Richard White Doubles Down on his Flawed Attack on HSR
This just gets more depressing. Richard White, a renowned historian at Stanford University, made a flawed attack on the high speed rail project last spring that had a series of errors and was rooted in flawed evidence. Unfortunately, White has continued to press his attack, this time in a post at Zócalo Public Square titled “Why Not Blow $9 Billion on a Cool Train?” Like his earlier attack, this one is also rooted in evidence that is flawed:
I’m a historian. I’ve written a book on the transcontinentals (Railroaded). I know that the first thirty years of the old relationship between train and California were more than bad. They were horrid.
The transcontinentals promised us everything, and they lied. Much of the growth they promoted was dumb growth that came with high social costs. They corrupted our politics and our press and ruined our economy more than once. We fought the railroads for the rest of the nineteenth century.
California should have learned something from this. Do not build large railroads ahead of demand. Do not quickly fund those things that we might be able to do at less cost, more efficiently, and with improved technology later when we really need it. Do not funnel huge amounts of public money into private hands on the basis of only promises of benefits. Remember to calculate capital costs accurately.
I’m a historian too, though not nearly as accomplished as White. He’s right that the first 30 years of relationship between train and California were horrid.
But he goes off the rails when he implies that the HSR project, being planned by the democratically elected government of California and the democratically elected Obama Administration, is somehow corrupting the state. There’s no evidence, at all, for that innuendo.
Further, White assumes that the financial case for the project is flawed. Here he makes his core mistake, misreading the evidence and coming to conclusions that are totally unsupported:
Californians have already voted $9 billion in bonds toward their new life with high-speed rail. It is only a small part of the cost of the system. The federal government supposedly was going to pay most of the rest—but now, apparently not. And once the system is up and going it will pay its own operating costs. We can live happily ever after.
Promises, promises, promises. Sometimes it is better to consult an accountant rather than one’s heart. Listen to the promises, go to the California High-Speed Rail website, but then talk to the accountants. In this case the accountants have a webpage. It is at the Community Coalition on High-Speed Rail.
This is serious. California has its children and their future to think about. The accountants say that the California High-Speed Rail Commission has underestimated the cost of the project, overestimated the willingness of investors to put private capital at risk, overestimated the ridership, and miscalculated the cost of servicing the immense debt that will be accrued to build it. They have the system meeting its operating costs, when it most likely will not do so for years and perhaps forever. Servicing the debt alone will put an immense burden on state and local governments when the money is desperately needed elsewhere.
An elevated railway would be hideous and intolerably noisy. We like to eat outdoors in the summer, but with such noise we would not be able to hear each other talking. And it would wake people at night. It would transform our pleasant semi-rural environment into an ugly urban environment.
White holds up “the accountants” as conveyors of truth. He expects us to believe that “the accountants” are correct in attacking the ridership numbers.
Except they’re not. White never mentions, and may not even be aware of, the independent peer review of the HSR ridership numbers that said the projections were sound.
White’s other claims are similarly flawed. He says that the willingness of private investors to step up was overestimated, but that misreads what is going on. The private sector has shown a great deal of interest in the system. They have been consistent in saying that they will not yet step up until there is a significant state and federal contribution.
White argues that the federal government won’t step up, even though Barack Obama has shown consistent support for federal funding, as have Democrats in Congress, and despite polls showing Democrats are likely to retake the House.
White claims that the system will never cover its costs, even though virtually every other HSR system in the world does so, including the Acela.
Of course, when we cite successful HSR systems around the world, White is ready to counter that claim too:
High-speed rail can be happy without us. It still has Paris and Tokyo. It may very well find a future between Boston and Washington DC. But it is too rich for our Californian blood and not suited to our conditions. We have plenty of other challenges.
In the end, Richard White is simply just one more person who is convinced that somehow Californians will never ride trains. He completely ignores all the evidence that disproves such a claim – including high ridership on existing intercity trains and data that shows California’s HSR route compares favorably to other successful routes, implying that the ridership base and the demand do exist.
And of course, White also commits the same error that virtually every other HSR critic makes: he never asks what is the cost of doing nothing. Even if HSR costs $60 billion, the cost of not building HSR could be as high as $100 billion.
White argues that HSR will only suck away value and money from other priorities, but in fact it will create a green dividend for California that could be as high as $10 billion a year for Los Angeles alone.
Richard White is a very good historian and a good intellectual. If he wanted to engage in a serious debate on HSR, he knows how to marshal evidence and have that discussion. That’s why it’s such a shame that he prefers to rely on flawed evidence and disproven claims to attack high speed rail.