CO2 Emissions u.s. energy policy orchestrated by beavis and butthead

Published on March 5th, 2011 | by Tina Casey


High Speed Rail Meets the Beavis and Butthead School of Transportation Planning

March 5th, 2011 by  

u.s. energy policy orchestrated by beavis and buttheadWith oil prices spiking and the nation’s rail system in urgent need of an overhaul, it would seem like the last thing we need is more roads and less rails. And yet, that’s just what we’re getting.  The governor of one state recently turned down a chance to build a new $2.4 billion high speed rail system at no cost to state taxpayers, and now the legislature of another state has just proposed a $2.8 billion highway system upgrade that state residents will have to pay for with an increased diesel tax and an increase on the state sales tax. Say, who’s running this show anyways?

Roads and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

To be fair, highway improvements do have a place in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If the goal is to alleviate congestion, then Bob’s your uncle. It’s also fair to point out that in the sparkling green future of decentralized renewable energy production, you’re going to put more goods and people on the road for installation, maintenance, and repair, so highway improvements are going to be vital in the long run – and in the long run, electric vehicles and other alternative fuels will help ensure that more vehicular traffic does not translate into more greenhouse gas emissions.

Roads, Rails and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Of course, another way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions related to vehicles is to build a strong, sensible network of mass transportation alternatives. In that regard, there must have been a very good reason for the Governor of Florida to put the kibosh on a fully funded high speed rail construction project that would have created thousands of new green jobs in addition to providing long term economic benefits, without putting his state’s taxpayers on the hook for any of it. Yes, a very good, sensible reason. As in, a reason that makes sense. Come to think of it – speaking of oil prices – maybe it does make sense after all. As Butthead would say, “Uhhh…huh huh huh.”

Image: Beavis and Butthead by Antonio Tajuelo on

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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  • et3

    Steam power in the late 1700s, and early 1800s displaced muscle power transportation due to major value improvement in transportation. Steam power was far less cost than muscle power and much faster too so river boats (and later trains) opened up much new opportunity than possible with muscle power. By about 1880 the market for trains was nearing saturation, but overshoot occurred due to rail promoters understating costs of new expansions and overstating likely revenues. By 1910 trains carried 90% of Americans between US cities (now is is less than 1%. Why is that?). By 1916 the rail network hit maximum expansion of 270,000 miles (now it is less than 130,000 miles. Why is that?)

    This is why:
    The same thing happened a hundred years later with the introduction of automobiles and aircraft. They offered much greater transportation value than trains and river boats. They offered increased benefits of accessibility, much lower initial and operating costs, and much faster speed, so they displaced trains and boats, (just like steam displaced muscle power). Cars and jets have displaced trains from because of the leverage in standard of living improvement that they offer (the net benefit is much greater than the costs – so spending more to travel more allows even greater income — and much induced demand or “rebound effect”. Just as trains and river boats hit market saturation (marginal ROI on continued expansion), so are cars and jets now in market saturation, and expansion will require lies (or government subsidy — another form of lie).

    Fortunately, there is a proven technology (Evacuated Tube Transport ™) that can provide 50 times more transportation per unit of energy than trains, ships, cars, or jets, and at less than 1/10th the cost, so in spite of the induced demand, energy savings will be greater than the induced demand from lower costs (unlike with the displacement of high cost trains by low cost cars).

    As far as FL HSR, it would have proven to be a boondoggle. In the year 2000 the voters of FL (60%) passed a constitutional amendment calling for a “high speed ground transportation system” (MINIMUM speed 120mph) to connect the 5 largest populations centers of FL. The FHSRA RFP called for a maximum speed of 120mph, and stipulated steel wheel on steel rail. The industry experts determined the trip time would be 52min from Orland to Tampa (the first leg) and the ticket cost would be $24 on way. (for reference, one can drive the route in about 1:15, using about $10 worth of fuel for 5 adults.) The winning bid called for 2.6B of tax payer money, and no private funding (private investors rarely invest money at an expected negitive ROI!). In 2004 the voters repealed the boondoggle created by the FHSRA by a 70% margin — but it was resurrected by the Obama stimulus as being the only HSR plan in the nation that was “shovel ready”.

    If you bother checking on why Scott rejected the money, he cites many reasons including: FL tax payers on the hook for the expected high operating loss; FL required to pay back the fed funds if the system is shut down EVEN IF NOT PERFORMING UP TO PROJECTIONS (note: projections supplied by firms proven to understate costs by 50% and overstate ridership by 50% on the average of past projections!), the high paying jobs created would represent a net drain on the economy (over 90% of the cost on government, and no chance of recovery of even operating costs (let alone even .01% interest on the capital cost). The train cost: over $65,000 per seat of capacity! 100% paid by government; (compared to automotive that cost less than $5,000 per seat of capacity and are 100% paid for by users – with operating cost 100% paid by users PLUS ROAD COST PAID BY ROAD USERS in fuel tax.)

    According to GAO, on a $/ passenger-mile basis, trains in the US receive 40 times more funding than roads.

    BTW, none of the past FHSRA info is currently available on the official FLHSRA website anymore — but we have all of the original material (my company was one of the 4 proposals submitted by the 20 companies that qualified in 2002). Our proposal was for $100 of public money, and the use of the existing public right of way (ROW). Our technology could be built at the time for $253M of private funding sources (The RFP identified more than $300M of “value capture” such as increased value of land, etc.). Our technology could produce a trip time of 20min, and a ticket cost of $5/person ROUND TRIP would recover construction and operating cost at a rate of 10% ROI.

    @Frank Rizzo, the deep pockets are the rail industries in France, Spain, Germany, Japan, and China. They would profit greatly by creating thousands of jobs in their countries. They would profit by continuing to use their factories (some built and paid for in the 1800s) to make passenger trains that they cannot sell in the open market due to lack of VALUE. They spend tens of millions wining and dining government officials with luxury junkets to Europe and Asia to ride the HSR – the pay-off is billions of government funding extorted from tax payers who cannot or do not want to use HSR trains. (and hundreds of millions in government funded “studies” to “prove” the viability).

  • Frank Rizzo

    Who’s running this show? Deep pocketed special interests of course.

  • johnmarshall

    Unfortunately MS. Casey, you’re not talking about actual HSR. You’re talking about a utopian future, which is desirable but has nothing to do with HSR. You column is long on generalities and short on facts, so here are a few:

    – HSR has nothing to do with commuter traffic. It doesn’t take any cars off the road, it takes people out of the sky. All of the planned routes are city to city and not the suburbs. If you start adding stops, there goes the high speed part of high speed rail

    – none of the actual components of HSR, be they green or not, are manufactured in this country except the road bed itself

    – HSR does not carry freight, nor does it serve anyone but the people who actually ride it. this is entirely unlike a similar amount invested in road repair which can be used by freight that benefit the entire community, even those who personally do not ride on the road. it is also open 24/7 unlike HSR, and can be used in more adverse weather condtions than HSR

    – the tiny ridership of HSR can never replace air traffic, so not only do you have to maintain the HSR line, but you STILL have to maintain the airports too. So you’re not saving anything with HSR, you’re actually doubling your costs.

    – no railroad that has ever existed in this country has consistently made money on passenger traffic. From the earliest days freight has subsidized passengers and always will. furthermore no form of transportation in history has ever been as heavily subsidized as the railroads

    – people talk now about how relaxed train travel in general is compared to airlines. This will last approximatley one day after the first rail terrorist incident. unlike planes, which are safe on the route presuming the passengers have been properly screened, rail travel is as defenseless as a 90 year old woman. Literally hundreds of miles of track lay completely open and available to any person wishing to destroy all that billion dollar investment.

    I’m a Dem, and a believer in climate change if it matters but HSR is the biggest boondoggle of the 21st century, the same as ethanol was/is the biggest of the late 20th century.

    • Tina Casey

      John Marshall, please check in again and provide some links or citations for your information, for example:,0,5151852,print.story. No need to mention your political affiliation, as it neither supports nor undermines your argument.

      • johnmarshall

        Be delighted to. Most of what is called HSR in this country is not. True HSR runs at over 150 MPH on tracks specially built for that purpose, which does not also carry freight traffic. So what people are pointing out in Europe Japan and China is for the most part not what is in this proposal.

        What is being sold here is HSR light, or faster Amrtak, depending on your point of view. They’re talking about increasing the number of trains, and the speed of the existing trains to perhaps 105 MPH form the current 80 or MPH they now travel. This is problematic because fregiht trains only run at about 50 MPH. At current speeds they can both safely use the same tracks. At 100-105 (in the unlikely event that is achievable) they safe spacing between trains would force either a reduction in freight trains OR a reduction in the proposed number of passenger trains. Since freight is profitable and passenger traffic is not, this means more subsidies necessary for the passenger trains. However, try getting a 43 billion dollar funding proposal passed when the title is ” a bill to make Amtrak run more trains at 20% faster speed” LOL

        They’re are a few places where genuine HSR is being proposed, one of them being SF to LA. Hard to judge from the news what the exact plan is about Tampa to Orlando, as to whether or not it’s true HSR. I’m doubtful.

        “This is another false comparison because Amtrak’s total ridership in the Northeast corridor is more than 12 million per year, and additional ridership is constrained by commuter trains in the corridor with an annual ridership of 250 million. The Tampa-to-Orlando line would run on dedicated tracks with fewer constraints and road crossings, allowing for faster and more-frequent service. The ridership projections are based on traffic congestion on I-4 and Central Florida as a unique tourist destination with 50 million tourists per year.”

        The driving distance between the two areas is only 85 miles. On true HSR, that trip would be about 30 minutes or less. Without knowing the actual figures, I would imagine that most tourists going to Orlando land at the Orlando airport or drive their own car to get there (both of which I have done). So in neither case would any train from Tampa be of use to alleviate major tourist traffic on I-4, but only local commuter traffic.

        This leads me to believe that what they are proposing is not really HSR, but a glorified commuter train.

        Finally, never believe any representative from right or left who tells you that “private funding” will be on the hook for cost overruns. What alwasy happens in these cases is that some combination of bonds with guarantees built in them are used. If the costs run too great the “private” funding sources will throw up their hands and say “sorry, we would go bankrupt”. At that point, in order not to have a giant unused hole in the ground so to speak, and to protect the government issued bonds, the goverment always steps back in.

        I used to cite various sources for my information (in this case I come from a railroading family) but I found out that inevitably people would attack the source rather than the info itself, as the Orlando Sentinel writer does.

        You can research everything I’ve written. Very little of it is controversial when applied as fact and not emotion. Enjoying the discussion, thanks for the forum!

      • johnmarshall

        BTW, the quote I cited from the Sentinel:

        “This is another false comparison because Amtrak’s total ridership in the Northeast corridor is more than 12 million per year, and additional ridership is constrained by commuter trains in the corridor with an annual ridership of 250 million.”

        is in my opinion misleading thought not deliberately false.

        These figures are the equivalent of man-hours. Twelve million spearate people do not ride Amtrak each year, nor do 250 million people use commuter trains. These numbers reflect the numbers of trips purchased. One commuter who rides everyday makes the equivalent of about 500 trips per year. So the number of separate individuals who use commuter rail in that corridor is actually anywhere between 10-25 million people depending on who is doing the guesstimating.

        The importance of this I believe is the higher numbers are used to create the false impression that a much broader spectrum of people use trains than actually do. Those who use them often do so religiously, but they are only a small part of the total tranportation network of this corridor.

        I do believe that commuter rail is a vital part of our overall tranportation network. However the administration should not try to sell an expansion of commuter rail to alleviate road congestion in major population centers (which may be a good idea on it’s own merits) with genuine HSR. Real HSR is an extremely uneconomical use of money for this nation, given our existing migration patterns.

        • Tina Casey

          John thank you for that additional insight. Looking at the number of individuals served is one measurement, but I don’t think it should exclude other important considerations, such as the total number of trips. Also I’m still interested in seeing some of the links or sources supporting your earlier comment.

          • johnmarshall

            Which comments? I have a tendency to make a lot of them.

            For instance the current speeds of freight and Amtrak trains can be found on almost any website devoted to rail as can the type of HSR trains that are being created most recently in China where the world’s fastest HSR train runs.


            The Chinese are WAY ahead of us on trains, and we are WAY ahead of them on aircraft.

            Sometimes you have to simply know the business. For instance in the US, the number and type of at-grade crossing are substantial. To run even higher speed Amtrak trains, you have to upgrade many/most of those crossings to an overpass or some kind of physical barrier.

            “There are more than 250,000 highway-rail crossings in the United States, and collisions at crossings account for of 96% on train-caused injuries. Three major factors contribute to these injuries:
            •Crossings whose warning mechanisms do not adequately warn of the danger posed by the intersection
            •Bells, crossing gates, lights and other signaling devices that fail to operate, and fail to warn drivers and pedestrians of approaching trains
            •Visibility compromised by overgrown brush or trees preventing drivers from seeing approaching trains”

            Here’s my final example of the difference between the talk and reality, using links as you request.

            The FRA says that HSR is:

            “3.High-Speed Rail – passenger rail operations that connect distant communities or population centers and operate at maximum speeds above 125 mph. High-speed rail operations primarily compete with aviation. The only current high-speed rail operation in the United States is Amtrak’s 150 mph Acela service. New high-speed rail systems are under development and should become operational in the coming years.”

            The rest of the world would disagree saying that 125 is too slow to be considered HSR, even though we have NO trains currently anywhere in the US that operate at that speed. How can this be you ask, since the FRA clearly states that the Acela is HSR? Remember what I wrote above. To operate an actual HSR you need tracks built specifically for that purpose and scheduling that does not include freight trains on the same track.

            Here from Wikipedia about the Acela:

            “Acela Express trains are the only true high-speed trainsets in North America; the highest speed they attain is 150 mph (240 km/h), though they average less than half of that.”

            Finally, by way of bolstering my claim that HSR jobs are not American jobs, even though it was started more than 15 years ago when our manufacturing capacity was greater than today, the Acela was designed and built by a consortium of the Germans and the French. Today, we would buy from the Chinese instead.

            I am enjoying the discussion as I hope you are.

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