If You Like the Status Quo, Oppose High Speed Rail
California’s unemployment rate has been above 11% for the last two years. Places like Manteca having been hit the hardest – San Joaquin County’s unemployment rate is 16.7%. The damage was done in 2008, when the economy shrank by 3.7% in the 3rd quarter and by a shocking 8.9% in the 4th quarter. And the recent debt ceiling deal that will slash a whopping $2.5 trillion in federal spending over the next 10 years ensures this Depression will last for some time to come.
Looking at those stats, it’s really difficult to imagine why anyone would prefer the status quo, why anyone would argue against strong measures to produce economic recovery. Unfortunately, too many people became convinced that the last 30 years of boom and bust – where recessions appear to have come and gone like a fierce winter storm – are the norm. After three years of Depression, it ought to be clear that recovery isn’t just magically going to happen. We have to make significant changes to the way we do things in this state and this country. The status quo is unacceptable.
But because a lot of people refuse to face the new reality, we get things like this piece of HSR denial in the Manteca Bulletin from managing editor Dennis Wyatt. Wyatt’s argument is that HSR is something California can’t afford, and that if we just sit around not spending any money, somehow we’ll have economic recovery. Nowhere at all does Wyatt explain that HSR would provide a massive economic stimulus to California, particularly to the Central Valley and including San Joaquin County. Wyatt doesn’t realize it or doesn’t care, which is bizarre considering the aforementioned 16.7% unemployment rate in his home county.
As is typical for pieces of HSR denial, Wyatt never once considers the cost of not building HSR – including dependence on oil. And he doesn’t list out the financial benefits. That leads him to make a false assumption that merely improving commuter rail would help California and that nobody will ride bullet trains from LA to SF, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.
Is high speed rail in its present form worth mortgaging California’s future?
Wyatt opens with this, without realizing California long ago mortgaged its future to suburban sprawl and automobile dependence. Manteca has been hit harder than almost any other place in the state by that bad deal. When gas prices hit $3/gallon in 2006, it made the long commute to the Bay Area too expensive for people who had flocked to Manteca, Tracy, Stockton, and other nearby cities. The result was a decline in home sales, a decline in home values, and a huge foreclosure and jobs crisis from which the region has still not escaped.
High speed rail is one way Manteca and California as a whole can essentially refinance that mortgage on better terms. Oil dependence was a key cause of the Depression. HSR not only provides immediate economic stimulus in the form of construction jobs, but it can help bring jobs and businesses to places like Manteca. By being within an hour’s commute of San Francisco, it can offer space for tech companies and startups looking for affordable rents while enabling workers to live in the desirable coastal cities. And for those workers who might want a more affordable single-family home, HSR would help Manteca do that.
Wyatt grasps this – to a point. His argument is that the state should invest in upgrading ACE but not in the SF-LA system:
If high speed goes forward, does it make sense to put in a Los Angeles to San Francisco component first? Does it pencil out as effectively or have as high of economic returns as doing high speed rail along heavy commute corridors such as the Inland Empire to the Los Angeles Basin or the Northern San Joaquin Valley to San Jose and even Sacramento?
This is a symptom of early Depression-era thinking, of people who haven’t completely reoriented their mindset to the new reality. Wyatt basically accepts that we can’t spend any new money and that we just have to suck it up and deal with it. That’s not how you get out of a Depression. You have to do things radically differently. And that includes doing a lot of things at once. ACE needs to be upgraded, absolutely. And HSR between LA and SF needs to be built too. It’s both, not either/or.
Wyatt’s argument boils down to the absurd and evidence-free argument that nobody will ride bullet trains in California:
The Los Angeles to San Francisco route can’t count on such a high concentration of potential day-to-day users that could keep ridership up and fare costs down to give high speed rail a fighting chance of at least covering operating expenses.
Vacation traffic is subject to economic ebbs. High speed rail projections for LA to San Francisco have relied on substantially cutting into passenger counts on the heavily used air corridor between the two cities. While there is substantial travel, there are extremely few who make it a five-day-a-week habit.
Nobody’s talking about daily commuters between LA and SF. What people ARE talking about is shifting over a lot of the people who make various kinds of trips between LA and SF during the day. When I worked at the Courage Campaign I flew from NorCal to SoCal about once a month for business. Lots of people fly regularly for all kinds of reasons. Every plane I was on was packed. Because HSR is competitive door-to-door from downtown SF to downtown LA, and because it offers a better travel experience than a plane, there’s every reason to believe people will ride it.
After all, that’s what the evidence from the Madrid-Barcelona corridor – once the world’s busiest air route – indicates. The Acela has a majority of the air/rail market share [thanks Alon] on the Northeast Corridor.
Ultimately, Wyatt’s argument falls on its face because if he were right, nobody would fly between LA and SF.
He continues anyway:
The real question is whether Los Angeles to San Francisco really is the best use of limited funds to boost the state’s economy.
And is it as effective as an Altamont Commuter Express or Inland Empire high speed rail system would be at reducing air pollution by getting a significant number of vehicles off the freeways?
HSR between SF and LA probably wouldn’t get as many cars off the road as those two other routes. So? We build all three. If you like this new Depression, then yeah, define your choices narrowly. If you don’t, define your choices broadly. And of course, getting cars off the road is NOT the same as an HSR system penciling out or boosting the state’s economy.
On the economic benefits, I am guessing Wyatt never read the US Conference of Mayors report showing the Green Dividend from California HSR. The study found it would generate $10 billion a year in new business sales and wages. In a Depression, you just cannot turn down that kind of stimulus.
The infamous bullet trains in Japan aren’t filled with executives moving from one part of the country to another. They are mostly rank-and-file workers.
Huh? Infamous? The Shinkansens are regarded as a marvel of both engineering and ridership. The trains are hugely popular in Japan and for nearly 50 years have been a model for the rest of the globe. And if they’re moving mostly rank and file workers, then it shows the HSR system can do the same in California.
The aftermath of the crash increased scrutiny on high speed rail. Despite all of its promises, it isn’t generating the fares needed to make it work on its own. The fares are out of the reach of the very people it supposedly is targeting. Toss in the factor they may not be able to secure additional bonds due to the economy and you understand why China may have to bail out the system.
This is ignorant stuff. The fares are high because the Chinese government wants the bonds repaid quickly. That’s a political choice, since the government floated the bonds to the railway builders. Beijing could simply redefine the terms of the loans to bring down fares if they wished. This is not an argument against HSR but an argument against using too much private sector financing to build it.
California can’t afford to bail out a high speed rail project once it is in place. There are too many other critical needs for dollars ranging from education, freeways, safety net services, water storage/flood control, prisons, and more.
Again, this is pre-Depression era thinking. We need to fund all those needs. And if the state and federal government currently don’t have the money, we can go get it from the rich, who aren’t doing anything useful with the huge amounts of wealth they are sitting on. If you define your choices as narrow, then your future will be narrow as well.
Even if it is a given that the cost of building it will be an investment that won’t be paid back, a high speed rail system must stand on its own in terms of operation and maintenance.
The best way to prove it can be done is to move forward with a less ambitious project on a heavily traveled commuter corridor.
This is nonsense, since a commuter corridor and the SF-LA corridor are by nature very different travel markets. You don’t judge the success of SF-LA flights by the success of Stockton-SF flights.
Wyatt’s column is just a collection of anti-HSR talking points. It’s a shame that Manteca residents don’t have a newspaper editor who has their interests in mind, who isn’t willing to do whatever it takes to address the economic crisis that San Joaquin County has been mired in for years now.
We know HSR will be a success, as the evidence clearly proves this. And we know that ACE is worth investing in too, and we also know we don’t have to choose between the two. Depression era thinking requires us to be bold, to determine what we need in order to get out of the crisis, and to figure out how we get there. We need people who can tell us how to do something, not spout off reasons why it can’t or shouldn’t be done.