High Speed Rail as Touchstone for California’s Future

Nov 27th, 2011 | Posted by

The dominant question of our time, a question that lies at the root of our politics, our economy, and increasingly our society and culture is this: do we abandon a failed status quo to try and build a better future, or are we too scared of trying something new so we instead cling to the status quo as long as we can?

Across America right now, the latter option is being picked. Whether it’s bailing out banks or setting transportation policy, many leaders and many Americans are unwilling to change, or are profoundly hostile to what the change entails. The way we lived in the 20th century no longer works, and it’s not coming back. That way of life produced the worst recession for 60 years – it’s a Depression in all but NBER pronouncement.

Here in California, high speed rail has become caught up in this debate. Those who oppose it don’t do so on the merits, since all of their substantive criticisms have been refuted (especially on ridership). They do so because they refuse to believe that high speed rail will be successful in California. When we point out it has been globally successful, they just claim that California is different. What they’re really saying is that California is supposed to be the best example of mid-20th century American values, and high speed rail somehow challenges those values, so it has to be opposed. Many Californians, especially those who live near the proposed route, have no place for rail in their conception of life in California. So they wage a culture war because they have no other way to stop an inexorable push toward a future they abhor.

Thankfully, those people are a minority. They lost the Prop 1A vote in 2008. They lost the gubernatorial vote in 2010 when pro-HSR Jerry Brown got elected. And the result of that election is becoming clear: California’s governor is siding with the future and against a failed status quo.

That comes across loud and clear in a feature article in today’s New York Times. Written by one of their main national politics reporters, Adam Nagourney, it shows how high speed rail is part of the battle for California’s future, and why high speed rail is thriving:

Across the country, the era of ambitious public works projects seems to be over. Governments are shelving or rejecting plans for highways, railroads and big buildings under the weight of collapsing revenues and voters’ resistance.

But not California.

With a brashness and ambition that evoke a California of a generation ago, state leaders — starting with Gov. Jerry Brown — have rallied around a plan to build a 520-mile high-speed rail line from Los Angeles to San Francisco, cutting the trip from a six-hour drive to a train ride of two hours and 38 minutes. And they are doing it in the face of what might seem like insurmountable political and fiscal obstacles.

HSR opponents simply don’t understand this, and that is why they keep getting defeated. Because opponents are driven by hostility to these values – they hate brashness, they disdain ambition, and they refuse to accept the need to change – they are left helpless as each time Californians and their elected representatives in Sacramento proceed forward with the project.

Nagourney appears fascinated by this, because it runs so strongly against the “lower your horizons and suffer” attitude that has produced austerity and killed other ambitious HSR projects around the country.

But for many Californians, struggling through a bleak era that has led some people to wonder if the state’s golden days are behind it, this project goes to the heart of the state’s pioneering spirit, recalling grand public investments in universities, water systems, roads and parks that once defined California as the leading edge of the nation. That was a time symbolized, in part, by another governor named Brown, Mr. Brown’s father, Pat.

“It’s not putting someone on the moon, but it’s a state version of making a giant leap forward,” said Bob Blumenfield, a Democrat in the State Assembly. “We in California pioneered the public project. It’s not a luxury; it’s a critical piece of infrastructure.”

The governor has enthusiastically embraced the plan, no matter that at 73, he seems unlikely to be around for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that is projected to be more than 20 years away. “California’s high-speed rail project will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, linking California’s population centers and avoiding the huge problems of massive airport and highway expansion,” Mr. Brown said….

“Look, it’s really difficult when you talk about something of this scale,” said John A. Pérez, the speaker of the State Assembly. “There never is a right time to do it. The reality is the longer you wait, the more it costs you.”

“California has always been an ambitious investor in infrastructure,” Mr. Pérez said. “Twenty years down the line, people will look back at it and say, ‘What took them so long?’ ”

So you’ve got the governor, the Speaker of the Assembly, and the chair of the Assembly Budget Committee (Blumenfield) all echoing the same theme: that in order to get out of this crisis, it is time for California to build something new, something that solves some of our problems.

Some argue that with other serious problems, California has to choose – either we attend to immediate needs, or we build big and bold new projects, but that we cannot do both. This is, of course, absurd. California remains a rich state. The tax money is out there for the state to pay the cost of HSR on its own (that isn’t the plan, of course) as well as attend to our health care, educational, and environmental needs.

The problem is that the state’s system of government makes this difficult if not impossible. A series of 2/3 rules gives conservatives veto power over most government programs, and certainly over revenue. If California were a properly functioning democracy, with majority rule, the state likely wouldn’t have problems funding its other services.

Nagourney’s article even succeeds in getting favorable quotes out of Alan Lowenthal, of all people:

“This business plan takes us a step forward,” said Alan Lowenthal, the chairman of the State Senate Select Committee on High-Speed Rail. “We are more cautiously optimistic. But these are staggering amounts of money.”…

The Legislature is required to vote to release the bond money in order for the project to go forward. Mr. Lowenthal said that while staggered by the cost, he was looking for a way to make the project work.

“We don’t want to give this up,” he said. “We’re a state that wants to build it. We want the responsibility. We just want to make sure that what we do is successful.”

These quotes shouldn’t suggest Lowenthal is ending his war against the project, but it may suggest he is less implacably opposed than before. Caution is still warranted where he is concerned, though.

Nagourney also quotes some of the opponents, who fail to bring credible evidence to the discussion:

“The whole thing doesn’t make sense unless you have the riders,” said Richard Geddes, an associate professor at Cornell University. “Based on historical experience, I tend to be skeptical of the rider projections that I see.”

I don’t know who Richard Geddes is, but he just lost his credibility with that statement. We know that the ridership projections were validated by an independent peer review. So unless Geddes has other evidence to suggest the numbers are flawed, he should not be making these skeptical claims.

Richard White is also quoted:

“What they are hoping is that this will be to high-speed rail what Vietnam was to foreign policy: that once you’re in there, you have to get in deeper,” said Richard White, a professor of history at Stanford University. “The most logical outcome to me is we are going to have a white elephant in the San Joaquin Valley.”

Clever soundbite, but nothing more. White appears to not know that most pieces of intercity transportation infrastructure, including the Interstates, was built in phases. White assumes that there won’t be any further HSR construction beyond the Valley segment, but that doesn’t make any sense either. The underlying need for high speed rail – rising oil prices in particular – means that there will be political momentum to solve the question of how to fund extensions to San José and LA. If White is thinking of concerns over federal funding, those concerns may well vanish by 2013. Nobody should assume Republicans will still be in control of the House after the 2012 election.

To be clear, there are still open questions about how to fund construction of the entire system. But rather than treat that as an excuse for doing nothing, California’s leaders are seeing it as a question to answer, an issue to solve. That’s the right approach not just for high speed rail, but for building a better future in the 21st century. Those states that quit and try to settle for a failed status quo will be those states left behind in the global economy. But those states that figure out how to get things like HSR built are those states that will thrive.

California is saying they are choosing a better future, and rejecting a failed status quo. That is why HSR remains popular, and it is something that HSR critics, rooted as they are in a defense of failed 20th century values, will never understand.

  1. J. Wong
    Nov 27th, 2011 at 15:46

    It’s interesting to see that most the comments on the article on the NY Times website are in favor of building HSR in California, and those comments in favor by far got the most recommended votes. And of those opposed, none can cite any new arguments only citing old arguments that are false or have already been refuted.

    I expect to see request for bids to go out this spring and ground-breaking in the Fall of 2012!

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    It’s interesting to see that most the comments on the article on the NY Times website …

    Reader comments = never of any interest.

    If you want proof …

  2. Alon Levy
    Nov 27th, 2011 at 16:05

    You know, Richard White is right. I’d take an even odds bet that nothing beyond the ICS gets built.

    The counterargument is that building the ICS is not an even odds bet. Consider the following scenario: I consider the value of CAHSR as originally planned (i.e. opening around 2020) to be about $60 billion. At higher cost, it should not be built. If the ICS is canceled, the probability that CAHSR will be built is zero. If the ICS is not canceled, then I do not believe anything more will be built unless costs can be dramatically scaled down, to the original estimate or not much more, say $40 billion for Phase 1. In other words, the ICS is a $6 billion bet on future cost control, and if it’s successful California will see a $20 billion net social gain. You only need to believe there’s a 30% chance of successful cost control. Maybe even a little less, if costs can be brought down to the original $33 billion or benefits are higher than $60 billion (they probably are, slightly – my $60 billion limit comes from the risk of future escalations).

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    CAHSR is going to be built, the question is when. There’s a chance that this project gets delayed, but it is unlikely to ever be canceled outright.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    It may take a long time to get formally canceled, but it could get indefinitely delayed and canceled a few decades later, just like the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

    The politics of public works is really the same regardless of whether you’re destroying a city or building valuable intercity transportation.

    VBobier Reply:

    While Jerry is Governor, that is unlikely, afterwards It’s about as likely as Me becoming an elected politician and that isn’t going to happen.

    joe Reply:

    I consider the value of CAHSR as originally planned (i.e. opening around 2020) to be about $60 billion. At higher cost, it should not be built.

    Recognize this “value” threshold is arbitrary and whimsical. It has absolutely nothing to do with economics or public good.

    Bringing CAHSR costs down to 33 B requires deselecting features CA wants and required to pass EIR obstacles. This analysis is playing rail road tycoon, not seriously balancing what features and costs are desired or required.

    Drunk Engineer Reply:

    Bringing CAHSR costs down to 33 B requires deselecting features CA wants

    Um, which features? And are they really worth $66 billion?

    VBobier Reply:

    Are Freeway upgrades in the area where HSR is planned worth the $170 Billion to $200 Billion worth the cost? I doubt It and the population is growing in CA, not staying level or declining. As there is only so much land and trains have historically been able to carry more people per mile than a Freeway.

    Joey Reply:

    I think you misinterpreted. Joe said that cutting costs would require omitting certain features and DE insinuated that those features are probably not worth $66b. No one was comparing it to the cost of doing nothing, which, btw, is not actually $170b.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Travel, whether it’s by car, plane, bus or train has peaks and valleys. The capacity you build for HSR is going to closely track the capacity you have to build for other modes. And keep in mind that a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles will take under three hours by train. It takes 6 hours if every thing goes well if you do it by car. Or roughly one round trip by train equals a one way trip by car.

    Joey Reply:

    What’s your point? Demand for additional freeways would be roughly comparable to HSR’s actual ridership, not it’s theoretical never-to-be-reached capacity. And “trimming the fat” so to speak off of HSR is unlikely to decrease capacity significantly, at least as envisioned by most of the people here.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Highways are empty at 3 AM just like HSR will be empty at 3 AM. Just like they will be using all of the capacity at 9:36 AM on Thanksgiving morning of 2042 the highways and airports would have to match the same capacity. Neither of them will be using all of their respective capacities at 2:43 on February 12th of 2044.

    Joey Reply:

    How does HSR’s expected capacity utilization compare to that of highways?

    Don Reply:

    2 hours and 38 minutes for a trip from SF to LA, only if its an express train which bipasses about 20 stops. How long will a “local” train take?? What handles all the local transportation required on both end of the trip?? What is the current estimate of cionstruction jobs. I have seen as high as 600,000 and as low as 200,000. Neither is actually correct. I heard a new term used to derscribe these jobs. They are caller “job years”, or the number of jobs times the numbers of years they are required, so 600,000 jobs could be 25,000 jobs spred over 24 years which is a lot different than 600,000 jobs.

    I think that some of the numbers used to sell this project were waaaaaay over stated.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    You don’t have to go through Anaheim or Sacramento to get between Los Angeles and San Francisco. oR through Stockton or Fullerton.
    If there isn’t enough local capacity at the ends to handle all the passengers there isn’t going to be enough capacity for them to drive from one station to the next either.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    If an express train takes 2:38, which is highly dubious, then a local will take about 3:16 (assumptions: LA Basin and Bay Area stops add 3 minutes, Palmdale adds 5, Gilroy and CV stops add 7).

    ComradeFrana Reply:

    Features like needlessly overbuilt station in SJ, a $1.9 billion tunnel under a $100 million station in Millbrae and tons of additional concrete to make up for absence of rational planning? (And that’s just Peninsula…)

    But what do I know, “unique American conditions” and all that.

    StevieB Reply:

    There are 15 years before construction in Millbrae to come up with alternatives. There has been no media coverage of the issue nor has any politician questioned the plan. I have not even seen a question put to the California High Speed Rail Authority during public comments about the cost of the tunnel versus the cost of rebuilding the station at grade.

    Tony d. Reply:

    Jusf for the record, nothing is yet set in stone regarding the final design of Diridon Station. What we’ve had to date are concepts of what it could be (even I’m scratching my head at some of the concrete monolith renderings). But alas, if the project survives, you’ll most likely see something sensible built at Diridon.

    Richard Mlynarik Reply:

    Point 1: No engineering organization with even the most rudimentary, reptilian-hind-brain level of competence would have come up with any of those “not set in stone” designs. Not even the boss’ son as an unpaid intern doing a preliminary concept.

    Point 2: Name any incentive that the responsible parties have for improving their performance. Have they been fired? Have all of their work products been rejected? Have they been sued? Has the project been cancelled? Has the projected been defunded? Have grown ups been brought in to gently ease them out? Have any indictments been issued?

    What you’re seeing is precisely the highest and best design that America’s Finest Transportation Planning Professionals come up with. It isn’t exceptional. It isn’t going to be improved. I mean, JUST LOOK AT WHAT THE SAME CAST OF CRIMINALS ENGINEERED ON THE BART EXTENSION TO MILLBRAE. They get away with it because they are actively rewarded for doing the very worst work at the very highest cost and engineering the most massive fraudulent ripoffs of the public.

    So how do YOU imagine this is going to change? Are you going to call up Van Ark and strongly suggest to him that he have a Full and Frank Exchange of Ideas with his consultants? How’s it going to happen? How are their designs going to improve? How will the same people who’ve failed every single time for decades going to suddenly get religion and start producing minimally technically competent designs? Who’s going to hold a gun to anybody’s head, and who’s going to pull the trigger over and over again?

    This stuff isn’t going to happen because the functionaries at PB looks at the $700 million of public cash that the consultants have absconded with so far and spontaneously say to themselves, “Damn it! You know, we really could do better! Let’s do it!”

    joe Reply:

    So how do YOU imagine this is going to change? Are you going to call up Van Ark and strongly suggest to him that he have a Full and Frank Exchange of Ideas with his consultants? How’s it going to happen? How are their designs going to improve? How will the same people who’ve failed every single time for decades going to suddenly get religion and start producing minimally technically competent designs? Who’s going to hold a gun to anybody’s head, and who’s going to pull the trigger over and over again?

    We have at least one good bad-example, a way NOT to engage HSR.

    Peter Baldo Reply:

    Yes, the final decisions are a few years down the road, and that will give planners and engineers a chance to think things over, and other people a chance to calm down. The role of the San Jose station in the system depends, to some extent, on what happens up the peninsula. If the peninsula line ends up being a spur serving San Francisco and the airport, but passengers from elsewhere – Santa Clara Valley, East Bay, Santa Cruz, etc – enter and leave the system in San Jose where the high-speed track begins, the San Jose station will be very important. In that case, good architecture, an efficient layout, good connections to BART, etc, and room for expansion will not be extravagances, but requirements.

    I would also suggest changing the name to something with “San Jose” in it, but not “Diridon”. I think stations should have place names.

    Joey Reply:

    Specific floor plans haven’t become available for San Jose yet but in every other case the CHSRA has designed stations such as to minimize transfer convenience and pedestrian circulation.

    And regardless, the second level is unnecessary. Even if you did need that many platforms (and you don’t) it would still be an order of magnitude cheaper to rebuild the depot and expand to the East rather than build several miles of viaduct.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    The station itself is a historic landmark. Yes you could rip it down but that would be difficult to do. Much easier to use the empty space to the west of the existing tracks…..

    swing hanger Reply:

    “I would also suggest changing the name to something with “San Jose” in it, but not “Diridon”. I think stations should have place names.”

    The “Diridon Intergalactic Grand Central Multi-Modal Transportation Center @San Jose”. The term “station” is so 20th century you know…

    Joey Reply:

    Bringing the cost down to $33b requires a minimum amount of cost control and a cursory look at how other countries do it.

    synonymouse Reply:

    The only way you can secure even “a cursory look at how other countries do it” from PB-CHSRA is withthea verified and credible threat of a re-vote.

    That and the equally unlikely scenario of the $6bil LaHood funds being rescinded.

    J. Wong Reply:

    If bids for the ICS come in under estimates, then the likelihood of its being orphaned goes closer to zero. Unfortunately, I expect the economy to be flat for a while, which means that both costs and inflation will be low for years to come. The business plan was very conservative estimating 3% inflation. I’m predicting the actual cost will be less than $98b and if we’re lucky close to $66b.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Exactly. There is no way in hell we are going to have 3% inflation. Inflation is heading straight for zero, and that will only change if governmental policy changes… which it *certainly* will not before 2013, and *probably* will not before 2015.

    If governmental policy changes so as to revive the economy and cause inflation, it will be policy involving spending lots more money.

    Which means the only scenario under which CAHSR doesn’t get built after the initial segment… is one in which, somehow, the government decides to spend humungous amounts and *not* spend any of it on rail in California. Unlikely in the extreme.

    Alon Levy Reply:

    Not necessarily. Under an austerity scenario, say with 1% annual deflation over 30 years, the YOE cost is going to be $56 billion, but there is not going to be any money available for even that, on account of austerity.

    There will be money for tax cuts, though.

    Nathanael Reply:

    It’s good that the current estimates are less than $60 billion, then, isn’t it?

    (The “year of expenditure” numbers based on inflated 3% estimates of inflation are purest bullshit and they really should be ignored.)

    Alon Levy Reply:

    No, they’re not. Check the business plan again. The assumption is $65 billion in 2010 dollars. This is $98 billion in YOE dollars, a figure that for the record I never regarded as canonical. On my blog post saying I’m not going to support the project at present costs, I said $65 billion, not $98 billion.

  3. David
    Nov 27th, 2011 at 17:42

    “The whole thing doesn’t make sense unless you have the riders,” said Richard Geddes, an associate professor at Cornell University. “Based on historical experience, I tend to be skeptical of the rider projections that I see.”

    Typical Times: Opinions vary on shape of the Earth.

    joe Reply:

    The Cornell Professor’s ad hoc analysis is as thoughtful as using today’s weather as a predictor for tomorrow’s weather – in Cleveland.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    What I could find on Mr. Geddes:




    I’ll say he looks like a mixed bag–and that may be kind–you can decide your own–

    swing hanger Reply:

    Hoover Institution: well you know where he’s coming from then.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Also a U. of Chicago economics graduate, which means he knows *less than nothing*. (Look up Chicago school economics — it’s pretty much a cargo cult.)

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Cargo Cultists had empirical evidence that airplanes resulted in treasures.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Oh, the Chicago school folks have empirical evidence too — they’ve just cherry-picked it, and cover their ears and eyes whenever anyone points out the mountains of empirical evidence *against* them.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    There’s lies, damned lies and statistics. Cherry pick the statistics and you can make almost any argument you want to make, look good.

  4. Tony D.
    Nov 27th, 2011 at 18:25

    I really, really hope you’re right about all of this Robert.

  5. Howard
    Nov 27th, 2011 at 20:09

    The success or failure of CHSR could be determined by if the bids come in above or below the engineers cost estimate. If the bids come in significantly above the engineers cost estimate the project will probably be canceled. If the bids come in significantly below the engineers cost estimate then we will get extra track now and there will be enough support to find the funding to get to LA (or at least the San Fernando Valley), thus attracting investors which will guarantee the project will get completed.

    VBobier Reply:

    Going to Los Angeles County from the CV and getting into either place would just about make the CV into a virtual suburb of Los Angeles once HSR is complete, build in the CV 1st before going to LA, as when HSR happens, real estate prices might start creeping up in the CV.

  6. synonymouse
    Nov 27th, 2011 at 21:41

    The PB-CHSRA iteration of hsr is a BART to SFO that has undergone Big Bang Inflation. And, like a hollywood sequel, some of the original cast has even been retained.

    Mass transit to SFO was a rational enough idea but the implementation was horribly botched. Ditto for the hsr scheme. I don’t put much truck in academic critics, seers in their own minds. Richard Tolmach has already taken PB to task on all the salient points, to no apparent avail.

    America’s biggest problem, contrary to Robart’s arcane worries, is politicians on the take and resultant budgetary spasms. There is no solution to this; it will simply work its way thru to some turmoil, which we can’t really predict. The flashpoints just keep hopping around. The only clear lesson right now is that the brushfires aren’t going out.

    And events do change fast. For instance the Gingrich phenomenon. The Grinch is even more K Street and Wall Street than Romney. What luck for Barack if the contract on America guy is nominated – Main Street will have no one in its corner and a third party candidate is possible. Even symbolic like Palin but enough to give the election to Obama. The political situation is certainly volatile.

  7. John Burrows
    Nov 27th, 2011 at 21:58

    When we talk about the future of high speed rail: Projections usually do not go beyond the year 2050, a year not that far off compared to the length of time some of our public transportation systems have been serving us.

    BART, which was established in 1951, began running trains in 1972 (39 years ago). 39 years from now (2050), BART will still be doing its job, still taking a lot of heat, but hopefully by 2050 it will be finished.

    The Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco side of the Bay Bridge, I am sure will be doing just fine in 2086 when they are 150 years old.

    The Chicago EL has been around for about 115 years—Any reason to assume that it won’t still be in service when it has its 230th birthday in 2126?

    And Caltrain—Could it still be carrying commuters between San Jose and San Francisco as it approaches its 300th birthday in 2159?

    We talk about California High Speed Rail as being a 21st century transportation system, but in all probability it will carry even more passengers in the 22nd century.

  8. ProudPANimby
    Nov 28th, 2011 at 10:55

    Robert is possibly correct in calling it a touchstone for California’s future. Fifty-three percent voter approval is not exactly a mandate. I think there may be some surprises when election day comes around. The very blue state of California may become a little redder. As a democrat who now thinks this is going to be a fiscal nighmare will vote for any candidate, regardless of party, who shares my concerns about HSR. I know many democrats who voted for this project in my district who share my concerns and will vote accordingly. For the record I voted for the project.

    The political fallout may be a enormous surprise to many politician’s security.

    synonymouse Reply:

    I also voted for Prop 1A only to realize in due course that it was deeply flawed. mea culpa

    Unfortunately the contemporary political system in California is not responsive because incumbents are mostly in office for life like the Pope. So for sure vote your conscience against the machine but don’t get your feelings hurt. Patronage means a lot of voters, close to a majority, are dependent upon the machine for their livelihood so bosses like Pelosi can feel immune to fringe discontent and can afford to neither give a real shit about nor have any working knowledge whatsoever of hsr.

    Peter Reply:

    That’s what people thought about SMART, too. And the most recent polling there indicates that support remains as strong as ever.

    synonymouse Reply:

    And of course the high level of support for SMART is why it advocates are trying to keep a re-vote off the ballot.

    About the only good things that can be said for SMART is that it will rebuild trackage that bus advocates have been wanting to pave over for years and that it does serve as somewhat of a bulwark against the Great Satan of duorail.

Comments are closed.