Once Again: HSR and Schools Benefit Each Other

Apr 19th, 2015 | Posted by

A Republican Assemblymember from Santa Clarita, Scott Wilk, has a new op-ed in the Sacramento Bee arguing for taking the Prop 1A bond money away from HSR and giving it to schools.

This is a very old anti-HSR argument, dating back to at least 2008 and the days of the state budget crisis. Voters have never shown any sign that they buy into this false choice framing. But Wilk manages to go there anyway:

On Monday, the Assembly Transportation Committee can take the first step in derailing the bullet train by passing Assembly Bill 6. It would give voters the chance in November 2016 to cancel high-speed rail and redirect the $8 billion to build schools and college facilities.

Wilk then goes through the familiar, even rote list of Republican attacks on HSR. He says voters would reject it (no, the most recent poll, from March 2014, shows they still back it – and Neel Kashkari, the GOP’s 2014 gubernatorial candidate who ran on an anti-HSR platform, lost big). He says the project was promised to be $33 billion and has simply become more expensive since then (so what? It’s still worth building). He says the fare has risen to $81 (which is still cheaper than flying will be in the 2020s or 2030s). He says the ridership projections have been inflated (no, they weren’t, and HSR lines always have high ridership). And so on.

California schools should be better funded, no doubt about it. And Proposition 30 showed how to do it: tax the rich. Governor Jerry Brown has said he’s not inclined to want to extend that tax once it expires, but it’s hard to imagine how the state can properly fund schools without it.

But there’s a deeper problem with Assemblymember Wilk’s notion that HSR and schools are incompatible. It suggests that the future is irrelevant. If we took money from HSR and put it into schools, it would be denying those students a future that is more sustainable and more affordable. It doesn’t make sense to focus solely on education by undermining actions to help those kids graduate into a world with jobs, where the seas aren’t rising and flooding out cities, where drought isn’t drying up the state.

HSR creates desperately needed jobs for the parents of many kids, especially in the Central Valley. Poverty is the biggest obstacle to a good education, and HSR helps reduce it. By generating new economic activity as well as new tax revenue, it helps fund the schools, both through direct construction as well as the various benefits and savings created by the operation of an HSR system.

I don’t expect AB 6 to go anywhere, and it should die in committee. California can have good schools and good high speed rail. They complement each other, no matter how hard it is for Scott Wilk to understand that basic fact.

HSR Revolt in Full Swing in Texas

Apr 13th, 2015 | Posted by

History is now sadly repeating itself, as opponents of the Texas HSR project are now employing the same tactics that California HSR project opponents used. Where to start?

A Texas Senate transportation committee approved a bill that would remove eminent domain authority from Texas Central:

[State Sen.] Kolkhorst said Wednesday that she didn’t want to see private landowners lose their land for a project that she believed is likely to fail.

“While I think in some countries it has worked, I don’t see a whole lot of high-speed rail across the United States,” Kolkhorst said. “I just don’t see it, and I’m not sure I want Texas to be the guinea pig on this.”…

Yet at Wednesday’s hearing, Republican senators expressed concern that a private company was going to use eminent domain authority for a for-profit venture.

“Eminent domain is probably the most horrific power that the government has, and to dole that out to individual companies that can misuse that or use it for projects that result in profits, we have to be very careful about doing that,” Hall said.

This should come as no surprise. Opposition to government use of eminent domain, as well as skepticism of HSR itself, both stem from core right-wing ideological values. As Texas is governed by the right, it makes sense that these tropes would be mobilized by HSR opponents to try and stop the train.

I’ve mentioned the Trans-Texas Corridor before in posts about the Texas HSR project. The TTC was bitterly opposed by rural and conservative Texas. Now they are seeing the TTC as less awful than Texas HSR, which is just jaw-dropping:

“This begins to make the Trans-Texas Corridor not look so bad,” Kolkhorst said. “At least you could get across the Trans-Texas Corridor in theory in certain places.”

Texas Central officials said that they were working to fight against misinformation about the project in various communities, including concerns that the rail line would block roads. They said the train line would have overpasses and underpasses throughout the route.

Land purchase concerns have forced Texas Central to agree to routing the tracks out of Montgomery County, the exurban area just north of Houston that includes The Woodlands:

Montgomery County is off the table for a high-speed rail route but neighboring counties could still see the high-speed train that would connect Houston and Dallas.

During an information meeting Saturday night in Montgomery, a handful of residents questioned former Harris County Judge and President of the Texas Central Rail Robert Eckels about his company’s plan for the rail through Texas. Eckels said the route will utilize the utility corridor which would take the rail west of Montgomery County.

Hot button issues were eminent domain of property and how the rail would affect county roads. A resident asked Eckels what would happen to property taken by eminent domain that wasn’t used noting in California, that unused land was auctioned off instead of given back to the original property owner.

“We don’t get that property,” he said. “We aren’t a California style project. If we don’t build it, it goes right back to the property owner.”

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that residents in Waller County, to the west of Montgomery County, are going to be any more interested in having HSR in their own backyard. But here again we see California being trotted out as a bogeyman, only for Texas HSR to run smack into the exact same issues being thrown at the California HSR project.

Texas HSR opponents have learned to make the same arguments that their California counterparts have:

While Eckels said the project would bring tax dollars to the counties it crosses, Workman said the project is “doomed” from the beginning and will end up being supported by tax payer subsidy.

“There are no profitable high-speed rail lines in the world,” Workman said. “They are all heavily taxpayer supported.”

In fact, HSR lines are almost all profitable – unless you count the capital costs, in which case virtually no piece of transportation infrastructure anywhere is profitable. But this line of attack is fascinating because it is aiming at the heart of Texas Central’s claims that it is better than California HSR because it won’t take taxpayer money. The HSR deniers in Texas have taken a page from Karl Rove’s playbook here.

Immediately north of Waller County is Grimes County, where the County Judge (a strange Texan term for an elected chief executive of a county government) is also the co-chair of Texans Against High Speed Rail, and he’s making the same claims:

There is not one privately funded, constructed and operated high-speed rail in the world,” said Ben Leman, the county judge in Grimes County, northwest of Houston.

“The concern is obviously taxpayer subsidy,” Leman said. “It’s just a black hole. Look at Amtrak.”

The final parallel between California HSR opposition and Texas HSR opposition is that the Texan HSR deniers are now working to bring their Congressional representatives into the fight:

Senators Lois Kolkhorst and Charles Schwertner and State Representatives Kyle Kacal, John Raney and Leighton Schubert signed a letter asking Texans in Congress to oppose any application by Texas Central Railway to the Surface Transportation Board.

“For the rural counties impacted by the proposed routes, this project would only serve as a detriment. Although rural counties may benefit from a few jobs during the construction phase, the long-term costs far outweigh any temporary benefit. This project holds real consequences for rural constituents, their property and their livelihoods. Private property interests will be taken by eminent domain. Farm and ranchland, often held by families for generations, will be divided, creating a loss in access and a loss in revenue for those who rely on farming and ranching to make a living. The value of nearby land will decrease due to sight, noise and restricted use of property caused by the high-speed rail.”

Those concerns sound almost exactly like what you hear from anti-HSR folks in the San Joaquin Valley. I wonder when Jeff Denham is going to fly to rural Texas to grandstand with the locals against their HSR project.

Again, I mention all of this not to mock the Texas HSR project, which I would like to see built. I’m pointing this out to show that the California High Speed Rail Authority isn’t responsible for HSR opposition, especially in rural California. Simply by proposing an HSR route in the first place, the state offended right-wing ideological values, which tend to be most deeply held outside the cities. There was simply nothing they could do to avoid that opposition, and so far they have done a good job navigating it.

What is happening in Texas suggests that the real issue facing HSR isn’t what route is chosen or how it’s funded, but which political party is in power in the state and federal governments where an HSR route is proposed. If Republicans ran California, its HSR project would be dead. If Democrats ran Texas, its HSR project would likely be better able to overcome this opposition. If Democrats ran Congress, these appeals from rural areas would fall on deaf ears. As long as Democrats control the White House it is certain that the STB will approve these routes.

I know that a lot of people who are interested in HSR would love for these projects to be developed and evaluated on their merits. But they’re not. HSR is fundamentally political, and it is deeply partisan. Texas HSR’s biggest problem is going to be the fact that Republicans control the state legislature. Unless they plan to build the tracks in the middle of Interstate 45 I am not quite sure how they will overcome this opposition.

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Santa Clarita To Host An Emergency Community Meeting on HSR

Apr 9th, 2015 | Posted by

While I’m not quite sure what qualifies this as an “emergency” the city of Santa Clarita has decided to hold an “emergency community meeting” to discuss high speed rail alignments. The meeting is on Monday, April 27, at 7PM at the Canyon High School gym.

According to an official city press release:

Two of the Authority’s proposed alignments targeted for further study could result in the removal of two elementary schools, a church and homes in the Santa Clarita, Acton, Agua Dulce and City of San Fernando areas.

A third alternative would completely bypass existing neighborhoods and it is this “east corridor alignment” that the Santa Clarita City Council supports.

“We want to send a message to the California High Speed Rail Authority that the east corridor alignment would not only avoid risking our neighborhoods, but is also more direct and potentially less expensive,” explained Mayor Marsha McLean.

A tremendous turnout at the meeting is needed to help the California High Speed Rail Authority understand the community’s needs.

Of course, the “east corridor alignment” is the tunnel under the San Gabriel Mountains that many Sunland residents oppose because it would, in their minds, risk their own neighborhoods. It is hard to imagine that a tunnel under the mountains is less expensive, but the route through Santa Clarita is definitely longer and will have its share of tunnels.

I can see why the east corridor alignment appeals to Santa Clarita, and it is definitely worth studying, but they should not pin their hopes on it. Let’s hope this community meeting includes discussion of various ways to make the alignment through Santa Clarita itself more palatable, though it’s obviously intended to generate public support for the San Gabriel mountains tunnel.

More information about the city of Santa Clarita’s approach to HSR can be found on the city’s website.

Should Sunland Get an HSR Station?

Apr 7th, 2015 | Posted by

The possibility of using a tunnel under the San Gabriel Mountains to get HSR from Palmdale to Burbank has caused growing opposition among residents of Sunland. That’s the community in the foothills along the 210 where the HSR tracks would exit the tunnel and cross the neighborhood on the way to Burbank.

In the unlikely event that the California High Speed Rail Authority decides they do want to build that tunnel, one Sunland resident has suggested that Sunland be given an HSR stop to “sweeten the deal”:

A plan submitted to high-speed rail officials would tweak the proposed route from the San Fernando Valley to the Antelope Valley and put a station stop in Sunland.

The rationale, according to proponents, is to give additional perks to the area that the train would pass through — at least under some route options being considered.

“None of the existing proposals by HSR (high-speed rail) provide any economic benefit in exchange for slicing up the landscape and demolishing homes,” said Sunland resident Simon Higgs, who floated the idea of a Sunland station and route to the High-Speed Rail Authority….

Higgs, however, is pushing to put the station at an open Sunland property on 8040 Foothill Blvd. and combine it with other civic services like post offices to create a sort of community center.

Higgs said the proposal would both help alleviate some of the concerns about high-speed rail from Sunland-area residents and provide relief to communities in the Santa Clarita Valley opposed to it.

The location looks like a former big box store:

It’s an interesting idea, though I doubt that many HSR advocates are wild about putting a stop in Sunland, especially with the Burbank station so close by. The CHSRA refused to dismiss the idea, though they did say that their current plan includes stations only at Palmdale and Burbank (along this particular segment).

That said, kudos to Simon Higgs for at least trying to be constructive here. I’d rather hear this kind of response from community members than the usual “don’t build it here!!!” stuff that is common whenever an HSR route is proposed in a given location.

If there were a station to be built between Palmdale and Burbank, the best location would be Santa Clarita. Some residents there aren’t happy about HSR coming through the neighborhood, but if the tunnel under the mountains isn’t viable, then the Santa Clarita route will have to be chosen. Maybe shuttles can be set up to run from the station to Magic Mountain…

UPDATE: Simon Higgs has a website for this proposal.