Investment, Not Spending
For a nation so utterly dependent on financial capitalism that any hiccup in the banking industry sends the country into a near-depression, it’s rather surprising that so many people do not understand the value of public investment in infrastructure, and confuse it with “spending.”
Actually, it isn’t so surprising. Our financial markets are built around the short-term view. Quarterly profits no matter the cost, instead of long-term gains and stability. So perhaps it makes some sense that when a proposal comes along to make a long-term investment in infrastructure that can meet our transportation needs and help boost the economy for perhaps the rest of the century, the first response of many is to dismiss it because somehow it isn’t going to put money in their pocket this year.
I started thinking about that after watching the following story that aired on CBS Evening News tonight, including a soundbite from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger where he explained that HSR was “investment, not spending”:
This issue of “investment” was illustrated by the story of Marty Devault, featured in the piece. He commutes from Davis to San Francisco via the Capitol Corridor every day, and says it’s a much better and more relaxing commute than sitting in the parking lot that is Interstate 80 in the East Bay. CBS News used that story to show that passenger trains are already popular in California, and that HSR would likely boost that popularity by providing much faster and more reliable service between the state’s main urban areas.
Of course, the Davis-SF route won’t be part of the HSR project, but many other heavily traveled routes will. Traveling by rail, something many Californians already do, means we don’t have to spend as much money on widening freeways or expanding airports – money that isn’t as much of an investment, since soaring oil prices will mean we get less return on that investment.
High speed rail, on the other hand, is an investment for the next 90 years of this century (at least). By providing rapid intercity transportation powered by renewable energy, it begins to free California from dependence on oil. That dependence is directly responsible for the economic crisis we currently face, a crisis that apparently Peninsula HSR critics believe isn’t actually happening. When the price of gas rose above $3 a gallon in 2006, the housing bubble began to burst as families living in the far-flung McMansion suburbs, dependent on long commutes, were unable to afford the cost of transportation. When the price of gas neared, and in some places reached, $5 a gallon in the summer of 2008, it helped finish off the economic boom and shoved the country into the worst recession in over 60 years.
And that is all before we consider the costs of global warming, which is already beginning to cause economic problems across the state as our climate becomes drier, fires become more common and intense, as drought plagues the Central Valley, and soon, as rising sea levels begin to threaten the San Francisco Bay Area.
One might think we’d want to do something about all this. But a coalition of Peninsula NIMBYs and others across California who are convinced all government spending is bad are saying that the status quo is just fine, there’s no need to invest in anything, we can just carry on as we are.
Had we taken that attitude in the Great Depression, Shasta Dam would never have been built and California’s Central Valley might never have come to lead the national agriculture industry. The State Water Project might never have been built and Southern California’s growth would have stalled out sometime around 1980. The freeways and bay bridges might never have been built, further strangling growth. I’ve not yet heard the libertarian HSR denier or NIMBY who thinks that the Golden Gate Bridge was a bad idea, or that the State Water Project was wasteful. And in fact, few of these people bat an eye at freeway widening projects. I can’t recall Pat Burt or Morris Brown criticizing the new Terminal B project at Mineta San Jose Airport.
But passenger trains face a particularly difficult burden. Whereas aqueducts, bridges, freeways and airports are seen as totally legitimate public expenditures that nobody bats an eye at, high speed rail suddenly is seen as some “omg boondoggle waste of money that will never break even” thing that we should just kill before it kills us.
This, despite the fact that every HSR system around the world generates operating surpluses (including Amtrak’s Acela) and are highly popular with riders. This, despite the fact that HSR offers an affordable way to travel whose costs are generally fixed – as long as you have renewable electricity, you can forget about the price of oil completely. This, despite the fact that most Californians will save money on transportation costs, creating a green dividend that enables people to redirect that spending toward something else – paying down debt, buying houses with a more sustainable debt-to-income ratio, fueling the local economy through consumer spending, etc. This, despite the fact that even if HSR job growth were to fall short of the hundreds of thousands predicted by the CHSRA, the jobs created would still be a massive form of economic stimulus to a state desperately in need of ANY new job.
Why is that? The more I think about it, the more it seems to be about the belief that passenger trains just don’t work in the US or in California. We’ve had to deal with 40 to 50 years of claims that passenger rail is uneconomical, a money loser, something that nobody rides, and unsuited to our urban geography.
These claims are either false or distorted. But they’ve been repeated often enough to the point that enough people believe them to attack passenger rail as somehow wasteful. They don’t even have to make a logical argument backed up by evidence. All they have to do, as Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt and the PCC so dishonestly did at the Palo Alto hearing two weeks ago, is invoke Amtrak and suddenly we’re supposed to believe HSR will be hobbled by the same problems – or that any claim HSR will outperform Amtrak is just so absurd as to be rejected on its face.
As we keep constantly having to point out, the facts prove us right. California’s urban densities and geography are similar to those of Spain, where HSR has been a runaway success. Madrid and Barcelona are about as far apart as SF and LA. There’s every reason to believe HSR’s global success will be repeated here.
Unless your preconceived notions trump that sort of evidence. Those global HSR systems run into another related problem, which is ingrained beliefs about American exceptionalism – that we’re somehow totally different from the rest of the world and things that apply overseas don’t apply to us (which is simply wrong) – which are amplified by Californian exceptionalism, the notion that we’re all wedded to our cars and cannot envision any other way of life.
Which is just absurd. It assumes that the unique conditions of the late 20th century are somehow permanent. As a trip along the Caltrain corridor reminds us, however, California cities were railroad cities before they were car cities. It was only in the 1950s and 1960s that cars dominated. Even then it wasn’t a permanent shift and instead was dramatically overstated, as BART was planned and built during these years (and ironically enough, even the BART to SFO project’s problems didn’t stop some HSR critics at the Palo Alto hearing from calling for having BART ring the bay instead of HSR). By the 1970s and 1980s Caltrans was operating what are now the Amtrak California routes and LA was working on its long-discussed mass transit network. In 1990 California voters doubled the gas tax to fund mass transit and freeways by passing Prop 111 and floated a $2 billion bond specifically for passenger rail via Prop 116 at the June 1990 election. This, despite the fact that the average Bay Area price of a gallon of gas in June 1990 was $1.19.
In fact, what we see looking back over the last 40 or 50 years is a conventional wisdom that California has a car culture and auto-oriented landscape that is unsuitable for trains, the voters of this state see it very differently. Time and again they have indicated that they see passenger rail as an investment worth funding. Just as they did in November 2008 by passing Prop 1A.
The last holdouts against this are an odd coalition of prosperous folks convinced that a quieter, safer, easier-to-cross Caltrain corridor would somehow hurt their property values and libertarians who are happy to throw billions away on subsidizing freeways but think that spending a dime to build trains that cover their operating costs is somehow wasteful.
That both groups tend to include the beneficiaries of the 20th century model of land use, and who are making it through this severe recession just fine (note that the self-identified unemployed at the Palo Alto hearing, with one exception, were supportive of HSR), should not be surprising.
Californians understand that HSR is an investment in their future. They want it. They welcome the funds. And while I’m quite happy to frame HSR money as “spending,” since I think government spending is a good thing that we ought to have more of, it is indeed more properly framed as an investment that will be more than repaid over the coming years and decades.
Our present culture may emphasize short-term gains and protecting the status quo at all costs. But that’s really only a surface veneer over a deeper reality of a population that wants change, and is willing to make the long-term investment to make it happen.