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More Discussion with WHAM 13’s Evan Dawson on the Cost of High Speed Rail

April 16th, 2010

Evan Dawson, WHAM News 13Yesterday I wrote to Evan Dawson from WHAM News 13 in an effort to find out why he chose to compare HSR to the Rochester/Toronto fast ferry in his recent article, High Speed Rail: Fast Forward, Not Fast Ferry… Right? external link My concern was that this was an unfair, apples-to-oranges comparison. After all, passenger rail has served our region for over 150 years and if NY doesn’t want the upgrade it will go to Florida, Texas, California, Ohio, etc. To Dawson’s credit he took the time to write me back. He didn’t have to and I appreciate that. BUT, he missed the point I was trying to make and for the record, I still take issue with his comparison to the failed ferry and his line of questioning directed at Congresswoman Slaughter. Below is his response to my first email. Below that is MY response to his response. More to come I’m sure…

Mike,

Thanks for the email. I wanted to address some specific concerns of yours.

First, you write, “I was at the High Speed Rail press conference last Friday and I was pretty disappointed in your choice of questions for Congresswoman Slaughter.”

I confess I’m confused by this. I asked a series of questions about a project that has already earmarked $151 million, and is likely to cost well over a billion more. Do you disagree that large expenditures of tax dollars ought to be accompanied by careful, thorough business plans, projections, and analysis? This piece was not focused whatsoever on whether high speed rail is a good idea or not. It was focused on whether the political leaders advocating it have taken the time to study the likely outcomes. Such practice is common in business, and it’s almost always required when large projects move forward.

Given that this was my first opportunity to ask questions, I expected that they would be able to explain the myriad ways high speed rail might actually save us money in the long run (for example, automobiles bring a hefty expense; fuel consumption coupled with infrastructure deterioration places a large burden on us). You correctly note that cars alone lead to much more than just fuel cost. But why didn’t the elected leaders present press these points with detail? They declined to offer anything like that. They didn’t even have any idea how long it would take a passenger to travel on the rail from Rochester to Buffalo, let alone Rochester to New York City.

You also write, “HSR is no fast ferry. The ferry was built on pure speculation. We tried it, it didn’t work, and we took a loss. That’s business and the city learned a lesson. Hopefully that lesson was ‘try harder and plan better next time’.”

Exactly, Mike! My questions were designed to let our elected leaders tell us how they are – indeed! – “planning better next time.” Instead, they told me that their interest is to build it first, and ask the planning questions later.

This isn’t about stirring emotions. Most reporters now acknowledge that we didn’t vet the ferry very well. We would have discovered that there was not very much of a long-term business plan, the projections that did exist were overly optimistic, etc. The rail is a transportation project costing millions of tax dollars, and like the ferry, it so far has very little long-term planning that we can see. I promise you, the moment they put forth the long-term plans and analysis, the projections and expected operating costs, we will be the first to run them. No doubt about it.

High speed rail might very well be a boost for New York state and this country. Our role is to examine the facts and the planning, and we will continue to do so.

Thanks for writing –Evan

My response…

Evan,
I’d like to thank you for addressing my concerns. I’m sure this issue is as important to you as it is to me.

Obviously I don’t disagree that spending of public funds requires careful attention. However, your article did not include the part of Slaughter’s answer which explained that this is also about providing alternatives to driving. Nor did you quote Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman when he said that after this phase of the project Amtrak will be “trip-time competitive with the Thruway”. Instead all you quoted was him as saying “Get on board!” The answers you heard may not have been hard dollar-and-cents figures, but they ARE answers to at least one of the questions you claim went unanswered (your #7 question I believe).

Do YOU disagree that our state and federal transportation plans should be focused on providing alternatives to driving as we move into the 21st century? Because I’d like you find answers to the same questions you’re asking about HSR but framed in the context of highways, cars, buses, etc. For example, Slaughter helped NY win $151 for rail upgrades, but did you know NY also won $1,120,684,723 for highways? That’s 1.12 BILLION. Who is subsidizing THAT? How many cars do we have to put on the road before the roads pay for themselves? And what are the long term affects of perpetuating our car-culture and bloated highway system? When you can calculate that, then you can ask Louise Slaughter about rail subsidies.

How about buses? Where’s RGRTA getting $50MM for it’s bus terminal? How about the auto industry? Who’s subsidizing that?

So go ahead and find the answers to your questions. I certainly want to be the first to read them when you do. But please put the numbers up against the true cost of being shackled to our cars. Or else your story is incomplete and quite useless. And for the love of God, let the fast ferry go.

-Mike Governale

If you’d like to send Evan Dawson your thoughts, please email him at edawson@13wham.com or leave a comment below.

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This entry was posted on Friday, April 16th, 2010 at 10:12 pm and is filed under Opinion, Rochester News, Transit + Infrastructure. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “More Discussion with WHAM 13’s Evan Dawson on the Cost of High Speed Rail”

  1. Drew says:

    I find this piece of Evan’s e-mail rather interesting: “Most reporters now acknowledge that we didn’t vet the ferry very well. We would have discovered that there was not very much of a long-term business plan, the projections that did exist were overly optimistic, etc.”

    Since when is the responsibility (or expertise) of these reporters to vet a particular business plan that either the private or public sector propose? I just assumed they were trained to read from a teleprompter. With the exception of Rachel Barnhart at 13 WHAM, I’m basically of the thought that most reporters are rather useless. I know this sounds harsh, but Evan’s original report and response only solidifies my opinion. I have a masters degree in Corporate Finance and not even *I* feel like I would be qualified to vet the business plan for HSR, who is he kidding?


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