High Speed Rail as Touchstone for California’s Future
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.