Kevin McCarthy’s New Attempt to Block HSR
Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy, who ostensibly represents Kern County but answers mostly to wealthy right-wing donors like the Koch Brothers, is moving forward with an effort to block the California high speed rail project. As he explains in the Bakersfield Californian:
I have already requested a 30-day extension of the public comment period for the EIR to give members of our community more time to have their voices heard, and will soon introduce legislation to rein in this project until more evidence can be gathered on its feasibility. Specifically, this legislation would freeze federal funding for California’s high-speed rail project for one year so that congressional auditors can review its viability.
McCarthy’s justification for this, as offered in the op-ed, rests as usual on misleading statements and flawed evidence. Let’s take a quick look:
Bakersfield would be one of the first communities affected by high-speed rail, and soon. The California High-Speed Rail Authority is looking to break ground next year, and its recent Environmental Impact Report shows people, homes and churches would be displaced. Not to mention the line would run right through Bakersfield High School.
In fact, one alignment would run along the side of Bakersfield High School and could require a building to be moved. That’s quite different than suggesting it will plow through the middle of campus.
High-speed rail has proven a drain on government coffers. Every HSR line in the world requires some sort of government subsidy. A 2008 Amtrak study found that six of Europe’s passenger rail systems require a combined annual subsidy of $42 billion. That’s in addition to the initial investment. Unfortunately, many are turning a blind eye to these facts.
This is false. HSR lines generally are built by government, but do not require operating subsidies. They pay for themselves, and sometimes subsidize other rail operations, as in France. McCarthy is trying to play on the American assumption that rail is unpopular and has to be subsidized in order to operate – yet he won’t admit that freeways are massively subsidized too. McCarthy, of course, turns a blind eye to these facts.
California’s project has been touted as the nation’s first true HSR. But if the CHSRA’s plan is the model, we’re in trouble. Aside from ever-changing ridership projections, sub-par business plans and incomprehensive EIRs, the numbers don’t add up. The Authority puts the cost of building Phase One from Los Angeles to San Francisco at $43 billion, but independent studies say it could be anywhere from $65 to $80 billion, and some report the entire project could top $116 billion.
This is the first I’m seeing of the $116 billion number, which isn’t cited by McCarthy. The $65 to $80 billion cost projections come from HSR opponents. Of course, McCarthy ignores the fact that not building HSR could cost at least $100 billion. As to the ridership numbers, I am not surprised that McCarthy ignored the independent peer review that found the HSR numbers to be sound.
But those claims aren’t really what drive McCarthy. No, he’s just an old-fashioned Hooverite, more worried about debt than creating jobs and ending the recession:
Even taking the rosiest estimates, the money isn’t there. Our nation is $14.3 trillion in debt and California continues to battle massive deficits. The $9 billion in bonds voters approved in 2008 will add a $1 billion annual burden to the state over the next two decades, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. That means $1 billion less for higher education, parks, firefighting and other services. Furthermore, operating costs could top $1.5 billion annually — meaning if the already questionable ridership estimates don’t materialize, California would be on the hook for an annual subsidy.
The proper response to the national debt numbers is to shrug. Right now, the federal government should be running up deficits in order to fund infrastructure that puts people to work and ends the recession. The US government’s borrowing costs are at record lows, so there’s nothing to worry about there.
And what of California’s costs? The state cannot run a deficit. The state does have bond debt, but the total numbers are small – 4.5% of GDP as of 2010. More importantly, the money we borrow brings the state more money in return, in the form of jobs, economic activity, and tax revenue. The green dividend for Los Angeles alone could be $10 billion a year.
High speed rail is an investment in Kern County’s future. Kevin McCarthy appears to believe that the status quo is working just fine, even though Kern County has a 15.5% unemployment rate, and that any new investment designed to address that huge problem is somehow too risky. That should be no surprise, as McCarthy is the #3 ranking House Republican, and his party has done literally nothing to create jobs since they took the majority in the House this past January.
Even most people concerned about the impact of the project on Bakersfield High School still support high speed rail. Kern County wants it. Bakersfield wants it. McCarthy implicitly recognizes this, calling for a “freeze” rather than the death of the project outright. But McCarthy’s logic doesn’t add up. Bakersfield and Kern County should reject it and tell McCarthy to instead use his leadership role to bring more federal HSR money to California so this project can get built quickly.