NewGeography.com blogs

Things Aren't that Bad in Saginaw

Our 8th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey included the Saginaw, Michigan metropolitan area, which we noted had the lowest Median Multiple (median house price divided by median household income) among the included 325 metropolitan areas. This made Saginaw the most affordable metropolitan market, principally due to depressed economic conditions. Saginaw has been ravaged by the loss of manufacturing jobs and a generally declining economy because of its strong industrial ties to the Detroit metropolitan area.

D. Robertson of Freeman's Bay (Auckland, New Zealand) must think that things are much worse, as indicated by a letter to the editor in the New Zealand Herald on January 24 (The Herald does not post letters to the editor on its internet site). Robertson says that including and prominently reporting the result of Saginaw Michigan (population 297 in 120-odd dwellings) was inappropriate. Robertson makes a 99.9% error, having apparently confused Saginaw, Missouri (population 297) with Saginaw, Michigan. According to the 2010 US Census, the Saginaw metropolitan area has a population of 200,169. That would be substantial enough to qualify Saginaw as one of New Zealand's largest metropolitan areas if it were there.

"Jaw-Droppingly Shameless:" Mother Jones on California High Speed Rail Projection

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones reports on the highly questionable "cost of alternatives" that has been routinely repeated by proponents of the California high speed rail project, in an article entitled "California High Speed Rail Even More Ridiculous than Before."

The mantra goes something like, "yes high speed rail is expensive, but it would cost even more to not build it." Yes, indeed, it is expensive, starting at the low estimate of $98.5 billion the press and proponents usually cite to the nearly $118 billion that the California High Speed Rail Authority itself indicates. Advocates then cite a $171 billion figure as what Californian's would have to pay if they didn't build the line.

Joseph Vranich and I detailed the flaws in this "alternatives estimate" in a Wall Street Journal commentary on January 10 ("California's High Speed Rail Fibs"). We noted that the claim "sets a new low for planning projections in a field that has been rife with abuse." This was a reference to "strategic misrepresentation” ("lying") that has characterized rail project forecasts, according to top European academics.

Drum goes further, calling the claim "jaw-droppingly shameless," an appropriate characterization based upon the method and documentation. He goes on to suggest that "A high school sophomore who turned in work like this would get an F."

Regardless of the views that officials or the public may have on high speed rail, they are entitled to a standard of professional (and taxpayer financed) analysis above "jaw-droppingly shameless."

Interactive Graphic: Ranking States By Competitiveness

In a previous post we looked at which states have been most competitive in terms of job creation since the recession.

In this post we teamed up with our friends at Tableau Software to produce the following interactive graphic, which details individual industries that are driving states to be more (or less) competitive. The graphic breaks down the performance of the 20 major sectors in every state in the contiguous US (plus Hawaii and Alaska) in terms of expected and actual job change from 2007-2011. Further explanation of the analysis is below.

Rundown on the data

We used shift share, a standard economic analysis method that reveals if overall job growth is explained primarily by national economic trends and industry growth or unique regional factors. Shift share analysis, which can also be referred to as “regional competitiveness analysis,” helps us distinguish between growth that is primarily based on big national forces (the proverbial “rising tide lifts all boats” analogy) vs. local competitive advantages.

To generate our ranking, we summed the overall competitive effect for each broad 2-digit industry sector by state (e.g., agriculture, manufacturing, health care, construction, etc.) and added them together to yield a single statewide number that indicates the overall competitiveness of the economy as compared to total economy. We calculate the competitive effect by subtracting the expected jobs (the number of jobs expected for each state based on national economic trends) from the total jobs. The difference between the total and expected is the competitive effect. If the competitive effect is positive, then the industries within the state have exceeded expectations and created more jobs than national trends would have suggested. Those industries are therefore gaining a greater share of the total jobs being created. If the competitive effect is negative, then the industries are not gaining jobs as fast as what we would expect given national trends. In this case the state is losing a greater share of the total jobs being created.

Observations On Most Competitive

The big thing that stands out is that most of the competitive states tend to be in the middle of the country. This is tied to the growth in the oil and gas sector, yes, but in most cases better-than-expected performance in construction, government, and other miscellany sectors. In Alaska, North Dakota, and Nebraska, smaller states in terms of population and jobs, manufacturing, transportation, and construction are some of the most competitive industries. Louisiana also fares quite well in healthcare and accommodation & food services.

Observations On Least Competitive

For states that rank toward the bottom, the housing bust and subsequent construction downturn is the biggest culprit. For instance, in Nevada, which is last on the list, construction is nearly 50,000 jobs below what would be expected given national and industry trends. Florida, a much more populous state, is more than 130,000 jobs below what would be expected. For states like Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana, the poor performance in manufacturing and government weighed heavily in our ranking.

Here is the original graphic that show the comparison between states.

Please check out the graphic and let us know if you have any questions. Email Rob Sentz (rob@economicmodeling.com) or hit us via Twitter @DesktopEcon. Data and analysis comes from Analyst, EMSI’s web-based labor market analysis tool.

Why Housing is So Expensive in Metropolitan Washington

Anyone familiar with housing affordability in the Washington (DC-VA-MD-WV) metropolitan area is aware that prices have risen strongly relative to incomes in the last decade.

However, a recent Washington Post commentary by Roger K. Lewis both exaggerates the contribution of higher construction costs and misses the principal factor that has driven up the price of housing: more restrictive land-use regulations.

Lewis compares construction costs in the early 1970s to current costs and finds that they are approximately 6 times as high. However, when the R. S. Means construction cost index for locations in the metropolitan area are adjusted for inflation, the increase is more like 15% (1970 to 2007).

Lewis also indicates that construction costs have risen faster than the "relatively flat income curve." In contrast, Census Bureau data indicate that median household incomes in the Washington metropolitan area have increased more than 30% since the early 1970s, after adjustment for inflation. House construction costs are the flatter of the two, not incomes.

While Lewis' focus is affordable housing, costs in this low income sector are impacted by many of the same factors that drive overall housing affordability (overall house prices relative to incomes).

Lewis does not consider the huge cost increase in the non-construction costs of housing. In the Washington metropolitan area, we have estimated that the land and the regulatory costs for a new house have been driven to more than 5.5 times the level that would be expected in a normal regulatory environment (see the Demographia Residential Land & Regulation Cost Index). The problem is that the restrictive land-use policies, such as the Montgomery County agricultural reserve, similar regulations in other metropolitan area counties and the large lot building restrictions in Loudoun County have driven the price of land up substantially, and with it, the price of housing. We estimate that more restrictive land use regulations have driven the price of a new house up approximately $75,000.

Not surprisingly, Washington's Median Multiple (median house price divided by median household income) remains more than a third above the 3.0 historic norm, at 4.0, even after the burst of the housing bubble. So long as governments in the Washington, DC area continue to strictly ration land for development, higher than necessary costs will continue to plague both housing affordability and affordable housing.

In Keystone XL Rejection, We See Two Americas At War With Each Other

America has two basic economies, and the division increasingly defines its politics. One, concentrated on the coasts and in college towns, focuses on the business of images, digits and transactions. The other, located largely in the southeast, Texas and the Heartland, makes its living in more traditional industries, from agriculture and manufacturing to fossil fuel development.

Traditionally these two economies coexisted without interfering with the progress of the other. Wealthier gentry-dominated regions generally eschewed getting their hands dirty so that they could maintain the amenities that draw the so-called creative class and affluent trustifarians. The more traditionally based regions focused, largely uninhibited, on their core businesses, and often used the income to diversify their economies into higher-value added fields.

The Obama administration has altered this tolerant regime, generating intensifying conflict between the NIMBY America and its more blue-collar counterpart. The administration’s move to block the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico represents a classic expression of this conflict. To appease largely urban environmentalists, the Obama team has squandered the potential for thousands of blue-collar jobs in the Heartland and the Gulf of Mexico.

In this way, Obama differs from Bill Clinton, who after all recognized the need for basic industries as governor of poor and rural Arkansas. But the academic and urbanista-dominated Obama administration has little appreciation for those who do the nation’s economic dirty work.

NIMBY America’s quasi-religious devotion to the cause of global warming is the current main reason for their hostility to the basic economy. But it is all a part of a concerted, decades-long jihad to limit the dreaded “human footprint,” particularly of those living outside the carefully protected littoral urban areas.

Oddly, in their self-righteous narcissism, the urbanistas seem to forget that driving production from more regulated areas like California or New York to far less controlled areas like Texas or China, may in the end actually increase net greenhouse gas emissions. The hip, cool urbanistas won’t stop consuming iPads, but simply prefer that the pollution making them is generated far from home, and preferably outside the country.

The perspective in the Heartland areas and Texas, of course, is quite different. They regard basic industries as central to their current prosperity. Oil and gas, along with agriculture and manufacturing, have made these areas the fastest growing in terms of jobs and income over the past decade.

Of course, the apologists for the NIMBY regions can claim that they, too, create economic value. And to be sure, Silicon Valley — now in a midst of one of its periodic boom periods — Wall Street and Hollywood constitute some of the country’s prime economic assets. Similarly, highly regulated cities such as New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Chicago offer a quality of life, at least for the well-heeled, that draws talent and capital from the rest of the world.

But the NIMBY model suffers severe limitations. For one thing, these high cost areas generally lag in creating middle-skilled jobs; New York and San Francisco, for example, have suffered the largest percentage declines in manufacturing employment of the nation’s 51 largest metropolitan areas. Indeed with the exception of Seattle, the NIMBY regions have all underperformed the national average in job creation for well over a decade.

These areas are becoming increasingly toxic to the middle class, especially families who are now fleeing to places like Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina and even Oklahoma. NIMBY land use regulations — designed to limit single-family houses — usually end up creating housing costs that range up to six times annual income; in more basic regions, the ratio is around three or lower.

Ironically, America’s most ardently “progressive” areas turn out to be the most socially regressive, with the largest gaps between rich and poor. Even the current tech bubble has not been of much help to heavily Latino working-class areas like San Jose, where unemployment ranges around 10%, nor across the Bay in devastated Oakland, where the jobless rate surpasses 15%.

To succeed, America needs both of its economies to accommodate the aspirations not only of its current population but the roughly 100 million more Americans who will be here by 2050. If the regions that want to maintain NIMBY values want to do so, that should be their prerogative. But stomping on the potential of other, less fashionable areas seems neither morally nor socially justifiable.

The Hardest Job To Fill In 2012? A Look At The Supply of Web Developers

Keith Cline at Inc.com has a fresh look at one of the enduring, and perplexing, stories of 2011 — the skills shortage. Even with 13.3 million Americans unemployed, and millions more underemployed, there are industries severely lacking in skilled talent.

Cline provided five loose job titles/duties that employers will have a hard time filling as 2012 starts. Chief among them: software engineers and web developers.

Writes Cline, “The demand for top-tier engineering talent sharply outweighs the supply in almost every market especially in San Francisco, New York, and Boston.  This is a major, major pain point and problem that almost every company is facing, regardless of the technology ‘stack’ their engineers are working on.”

Exacerbating the apparent problem is that the four other job areas that Cline mentions are often related to high-tech industries and web development — creative design/user experience, product management (particularly of the consumer web/e-commerce/mobile variety), web-savvy marketing, and analytics.

But is there really a skill shortage in these areas across the US, or is it a matter of firms not wanting to budge on wages? As Brian Kelsey recently pointed out, “A talent shortage, and a talent shortage at the wages you are willing to pay, are usually two separate issues.”

Let’s focus on web developers, and see what job and wage trends show. Working with EMSI’s occupation data, which is based on classifications from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are three primary job codes for developers: 1) computer programmers; 2) software developers, applications; and 3) software developers, systems software.

According to EMSI’s most recent figures, software developers have performed better in the job market than computer programmers. Software developer jobs have been steadily growing nationally in recent years — after a dip in 2008 — while computer programmer jobs (the blue line in the chart below) have been stagnant or in decline since the economic downturn.

On average nationally, these jobs pay between $33 per hour (for programmers) and $44 per hour (for systems software developers). The top 10 percent of workers in these fields make on average $51 to $64 per hour. Among the largest 100 metro areas in the US, San Jose ($55.48), Bridgeport, Conn. ($49.48), and Boston ($46.58) pay the highest median earnings for developers.

These are solid baseline figures. But what about the supply issue?

One way to determine labor shortages is by analyzing historic wages, coupled with employment trends, for an occupation; if wages are increasing over time, that’s a good sign of unmet demand in the market and hence, a shortage. The reason: demand from employers for additional workers would be so great that it would push up wages.

We looked at median earnings for programmers and computer software engineers from 2000-2010 using the BLS’ Current Population Survey (CPS) dataset, a monthly survey of US households. Adjusted for inflation, CPS data* shows programmers’ wages have essentially been flat (2% growth) since 2000. It’s a different story for software engineers; their wages increased 13% from 2000 to 2010.

But for both programmers and software engineers, real wages have declined since 2004. This make sense given the stagnant employment picture for programmers. Yet for software engineers, employment has increased more than 6% since 2009 while wages have held steady in recent years.

If there is indeed the major undersupply that Cline and others have argued, wages would not be stagnant but continuing to rise (and probably rising sharply). That appeared to happen in the early 2000s — but not recently.

* Note: Current Population Survey wage estimates are different than the above-mentioned hourly earnings that EMSI reports in its complete employment dataset. EMSI’s figures, which include proprietors, come from the BLS’ Occupational Employment Statistics dataset and the Census’ American Community Survey.

A Devastating Verdict for California HSR

Like many other observers, we have found the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group to have made a convincing case for a fresh look at the feasibility of the California high-speed rail project. The group's report was issued as eleven House Democrats – eight from California – joined an earlier request from twelve Republican House members for an independent GAO investigation of the embattled project. 

That is why we find Governor Brown’s reaction – that the peer reviewers' report "does not appear to add any arguments that are new or compelling enough to suggest a change of course” – to be incomprehensible. Either the governor issued the statement without the benefit of having read the report, or else he is so ideologically committed to the project that he refuses to look the facts in the face.

Precisely which conclusions of the report are not compelling enough, the governor’s spokesman has not made clear. Is it the statement that "the Funding Plan fails to identify any long term funding commitments" and therefore "the project as it is currently planned is not financially feasible"?

Is it the reviewers' assertion that "the [travel] forecasts have not been subject to external and public review" and, absent such an open examination, “they are simply unverifiable from our point of view"?

Could it be their statement that "the ICS [Initial Construction Section] has no independent utility other than as a possible temporary re-routing of the Amtrak-operated San Joaquin service...before an IOS [Initial Operating Segment] is opened"?

Or, is it the Panel's conclusion that "...moving ahead on the HSR project without credible sources of funding, without a definitive business model, without a strategy to maximize the independent utility and value to the State, and without the appropriate management resources, represents an immense financial risk on the part of the State of California?"

To us, the findings seem at least deserving of a respectful consideration.

But the California High-Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) is not ready to concede anything. Here is the opening paragraph of its response: 

"While some of the recommendations in the Peer Review Group report merit consideration, by and large this report is deeply flawed, in some areas misleading and its conclusions are unfounded. ...Although some high-speed rail experience exists among Peer Review Panel members, this report suffers from a lack of appreciation of how high-speed rail systems have been constructed throughout the world, makes unrealistic and unsubstantiated assumptions about private sector involvement in such systems and ignores or misconstrues the legal requirements that govern construction of the high speed rail program in California."

It is not our intention to delve in detail into the Authority's response and judge the soundness of its arguments. No doubt, the CHSRA response will come under a detailed examination by the Authority’s critics in the days ahead. Suffice it to say that, having carefully and with an open mind examined the Authority’s rambling nine-page response, we find that it did not satisfactorily rebut the peer group’s central point: that it is not prudent, nor "financially feasible," to proceed with the $6 billion dollar rail project in the Central Valley (including $2.7 billion in Proposition 1A bonds) in the absence of any identifiable source of funding with which to complete even the Initial Operating Segment. To do so, would be to expose the state to the risk of being stuck, perhaps for many years, with a rail segment unconnected to major urban areas and unable to generate sufficient ridership to operate without a significant state subsidy. 

The Authority's lashing out at the peer reviewers and the dismissive tone of its response suggest that it has already made up its mind to stay the course and circle the wagons. That is not a wise posture to assume in the face of an already skeptical state legislature. 

What Lies Ahead for Transportation in 2012?

As befits this time of year, our thoughts turn to the events that await us in the days ahead. Putting aside the major imponderable — the outcome of the presidential and congressional elections that inevitably will impact the federal transportation program —what can the transportation community expect in 2012? Will Congress muster the will to enact a multi-year surface transportation reauthorization? Or will the legislation fall victim to election year paralysis? What other significant transportation-related developments lie ahead in the new year? Here are our speculations as we gaze into our somewhat clouded crystal ball.

Will Congress enact a multi-year transportation bill?

In 2011, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee passed a bipartisan two-year surface transportation bill (MAP-21) and the Senate Commerce Committee approved the measure’s safety, freight and research components. But at the end of the year, the bill’s titles dealing with public transportation, intercity passenger rail and financing were still tied up in their respective committees (Banking, Commerce and Finance). What’s more, the Senate bill ended up $12 billion short of meeting the $109 billion mark set by the EPW Committee as necessary to maintain the current level of funding plus inflation.

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) has yet to publicly identify the offsets needed to cover the final $12 billion of the bill’s cost. Repeated assurances by EPW committee chairman Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) that the necessary "pay fors" have been found, has met with widespread skepticism. "I’ll believe it when I see it" has been a typical reaction among congressional watchers. With the Republicans opposed to using "gimmicks" (Sen. Orrin Hatch’s words) to come up with the needed money, it’s not entirely clear that the bill, as approved on the Senate floor, will contain the full $109 billion in funding.

On the House side, the fate of a multi-year bill remains equally clouded. In November, Speaker Boehner announced that he would soon unveil a combined transportation and energy bill, dubbed the "American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act" (HR 7). The bill would authorize expanded offshore gas and oil exploration and dedicate royalties from such exploration to "infrastructure repair and improvement" focused on roads and bridges.

However, questions have been raised about this approach. Critics, including Sen. Barbara Boxer and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) EPW committee's ranking member, judge the approach as problematical. They allege, along with many other critics, that the royalties the House is counting upon would fall billions of dollars short of filling the gap in the needed revenue (the gap is estimated at approximately $75-80 billion over five years). They further contend that the revenue stream from the royalties would not be available in time to fund the multi-year transportation program. What’s more, using oil royalties to pay for transportation would essentially destroy the principle of a trust fund supported by highway user fees. In sum, the House bill, if unveiled in its currently proposed form, will meet with a highly skeptical reception in the Senate.

Assuming that both reauthorization bills in some form will gain approval in February, will the two Houses be able to reconcile their widely different versions by March 31 when the current program extension is set to expire? Or will the negotiations bog down in an impasse reminiscent of the current payroll tax stalemate? Given the importance that both sides attach to enacting transportation legislation and given the desire of both sides to avoid the blame of causing an impasse, we think the odds are in favor of reaching an accommodation — probably more along the lines of the Senate two-year bill than the still vague and unfunded House five-year version. If this simply kicks the can down the road a couple of years, that may be OK with Senate Republicans. As one senior Senate Republican confidently told us, by the bill’s expiration date the Senate will be in Republican hands and "the true long-term bill will be ours to shape."

Will California lawmakers pull the plug on the high-speed train?

In 2011 Congress effectively put an end to the Administration’s high-speed rail initiative by denying any funds to the program for a second year in a row. Does the same fate await the embattled $98 billion California high-speed rail project at the hands of the state legislature in 2012?

At a December 15 congressional oversight hearing, witnesses cited a litany of reasons why the projects is a "disaster" (Rep. John Mica’s words). Among them: unrealistic assumptions concerning future funding; quixotic choice of location for the initial line section ("in a cow patch," as several lawmakers remarked); lack of evidence of any private investor interest in the project; eroding public support (nearly two-thirds of Californians would now oppose the project if given the chance, according to a recent poll); a "devastating" impact of the proposed line on local communities and farm land; unrealistic and out-of-date ridership forecasts; and lack of proper management oversight.

More recently, the project came under additional criticism. The job estimates claimed by the project’s advocates ("over one million good-paying jobs" according to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi) have been challenged— and acknowledged by project officials— as grossly inflated. Four local governments in the Central Valley, including the City of Bakersfield, have formally voted to oppose the project, fearing harmful effect on their communities. And agricultural interests are gearing up for a major legal battle, according to the Los Angeles Times.

But most unsettling for the project’s future is the inability of its sponsors to come up with the needed funding. To complete the "Initial Operating Segment" to San Jose (or the San Fernando Valley) would require an additional $24.7 billion. To finance this construction, the California Rail Authority’s business plan calls for $4.9 billion in Proposition 1A bonds and assumes $19.8 billion in federal contributions – $7.4 billion in federal grants and $12.4 billion in the so-called Qualified Tax Credit Bonds (QTCB). But the latter assumptions came in for sharp congressional criticism as so much wishful thinking, given the bipartisan congressional refusal to appropriate funds for high-speed rail two years in a row.

Further challenges await the project early in 2012. A group of 12 congressmen led by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has formally requested the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review the project’s viability and "questionable ridership and cost projections." Also expected early in January are a critique of the Authority’s business plan by the Independent Peer Review Group and a follow-up report by the State Auditor.

Meanwhile, the governor and state legislature, are being asked by the Rail Authority to approve a $2.7 billion bond issue authorized by Proposition 1A to fund and begin construction  of the initial Central Valley section of the rail line from Fresno to Bakersfield. Will they be swayed by the findings of the three respected reviewing bodies and by the increasingly negative editorial and public opinion? Or will they continue to hold on to the seductive vision of bullet trains zooming from northern to southern California in two and a half hours — however distant and uncertain that vision may be? At this point, we believe the decision could go either way. However, sharply critical reports by the Peer Review Group and the General Accountability Office could tip the scale against funding the Central Valley project.

Will tolling join the gas tax as a mainstream source of highway revenue?

With the possibility of a near-term gas tax increase "less than zero," attention has turned to alternative means of raising transportation revenue. The most prominent option appears to be tolling— and 2012 may be the year when tolling becomes accepted as a mainstream source of highway revenue.

Recent toll increases on the nation’s highways attest to their growing use (if not popularity) as revenue enhancers. In New Jersey, tolls are set to rise by 53% on the New Jersey Turnpike and by 50% on the Garden State Parkway. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey also has approved substantial toll increases on bridges linking the two states. These moves have provoked Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) to sponsor a "commuter protection act" that would transfer toll setting powers to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. But the Senator’s initiative does not appear to have obtained much support in Congress. IBTTA, the toll industry association, has lodged strong objections, arguing that federalizing toll rate setting would encroach on the states’ jurisdiction and interfere with their ability to use tolls as a tool of infrastructure financing, and Congress appears to be listening.

A recent Reason Foundation poll has found that people are more willing to pay tolls than increased fuel taxes (by a margin of 58 to 28 percent.) Moreover, the formation of a new "U.S. Tolling Coalition" suggests a growing interest in tolling on the part of the states. Under a pilot program that allows up to three Interstate highways to be reconstructed with tolls, Virginia will add tolls along the I-95 corridor and Missouri will toll its stretch of I-70. Arizona and North Carolina have applied for the remaining slot in the pilot program. Other states are embracing tolling to finance new capacity. Washington State, for example, has begun tolling the SR-520 floating bridge over Lake Washington to help pay for its replacement. Nor is the practice of tolling confined just to a few states. All told, 35 states already depend on toll revenue to some extent.  

The Tolling Coalition wants to expand the pilot program and give the states the flexibility to toll any portions of their Interstate and other federal highways, "whether for new capacity, system preservation, or reconstruction." So far, neither the Senate nor the House have agreed to relax existing prohibitions, but they are prepared to retain the current pilot program.

However, the need to reconstruct and modernize the existing Interstates which are reaching the end of their 50-year design life, combined with the necessity to expand capacity of the Interstate highway system to meet the needs of an expanding population, may soften congressional opposition to relaxing the current Interstate tolling restrictions. With the gas tax no longer able to meet the nation’s transportation investment needs, and with the concept of a VMT (vehicle-miles travel) fee still a distant vision, the year 2012 could mark a turning point in the acceptance of tolling as a serious highway revenue enhancer.

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Note: the NewsBriefs can also be accessed at www.infrastructureUSA.org
A listing of all recent NewsBriefs can be found at www.innobriefs.com

The Troubled Future of the California High-Speed Rail Project

A congressional oversight hearing, focused on the concerns surrounding the troubled California high-speed rail project, cast new doubts on the likelihood of the project’s political survival.

The December 15 hearing was the second of two hearings called by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to examine the Administration’s "missteps" in handling the high-speed rail program. Before a largely skeptical groups of committee members — Reps Mica (R-FL), Shuster (R-PA), Denham (R-CA), Miller (R-CA), Napolitano (D-CA), and Harris (R-MD)— two panels of witnesses offered a mixture of support and criticism concerning the project’s impact, financial feasibility and prospects for the future. The first panel comprised six California congressmen — three testifying against the project (Reps. Nunes (R), McCarthy (R) and Rohrabacher (R)), three in support of it (Reps. Cardoza (D), Costa (D) and Sanchez (D).) The second panel consisted of FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo, California Rail Authority CEO, Roelof Van Ark, local elected officials and representatives of citizen groups.

A Brief Project Overview

The proposed high-speed line, from Sacramento and San Francisco to Los Angeles and San Diego, was originally estimated to cost $43 billion in 2008 when the state’s voters approved a $9.95 billion bond measure (Proposition 1A) to help finance the project.  Since then, the total cost estimate for the project has more than doubled to $98.5 billion and the completion date has been pushed back by 13 years to 2033.

The "initial construction section" of 140 miles is proposed to be built in the sparsely populated Central Valley from south of Merced to north of Bakersfield. The $6 billion project is to be financed with a $3.3 billion federal contribution and $2.7 billion worth of state Proposition 1A bonds. Construction is to begin in 2012. However, to qualify as an "Initial Operating Segment" as required by the authorizing bond measure and capable of running high-speed trains, the line has to be extended by another 290 miles to San Jose (or 300 miles to the San Fernando Valley), at an additional cost of $24.7 billion.

To finance the latter construction, the California Rail Authority’s business plan calls for $4.9 billion in Proposition 1A bonds and assumes a $19.8 billion federal contribution – $7.4 billion in federal grants and $12.4 billion in the yet to be created Qualified Tax Credit Bonds (QTCB). The latter assumption came in for sharp committee criticism as wishful thinking. The bill authorizing QTCB (or TRIP) bonds, proposed by Sen. Wyden (D-OR), is not given much chance of passing in the House. Even if passed, it would only offer $1 billion for the California HSR project rather than $12.4 billion as claimed in the Authority’s business plan. Further federal high-speed rail grants are equally uncertain given the bipartisan congressional refusal to appropriate funds for high-speed rail two years in a row. In other words, the funding for the Initial Operating Segment hinges on highly questionable assumptions as to continuing federal aid.

Even more conjectural are the Authority’s funding assumptions for the subsequent phases of the project— a line extension from San Jose to the San Fernando Valley and a southern connection, to Los Angeles and Anaheim. That phase of construction according to the Authority’s business plan, would require a further federal contribution of $42.5 billion between 2021 and 2033 (plus $11 billion in private investment).

Left unstated in the Authority’s business plan, one informed observer speculated, is the secretly entertained hope that by 2015 (when the additional federal funding will be needed), the economic circumstances — and perhaps political circumstances as well — will have changed, allowing a resumption of generous federal support.

A "Boondoggle" or a "Compelling Opportunity for Our State"?

Witnesses testifying before the committee aligned along predictable fault lines. Critics of the rail project (mostly, but not all, Republicans) tended to focus on the specific weaknesses of the project: its unrealistic assumptions concerning future funding; the quixotic choice of location for the initial line section ("in a cow patch," as several lawmakers remarked); a lack of evidence of any private investor interest in the project; the eroding public support for the project (nearly two-thirds of Californians would now oppose the project if given the chance, according to a recent poll); the "devastating" impact of the proposed line on local communities and farmers; and the unrealistic and out-of-date ridership forecasts (with more passengers in 2030 predicted to board trains in Merced, a small farming community in Central Valley, than in New York’s Penn Station). Other witnesses asserted that the current project is vastly different from the one Californian voters approved in 2008; and that it is lacking proper management oversight (it is a project "of the consultants, by the consultants and for the consultants" one witness remarked).

Defenders of the project (mostly, but not all, Democrats) resorted largely to abstract arguments about the merits of building a high-speed rail system in California. They saw the project as a compelling long-term vision, as a travel alternative to congested highways and air lanes, as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and as a means of creating thousands of jobs. They argued about the difficulty and prohibitive costs of the alternative of building more highways and airports to accommodate future population growth.

Federal officials are fond of reminding us that construction of the interstate highway system also began "in a cow patch " — in that particular case, a wheat field in the middle of Kansas. But they ignore a fundamental difference between the two decisions: the interstate highway system was backed from the very start by a dedicated source of funds, thus ensuring that construction of the system would continue beyond the initial highway segment "in the middle of nowhere." 

The California project has no such financial assurance. Should money for the rest of the system never materialize— as is likely to happen— the state will be stuck with a rail segment unconnected to major urban areas and unable to generate sufficient ridership to operate without a significant state subsidy. The Central Valley rail line would literally become a "Train to Nowhere" — a white elephant and a monument to wasteful government spending.
 
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The Great Dakota Boom

The Census Bureau released their yearly population estimates today. As noted by Wendell Cox, the estimates showed signs of the South's continued leadership in population expansion. While the overall numbers of people involved are much smaller, the Dakotas, in particular North Dakota, also showed signs of growth worthy of note. According to the Census Bureau, North Dakota now has an estimated population of around 683,000, up over 11,000 in just one year. This made it the 6th fastest growing state in the nation over the past year- a notable achievement in its own right for a state more accustomed to dealing the challenge of outmigration.

However, the most interesting thing about the new estimate is that it represents a new record population for the state. There have never been more North Dakotans then there are today. The previous high count was about 680,000 way back in 1930. With the onset of the depression, the state entered a long period largely marked by periods of population decline and stagnation.

As a lifelong North Dakotan, I've occasionally found myself having difficulty coming to grips with our state's recent prosperity. North Dakotans can be a self effacing lot, and it sometimes seems that there’s a still a healthy dose of skepticism among my fellow citizens regarding our current good fortune. We’re not used to being on top like this, seeing our often ignored home highlighted in the press for its economic strength and tagged as "the state the recession forgot." For decades, we've been trying to find ways to deal with what seemed an inexorable cycle of rural decline and depopulation. While the new estimate is just a number, it does serve to break a bit of a psychological barrier for the state. We’re not just making up lost ground anymore- we’re now in uncharted territory and building beyond previous limits. It's a refreshing change.

Historians refer to the 1880s and period from 1900-1915 as the “Great Dakota Booms”. Growth was unchecked in what became North and South Dakota, and the population soared as immigrants poured into the region in search of economic opportunity. While oil has taken the lead role in place of land in this performance, it appears that our corner of the nation is in another "Great Dakota Boom" for many of the same reasons. Hopefully it will prove lasting. I, and my fellow North Dakotans will just have to learn to deal with prosperity. Call it “How North Dakota (and Matthew) Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Boom”.

All in all, it's a good time to be a Nodak.