Los Angeles Homelessness

Los Angeles has a huge, and growing, problem with homeless residents.  According to this article in the Los Angeles Times, as many as 58,000 people in Los Angeles are living on the streets.

It’s a staggering number.  Even for a city as big as Los Angeles, with a population of about 4 million, 58,000 people is a lot.  To put some Midwestern perspective on that number, those 58,000 homeless people are just a bit below the population of the 10th-largest city in Ohio.

Along some Los Angeles streets, rows of makeshift tents, shelters, and shanties house the homeless.  You can see some of the pictures of the encampments and the homeless here.  And what’s even more astonishing is that the tent cities of the homeless have been there for years, and seem to be spreading and growing — and nothing is being done about it.  The homelessness problem is getting progressively worse.

How can 58,000 people be homeless and living on the streets?  As for the why, there doesn’t seem to be one particular answer:  some are mentally ill, some are addicted, some are simply destitute.  And for that reason, there’s no single answer to the problem, either.  Some of the people need treatment.  Some of the people need a job and a hand up.  But whatever the solution, the notion of tent cities of 58,000 people raises so many obvious problems — health problems, sanitation problems, crime problems, security problems — that it simply can’t be tolerated.  And yet, in Los Angeles, it is.

I don’t know what the answer to LA’s homelessness crisis is, but if I were a voter in that city I would demand that the city government start aggressively dealing with the problem and determining appropriate, humane ways to get those 58,000 people off the streets.  And I would also ask:  why is the state of California spending billions of dollars to build a high-speed rail system in the California desert when there are thousands of people living in tents on the streets of L.A.?

Wasting Tax Dollars — High-Speed Edition

They’re talking about building a high-speed rail connection between Las Vegas and Victorville, California.  Of course, they’ve been talking about that idea for years.  The difference now is that our government is seriously considering making a $4.9 billion loan — that’s billion — to help finance the project.

Amazing, isn’t it, that after the disastrous failure of Solyndra the federal government would still consider making any loans to private firms, much less loans of billions of dollars?  That’s not the only amazing thing about this proposal, however.

For those who aren’t familiar with California geography, Victorville is 68 miles from Los Angeles.  The concept for the “DesertXpress” train thus envisions L.A. residents bound for Vegas white-knuckling their way through the appalling southern California traffic and then, just as they reach the wide open spaces of the High Desert, getting off the road and waiting for a train!  If they want to play golf in Vegas, they’ll wrestle their clubs onto the train, too!  And then, after a ride that is only about an hour shorter than driving, the train will deposit them at a station in some remote part of Vegas, so they can catch a cab to get to the Strip!  And they’ll happily pay at least $50 one-way (or more than they would pay for gas, even at today’s high prices) for this privilege!

Nothing wrong with that well-conceived concept, eh?  Skeptics might contend that our leaders should follow a simple rule:  if a business plan is so fantastic that even venture capitalists won’t buy in, the federal government shouldn’t, either.  If DesertXpress can’t convince capitalists to invest, taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to fill the void — no matter what kind of phony feasibility studies or rosy projections of increased employment might be cited in support of the project.

Remember, too, that the United States doesn’t have money on hand right now.  If we loan money to DesertXpress, we’ll first have to borrow it from other sources and pay interest.  And when the DesertXpress goes toes up, as common sense dictates it must, our loan won’t be repaid, and we’ll have to dig even deeper into our own pockets to pay off what we borrowed.  Can our government seriously be considering putting us in such a position?  Seriously?


Rail Rejection

They say elections have consequences, and in Ohio we are beginning to see that.  One of the consequences of John Kasich’s narrow victory over Ted Strickland in the race for Ohio Governor will be the rejection of plans to establish a passenger rail corridor between Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati.  Kasich has declared that the project is “dead,” and with Republicans in control over both Houses in the Ohio General Assembly he undoubtedly will get his way on that point.

The “3C Rail Corridor” project was going to be funded, in significant part, with $400 million in federal funds, as well as by ongoing state contributions.  Kasich’s point is that the project is a white elephant that will require future state budget expenditures that Ohio simply cannot afford in its current budget predicament.  The return of passenger rail to Ohio has long been a dream of many people, but others raised serious questions about the viability of the project because the trains would have been slower, costlier, and less direct than driving from Cincinnati to Columbus to Cleveland.

The federal funds are earmarked for the project, so  the $400 million must be returned to the U.S. government.  Wouldn’t it be a good start on our federal budget problems if other newly elected governors followed Kasich’s lead and returned federal funds for costly projects that don’t really make sense in their states?   In an era of trillion-dollar deficits, $400 million doesn’t seem like much, but — as I say when Kish and I discuss household budgeting — every little bit helps.

The 3 C Corridor, By Rail

Ohio recently was awarded $400 million in “stimulus” money to get “high-speed” trains running along the “3 C” corridor connecting Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland.  According to this article, the plan would be to run four trains a day with six stops — two in the Cincinnati area, Dayton, Columbus, and two in the Cleveland area — starting in 2012.  The trains would reach a top speed of 79 miles per hour and would average 40 miles per hour.  An Amtrak study has estimated that 500,000 riders a year — primarily sports fans, business travelers, and college students — would use the rail service if it were available.

I think the train connection is intriguing, but I am a bit skeptical.  It’s weird to think that train travel, which had pretty much died by the time I was a kid in the ’60s, is the future of travel in Ohio.  I think a lot of people have romantic views of train travel, primarily from watching Alfred Hitchcock movies starring Cary Grant, but I doubt that the connection between Cincinnati and Cleveland will have much in the way of glamour.  The real issue is whether people will structure their travel to take one of the four trains, or whether they will hop in their cars at a time of their choosing and simply drive to their destination.  Right now, you can drive from Columbus to Cleveland in a bit over two hours, your average speed is significantly higher than 40 mph, and your car takes you from your doorstep directly to your destination.  I’m particularly doubtful of people taking the train from Columbus to Cincinnati because the route veers through Dayton, which is not on the direct route, making the trip a lot longer than it would be by car.

I’m not sure precisely how the $400 million will be spent, but a lot of infrastructure work needs to be done.  Columbus does not have a train station, although the convention center supposedly was designed to include an area that could be easily modified to serve as a train hub.  Ohio also is going to have to come up with at least $17 million a year to subsidize the route, and this is a time of great budget pressure.  If the state is serious about it, legislators are going to have to make some tough budget choices, like taking money from ongoing highway construction and widening projects and allocating it to the rail program instead.

Still, getting a train route started probably is not a bad idea.  A rail connection would provide an alternative to driving on a much-traveled route that could come in handy the next time gas prices spike to more than $4 per gallon. It also would be a way to connect Columbus to the Amtrak system, and could encourage more train travel generally.  If the system gets up and running, I think a lot of people will try it at least once, perhaps on a one-day trip to a sporting event in one of the “3 C” cities.  If it turns out to be a pleasant way to travel, it could become part of the routine.