LA Times Reports on HSR Controversy, Not HSR Facts
When I hoped that more California news outlets would produce insightful and factually-based assessments of the HSR project, today’s LA Times article was not what I had in mind. It is a sad example of the American media’s tendency to report the controversy instead of reporting the facts. Too many journalists seem to believe that if someone makes a criticism, the criticism is therefore valid and can be repeated in newsprint, even without basic fact-checking.
Rich Connell and Dan Weikel’s article is essentially a repeat of the common HSR critics’ talking points, without any independent assessment of the facts. It is a misleading disservice to the Times’s readers and to the people of California.
Despite a new $2.25-billion infusion of federal economic stimulus funding, there are intensifying concerns — even among some high-speed rail supporters — that California’s proposed bullet train may not deliver on the financial and ridership promises made to win voter backing in 2008.
While there is always the chance it may not deliver, that “chance” must be assessed with respect to facts, and in comparison to other HSR systems. Nowhere in the article is it mentioned that every HSR system around the world generates an operating surplus, covering its costs. Nowhere is it mentioned that HSR systems successfully entice passengers to switch from flying and from driving. The often baseless criticisms quoted in the article aren’t assessed against those realities. The result is an article full of speculation and assumptions taken out of context.
Estimates of ticket prices between Los Angeles and San Francisco have nearly doubled in the project’s latest business plan, pushing ridership projections down sharply and prompting new skepticism about data underpinning the entire project.
Nowhere is it explained that one, the higher ticket prices are a scenario; two, that it would remain cheaper than a flight; or three, that the rise was fueled by the inflation-adjusted costs. That shift in accounting is mentioned but not directly linked to the higher estimate, nor is it clearly stated that even under the higher ticket price, the system is projected to cover its costs. Instead it is left ambiguous and even implied that the higher fares might make it difficult for HSR to cover its operating costs and repay investors.
Unfortunately, Senator Alan Lowenthal is also given space to make his totally indefensible and evidence-free claims about the ridership numbers:
“This just smells funny,” said state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), a supporter of high-speed rail and chairman of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.
As you can tell, this statement that Lowenthal repeatedly makes gets me extremely angry. It is a dishonest thing for a member of the California State Legislature to keep claiming. If he has evidence that the ridership numbers are flawed, he owes it to the people of California to produce it. If he has no such evidence, he owes it to the people of California to not make such wild speculation. State legislators should be expected to be straight and honest with the people of California. Lowenthal, by his repeated insinuations that something is wrong with the ridership, is not delivering on that expectation.
Much of the article deals with the issue of whether there should be a government revenue guarantee to private investors:
And some government watchdogs are concerned that a linchpin commitment to taxpayers in the bullet train’s financing measure — that no local, state or federal subsidies would be required to keep the trains operating — may be giving way.
High-speed rail planners recently advised state lawmakers that attracting billions in crucial private financing will probably require government backing of future cash flow. “Without some form of revenue guarantee from the public sector, it is unlikely that private investment will occur at [the planned] level until demand for California high-speed rail is proven,” project planners wrote in December.
That is feeding fears that a larger state commitment, beyond the $9 billion in construction bonds approved by voters, could be sought to complete the 800-mile project. “To now put in that we have to [give] some kind of revenue guarantee . . . is totally unacceptable,” Lowenthal said. “That’s not what we agreed to.”
This is a legitimate issue. And I share many of the concerns being raised about such a revenue guarantee. I don’t believe it is at all necessary, and it is something worth discussing even if the final outcome is to reject the concept.
But it is misleading to frame that discussion around an assumption that the ridership numbers are flawed, that the costs are soaring out of control, that in short there is something wrong with the HSR project that makes this revenue guarantee likely to be triggered. If there is evidence of that, by all means let’s discuss it. So far, no such evidence has yet been presented. All Alan Lowenthal has is gut feelings and assumptions, which are significant given his political position but are also not a stand-in for evidence.
The article does break some important news about what the CHSRA board might do about the ridership numbers, and what the state legislature might do about the Authority:
“I think the [ridership] numbers should be scrubbed,” said authority board member Richard Katz, adding that doing so could help the project.
Katz is echoing points I have made before, that a new ridership study would likely benefit HSR since the earlier studies rely on numbers from 2000 to 2005, before the sustained statewide increase in passenger rail travel experienced since 2007. I would not be surprised if the Authority did order some form of updated ridership numbers, in part to appease the legislature – and if the Authority doesn’t, I fully expect the legislature to order such studies itself.
Lowenthal hinted that, as I’ve predicted, the legislature might reduce the Authority’s independence by moving it under an existing Executive Branch department:
But lawmakers are likely to overhaul the high-speed rail agency and move it more directly into state government, Lowenthal said. “It’s not going to be out there on its own,” he said.
This is probably a good move – with the Authority “out there on its own” it has fewer institutional and legislative defenders than it deserves.
Other elements of the article indicate the authors did not do their fact-checking when it comes to reporting on critics’ claims:
But some analysts point out that almost all U.S. rail systems — and a number of foreign operations — have required large government loans or cash infusions to keep running.
This line should not have been included in the article. The whole thing requires a citation needed tag. First, “some analysts” is a vague claim. Who exactly are we talking about here? Second, this does not distinguish between HSR and other forms of passenger rail – and as the evidence shows, that is a key distinction. SNCF, the French national rail operator, makes “fat profits” on the TGV and uses that to subsidize its other rail services. Fares cover the operating cost of every single other HSR system in the world, from Europe to Asia to the Acela here in the United States.
Even Taiwan, which needed a government bailout for its HSR system, generated operating surplus. The bailout was due to the over-reliance on private financing, an issue that would have been worth exploring in the context of the discussion of the revenue guarantee. The LA Times article needed to include those rather important facts here.
The article further insinuated few people will ride the line:
Some smaller cities, like Gilroy, Merced and Bakersfield, show numbers of nonlocal trips equal to or greater than Los Angeles. “We’ve never understood their models,” said Lowenthal, whose panel is delving deeper into the projections.
I’ve not seen those particular numbers. If true, there may well be reasons for it – Gilroy would be a gateway to the Monterey Bay region, Merced would be the transfer point to Sacramento, and Bakersfield has lots of people who want to go to LA. This notion of “nonlocal” is unclear, and as we know, Alan Lowenthal simply doesn’t think people will ride the trains for intercity trips despite a mountain of evidence that they will.
Still, I suspect this claim is another misreading of the stats. Overall LA Union Station will likely have far higher ridership than Gilroy or Merced. And the attempt to point to a specific ridership stat to try and paint it as so incredible that the whole thing is flawed strikes me as a classic case of the Chewbacca Defense.
The article continues:
Some transit advocates say predictions of private participation aren’t realistic. “A lot of it’s still magical thinking,” said Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition.
As much as I like Bart Reed, he is wrong here, and the LA Times again failed its readers by not fact-checking this claim. Over 30 companies responded to a March 2008 Request for Expressions of Interest the CHSRA put out to the private sector, ranging from operators like SNCF and Veolia to train builders like Alstom and Siemens. Private financial participation is and has always been very realistic, but the details matter.
The article also threw in a separate discussion of a dispute in Buena Park between city officials and the CHSRA over the corridor:
Conflicts are brewing in Southern California as planners step up efforts to squeeze trenches, viaducts and extra tracks into a crowded rail corridor cutting across the region. Problems remain over how the bullet train will pass through Los Angeles’ Union Station transportation complex. Existing buildings, freeways, rail lines and overpasses around the station make it an extremely tight fit.
In Buena Park, city officials recently learned that part of a new award-winning transit-oriented residential project tied into the city’s 3-year-old Metrolink station may have to be ripped out.
A high-speed rail representative told local officials, “We either take the condominiums or we take your station,” recalled Councilman Art Brown, who has generally supported the bullet train. Planners are reexamining the issue, but it remains unresolved.
Not knowing much more about the details than this, it strikes me as an issue that does need to be examined more closely and resolved. I know Clem has discussed a San Carlos TOD project that is apparently being planned without any real coordination with the HSR project. The CHSRA and local officials need to work together more effectively on situations such as this.
Still, while an examination of the Buena Park issue would have been worth an entire article, what the LA Times offered instead was a badly flawed rehash of HSR criticism that is often lacking in evidence or running directly counter to the evidence. Times readers and Californians deserved better.