Don’t Let the Reason Foundation Railroad California
One of the most persistent HSR deniers and opponents of the California HSR project has been the Reason Foundation. Funded in part by oil and auto companies, they were behind the notorious Cox-Vranich report released last year in an effort to defeat Prop 1A. We thoroughly debunked that report and voters passed Prop 1A. But that hasn’t stopped the Reason Foundation from trying to kill HSR anyway.
Their latest effort came in Sunday’s San Diego Union-Tribune, with an op-ed by Adam Summers claiming that “state voters were railroaded” into voting for Prop 1A and that the project is an unaffordable boondoggle.
It’s some of their rather typical nonsense, that HSR isn’t going to have the ridership, that we can’t afford to build it, on and on. I’ll debunk some of their specific claims below, but first we need to consider why they are renewing their attack and why it matters.
Right now we face a key decision point in our state’s and our nation’s economic policy. There is a rising amount of deficit hysteria out there, designed to scare people into thinking that because we have increased the state and federal deficit during this recession, we’re positioning ourselves for doom unless we cut back on spending – and that includes cutting funding for high speed rail.
This is little more than the new Hoovers who fought Prop 1A seeing a new opportunity to try and kill the project and seizing another weapon to try it. And this IS a good opportunity for them. Already the Obama Administration is making noises about across-the-board spending cuts out of a misguided fear about those deficits.
At the same time, the worsening unemployment crisis create a strong countervailing pressure on officials in Sacramento and Washington, DC to resist the deficit hawks and instead direct government policy toward spending to provide the jobs and recovery that we need. The $50 billion in state applications for federal stimulus funds would seem to suggest that appetite for HSR in particular remains strong.
And so the Reason Foundation makes their move, to try and influence the debate against high speed rail spending. The op-ed is a mishmash of the usual criticisms:
To put it mildly, voters were, ahem, railroaded during the November 2008 election when the high-speed rail bond measure narrowly passed and the so-called business plan for the project was conveniently delayed for months until days after the election. That $10 billion bond was merely a down payment on a system expected to cost a total of $45 billion, but even this figure is grossly understated, as observers of Los Angeles’s Blue Line light rail, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Boston’s infamous “Big Dig” and virtually every other large government infrastructure project can attest. A September 2008 Reason Foundation report estimated that the system would actually cost between $65 billion and $81 billion.
Of course, the business plan was delayed due to the state budget crisis, everyone knew the $10 billion bond was a down payment, many HSR projects have been delivered on-time and on-budget, and of course, that September 2008 Reason Foundation study was the one we debunked last year as relying on false and incorrect information.
The ridership estimate is crucial because it affects many other assumptions – from ticket prices to reductions in traffic congestion and emissions – and it is even more flawed. The rail authority assumes that between 88 million and 117 million people will ride the trains each year. To put that in perspective, consider that the entire annual ridership of the Amtrak system, which includes 21,000 miles of routes and more than 500 destinations in 46 states, is less than 29 million. Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express service, which runs from Washington, D.C., to New York City to Boston, serves a larger and denser market than the planned California system and only commands a ridership of a little more than 3 million passengers a year.
What they don’t tell you is that the ridership projections are for full buildout in the year 2030, and assume population growth in the state. Further, our system will be faster and more frequent than the Acela. The use of other Amtrak lines, including long-distance trains, is absurd as they are not build for high ridership, although Amtrak’s #2 and #3 busiest trains are California’s Pacific Surfliner and Capitol Corridor. These flawed comparisons and incomplete statements aren’t designed to prove a numeric point, but to reinforce an assumed hostility to passenger rail among a population that is used to seeing it as a fringe activity.
Even if the project’s assumptions weren’t so flawed and the system could somehow work as planned, California simply cannot afford it. The bubble gum and sealing wax the Legislature used to plug the state’s budget holes are leaking left and right, growing the deficit to at least $21 billion. California has the worst credit rating in the nation, making the issuing of bonds extremely expensive, and it can’t afford the debt service for the $10 billion in high-speed rail bonds already approved, much less for the tens of billions of dollars extra that will be required to complete the system. At a time when the state is struggling to fund its core programs and priorities, it is lunacy to divert $650 million a year to subsidize a very small portion of people traveling between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
As I wrote at Calitics yesterday, our state’s debt problems are very real. But there are ways to solve it without sacrificing our future by killing off a project that is vital to future prosperity. In fact, HSR is an essential piece of that solution. The best way to pay back debt is to generate more income to service that debt. And that’s where HSR comes in, by creating hundreds of thousands of desperately needed jobs and generating significant savings through energy independence.
The Reason Foundation’s attack is a typical fear, uncertainty, and doubt campaign they’re waging. As we know, HSR around the world (and including in the United States) has no problem attracting riders, has no problem generating operating surpluses, and is essential to the state’s economic recovery through the jobs it would create and the green dividend it would deliver.
The real question is whether Californians’ really do want to build for the 21st century, or whether they are willing to embrace the Reason Foundation’s “lower our horizons and suffer” argument and prolong an economy that benefits their oil and auto company donors but has already hurt pretty much everyone else.
I am confident that Californians will continue to support HSR. But as we saw in Texas in the 1990s and Florida earlier this decade, public support for HSR projects is not a given. It has to be consistently maintained and cultivated. The HSR deniers, led by the Reason Foundation, aren’t going to stop. Neither can we.