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NYT takes Koch Bros. dictation on Florida High Speed Rail

March 22nd, 2011 · No Comments

Yet another guest post from the thoughtful BruceMcF.

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Suppose that you wanted to inject a framing into a purely political strategy which also happened to involve sabotaging the future of the nation’s economy?

“We sabotaged the future economy.”

Hmmm, that would be a bad talking point there.

How about this option?

“The project we sabotaged was not justifiable on its merits, and was only pursued for purely political reasons.”

Aha, much better: the benefit of this framing is when someone points out that the cancellation was purely political, now you have charges of pure politics going in both directions, making it sound “controversial”, which in itself makes it sound risky to support spending billions on a useful piece of infrastructure.

And where better to inject this framing than the pages of the New York Times or the Washington Post? Well, this time it was the Times taking dictation and not bothering to report the whole story. The New York Times‘ new slogan, it seems, should be “All the news that can fit the Village Frame”.

Dissecting a frame

This story appears over a week back: How Flaws Undid Obama’s High-Speed Rail in Florida.

Now, what undid Florida’s HSR was the election of a TexasTea Party Governor, beholden to interests who have for various reasons adopted opposition to the establishment of improved intercity passenger rail infrastructure.

That much is clear from two simple facts: first, the Governor asked people who have been arguing against any investment in HSR anywhere in the US to report on whether the HSR was a good idea ~ indeed, including people who are paid by the oil-funded propaganda mill the Reason Foundation to conclude that HSR should not be funded. As Robert Cruickshank at the CAHSRblog writes:

A recent report suggests he just might. One of Scott’s advisers is Robert Poole, who works for the Reason Foundation, which as we know is funded by oil companies, giving it a strong incentive to attack passenger rail. Poole and notorious train-hater Wendell Cox have authored a new report that claims Florida’s HSR project will cost twice as much, and won’t attract riders.As usual, this “report” doesn’t actually prove either conclusion.

Of course, there was a different report also being prepared: Study: High speed rail would’ve had $10Mil surplus:

The most recent ridership study for high speed rail shows it would have made even more money than previously thought.Released Wednesday by the Florida Department of Transportation, the study shows the rail system between Tampa and Orlando would have raked in a $10.24 million surplus in its first year and a $28.58 million surplus by its tenth year.

… the second fact here being that the Governor made certain to make the decision rejecting the Federal funding of almost the entire project ~ with private firms standing by ready to cover the balance in return for the right to operate services on the corridor ~ before the Florida Department of Transport ridership study was released.

So, clearly, you want to reject a project, a report is going to come through that is going to undermine your arguments, hurry up and hire reports that are certain to support cancellation, and hurry up and cancel before the ridership modeling is released. A political hack job from start to finish.
Enter the “Grey Lady” as propaganda pipeline

Now, if you are looking for an explanation of how the Florida HSR was canceled, and the facts staring you in the face are not good enough, you need an alternate story, And with a combination of oil-funded propagandists paid to reach a negative conclusion, and those accustomed to fighting for the scraps and leavings given to rail funding over the past thirty years by trying to undermine projects other than your one, its not hard to cobble together an alternative story.

The important thing is to avoid double checking the story lines of the opponents, because when you dig into them, they do not in fact stand up. The New York Times, on the evidence, does not bother to do enough fact checking to discover this fact.

So, the first step is to frame the strongest benefit of the Florida HSR system as a flaw: the fact that Express HSR trains could be in operation in the next five to six years:

The Tampa-to-Orlando route had obvious drawbacks: It would have linked two cities that are virtually unnavigable without cars, and that are so close that the new train would have been little faster than driving. But the Obama administration chose it anyway because it was seen as the line that could be built first. Florida had already done much of the planning, gotten many of the necessary permits and owned most of the land that would be needed.

This paragraph alone tells us that we are dealing with a “based on real life” Lifetime dramatizations rather than an actual news report:

  • It would have “linked two cities that are virtually unnavigable without cars”
  • {and would have linked the airport to Disney, with air passengers arriving as pedestrians and the Disney complex clearly navigable without cars}
  • {and the Convention center, and several other major patronage drivers}
  • The new train would have been “little faster than driving”
  • {which is the most negative way of framing “would be faster than driving” that is allowed under a “only lie by ommission” rule}
  • {never saying that the reason that it can be built so quickly ~ the preservation of a 160mph Express HSR alignment in the expressway median ~ also means that it is a stage of an Express HSR system that can be built much cheaper than normally, when a new alignment must be developed, which relatively low cost makes the benefit/cost of the project a slam dunk win}
  • {never saying that having the line in operation will give us direct information on American travel choices that will allow us to more precisely judge those corridors that are not the same easy benefit/cost slam dunk wins as the Tampa/Orlanda corridor, but which better information might well show to be well worth the investment.}
  • {And of course ignoring until much later in the article ~ when it can be introduced as if it was another flaw ~ that the short distance of this leg means that both Orlando and Tampa can then be effectively connected to Miami with a single, longer, segment from Orlanda.}

Its clear cherry picking. Unless the reporter is deliberately setting out to do a hack job, what this indicates is taking dictation from “a range of opinions” that amounts to the range of opponents to the Federal government spending on this line.

Its clear that its a hack job in the next paragraph, which engages in the wonderful practice of journalistic mind-reading:

In the end, though, the state’s new governor decided not to build it at all, worried that those very drawbacks would ultimately make it a boondoggle.

The Governor’s actions proved that he did not give a damn whether it was a boondoggle or not:

  • first in choosing dogged HSR opponents to do the study, and then in accepting the study without serious peer review, since if his concern was to determine whether it was a boondoggle, he would have hired those who were no already committed to either the pro or the con side to do the study.
  • And, second, since he could easily have guaranteed that Florida taxpayers were not on the hook by tendering the right to operate the service for the first ten years to the highest private sector bidder, on condition of private financing of the balance of the project.

So not only is paragraph turning what the Governor claimed he was concerned about into the impossible act of reading the Governor’s mind ~ but we can test the claim and find out that it is a lie. If that was what the Governor really was concerned about, he would have acted differently.

Any plausible explanation of the Governor’s behavior has to include his determination to cancel the project from at least the time he commissioned what was certaint to be a biased anti-HSR report in early January. We might speculate why he was determined to cancel the project, but “concern that it might be a boondoggle” is a clear cover story, which any news report could easily uncover.
The NYT Outright Lying ~ Seemingly due to the Willingness to Remain Ignorant

Moving further down, after going into more detail why Florida could complete so quickly as if it only bore on the political appeal of the project and had nothing to do with the added benefit from having the line in operation and had nothing to do with the substantially lower cost per route mile, the story says:

The 21-mile leg between Orlando International Airport and Walt Disney World, which agreed to donate land for a stop, had the potential to attract lots of riders, and revenue — though such a short distance would be better served by a conventional train, or perhaps a monorail.

This is where the reporter for the Grey Lady resorts to outright lying, though knowing the information he would likely have received, he probably did not realize that he was lying.Here’s the deal: when consider the benefit versus the cost for a dedicated route between the Orlanda Airport and Disney, you’d go with a conventional train. The incremental difference in travel cost is so small, and the cost of the conventional rail normally so much less, it would be an automatic decision. The monorail suggestion is, of course, absurd ~ monorail is light rail running on concrete guideways and rubber tires, and building a concrete guideway and using the less energy efficient rubber tire traction when you have a median expressway alignment available, in this case, would be absurd.

But that is the answer to the question of, “would you build a dedicated 21 mile long HSR corridor” ~ not an answer to a question of, “in the Florida context, does it make more sense to use the existing expressway alignment for conventional rail or High Speed Rail”. After all, that is the either/or faced with here.

And when you consider that building it as part of an Express HSR from Tampa to Orlando would have provided a startup with an operating surplus, and the beginning of a Tampa / Orlando / Miami HSR corridor with the Disney station already built into the longer corridor ~ killing the option of a relatively low cost Tampa/Orlando leg of a future Tampa / Orlando HSR corridor by putting conventional rail in place instead would be foolish.

Of course, the facts that this would be a relatively low cost Express HSR corridor, or that it would be the first leg of a larger system ~ both of those are being omitted. So it seems likely that the reporter for the Grey Lady does not know that he is flat out lying here, because he never bothered to find out enough about the specifics here to understand that he is lying.
New York Times “Seen to Be” too lazy to find out the truth

Indeed, this “Based on True Life” dramatization (lacking the standard caution for normal dramatizations) red flags the laziness of its reporting in its section headers:

A Route Is Seen as Too ShortFlorida’s route had some glaring imperfections, though.

Tampa and Orlando are only 84 miles apart, generally considered too close for high-speed rail to make sense.

84 miles is normally too short to justify a free-standing HSR system, since the added cost over 84 miles normally blows away the added benefit. Of course:

  • This is an Express HSR mostly built into an already-available alignment, and
  • It is the first stage of a HSR system to extend down to Miami

Indeed, given the alignment that is already capable of supporting a 160mph system, and the benefit of using the short trip between the two to allow a single Express HSR corridor from Orlando to Miami to provide better service than two distinct Rapid Rail HSR corridors from Orlando to Miami and Tampa to Miami ~ the only concern with building this as a first stage is whether it is so short that it would require operating subsidies.

Seriously, The New York Times so-called “reporter” can’t be bothered to find out that Orlando to Miami is 197 miles line of sight, so a 90% efficient alignment would be 220 miles ~ add the 86 miles to Tampa, and its about a 300 mile corridor, easily in the sweet spot for the 160mph maximum speed limit derived from building much of the corridor in expressway medians.

An honest heading would be, “Florida Project Opponents Claim that its too short”: “seen to be” without citing seen by whom is classic stenography of anonymous sources. And no shock that the opponents to the project who informed the “story” for some odd reason did not include the fact that its the planned first stage of a longer system as as dictation for the NYT stenographer to take down.

Still, it was probably not the line most people would have chosen if they were starting from scratch. When America 2050, a planning group, ranked potential routes in a report called “Where High-Speed Rail Works Best,” the Tampa-to-Orlando route was not even included because the cities are too close together.

Also, America2050 only looked at the benefit side, so while Tampa / Miami and Orlando / Miami separately did not rank high in their list, the fact that Tampa / Orlando / Miami would pool those two into a single corridor ~ and the fact that the Tampa / Orlando leg is easily justified on its benefits alone, when then benefit/cost comparison is made ~ did not enter into their study.Finally, after writing the majority of the piece pretending as if the Orlando / Tampa line was a free-standing corridor, the reporter offers the lamest possible excuse for doing so:

Although the state’s plan called for eventually extending the line down to Miami, making the train an attractive alternative to short-hop flights or long drives, the extension would have required more time and planning and much more money to build.

Yes, it would have required more time, and planning, and much more money to build. The longer rail corridor, which does not have all of the alignment already available in advance, would take more time, more planning, and more money.That is pure propaganda dictation at its finest. It has the shape and feel of a flaw of the Tampa / Orlando line ~ extending it would cost more. But there’s no flaw to be found in the statement. For consider the situation if Florida’d former Republican Governor Crist had proposed to go ahead with the Miami to Orlando line first? The objections would have been:

  • This is too much money to spend on an untried system
  • The alignment is not yet available and there is no guarantee that it will be
  • The amount of funding available from the Federal government would only be enough to fund a fraction of it, and the State would be on the hook for the rest, and
  • in any event, its not ready to turn dirt in time, so it would no qualify for stimulus funding.

What would it take to meet all of those objections? What it would take would be the extremely unlikely combination of:

  • A corridor that is already close enough to ready to go to qualify for Federal funding
  • A corridor that is low cost enough per route mile and short enough in miles to be able to be mostly funded by a fraction of the Federal funding available
  • And, ideally, which would provide the benefit of a new Express HSR system coming into operation in the current decade, allowing for more informed decision making nationwide on a technology race that we have ceded to the Japanese and Europeans, but still
  • In such a strong transport market that it will be able to mature into a system with an operating surplus, that can then help fund the Florida side of the longer term Miami / Orlando project

In other words, the Tampa / Orlando project. The reason that it was politically appealing to the Obama administration was, after all, not based on an expectation that it would be a standing monument to the poor judgment of the administration. And if the Reason/Cato/Heritage propaganda mills really were confident that it would be a failure, they would not have to work near as hard as they do to try to kill as many projects as possible before they get going.

The real flaw of the Tampa / Orlando project was that it was almost certain to succeed, and that success would be certain to be experienced by people from around the country. It was not canceled for fear that the Florida taxpayers would be on the hook for construction cost over-runs, nor for fear of long term operating losses, since there was already private money standing ready to cover both risks. It was canceled for fear that Floridians and American in general would be impressed by the train in operation.

And readers of The New York Times might be informed of that fact ~ but not by reading this dramatization loosely based on real events that was accidentally misplaced in a non-fiction section of the paper.

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Tags: Energy · journalism · trains · transportation