The Washington Post’s Ignorant Attack on California HSR
Misinformation has its consequences. After several flawed studies came out in 2010 that attacked the California HSR project, it was only a matter of time before some prominent publication picked up on them, took them out of context, and attacked the project. In this case, it’s the Washington Post, which is running an editorial in Wednesday’s editions titled “Hit the brakes on California’s high-speed rail experiment”.
Already you can tell the editorial is full of shit – high speed rail is no “experiment,” it’s a proven success all over the world, including in the Post’s own backyard. But that hasn’t stopped the WaPo from attacking our project:
In November, the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group informed the legislature that the project suffers from an undefined business model and the “lack of a clear financial plan.”
However, and this is important, the Peer Review Report added its assessment that this is NOT a sign that the project should be abandoned or that the project was flawed:
In fairness to the Authority, it would have been premature to make these decisions prior to the implementation phase of the project. The Authority itself has recognized, however, that the project now has to move beyond planning and promotion to implementation and that will require that the business model for implementation be selected.
What the Peer Review Report actually says is “it is now time for the Authority to decide on its business model, and we hope they do so soon, so that important other matters that depend on that choice can be resolved. The report took pains to be fair to the Authority and was offered in the spirit of ensuring the project would succeed. The WaPo’s right-wing editorial board either doesn’t know that or doesn’t care. They probably never read the actual report and so they are just assuming that the project’s critics are right – a problem I’ll return to in a moment.
The editorial continues:
Most damning, the report noted that official estimates of how many people might actually want to ride the system are so unreliable that they “offer little basis for proceeding.” Ridership is a crucial variable, because the law authorizing high-speed rail bonds included a ban on state operating subsidies once the system is up and running.
No, no, no, no, no. I blame Samer Madanat and his team at the Berkeley Institute for Transportation Studies for tacitly allowing this deeply incorrect conclusion to be spread. We debunked much of that study back in July. But the key was that Madanat’s team only said that they disagreed with the methodology of the ridership studies – and that the projections could be accurate, or they might not be, with either one being equally possible.
Further, while the details of the ridership level matter, the WaPo should know from the Acela and other systems around the world that there’s no question ridership on the system will be high, and that most HSR systems do not require operating subsidies. Still, their editorial didn’t waste too much time trying to get its facts straight in their effort to attack our HSR project.
The Peer Review Group’s report was only the latest in a series of skeptical blue-ribbon documents. But, undaunted, the California High-Speed Rail Authority announced last month that it would at last begin construction – on a stretch connecting not, say, Los Angeles and Anaheim but two obscure locations in the state’s rural Central Valley. The 120-mile segment would cost $5.5 billion. Critics quickly dubbed it a “train to nowhere” – a bit unfair, since some of the towns along the way have expensively redeveloped downtowns that may now suffer from the frequent noise and vibration of trains roaring through them.
“A bit unfair”? Try “completely dishonest.” The WaPo cited the flawed NY Times article on the route, which as this blog explained left out the rather important fact that the tracks actually connect Fresno (900,000 people in the metro area), Hanford/Visalia (450,000 in the metro area) and Bakersfield (800,000 in the metro area), with Borden just happening to be a temporary northern stopping point so that any tracks built will have independent utility before construction resumes toward Merced and the Bay Area. Once again, misinformation has consequences.
WaPo does make passing mention of “expensively redeveloped downtowns,” presumably thinking of the NYT article’s description of Corcoran and showing absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of the fact that Fresno and Bakersfield have major redevelopment plans that depend on the HSR project. Nor do they realize those cities have high unemployment, dragging down not just the state but the country, and that HSR would provide badly needed economic stimulus.
Unsurprisingly, it gets worse:
Given that California’s system has attracted zero private capital and has been unable to guarantee any source – governmental or private – for almost half the cost of completion, the obvious risk is that the federal taxpayer will be on the hook for billions of dollars worth of railroad track that may never serve its intended high-speed purpose. But the Obama administration sought the funds, as part of the 2009 stimulus package, and Congress approved them – and so they must be spent.
Wrong again. If they had actually read the Peer Review Report, they would know that private investment won’t come until a business model is chosen. And private companies have shown interest in California HSR, just as they have in Florida HSR. The WaPo makes it sound like private investors are avoiding the project like the plague, when in fact the Authority has not yet actually invited them to make bids, because it is premature to do so right now. There remains every reason to believe those bids and funding offers will indeed materialize.
Even if the rest of the project is never built – a huge if – the tracks that are built in the Central Valley will have “independent utility” and can be used by Amtrak services. The WaPo is clueless about this too.
Of course, behind every piece of HSR denial is a deeper belief that “nobody rides trains in America.” Sure enough, look what we find at the bottom of the editorial:
The president has a vision of a national high-speed rail network almost as grand as the interstate highway system. We have our doubts about the ultimate feasibility of this vision, in part because in much of the country passenger rail can’t compete with car travel by interstate highways. It’s unclear that the public benefits attributed to high-speed rail – reduced carbon emissions and less airport congestion – would outweigh the inevitable operating subsidies, as Amtrak’s experience suggests.
This is just nonsense that flies in the face of all the available evidence.
First, “passenger rail can’t compete with car travel”? Um, what?! In California, it takes about 6 hours to drive from SF to LA on a good day (without traffic). That trip time would be cut by more than 50% by high speed rail. And while driving is “dead time” – you can’t use a computer or smartphone while sitting behind the wheel – the train enables lots of productivity. No wonder HSR is popular with businessmen around the world. California HSR will compete very, very well with driving.
Similarly, the WaPo gives itself away with its obsession with “operating subsidies” – most HSR systems don’t need them, including the Acela, but even if they did – so what? Some things are worth spending money for, but the WaPo is in full-scale austerity mode, demanding government spending be gutted in order to let the rich get richer. Still, we should correct the record here – the Acela is extremely popular, running at 80% capacity and having over half the market share of travel options on the Northeast Corridor. And the Acela turns a profit.
The WaPo is apparently unaware of all of those facts. Along with their lack of other important facts about the California HSR project and not having actually read the reports in question, it’s no wonder they fell back on right-wing ideology and call for the California HSR project to be stalled. The project still has some details to work out, some important decisions to make, and lots of funding to secure. But there remains every reason to move forward, from the need to provide an alternative to costly and inefficient oil-based transportation to the need to create jobs in California to the simple fact that HSR has been a success everywhere it’s been built.
Californians should tell the ignorant and dishonest editorial board of the WaPo to take a hike, and proceed as planned.