Monthly Archives: May 2011

High-speed train construction gets derailed

It looks like Americans in support of a high-speed rail system will either have to break out their checkbooks or their car keys. Several state governors have cited budgetary issues in their reasoning for turning down the Obama administration’s offer of federal funding for the construction of high-speed rails through their respective states. This argument, at least according to the governors who said “no” to the funding, is based on the fact that federal funding doesn’t foot the entire rail construction bill. In order to attain the money on offer, each state will have to drum up a considerable chunk of dollars from the state budget in order to close the gap on construction costs, not to mention the annual bill that it takes to actually keep the trains running.

Amidst an economic climate in which everyone is facing deep cuts, it’s understandable for states to bristle at the prospect of adding long-term expenditures to the annual budget. Ohio Governor John Kasich has spoken out against the rail project, (which is expected to cost about $17 million per year to operate), declaring “That train is dead. I said it during the campaign. It is dead. Passenger rail is not in Ohio’s future.”

This sentiment has been echoed in the Wisconsin and Florida statehouses as well, with the primary complaint being the high cost of matching the giant wad of cash that the federal government has broken out as a carrot to incentivize state government action.

The logic behind the Obama administration’s requirement that states foot at least some of the railroad bill is rooted in the idea that one values an object more when they pay for at least some of its costs.  While this argument is consistently accepted when dealing with road construction, it simply hasn’t generated as much political juice when applied to trains.

The debate over funding for high-speed rail is an example of people not seeing, or refusing to recognize the larger picture. It’s hard to justify this duplicitous nature, as roads are unending money sinkholes in their own right. It costs a train conductor’s ransom to cover the money lost in traffic congestion and road repair, even while accounting for tolls and other sources of revenue. And that’s not to mention that it’s technically impossible to alleviate traffic by adding more lanes.

As far as high-speed rail’s economic productivity is concerned, one must consider the cost related to both the interstate highway system, as well as the short-haul airplane flights that far outstrip the automobile’s gas consumption. But that isn’t true.

Here’s an excerpt from argument against rail construction in Wisconsin:

“In Wisconsin, for example, a round-trip fare between Madison and Milwaukee would cost roughly $50 per person, even though the cities are less than 80 miles apart along Interstate 94. With a round trip between the two cities by automobile requiring only about six gallons of gasoline, depending on vehicle type, a high-speed rail ticket would cost a solo traveler at least twice as much as what the traveler would pay in gasoline driving between the two cities.” (link)

While the price for rail tickets may be correct, this argument circumvents the “wear and tear” issue almost entirely. Sure, a $50 ticket gets a passenger from point A to point B, but it also includes the cost of maintenance. The aforementioned 80 mile car trip doesn’t factor in any of the indirect wear and wear costs that are incurred both on the highway, but also the car itself. If we choose to go by the IRS’ valuation for wear and tear on automobiles, an 80 mile drive incurs somewhere between $11 and $40 of wear and tear. So a businessman who makes an 80 mile drive in a car that gets about 20 miles to the gallon is likely accruing $52 worth of costs in order to make the same trip that he could have made for $50. And that’s not even factoring in the costs of tolls and parking.

Instead, the issue comes from the fact that it’s hard to view these rails and roads as equal commodities. For one, People like driving their own cars. They are, in many ways, mobile homes. The average American spends an eighth of their lifetime either behind the wheel, or in the passenger seat. When you spend that much time anywhere, it’s understandable for one to grow attached to it. After all, it’s fun to roll down the windows, turn up the volume on the radio, and floor it down the open highway.

But that, like many past times, are little more than a fantasy. Most Americans aren’t cruising down the highway, but harnessed by long lines of gridlocked traffic. It’s an amalgamation of that guy who buys a sports car, only to spend most of his time cruising through 35 miles an hour residential streets.

Additionally, cars are bad for you. 33,000 people died in car crashes last year, and countless more are dying a slow death due to 3 hours a day of sitting in a car seat.

The rejection of high-speed rail funding is also a result of ignoring industry trends. Statistics show that more people are riding the train than ever before. Additionally, it’s not like rejecting the funding means that the money is going back to U.S. citizens, or likely even the federal government. Numerous states have moved in to snatch up the cash that Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin have so quickly rejected. Maryland, one of the states who has some in to pick over the leftovers, is sandwiched in a stretch of some of the highest traffic density in the western world. A fleshed out rail system across the Mid-Atlantic would help to provide a sample of what a developed high-speed rail system can provide to a region.

There’s plenty to like about a high-speed rail system. A 200 mph train ride is far faster than a car, and the prospect of circumventing the slow and degrading search methods employed at airports make it a viable alternative. Critics can point to the high initial and maintenance costs, but it’s not as if roads are cheap by any means. So opponents of a high-speed rail system can cite the high cost amidst a crummy economic period, but any other argument made is rooted in delusional, misinformed bias.

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Nigerian Scam

Embassy row in Washington DC was dark that night, save a pair of lights that permeated through the ground floor windows of the Nigerian Embassy. A moment later, one of the of the lights dimmed to darkness.

Abashi, a man in his early thirties, propped his feet on the desk. His tie was loose and his collar unbuttoned.
“And that’s why we need your help”, he spoke wearily into the phone. The caller barked a response that made Abashi tip the receiver away from his ear. He scrawled a line through a name on his notepad, thumbed the hook, and punched in a new number.

Mazi, hat in hand, emerged in the doorway. He was wearing a unbelted beige overcoat, and a red tie spilled out from his neck, and down his white-cottoned belly. Grey strands threaded their way through his black curls.
“Mazi”, Abashi pronounced, widening his eyes and hanging up the phone. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going home”  Mazi replied, determinately.
Mbeke, armed with a ream of papers, arrived at Mazi’s size. Her hair looked jostled, and was pinned lopsided in the air with a ballpoint pen.
“Get back here Mazi” she exclaimed. She withdrew the pen from her hair, sending frizzy hair tumbling out to one side, and forced the papers towards his chest. Mazi aimed his palms in her direction and pushed himself away. “I’m not signing anything else. Mbeke. There’s no point.”
Mazi closed his eyes and released a long breath of air, before walking over to Abashi’s desk. Mbeke followed, her stiletto heels scraping against the tile floor. Abashi hung up the phone and set it down. He slid his legs off the desk, pressing soles to the floor. “Our nation is under attack, Mazi” Abashi stated. “What would the foreign ministry say to you deserting when you’re needed the most?”
“I don’t know what they’d say!” Mazi replied shrugging his shoulders. “We haven’t had contact with Abuja in, uh.” He turned to Mbeke, who examined her watch. “Thirty-five hours and 53 minutes” she replied, blinking slowly. “Thirty-five hours and 53 minutes!” he proclaimed, and donned his hat. “I’ve been on the phone with the foreign ministry of every country in the western hemisphere, and every single one of them has spit in my ear.”
Abashi frowned. “I know. And the same thing has been happening to me.” He ran rings on his temples with his thumb and index finger, and tried to think of something reinforcing to say.
Mazi pursed his lips and pointed east. “Look. We know the Delta Rebels took control of Abuja, and we know that we can’t pay their ransom demands unless the Minister of Finance authorizes it.”
“And we know that the Finance Minister is dead.” added Mbeke. “We don’t know who’s in charge.”
“So there’s nothing we can do from here.” Mazi said, donning his hat. “That’s why I’m going home. Mbeke, if you’re staying, please give Abashi anything he needs.”

Mbeke eyed Abashi indignantly, and rolled her eyes. Mazi took a final survey of the office, eying the empty, ransacked desks of former employees, who had departed under the assumption of unmet wages. Overturned files spilled papers over every surface, floor and desk. Mazi’s eyes met with Mbeke and Abashi, who stared back angrily. He then buckled his coat and departed.

Abashi stood in silence, grinding his teeth. He walked over to the water cooler, which dispensed its last few drops into his coffee mug. He approached the drinking fountain in the hall and held the mug under a stream so weak that the water dribbled backwards onto the metal spout. He then returned to his desk, plopped back down and dialed the next number on his list.

The call went straight to a voicemail. “Hello, Mr. Ambassador, this is Abashi Abacha, Acting Director of the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, DC. We have been informed by the Foreign Ministry that our President has been assassinated, and his family, along with his cabinet department and the Vice President are now being held hostage. We require a third party in order to help resolve this matter. Please return this call as soon as possible, the number is 202-545-4500, extension 434.”

“It’s late” said Mbeke, with a sigh. “Everyone probably went home already”

Abashi frowned at his new assistant. “Is that really the point? Call off our search simply because it’s practical?”

Mbeke nodded. “We should call off the search. With an empty office and no multilateral support, it’s crazy for you to think you can do anything right now. We should go home and continue in the morning.”

Abashi looked at her with sympathetic eyes. “If you believed that, you would have left with Mazi.” He approached her and rested a hand on her shoulder. “You and I are still here because we both know that there is nowhere left to go”

A phone erupted in a clattering of rings. Abashi slid across a desk, spraying papers through the air, and lifted the receiver. “Nigerian Embassy, this is Abashi Abacha”.

“Hello, this is George Riker of the Australian Foreign Ministry. I’m here on a conference call with the Prime Minister and his Chief of Staff. What is your situation?”

“Hello sirs”, Abashi said, grabbing a notebook and pencil. “At 8:35 am on Thursday, rebel forces took control of the capital. Our President has been assassinated, and the rebels have placed the remainder of our government in detention and are demanding a 120 million ransom.”

“What about the troops on the ground?”

“No contact since the rebel demands were issued” replied Abashi.

“And what is the word on your ability to pay?” asked Riker.

“Unfortunately, before being killed, our President called a state of emergency, which resulted in a freeze on all federal bank accounts.” Abashi said.

“So we have no access to money to pay off the ransom.” Added Mbeke.

“This is why we are using this opportunity to solicit your co-operation and assistance.” Abashi said. “We need urgent help to get the ransom money to Abuja as soon as possible.”

A click could be heard on the other end of the line. “This is Duncan Quick, Chief of Staff. What approach are you looking for us to take in regards to this matter?”

“Once you wire us the money, we will be able to pay the ransom, and then unfreeze our bank accounts. After that, we can pay you back.”

A pause was heard on the Australian end. After a moment, the Chief of Staff came back on the line. “So to summarize, you’re asking for 120 million dollars in cash to be wired to Nigeria?” Mr. Quick asked.

“Yes sir.” Abashi said excitedly. “Although the captors actually requested the payment to be made in Euros. Did I mention the 100 percent Nigerian guarantee?”

A low rumble of voices could be heard through the receiver, followed by shouting, and a click. Abashi’s mouth dropped. “Hello? Hello?!” But his shout was met with the line’s disconnection. Abashi held the phone in the air, staring at the receiver.

“What did they say?” asked Mbeke.

“They hung up.”

Mbeke exhaled loudly, and put the back of her hand to her head. “Well. Let’s hope they call back.”