2009: The Year In California HSR
As 2009 winds to a close, it’s worth taking a look at the year past in order to figure out what we have learned – or what we should have learned – about California High Speed Rail. Later in the week I’ll post a look ahead at 2010, and then an assessment of the CHSRA’s work, likely over the weekend. I won’t say much about the CHSRA below, but will have a lot more in that weekend post.
That was the year that was:
The status quo strikes back. 2008 was the year of change. It culminated in November 2008 with some of the highest voter turnout in generations, who gave a mandate for doing things differently. Here in California that included a full-throated embrace of passenger rail, as funding for at least four major projects were approved by voters – not just Proposition 1A for high speed rail, but Measure R in LA County, massively expanding their rail system, Measure B in Santa Clara County, further funding the BART extension to San José, and the SMART train linking Sonoma and Marin Counties.
But in 2009, the defenders of the status quo fought back. While frustrating much of President Obama’s agenda in Washington DC, California defenders of the status quo – those people who are quite happy with a depressed economy, the threat of rising sea levels, and a state dependent on fossil fuels whose price is volatile on a long-term upward trend – mobilized to try and frustrate the passenger rail agenda Californians approved. Defense of the status quo is often made easier during an economic crisis, when those who propose change have fewer resources at their disposal.
The California High Speed Rail Authority wasn’t prepared for this, conceptually or organizationally. However, they have made a series of good moves over the course of 2009 to adapt to the need to present a clearer and more consistent argument for HSR that engages the public to the maximum possible extent.
I would say that HSR supporters weren’t quite prepared for the reaction from the status quo either. Even though I’d been warning of that at this blog in late 2008 and early 2009, it took some time for the unions, environmental groups, and business groups backing the project to grasp this and begin their own organizing to support the project.
2010, as we will see in the next post, will be the year the supporters of change and of HSR strike back.
NIMBYs have too much power. When I was growing up in Orange County, I attended a high school right next to Interstate 5 – and we lost half our front lawn to the freeway widening project in the early 1990s. My parents’ home, where they still live now, backs up to one of the busiest intersections in the city and is a half block from a fire station – we constantly heard loud sirens, screeching brakes, honking horns, etc. But somehow we made do. We didn’t go to the fire department and ask them to turn down the sirens, for example. We understood the purpose and the situation.
Unfortunately, that attitude is not shared across this state. Way too many homeowners believe that the government’s duty is to protect their property values and do so in part by giving them veto power over everything that happens in their neighborhood. Both premises are absurd, but deeply held.
Government’s job is to provide services that benefit the whole population, not cater to the whims of a select few. It’s bad enough that NIMBYs along the HSR route do not understand the ways the project will benefit them – in Palo Alto, for example, the rash of suicides and other deaths can be ended for good, and the city made more whole by grade separations. But our politics and our laws give disproportionate power to them, narrowly defining as “stakeholders” only those who own property near the route, leaving out entirely the riders of current and future systems and others who would benefit from the trains.
NIMBYs are very much part of the status quo defenders described above, and in 2010, HSR supporters will need to organize and mobilize to show local and state governments that there are other residents whose voice deserves to be heard, considered, and included in the HSR planning process.
The feds are there for us – to a point. As we eagerly await the FRA’s decision on HSR stimulus grants, due to be released sometime in January, it’s worth considering how much the federal government has done for HSR this year – more than any other year since Congress funded the high speed Metroliner project back in 1965.
It began in February when President Obama inserted $8 billion in HSR stimulus into the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, revealing a pent-up demand among the states for HSR. In early October over $50 billion in HSR grant applications were submitted, including a $4.7 billion request from California. Ray LaHood has frequently said California is one of the states most likely to get some of that $8 billion.
The bigger question is whether this will be sustained. Earlier this month we learned that the Congress agreed to include $2.5 billion in annual HSR funding in the 2010 budget, a number that wasn’t as high as the $4 billion the House had approved, but is still an important start and a sign that Congress intends to fund HSR over the long term.
Exactly how that will happen remains unclear. In April Obama announced a long-term HSR plan but the funding element is not yet determined. The reauthorization of the federal Transportation Bill has been delayed all year long, has now been kicked into 2010, where it seems unlikely that an election-year Congress will have the appetite to increase taxes to fund anything, even the soon-to-be-insolvent highway trust fund, not to mention HSR. It may take until 2011 to see development of a permanent HSR funding solution.
Private investors make all the difference. The current recession notwithstanding, there is every reason to believe there will be private investors lining up to put their money into a project that has every reason to expect to generate revenue, as does every other HSR route in the world, including the Acela. The question therefore isn’t “will they come” but “under what terms?”
The 2009 Business Plan indicated higher costs for the first phase of the project, owing to the federally-mandated shift to “year of expenditure” accounting. CHSRA proposes – and note that right now it is only a proposal – to make up the difference with greater private investment, and charge higher fares to repay that investment, even if it means fewer riders than previously assumed. Note also that CHSRA projections still show the system will generate revenue at those higher fares, as does Spain’s AVE, another “high fare” system.
But that isn’t an optimal solution. Although this issue became prominent only at the end of the year, we’ve been discussing it here since March, when what I believe to be the most important HSR article of the year was written: DoDo’s Puente AVE. DoDo showed how HSR ridership follows a five year curve, not attaining its potential until the fifth year. This causes problems for systems that overuse private investment, since it’s not usually possible to repay the investors until the 5th year. Taiwan’s HSR system had to be bailed out by the government because it couldn’t repay investors even after hitting its ridership targets. The system was funded 80% by private investors, which wasn’t a sustainable level.
I’ll say more about this in the look ahead to 2010, but the role of private investors was an underreported HSR story in 2009, and will become a major story in 2010.
The state legislature is a broken institution. It defies logic that an institution that sets a national model for fiscal irresponsibility is going to lecture the CHSRA, a body it created, about fiscal responsibility. The California legislature in 2009, a broken institution that was mired in its own financial crisis, was either unable or unwilling to help exercise the kind of leadership on HSR that would match the voters’ support as shown by Prop 1A. Normally legislators fall all over themselves to take credit for something that’s popular with the public. Unfortunately, the state legislature generally hasn’t been willing to do this with HSR.
Instead legislators such as Alan Lowenthal and Joe Simitian have thrown monkey wrench after monkey wrench into the HSR works, saddling the CHSRA with inefficient and inflexible rules and mandates that don’t help get a system this state needs for the future to get built.
2009 was a lost opportunity for the state legislature to step up, as has Congress, in providing leadership to help implement Prop 1A and get high speed rail built. 2010 will need to be a year where this changes, and where legislators actively seek to support a project that will bring desperately needed jobs to their constituents.
CEQA needs to be reformed. Back in November I called CEQA the biggest obstacle to HSR in California. It is a land use planning process that is unable to deliver large infrastructure projects quickly and affordably. CEQA is set up on the theory that government construction projects are bad, are threatening, and that stakeholders are already in a reactionary, even adversarial position. CEQA was written with a 1970s logic, reacting to a 1960s California Department of Highways that really did behave as a giant bulldozer not giving a crap about what anyone else in the state thought of its route choices, neighborhood impacts, or environmental consequences.
CEQA wasn’t designed to promote smart, sustainable growth. It was written to enable people like Gary Patton to have legal recourse to stop projects they don’t like, no matter the reason. The mentality is one that assumes the status quo is just fine, that the cost of doing nothing is actually zero – if a project isn’t built, no problem, we didn’t really need it anyway.
California’s planning process should not be a tool for NIMBYs to stop projects they dislike. It should be a vehicle for public involvement in a project development, and to ensure that a project does not cause damage to the environment. CEQA currently fails to meet these objectives. 2009 showed that CEQA needs to be reformed to meet the environmental needs of the 21st century.
Environmental groups are split between those living in the 1970s and those living in the here and now. Whereas the Sierra Club understands that California’s current reliance on oil is ruinous for the environment, especially as it contributes to climate change, groups like the Planning and Conservation League believe that carbon emissions are just fine, that global warming is no cause for concern, and that the late 20th century model of massive pollution should be sustained in order to stop HSR from going through the Pacheco Pass.
The CEQA process was set up to preserve the 1970s model – no new growth, but sustain the way things are currently done as far into the future as possible. Worsening drought, a more intense fire season, potentially rising sea levels, and other problems should make it absolutely clear to anyone who cares about environmental quality the status quo must change. We must reduce our carbon footprint and shift to sustainable infrastructure as quickly as possible.
Environmental groups that fight HSR are implicitly saying they don’t care if we keep on polluting and spewing carbon dioxide into the air, causing a climate crisis. It’s a ridiculous position to hold, but 2009 showed that it’s still popular in some quarters.
Progress was made on the key project implementation decisions, though the final choices haven’t yet been made. Much of 2009 was spent focusing on the scoping process on the various parts of the project, where public input was solicited across the state on how HSR should be built. In some places the issue was whether a tunnel or above-grade solution should be chosen (Peninsula, Anaheim) and in others the route details were still a bit unclear (such as San José to Gilroy). A lot of this happened below the radar, although on the Peninsula it became a very public process through the use of Context Sensitive Solutions. 2009 therefore will have generated a lot of information and input that will, in 2010 and into 2011, result in the final details of how HSR will be built here.
Some of these decisions may already have been made, such as Curt Pringle’s preference for a tunnel through Anaheim. This would be a very bad and unfortunate precedent. But one of the first things we’ll attend to in 2010 is the situation in Anaheim and getting some clarity on what is happening there and why.
HSR is the only job creation vehicle on the horizon in California right now. That was one of the most consistent messages I heard at an Economic Recovery Summit sponsored by the California Labor Federation earlier this summer. Professors, economists, and labor leaders all agreed that in California, sitting at a higher unemployment rate than anytime in the last 60 years, has pretty much NO meaningful job creation on the horizon except for high speed rail. Back in the Great Depression we built bridges and dams to help alleviate unemployment and provide for long-term growth. In a similar situation, we need to return to the infrastructure well and ensure HSR gets built if California is to have economic recovery.
Some criticize this model of recovery. Most, if not all, of those critics are weathering the recession pretty well. It’s a case of the haves telling the have-nots they can’t have job creation or prosperity.
The media does not understand passenger rail. At all. It’s become pretty clear to me that the media, in California and across the nation, simply has no comprehension of how passenger rail works, what its overall value is, and why it matters. They see it as a curiosity, as something unusual and alien. And that lets them use it as an opportunity to prove to their readers that they can hold government accountable. Even though road projects routinely soar beyond their budgets, and even though California spends billions more on roads every year than we’ll spend on HSR in any given year in the coming decade, we rarely hear about cost overruns and other problems with road projects (the East Span of the SF Bay Bridge is a notable exception to the rule).
The media doesn’t view rail passengers as a significant constituency, so they give more time to homeowners and NIMBY critics than to the people who would regularly use a system. They don’t view rail projects as commonplace or legitimate infrastructure, so they carp about “subsidies” even though the roads and freeways they use daily were built by tax dollars and are heavily subsidized to this very day.
This ignorance leads some of them to become susceptible to HSR denialism such as Edward Glaeser’s discredited attack on HSR in the New York Times earlier this year.
UC Berkeley economist and blogger Brad DeLong is fond of exclaiming “why oh why can’t we have a better press corps?” 2009 leads me to reach the same conclusion about the sorry state of HSR coverage in California mainstream media.
California HSR came one year closer to completion. Despite some of the negative things I pointed out above, on the whole 2009 was a productive year for high speed rail in the Golden State. The debates over implementation have shown the public that this project really will get built, after 30 years of effort. As we enter a new year and a new decade, we’re going to make sure that it is the year and the decade of high speed rail.
Feel free to add your thoughts on HSR in the year just past in the comments.