposed a 30-year $151 billion capital investment program to bring true high-speed rail service between Boston and Washington DC, the initial efforts will be focused on "meaningful incremental improvements" in track, catenary and signals in the New York-to-Philadelphia corridor (the "NEC Upgrade Program"). This stretch of the line was chosen for the initial upgrade because it carries a heavy volume of local commuter traffic in addition to serving long distance trains. As in the case of California’s "bookend" improvements, the upgrades of the 90-mile NY-Philadelphia rail line will not only benefit large numbers of travelers – they also will be far more cost-effective in dollars-per-passenger terms than any eventual improvements raising line speeds over the entire Boston-to-Washington corridor.

Thus, fiscal, economic and political constraints have caused both the California Bullet Train and the Amtrak vision for the Northeast Corridor — the only two projects that have survived on the Obama Administration’s vaunted high-speed rail agenda --- to morph largely into a program of modest near-term improvements in existing commuter rail services. Lack of funds may prevent either project from achieving its avowed goal of providing true high-speed rail service--- in the case of California, reducing travel time between LA and San Francisco to two hours and forty minutes (see Note below).  To achieve it, the California project will require $68 billion; the NEC program will need $151 billion.

Is this goal even worth pursuing? Some people think so---in fact they passionately believe in it. They contend that in order to make our cities less auto-dependent we need to invest in high-speed trains. Minor upgrades in existing rail services, they argue, will not make a significant dent in auto use. But many planners beg to differ. They believe that the best chance of persuading current auto users to leave their cars at home is to improve the daily suburban rail commute. Business travelers will continue flying because they look for the fastest way to get to their destination. Families on vacation trips will not abandon their cars in favor of trains because cars offer the least costly and most convenient way to travel to holiday destinations. The only sector of the traveling public that can be influenced to shift to trains in large numbers are suburban commuters.

What of the argument that a great nation like ours---a nation that built the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad, the Panama Canal and the Interstate Highway System --- should continue the tradition of visionary grandiose public works.

Regretfully, both ventures have come at a most inopportune time. The nation is recovering from a serious recession and is trying to rein in the deficit and reduce the 16 trillion dollar national debt. At a more distant moment in time, when the economy is growing again and the deficit has come under control, the nation might be able to resume its tradition of pursuing "bold endeavors"---ambitious programs of federally financed public works that benefit the whole nation. When that time comes, perhaps toward the end of this decade, it might be appropriate to revive the idea of high-speed rail--- at least in the context of the densely populated Northeast Corridor where road and air traffic congestion may eventually threaten its continued growth and productivity. For now, prudence, good sense and the nation’s fiscal well-being require that we lower our sights and focus on improving commuter rail connections.


Note on the Status of the California HSR Project

There is a high likelihood that the LA-SF bullet train project will never get completed. Law suits are pending to stop construction of the first stage of the project---the Central Valley segment from Madera to Bakersfield. A motion for a preliminary injunction has been filed by Madera County, the Madera and Merced County farm bureaus and other opponents. The motion seeks to prevent the rail Authority from moving forward on the initial Madera-to-Fresno section until a trial on the lawsuit is completed. Hearing on the preliminary injunction is set for November 16.

Even if the preliminary injunction is denied, construction on the rail section will not begin until the fall of 2013 according to a legal declaration filed by the Authority in the Sacramento Superior Court. What’s more, the Madera-to-Fresno section will not be electrified before 2022 according to the rail Authority---and then only if more funds become available. Additional legal challenges are expected over the Fresno-to-Bakersfield section of the line. The City of Bakersfield has already announced plans to file a lawsuit contending that the Authority’s environmental impact report doesn’t meet CEQA standards. The cumulative effect of these delays has led to speculations that the Authority may not be able to complete work on the Central Valley segment by September 2017 when the federal $3 billion grant expires. And if the federal money stops flowing, who will step in to fill the gap?

Warnings of an "infrastructure Crisis" are Meeting with Skepticism

Is the "infrastructure crisis" a myth or a reality? Many  within the transportation community firmly believe that the crisis is real. They point out that many of our roads, bridges and transit systems are approaching the end of their useful life and are badly in need of repair, reconstruction and modernization. They are convinced that without an ambitious program of investment ---beyond the billions that already are being spent---the transportation infrastructure will continue to deteriorate, rendering great harm to the nation's economy. They find it difficult to understand why politicians and the public do not necessarily share the same sense of urgency. They tend to blame themselves for doing a poor job of "educating" the public about the catastrophic consequences of inaction.

Even though the new two-year transportation bill has barely gone into effect (on October 1), activists already are strategizing  how better, i.e. more convincingly,  to present  the case for higher transportation spending in the next transportation bill.  As an AASHTO spokesman reminded us recently, "it is never too early to consider your strategy for making the case that the United States should continue to invest in its transportation infrastructure." "We can't afford to relax," echoed Pete Ruane, president of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA). "We're in a very serious struggle over the future of federal investment in transportation." Similar sentiments have been voiced in various transportation-related meetings over the past several months..   

But proponents of greater spending ignore the political realities. With mounting deficits and the shadow of a $16 trillion debt hovering over all fiscal decisions, Congress is not about to vastly increase spending on transportation. Concern about deteriorating infrastructure has failed to resonate with the electorate during the election campaign.  Nor did  the presidential condidates care to mention transportation in their recent debate on domestic priorities, despite pleas by stakeholder groups to include infrastructure on the political agenda.

Infrastructure crisis believers decry this supposed "indifference" or "short-sightedness" on the part of the politicians and the public. But their anger is misplaced. People recognize and acknowledge the need to modernize and expand the nation's infrastructure.  They simply are not convinced by the "sky is falling" rhetoric employed by the alarmists---dire warnings of collapsing bridges and crumbling roads if  government does not greatly increase spending on infrastructure. 

As the Washington Post editorialized no too long ago, people see no signs of  "crumbling infrastructure." They trust their own eyes more than they trust the unverified claims of  the experts ---and what they see is highways and transit networks that are well maintained and functioning smoothly and reliably most of the time. They suspect that  warnings of catastrophic consequences if spending on infrastructure is not boosted, are overblown, self-serving, and more often than not inspired by liberal advocacy groups, lobbyists and industry spokesmen who have a financial stake in pushing for more federal spending.  As one senior congressional aide confided to us, "I don't see our constituents lobbying to raise the gas tax in order to spend more money on transportation."

Moreover, the public is not sure that all of the billions of dollars that the federal government already devotes to  transportation ($114 billion in FY 2012) are spent  wisely, nor that more money will make the transportation system perform any better (e.g. reduce congestion).  They believe that the desire to greatly increase investment in infrastructure must be tempered by the overriding  imperative to get the nation's fiscal house in order.

Beyond MAP-21 
The fiscal and political climate in the next few years will make the job of convincing the skeptical electorate to support higher transportation spending even harder. Funding constraints will continue to make it difficult if not downright impossible for Congress to commit hundreds of billions of federal dollars in a single legislative package, regardless of which party controls the purse strings. Unwilling to raise fuel taxes, Congress is likely to embrace short-term bills as a convenient way out of the dilemma.  Short-term authorizations such as MAP-21 will require only modest transfers from the general fund ---especially if states are willing to step in with increased contributions of their own. On the other hand, a six-year bill would require an injection of nearly $90 billion in general revenue.  

To be sure, some in the stakeholder community will contend that longer-term (i.e. five- or six-year) authorizations are necessary to allow for orderly planning and implementation of capital projects. They will argue that short-term bills will not provide the kind of funding certainty that major public works require. But to the extent that large capital investments still figure on State DOTs’ and transit authorities’ agendas, private capital, tolling, and credit instruments such as TIFIA and state infrastructure banks, will provide adequate alternatives to the funding stability that long-term congressional  authorizations offered in years past.

The bottom line: regardless of the outcome of the November elections, do not expect a boost in federal transportation spending. Indeed, minor reductions in discretionary programs (TIGER, New Starts) are possible if automatic year-end spending cuts under sequestration are not avoided.

BBC Monster Traffic Jam List Includes Lexington, Kentucky? Really?

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has just published a list of 10 "monster commutes" around the world. Some are to be expected, and are usually found on any list of extreme traffic congestion, such as Jakarta, Bangkok, Manila, Mumbai, Seoul, Nairobi and Dhaka.

Lexington? However, reading further it becomes clearer that the BBC story deserves its own exhibit in the "Ripley's Don't Believe It" Room at the British Museum. BBC lists Lexington, Kentucky as one of 10 with "monster traffic jams." At first I thought BBC might have listed the wrong "L" place, having intended to cite Lagos or Lima instead. Not so, however since BBC quotes a Lexington commuter who claims to have spent an hour commuting to work one morning.

That, surely is not the experience of the average Lexington resident. According to the United States Census Bureau, the average work trip travel time, one way, in the Lexington metropolitan area is 21 minutes. This compares to the US national average of approximately 25 minutes. Researchers David Hartgen and M. Gregory Fields estimated the excess travel time during peak hour in Lexington at five percent in 2003 (traffic congestion has not become serious enough to warrant the attention of the long-standing Texas Transportation Institute's congestion reporting system). A quick review of data supplied by INRIX suggests that about 150 out of more than 180 rated US, European and Canadian metropolitan areas have worse traffic congestion than Lexington.

Austin? Perhaps a stronger case can be made for the inclusion of Austin, Texas on the list. But even so, Austin barely makes the most congested quarter of the INRIX international list. Austin's worse than average traffic congestion is the result of its late development an express roadway system, as this metropolitan area of the nearly 2,000,000 population was the last in the nation to connect two freeways together.

BBC's Austin commuter is quoted as indicating that he commutes by car, for which "I castigate myself daily." He continues: “I see two things that make me feel both guilty and shocked. A vacant city bus inching along my route and an empty tram cutting across traffic at 5pm." He misses the point. If the city bus is a vacant and the tram is empty, it is because they do not meet the needs of a sufficient number of customers (needs, which by the way can only be defined by consumers, not planners).

The proof is the crowded buses and trains that converge on six large downtown areas in the United States, where 40 percent to 75 percent of commuters use transit. This is not because the people who work south of 59th Street in Manhattan, in Chicago's Loop, or the downtown areas of Philadelphia, Washington, Boston or San Francisco have more effectively managed their guilt than the Austin commuter. It is rather because transit meets their needs. Commuters are rational. They take the mode of transport that best suits their needs. Transit's market shares around the country (many of them miniscule) speak volumes about how well transit meets the needs of potential customers.

Finally, BBC's Austin commuter claims that it takes 45 minutes to drive three kilometers (2 miles) to work (walking would be as fast for most people). It is hard to imagine a more unrepresentative commute in Austin. According to the United States Census Bureau, the average one way commute in Austin in 2011 was 26 minutes. Somehow 85 percent of Austin commuters get to work in less time than the Austin commuter, and they travel a lot farther.

Chicago Tribune Joins the Ranks of High-speed Rail Critics

Last year, in congressional testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing on high speed rail, we cited the Chicago-to-St.Louis "high-speed rail" project as an example of the Administration's wasteful use of its economic stimulus money. We pointed out that the $1.4 billion program of track upgrades will allow top speed of 110 mph but will raise average speeds of Amtrak trains between Chicago and St. Louis by only 10 miles per hour, from 53 to 63 mph. The four-and-a-half hour trip time will be cut by a mere 48 minutes, to three hours and fourty minutes. In France, TGV trains between Paris and Lyon cover approximately the same ditance (290 miles) in a little under two hours, at an average speed of 150 mph. Yet, federal officials did not hesitate proclaiming the Chicago-St. Louis project as "historic" and hailing it as "one giant step closer to achieving high-speed rail passenger service."

Now, a Chicago Tribune story, linked here and excerpted below, confirms just how "ridiculously expensive" and "uneconomical"  this project is turning out to be.  As the editorial points out, the project stands to "drain funding from mundane projects that could make a much bigger difference." Something that the California High Speed Rail Authority has belatedly recognized in diverting almost half of the initial $10 billion stage of its bullet train project to upgrading "mundane" commuter rail services in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. 

In recent years, under the banner of economic stimulus, the federal government has spent a ton of money getting the tracks ready for those speedy locomotives. In the Chicago-St. Louis corridor, for instance, Uncle Sam has poured at least $1.4 billion into crossing improvements and other upgrades. Between Chicago and Detroit, more than $400 million has been spent.

How would you feel, taxpayer, if we told you that some of the work might need to be torn up and redone?

Angry? You bet.

A debate over just how fast high-speed trains should operate could turn very costly very soon.

The issue comes down to 15 miles per hour.

Census Bureau Finds 3.2 Million More People in Salt Lake City?

Today the US Bureau of the Census released a fascinating report on metropolitan area population growth by radius from the corresponding city halls. The report provides summary tables indicating the metropolitan areas that had the greatest and least growth, for example, near the downtown areas.  I was surprised to find that Salt Lake City had done so well, having seen is population rise from 336,000 to 355,000 within a two mile radius of city hall (Table 3-7). That struck me as odd. A two mile radius encompasses an area of only 12.6 square miles, for a density of about 28,000 per square mile. Only the city San Francisco has densities that high over such a large area in the West. Moreover, all of the municipality of Salt Lake City is within two miles of city hall, and the 2010 census counted only 186,000 people in the entire  city of more nearly 110 square miles.

In reviewing the backup file, Worksheets "Pop2000", Pop2010", "Density2000" and "Density 2010"), I discovered that Salt Lake City's data was actually that of San Francisco and that metropolitan Salt Lake City was credited with 3.2 more people than it had Another surprise was that the San Francisco metropolitan area was reported with 260,000 people, less than one-third the population reported for the core city of San Francisco in 2010. Santa Fe had a reported population 3.4 million people, about 1.4 million people more than live in the entire state of which it is the capital. Further, in at least 35 cases, the populations for metropolitan areas did not correspond to those reported in the 2010 census.

Obviously this is the kind of automated (computer) error that can happen to anyone or any agency. Nonetheless, an immediate correction would be appropriate.

With considerable effort, we were able to get through to the public information office at the Bureau of the Census to notify them of the error.

Until a corrected report is issued, any analysis of the report will need to be very cautious indeed. We look forward to the revision.

USC Extorted by the City of Los Angeles

With California State Redevelopment Agency money gone, the city of Los Angeles ought to welcome new large-scale private development, and the economic stimulus and job creation it brings, with open arms. City Hall, faced with an anemic municipal budget, could also use the increased tax revenue. One such project that would help abate the city’s budget woes and create new jobs for the city is the University of Southern California’s proposed $1.1 billion “The Village at USC” project.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not), the city’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee delayed approval of the project for the second time last week, citing a need for more time to digest data regarding the project’s gentrifying effects on the surrounding community. The city is not fooling anyone – the delay amounts to nothing short of extortion – an attempt to ensure that committee members receive their proper concessions.

The site for “The Village at USC” is located directly north of the campus on University-owned land. Currently a dilapidated retail center, the new project calls 350,000 square feet of retail and will add up to 5,200 much needed student beds. The project would also create 12,000 new jobs for the city (8,000 permanent and 4,000 construction-related).

Comprehending the short-sightedness of delaying the project requires an understanding of USC’s role in its surrounding neighborhood (full disclosure: this writer is a graduate of USC). The university was founded in 1880, when LA was nothing more than a far outpost of western American expansion. Situated just 2 miles south of downtown, the city grew outward around the campus. Once an upscale neighborhood, the area immediately adjacent to USC lost its luster with the development of the city’s Westside, including Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Post WWII suburban expansion and the construction of the 110 and 10 freeways further eroded the area.

Today the area surrounding USC’s campus is racially and economically polarized. Part of LA’s notorious South Central (now more politically correct referred to as “South LA”), the area was hard hit by the riots of 1992. Yet while crime is still an issue, the area has markedly improved since the riots. Much of the improvement is thanks to a shift in the University’s relationship to its surrounding neighborhood post-1992. Rather than continuing to see itself as an island fortress in a sea of urban chaos, USC reached out to the local community, sponsoring programs for community members and supporting local businesses. The University’s extensive community outreach efforts led it to be named TIME magazine’s “University of the Year” in 2000.

As Los Angeles developed, USC had several opportunities to relocate its campus to other parts of the city and even Orange County, but its commitment to staying in the city’s center stood the test of time. The University is the largest private employer in Los Angeles and serves as a wellspring of knowledge and talent for the city. Given these contributions to LA, it is unfortunate and even appalling that the city’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee would question the University’s intentions and delay its plans to develop on land it owns with its own money (and without any handouts from the city or state).

Adam Nathaniel Mayer is an American architectural design professional. In addition to his job designing buildings he writes the China Urban Development Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @AdamNMayer.

A Summary of 2011 Commuting Data Released Today

The Census Bureau's American Community Survey released its annual one-year snapshot of demographic data in the United States. As usual, this included journey to work (commuting data), which is summarized in the table below.

American Community Survey Commuting Data
2011, 2010 & 2000
ESTIMATES of Total Commuters 2000 2010 2011
Drive Alone 97.10 104.86 105.64
Car/Van Pool 15.63 13.27 13.39
Transit 5.87 6.77 6.96
Bicycle 0.49 0.73 0.78
Walk 3.76 3.80 3.89
Motorcyle, Taxi & Other 1.24 1.60 1.63
Work at Home 4.18 5.92 5.99
Total 128.28 136.94 138.27
In Millions
Drive Alone 75.70% 76.57% 76.40%
Car/Van Pool 12.19% 9.69% 9.68%
Transit 4.57% 4.94% 5.03%
Bicycle 0.38% 0.53% 0.56%
Walk 2.93% 2.77% 2.81%
Motorcyle, Taxi & Other 0.97% 1.17% 1.18%
Work at Home 3.26% 4.33% 4.34%
Total 100.00% 100.00% 100.00%
Sources: 2000, 2010 Census &  2011 American Community Survey


Trends Since 2010

As estimated employment improved from 137.9 million in 2010 to 138.3 from 2010 to 2011, there was an increase of 800,000 in the number of commuters driving alone, which, as usual, represented the vast majority of commuting (105.6 million daily one way trips), at 76.40 percent. This was not enough, however, to avoid a small (0.17 percentage point) decline in market share.

Car pooling experienced a rare increase of 120,000 commuters, which translated into a 0.1 percentage point loss in market share, to 9.68 percent. Transit increased 190,000 commuters, and had a 0.09 percentage point increase in market share, to 5.03 percent. This brought transit's market share to above its 2008 share of 5.01 percent and near its 1990 market share of 5.11 percent.

Working at home increased by 70,000, with a modest 0.1 percentage point increase from 2010.

Trends Since 2000

Even with declining falling household incomes and rising gasoline prices, single-occupant commuting continued to rise between 2000 and 2011. Solo drivers increased nearly 8 million, more than the total transit commuting in 2011. Car pooling continued its long-term decline, falling 2.2 million. Transit did well (as would be expected with unfavorable economic conditions and unprecedented gasoline price increases), as we noted last year, having added 1.1 million commuters. This was spread thinly around the country, though with a 70 percent concentration in New York and Washington, DC. Over the period, working at home experienced an increase of 1.8 million, the largest increase outside solo driving.

Media Attention

For the most part the commuting data was ignored by the media --- and for good reason. The one year changes were predictably modest. However, the exception was USA Today, with a top of the webpage "Fewer Americans Driving Solo" headline. In fact, as noted above, the short term and long term trends reflected an increase in solo driving. Moreover, reading the story it would be easy to get the impression that a sea change had occurred in how people get to work. To its credit, however, USA Today appropriately labeled the likely reasons for the mountains it made into molehills --- the economy and gasoline prices.

5000 Public School Teachers Could Lose Their Jobs in Chicago

The Democratic Party in Chicago is at war. The one party town is seeing an important element of the coalition on strike. Rahm Emanuel is at war with a real adversary:  teacher’s union boss Karen Lewis. Last year Lewis began laying the groundwork for a strike as witnessed in this Chicago Magazine interview with reporter Carol Felsenthal:

CF: So you have an issue with [Secretary of  Education, former CPS CEO] Arne Duncan?

KL:Yeah, because he has a bachelor’s in sociology from Harvard and played basketball [he’s an education expert]? I think he’s completely and totally unqualified to do this job. And to me, it’s sort of indicative of how education is such a political tool now, as opposed to [his] having a real bent toward education. I think this is a way for Obama to try to make an olive branch with Republicans. There’s this mentality that outsiders and people with no education background are the… experts…. They want to privatize public education…. Arne’s policies here were a disaster.

Karen Lewis, like Rahm Emanuel, isn’t shy about expressing her opinions. Conflict is in the air. For 25,000 teachers to be on strike weeks before a Presidential election is a major problem for Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel. Karen Lewis has even organized children to chant slogans against Rahm Emanuel.  As veteran Chicago reporter Greg Hinz has said:

Mr. Emanuel has loudly declared what he wants, issued his demands in what I hear was an f-bomb-filled meeting with Ms. Lewis, and moved to impose some items by fiat — i.e., enacting a longer school day and directing the board to rescind a negotiated 4 percent pay hike.

Chicago is running out of money. There’s much blame to go around. The financial math is a threat to the status quo. The public school system has been a lucrative racket for some. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass explains:

Unfortunately, the system works just fine. It works for the teachers union that wins the big raises (the current offer: a 16 percent bump over the next four years) and for the bureaucrats who are creatures of patronage, and for the vendors who feed from the almost $6 billion budget.

It works for Democratic politicians. They increase property taxes to pay for union raises and, in exchange, receive union support and political donations in election years. It's been going on that way for years.

But does it work for the kids? Not when nearly half don't graduate.

As New Geography readers remember, we warned that Chicago was on the downswing. The 2010 Census confirmed this decline. The difficult part of decline is the hardship that comes with layoffs. University of Chicago Professor Tim Knowles says 5000 Chicago Public School teachers could lose their jobs because of 100 schools may shut. When you lose 6.9% of your population in 10 years, closures are inevitable.

In conclusion, Karen Lewis has picked a perfect time to strike: right before a Presidential election. The Democratic party needs all the help it can get from unions to get out the vote in nearby battleground states. What if they don’t get out the vote in Ohio and other unions strongholds in November?

Tokyo: Population Swan Dive Predicted

In a recent Evolving Urban Form article, we speculated that Tokyo, the world's largest urban area (population more than 35 million) could be displaced by fast-growing Jakarta or Delhi as early as 2030. If the prediction of central jurisdiction administrators and academics come true, Tokyo could be passed by many other urban areas in population by 2100.

The Japan Times reports forecasts that the population of the Prefecture of Tokyo, the central jurisdiction of the metropolitan area, could decline by nearly 50 percent (chart) between 2010 and 2100 (Note). Yet, while the overall population is dropping in half, the elderly population would increase by more than 20 percent. The resulting far less favorable ratio of elderly to the working population would present unprecedented social and economic challenges.

The article provides no information on the population of the entire urban area in 2100. The Prefecture of Tokyo constitutes somewhat over one third of the present population of the urban area.

During the last census period (between 2005 2010) the four prefecture Tokyo metropolitan area (Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba), gained approximately 1,100,000 new residents, while the balance of the country was losing 1,400,000 residents. Japan is forecast to suffer substantial population losses in the decades to come. The United Nations forecasts that its population will decline from approximately 125 million in 2010 to 90 million in 2100. This is the optimistic scenario. The National Institute of Population and Social Security Research forecasts a drop to under 50 million, a more than 60 percent population reduction.

There are serious concerns about the projected population decline. According to the Japan Times, the researchers said that " ... it will be crucial to take measures to turn around the falling birthrate and enhance social security measures for the elderly,"  A professor the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, expressed concern that "If the economies of developing countries continue growing, the international competitiveness of major companies in Tokyo will dive."


Note: the Prefecture of Tokyo government is called the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. This term can mislead, because the prefecture itself is not the metropolitan area, but only part of the four prefecture metropolitan area. The pre-– amalgamation predecessor of the current city of Toronto was called the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto. Like the Prefecture of Tokyo, the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto comprised only part of the Toronto metropolitan area. Confusion over these terms not only resulted in incorrect press reports, but even misled some academic researchers to treat these sub-metropolitan jurisdictions as metropolitan areas.

High Speed Rail in Brazil: The Need for Guarantees

In an article entitled Fourth Time Unlucky, The Economist wonders why Brazil, with "a long list of more worthwhile infrastructure projects", does not dismiss high speed rail "out of hand."

After three unsuccessful attempts to attract international bidders to build its Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo and Campinas line for a bargain basement price, the nation has decided that taxpayers will foot some (probably all) of the bill.

The Economist continues:

"Everywhere, new-build rail projects are horribly likely to come in way over budget and to be used much less than expected. A 2009 paper by Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, ominously entitled "Survival of the Unfittest: Why the worst infrastructure gets built—and what we can do about it."

As Flyvbjerg and others have noted, promoters, whether private or public, often seem to have a simple goal: to get the line under construction. That positions the projects for taxpayer bailouts when they run into problems.

With bidders able to call upon other people's money (taxpayer's money) this time, it seems likely there will be takers. And, based upon the experience with major infrastructure projects around the world, that will be just the start of the taking.

If elsewhere provides any guidance, the winning bidder can be confident that, down the road, the captive customer (the taxpayers) will pay any cost overruns. At the same time, the routine could be repeated in which a government kicks and screams, claiming it had no warning.

They did. In this day and age, a link to the Economist's warning is forever. A wise government will obtain the unlimited guarantees any company involved in the winning joint venture. Only then will Brazil's taxpayers be protected.